This is a Spin Doctor special. It is going to push the envelope on the human condition with the aim to address the paradox of humanity on grounds of common sense, logic and fact; without reservation or inhibition; without being limited by propriety, etiquette or wishful thinking.
Know thyself. The key to intelligent life!
It’s time we practiced what we preached and did exactly that, not just in theory but in practice. Not just here and there, but on the whole, in real life, in observable, measurable, replicable ways. It’s time to get serious, roll with our potential and become more sapient, pun intended. It’s the one thing we’re supposed to be: sapient – it’s in our name classification!
Let’s start with ourselves and take it from there, like any self-respecting knowledgeable being does.
Human. What does it mean? What does it entail? We have countless ways of describing ourselves. Most of them involve idealized and romanticized notions of an advanced, superior way of being, many of which have nothing to do with fact. We define ourselves through mythologically-based, religiously-driven, unfounded notions of human superiority over the rest of life on earth, bar a few creeds that consider non-human life forms worthy of respect.
Then there’s the flip side. We also entertain grounded notions about ourselves. These notions involve hard facts, logic and science. They’re dry and reductive, yet solid, valid, stemming from the depths of our behavior and spreading out (vs. landsliding in from the summit of our superegos and morality). Many of these positions involve hard, cold, realistic – to the point of being cynical, if not disheartening – points of view that are unable to encapsulate the depth of our perception, the richness of our understanding, the feel for the world around us.
Hence our dilemma: how to frame humanity? Through the romanticized, mythological notions of ourselves, tending to our aspirations – or through the cold, fact-based analysis of our parameters?
Perhaps a bit of both is the answer. Always has been.
Intelligents among Instinctuals
It begins with number one, our respective selves, spreading out to the entire set. Good leadership and organization, based on the combined principles of survival and empathy, are the key factors in play. The process is tough, success can’t be taken for granted. But the first steps in any initiative that seeks true and lasting change are conceiving the challenge, then tracing it out. Moving forward may not always be a pleasant experience, sometimes even the opposite, but it’s certainly worth it.
Here’s a short, incisive thought experiment to get us started. Suppose four people encounter an animal in distress – a dog, for example, drowning in a semi-frozen lake. The expected reaction is to help it.
Sure enough, two people rush to the dog’s aid, eager to rescue it, but the other two cackle and walk away. The dog is rescued all the same, and its rescuers take it with them to town, where they tell everyone what happened. The town folk deem him them heroes and offer them free food and shelter, then promptly seek out the two people who deserted them dog and drive them out of town.
It’s a classic story of good versus evil, where good triumphs and evil is punished. The people who helped the animal in distress were rewarded for their humanity, while the people who neglected it were demonized for their callousness. Coming to a living creature’s aid is the proper thing to do, the human(e) thing. Walking away is savage, heartless. Savage.
The analogy sums up our attitudes toward what constitutes human behavior. We grow up learning these lessons at home, at school, in books and films, well aware what the right thing to do is, what makes us stand out from the rest of the animal kingdom.
Before we go any further, let’s see what this means, putting some meat on the argument. See the video below…
There we go. Now we know what we’re talking about, what this higher human quality we rave on about looks and feels like, in real and practical terms. It’s an inspirational, beautiful piece of action. The people in the above video didn’t walk away, like a lion or a zebra, or an ape, or a dragonfly would have probably done. Nor did they approach the dog with gaping jaws, like a croc or a shark would have done. Aware of the dog’s plight and concerned enough to do something about it, they came to its aid, rescuing it from certain death. They exhibited clearly “human” qualities, which makes us feel super good, both about the dog as well as about ourselves, as a species, capable and unique as we’re proving to be.
It’s a feelgood piece of action that elevates our self-esteem, if not our confidence in our entire species. The video’s original caption minces no words and describes the incident in terms of goodness: “Every time you start to think there are no good people left, something happens that restores faith in humanity…” and it would be a great way to describe this dog’s rescue… if we were talking to kids in primary school. Unfortunately we’ve grown up since then. We might as well apply what we know and describe the world in more accurate terms.
