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February 28, 2021

Rutger Bregman represents a new class of young thinkers who seek practical answers to real problems

Every time we see a newspaper headline or a viral video about horrendous human behaviour, it reiterates our notions about the human potential to harm others, and choose aggression over reconciliation.

Bergman disagrees. Strongly.

Rutger Bergman, a historian and a leading European thinker, is asking rhetorical questions. Are humans essentially good or bad? Should governments give out money to the poor without any national contribution (basic universal income)? Why is universal healthcare a solution to many of our problems? Both his bestsellers, Utopia for Realists and Humankind: A Hopeful History colour outside the lines. Both challenge the established, and revered, political and social ideologies that have translated into long-term policies. Bregman does not simply question the status quo, he uses evidence surfaced through intense research to prove his point.

For years, psychologists and anthropologists have convinced us that we are evil. Bergman starts with the themes of Lord of the Flies, Golding’s Nobel-winning masterpiece that has endured the test of time. The plot is simple; school boys shipwrecked on an island, form a little society of their own with a power structure. Ultimately, like Orwell’s pigs, their corruption takes over everything good about their makeshift society and wreaks havoc.

An overload of theories have conditioned us into thinking we’re constantly fighting the evil within. We might actually be better than some of those gods and prophets we created. But humans can’t shy away from their own handiwork. The World Wars, nuclear attacks, racism and Auschwitz are just a few examples. Our selfish nature is permanent, we are told.

What if that’s not true? Bregman offers an alternative perspective to nearly everything we believe has been true about us. The first part of the book is dedicated to a real life Lord of the Flies when a group of Australian schoolboys end up on an island in the 1960s. It was regarded, “as one of the great classic stories of the sea.”

Unlike Golding’s story, however, this was a story of cooperation, friendship and helpfulness. And unlike Golding’s mindless violence, the real story seemed less dramatic, hence less appealing. Bergman’s point is also simple. Evil sells. The idea that we are evil appeals to the masses, stokes fears and helps bend policies. He points out data and evidence from popular media and literature to stress the importance of a story being told again and again, to make it look like truth.

It’s the other way around, he argues. All we see around is people doing wrong to each other. The whole reality show empire is built upon the ‘reality’ of human nature, snarky and malignant. Reality shows that promote competition harbouring on violence, do that without showing what really happens behind the scenes that dominates the onscreen plot. Layers upon layers of fiction are plastered upon facts to make them look presentable into a reality.

Global press has welcomed Bregman as a part of a wider, influential group of thinkers who need to know the real answers to real problems. He does what many writers can’t pull off – provide a healthy combo of data, historical facts and anecdotes.

One of the most interesting psychological experiments, The Stanford Prison Experiment, got a lot of attention. As a part of the experiment, Professor Zimbardo, who was heading the experiment, divided students and volunteers into two groups in a make-believe prison. One group was guards and the other, prisoners. Gradually, the mental conditions of both the guards and the prisoners deteriorated as the lines between fact and fiction blurred. The notorious experiment, however, proved that humans react to situations, and that corruption is an inevitable outcome of authority.

Bregman applauds the experiment and its strength but counters it with more data and even more research that came after The Stanford Prison Experiment. For each such experiment, he argues, there have been a dozen that prove humans are equally capable of empathy and natural cooperation that has resulted in elevating human conditions globally.

Humankind is compulsory reading for anyone who wants to understand how culture, through social and political influences, imposes impossible expectations on us. Like his previous bestseller Utopia for Realists, he is less philosophical than, say, his contemporary Yuval Noah Harari, and relies on empirical data and research rather than a cumulative narrative that accommodates existing ones.

In times like these, thinkers like Bregman and young activists like Malala Yusafzai and Greta Thunberg, help shift the narrative from archaic ways of political handling to more practical, long-term solutions to problems. His call for positivity is too important to ignore.


A Hopeful History

By: Rutger Bregman

Publisher: Bloomsbury, 2020

Pages: 496

Price: Not mentioned

The writer is a freelance writer based in the US. She can be reached at [email protected]

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