Gratitude: Are we in this together?

By Donald Officer

“The Arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”
– Martin Luther King, Jr.

Summary by Harry Waldron:
Rutger Bregman is a young active Dutch author who sees mostly positive elements in humanity. Realistically, he annotates our imperfections and maintains that even a few “bad apples can potentially spoil the bunch.” Still, he focuses on humans being fundamentally decent, with a desire to contribute to their families and society as a whole. He notes essential “goodness” will overcome our character flaws if we focus on positive concepts. And that certainly is what we believe to be an important aspect of the mission of Grateful Leadership.

In 2016, a year full of dark surprises, Israeli historian Yuval Harari published his broad and long history of our species, Sapiens. Though it is obviously impossible to comprehensively review a period approaching two hundred thousand years, Harari’s choice of highlights and turning points amounted to a credible if pessimistic assessment many readers could reluctantly agree with. If any of them doubted the compelling force of his observations, Harari’s subsequent volume, Homo Deus, an educated speculation on an imminent totally automated future, will remove it.

But we need not take Harari’s arguments as the last word. Dutch historian Rutger Bregman admits in his 2019 book, Humankind: A Hopeful History, it was in part written in response to Harari and others’ gloomy prognoses. Instead, he chooses to probe their dark views by selecting insightful examples that show we have significantly more to be hopeful about and grateful for. Such is the academic world’s respect for Bregman’s work, supported as it is by scientific and historical study, even Harari admits in print that Bregman made him revisit his outlook.
Does optimism really tell it as it is? Isn’t it important to recognize justice miscarried? If you see something, shouldn’t you say something? How can you be grateful for anything or show gratitude towards others when whole environments, cultures, or organizations appear hopelessly corrupted by hypocrisy and shameless self-interest? Bregman might answer those questions with one of his own: How does such a discouraging mindset help?
For quite some time, political cynics have held as indisputable fact, that civilization is but a thin, fragile veneer that barely covers us, a blanketing weave of polite behaviors easily peeled away under threat to expose an atavistic brutal animal nature in everyone seething with uncontrolled impulses. To distinguish our choice of interpretations, Bregman visualizes an alternative pair of worlds, Planet A and Planet B. Faced with an emergency landing crisis, passengers flying over Planet A turn to help their neighbors in need. Under similar circumstances, flyers looking out for number one from a nearly identical Planet B, panic and trample frailer travelers underfoot.

Humankind’s author asks which response the evidence predicts will probably occur in emergency situations on our planet. If our responses more closely resemble those typical of Planet A inhabitants, then, cooperative compassionate responses could be anticipated. If our planet is more like Planet 3B, hostile self-preserving behavior would be likely. Nor is this strictly a nature versus nurture issue. As we shall see, scientific evidence and anecdotal accounts indicate we are genetically capable of and socialized to either considerate or antagonistic responses. We could easily be issued boarding passes on either Planet A or Planet B. Given the gravity of the decision, which world view will we turn to when called upon to respond?

The crux of Bregman’s argument is that, whatever our capability for selfish “all against all” behavior, most people most of the time are generous and compassionate. This is not always the case of course. If news reports since the dawn of journalism and historical accounts from the beginning of record-keeping are correct, we continue to be capable of appalling lapses in acceptable interaction. Undeniable, but before Rutger Bregman looks to lessons from a closer look at the facts, he examines a modern myth rooted in the old belief that children are inclined towards anarchistic tendencies but for the intercession of education, which in the original Latin means “a leading out of, ” implying the elimination of instinctive yet antisocial preferences.

Children certainly need direction and have much to learn, but for over 40 years since William Golding, a former schoolteacher, published Lord of the Flies, the reinforced belief has been that children, left on their own, will tend to revert to the worst forms of misbehavior. For any of you who do not know the story of Golding’s novel, an airplane crashes on an uninhabited Pacific island with only English schoolboys surviving. Things start out well enough. However, soon the kids split into tribes that develop different ideas about how to live on the island. Before they are rescued, conflict mounts, a new form of order based on hunting for wild pigs takes hold and one unfortunate more rational if the dissenting boy is bullied to death while the most impulsive alpha authoritarian little thug takes charge. It’s a truly depressing cringeworthy tale.