Fact of the matter is that this beautiful, life-saving intervention has little to do with goodness and more with being empathetic, a predominantly human quality. Our capacity to understand what is going on and get in someone’s shoes i.e. empathize, makes us special. Animals exhibit this quality too, but mainly toward members of their family, their extended group, or their species, at best. The fact that we can do it for other animals, beyond our own kind, especially endangered ones, makes us stand out as Intelligents among Instinctuals. Humans among beasts. At least that’s how we like to describe ourselves.
Let’s consider the facts and see if the esteem to which we hold ourselves is valid. The numbers show, whichever way one chooses to look at them, that our current expansion destroys life on earth at a rate matched only by earth’s super-disasters, including super-volcanoes, comet crashes and ice ages.
Pretty brutal for a species that prides itself for being aware, sensible, sensitive and more intelligent than others, right?
It’s a painful realization, one which we may not be ready to make. You and I are perhaps not your typical insensitive and greedy person behind this terrible onslaught, true, but as a whole, as a group, like it or not, we’re part of a species that destroys its surroundings, beastly in many ways. (I’m not referring to the cute way moms talk about their kids (“aw, he’s just beastly”) but in the truly savage and murderous meaning of the word.)
Wait, some yell, you can’t condemn all humanity on account of what’s happening around us. This is the work of a minority of villains who’ve hijacked the proceedings and gone berserk, forcing everyone to engage in a suicidal consumerist binge.
Right! We’re being collectively hypnotized to do things completely contrary to our nature, for which we can’t take responsibility. How convenient! And dangerous. Swallow this tall tale and we’re truly the sheep we claim not to be.
See the catch-22? If we believe there’s someone pulling strings, forcing us to do things we’re not capable of, then we’re mindless and pliable, in our vast majority, like the animals we’re so proud to feel superior to. If, on the other hand, we’re not being stringed along by some grand puppeteer, but are instead masters of our own destinies and responsible for our own actions, doing what we do because this is who we are, then our actions speak for themselves: we’re as destructive as our footprint indicates, and not quite as empathetic as we like to think.
The numbers don’t lie. Only we do.
The Right Thing
Clearly, we’re the blades to the lawnmower that razes life on earth. While it may be true that a certain hijacking has taken place and that a binge is underway, aided by masters of unceremonious greed and gluttony, dare anyone say we’re doing things completely against our nature? Are we acting out of character? Are we not simply eating, feasting, fighting, playing, resting, entertaining ourselves, socializing and competing, creating and inventing, all in ways that have gotten out of hand? No coercion, just frenzy. A good old fashioned feeding frenzy on a global scale.
It’s time to face facts. Stop passing the buck and acknowledge that we’re malfunctioning on the whole, as a species, as a way of life, as custodians to life on earth. To deal with the situation and get back on track we must pause for a moment and rethink our standing. We love to believe we’re superior, period, just because we write and read and split the atom at will, or because God said so, or because it’s nice to be at the top, but the truth of the matter is that we have to earn that top tier first. We may believe that humanity is a miraculous condition, the stuff that ‘saving animals in distress’ is made of, but until we get to the stage where we stop harming all life around us, en masse, let’s not delude ourselves. We’re a far cry from the humanity we profess to be, a long way from our idealized nature. Either that or we have to redefine what being human is, what it really entails. At least that way we’ll be true to ourselves.
To reiterate, moving forward may not always be a pleasant experience, but it’s certainly worth it.
There we go, the cat is out of the bag. Homo sapiens at will, calling things as they are, attempting to know ourselves before professing to know anything else – humanity stepping in front of the mirror to see what we really look like, pitching our actions against our aspirations and measuring the difference. This way, we get to face facts, reassess ourselves and move forward in ways that mean something down the line, something more than idealizing our way into the future. Ideologies are not enough, we need bone and backbone to carry ourselves forth. We require knowledge and understanding, awareness and adaptability. Owning up to our nature and environment is what being human is all about. Doing the right thing, not the moral thing, not the righteous thing, but the right thing, the thing that sees life around us flourish in ways that match both our empathy and our progress, no matter the difficulties. We’re perfectly suited for that – or is our self-perception truly hogwash?