Live Well, Do Good

Author Upends Beliefs About Human Kindness

Brandon Sun, December 6, 2021 - David McConkey

Do you think people are fundamentally uncaring and mean-spirited? Or are people basically decent and good? Voting for goodness is a new book by Dutch historian Rutger Bregman, Humankind: A Hopeful History. Bregman argues that not only are we kinder than we think we are, but also our assumption of the worst in us holds us back from becoming our best.

Bregman's book is most enjoyable. As the title says, it is a hopeful, inspiring read. It is packed with information. And the book is thought-provoking as it upends some of our most widely held beliefs.

“When I started writing this book, I knew there was one story I would have to address,” the author recounts. “The story takes place on a deserted island somewhere in the Pacific. A plane has just gone down. The only survivors are some British schoolboys . . .”

If you are like me, you were a teenager when you first encountered the book or the film version of “Lord of the Flies.” I remember learning in high school that this story revealed our basic human nature: take away societal restraints and we would create a vicious dystopia. Apparently we are a nasty lot.

Lord of the Flies is an acclaimed work from 1954 by the Nobel prize-winning author, William Golding. But Bregman reminds us that Lord of the Flies is fiction, not reality. And Bregman gives us more: relating the story of a real-life adventure in the 1960s where six boys were marooned for more than a year on a Pacific island. But that story is a heart-warming one of co-operation, friendship and survival. Unfortunately, that real event never attracted the interest paid to the fictional account.

What about another story: the 1964 murder of Kitty Genovese? At first, this was just one of 600 murders that year in New York City. But two weeks after the murder, The New York Times ran a front page story about how dozens of bystanders stood by without helping the victim.

That newspaper report of callous bystanders made Genovese’s murder famous. Her story has appeared over the years in songs, plays, comics, books (including “The Tipping Point” by Malcolm Gladwell), a presidential speech and even an episode of “Seinfeld.” It has also been featured in numerous psychology and sociology textbooks, which is where I learned about it in university.

But Bregman explains how further research has found that the reality was more complicated and that bystanders did help Genovese. And in an ironic twist, five days after the murder, two bystanders successfully intervened to help arrest the murderer. But no newspaper reported that positive outcome.

In tracing how the heartless bystanders narrative has persisted for decades, Bregman is scathing in his criticism of the originator of the story: The New York Times. A radio reporter once asked a Times reporter why the paper hadn’t included facts that ran counter to the notion of uncaring bystanders. The reply? “It would have ruined the story.”

Humankind We are kinder than we think we are. And human kindness appears dramatically in emergencies and natural disasters. In a related theme, Bergman explores how people are not as incapacitated by trauma as we often presume.

Why do we think that we are less caring and less resilient than we really are? For one thing, we have been influenced by narratives spun for us by the news, by fiction, by “reality” TV and by other media. And also by several oft-quoted social psychology experiments from the 1960s and ’70s, which Bregman points out were sloppy or even fraudulent.

Bregman notes that we are creatures of evolution. We evolved to be suspicious and pessimistic: the negativity bias helped our ancestors survive. At the same time, we evolved to be co-operative and to work together with other folks to overcome difficult situations. Kindness, resiliency and even playfulness were also handy traits for survival.

So, there is a mix in our nature. We are naturally drawn to negative stories of mean-spirited behaviour.  But we are also by nature positive, kind and resilient.

In “Humankind,” Bregman has assembled a host of fascinating observations from anthropology and history, and from workplaces, schools, playgrounds, prisons, battlefields, natural disasters, anti-terrorism initiatives and citizen engagement. The author’s message is inspiring: let’s recognize the fact of human kindness and resiliency and incorporate that understanding into our daily lives and into our institutions.

Bregman is only 33 and I look forward to reading more from him in the future.

“It’s time for a new realism,” Bregman concludes. “It’s time for a new view of humankind.”

* * * 

See also:

Humankind: A Hopeful History . . . on

Actually, Atheism is All You Need to Thrive . . . If You Do It Well

A Year of Living Generously

Ordinary Lives, Extraordinary Stories

Getting to Good Ideas

Try a Little Kindness in 2022

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