Bregman tells a different story about a similar real-life situation. In 1966, six Tongan boys on a fishing trip were caught in a storm, blown off course, and ultimately marooned on a small islet considerably south of Tonga. There they remained alone for a year, learned to survive then bonded for life. Included in their circle was the Australian captain who rescued them. A long happy story, well enough reported – even if it was not the stuff of the usual high drama.

Ideas we have about humans living together are based on a relatively short timeline. The author of Humankind renames us “Homo Puppy” to emphasize the callowness of our species. In earlier days we seem to have wiped out or interbred into extinction five of our co-evolved humanoid cousins. Millennia of identity politics and conflicts followed even as we learned to care for one another and developed an ever-richer culture. The enlightenment philosophers Thomas Hobbes and Jean-Jacques Rousseau visualized our species as resolutely immoral or co-operative respectively: those extremes are illustrated by the two respective examples of castaway children.

Bregman points to other kinds of evidence that makes us rethink the models we once thought beyond questioning. He discusses Dmitri Belyaev a Soviet geneticist who worked with silver foxes breeding them to select for friendliness. As we domesticated our farm animals, did we likewise domesticate ourselves into cooperativeness through the choice of mates? Over the generations, as his foxes essentially became more doglike, Belyaev measured ever-increasing levels of serotonin and oxytocin in their offspring, hormones that make mammals happier and more affectionate.
The author recalls other observations reported elsewhere but brings new light to their interpretation. In psychologist Stanley Milgram’s controversial experiments, volunteer subjects continued to press buttons they thought administered ever more powerful shocks. On closer observation of the observations, we see his experiments were not conducted without questionable scientific bias as well as moral impropriety. Similarly, Catherine Genovese reportedly left by neighbors to bleed to death was not really the victim of indifference that news reports claimed.

If even totalitarian Nazi power was sometimes successfully and courageously resisted as in Denmark, Bulgaria, and Italy, why and when do good people turn bad? The author addresses this question in Part 3 of Humankind. He summons some surprising rethinks of observations made earlier by researchers. When Paul Bloom’s Against Empathy was published in 2016, other social scientists and humanists were scandalized. Yet Bloom isn’t actually against empathy – only its misuse. Recognizing Bloom’s point, Bregman saw how too close an identification with another could obliterate our view of bigger compassion. Consider also, the possibility that some people withhold showing gratitude only because they just do not feel empathetic enough.

In another part of the book, we review explanations for why German soldiers became so tightly bonded that they fought on, oblivious to the evidence that pointed to both its futility and moral indefensibility. Likewise, recalling the blitz’s actual impact on Britain’s citizens might have reconsidered allied command’s massive bombing campaign which killed nearly half a million German civilians without appreciable impact on the Axis war effort, just as the blitz failed to bring Britain to its knees. Punitive, cruel measures, regardless of brutality, rarely succeed whenever the targets can use them to build solidarity. There are myriad examples of the use but also misuse of empathy leading to unintended and horrifically tragic consequences.

If your head is starting to spin as you try to follow these stories and examples, note that the evidence Bregman presents is established experimentally and statistically validated. History and folklore support his familiar observation that power corrupts. More recently we’ve begun to see the once accepted enlightenment notion that unbridled greed is reigned in by social benefits, collapses when the environment, the poor, minorities, whole nations, and civilizations are brought down by its excesses exactly as Aristotle claimed about all overplayed strategies.
Bregman agrees with Harari in recognizing that farming and urbanization have radically changed the way the world’s peoples now live far faster than they, their bodies, or communities have been able to adapt. Our greatest error is being out of step with the boomerang effect of our own innovations. If only we were genuinely and realistically grateful for what we have acquired, learned, and actually accomplished of positive value. That’s a choice we have the power to make. Then we might again find the leadership to show us who we already are and adjust. Rutger Bregman believes we can and his audience at Davos as well as the viewers of his TED talk want to believe him. We are surely challenged, yet can still be grateful we can change for good.

What role does gratitude play in your life? Gratitude Connection monthly and International Institute for Learning Senior Vice-President, Judith W. Umlas in her acclaimed books, Grateful Leadership, Using the Power of Acknowledgment to Engage All Your People and Achieve Superior Results and The Power of Acknowledgment, will help you see the possibilities.