I think there may be a new motif taking root in a certain class of writer. (How’s that for a vague beginning?)
There is this idea or excuse or something that seems to be appearing in different guises all over the place. It is variously called “radical non-duality” or “basic biology” or “human nature”. It goes like this: our current disasters have happened because this is just how human animals are. We can’t help ourselves. When faced with a bonanza like, say, the extremely dense energy in fossil fuels, we will always exploit the bonanza for short term and private gain, no matter the long term or distant consequences. Because according to this idea, we humans aren’t capable of considering the long term. Nor consequences. We can’t act rationally and with any degree of egalitarianism — not even to our future selves, never mind Others. It sometimes goes as far as to claim that we are programmed, fated, lacking in free will. We are just bodies with no capacity for reasonable decision-making, whatever that means. I’ve even seen a couple people claim that there should be no guilt over the mess we’ve made of the world because any human would act the same way given the same circumstances. We’ve “just been doing our best” in a situation that is extremely bad for our particular proclivities as a species.
Have any of you run across this? And have you reacted like me? Which… is something along the lines of… BULL SHIT!
This seems to me to be a rather absurd example of man-splaining. Or maybe “men explaining Man”, or a small subset thereof anyway. (Because actually apologizing and making reparations for their actions seem to be legitimately beyond their nature.)
I can’t say that I’ve seen this assertion from any young people, nor from many women of any age. And my friends who are not white are driven about apoplectic by stuff like this. Rightfully so. Because as one dear friend of mine said “We lived here for over 15,000 years and didn’t make a tenth of the mess you all made in less than 500”. And it wasn’t because of superior modern wit or tech or sheer numbers or whatever scalar-explainer is inserted into that equation. No, it was because nearly all humans in time and place have consciously and conscientiously decided to not cause destruction. (Duh…) Even if there is clear personal benefit. Maybe especially if there is clear personal benefit. Because nobody has ever wanted the guilt or bad karma or whatever you might name it of causing harm to others for private gain. Not to other humans. Not to other time periods. And not to all the other life forms on this living planet, all of whom are necessary to its proper functioning — a detail that most other humans have been much quicker to grasp than this one particular group which now seems to want absolution for several hundred years of assholery. Or is at least pretending to want absolution.
Or was that too harsh?
I would apologize… except it’s not in my nature…
No. This mess is not down to human nature. No. We have not being doing our best in a bad situation. No. We are not absolved of our abysmally poor choices, nor of our responsibilities. We made a disaster. It is now on us to clean it up. And it would be humanly decent if we acknowledge all this and beg forgiveness of all those we have wronged. (And yes, expressing remorse actually is broadly within human nature… )
Yes, I am a bit peeved. Because as I said, this idea seems to be gaining popularity among a certain group of people. I trip over it about two or three times a week these days. And then… I began reading a book I was looking forward to, a book about our current dilemma, a book that I had reason to believe I would read with one long sigh of confirmation bias contentment… and there it was, right up front. I turned the margins of my copy of this book black with outraged comments and exclamations. (Because my purple pen ran out of ink…) I managed to get through one chapter contending that burning through all the oil in a bit over one generation can be blamed purely on human instinct. (“We did our best”…) And now the book is on hold until I can open it again without taking extra blood pressure medication. I believe the book will get better and I will probably enjoy reading the rest of it… but it’s going to take a little palate cleansing before I can delve back into it, I think. (And I need another purple pen…)
The truly infuriating thing about this argument is that is so transparent. It’s as if the rest of us are being dared to call them on it. They’re barely hiding the snide smiles behind those sanctimonious little nods. But “it’s just human nature” only works as an argument if “it” is at least somewhat common among humans and not relegated to a vanishingly small subset of the population. This is pure gaslighting. Or no, maybe it’s the inverse of gaslighting. In gaslighting, the victim finds it difficult to dispute the gaslit claims because there isn’t enough evidence outside her own experience. Whereas this is the opposite. The gaslighters are trying to sweep away the experiential evidence of billions of people, most of whom are in communication with a large number of others who have shared experiences, none of whom have experienced what these gaslighters claim is reality. Human nature. The gaslighters can’t possibly think that we’re just going to believe them… or maybe they can… because we have a rather long record of swallowing all the rest of their bullshit, I guess. Maybe that’s just an assumption now, that we will submissively accept whatever nonsense comes out of their mouths… because we have so far…
I would like to think that at least some of these people are honestly and authentically confused. That they think they have the answer, but haven’t access to all the evidence that shows just how far short their answer falls. Or maybe they are so emotionally tied to the problem that they are incapable of seeing how wrong they are; they can not bear all the billions of accusatory fingers — from even their own children — pointing back at them. Or maybe they are blinded by their history, doing and saying just anything they want and receiving adulation for all of it regardless. Because they have silenced all the critics, of course, but still… that is their experience thus far. Maybe they don’t know any better now.
But not all of the people who are saying “we did our best” actually believe that, nor do they care much one way or another if we did our best or not. They only care that they may continue to get away with doing what they want to do without consequences. If they can pull that off with gaslighting on a massive — and decidedly ballsy — scale, well then, more power to them… as is their usual, of course.
It is this group that infuriates me, the ones who are brazenly lying with the open intention of confusing the rest of the world, to sow doubt so that they have time to live out their few remaining years without having to make restitution for all the wrongs that they have done. Wrongs that they have done knowingly, mind you. They knew they were not doing their best, nor anything like their best. They were not even aiming for best. They knew they were doing harm. They knew they were being bad people. And they did it anyway because that is what they wanted to do in the moment. Because they are lazy, vain, and infantile… but not because they are “just human”.
This is not human nature. And to name it human is to insult not just humanity but all living beings. It is not in the nature of any rational living organism to cause destruction. Destruction ends lives, causes extinctions, and is therefore singularly maladaptive. By definition! It is selected against in evolving systems, not perpetuated as “nature”. Nor is any living organism just programmed to one set of predetermined responses, a nature. There is no program that can adapt and hence remain viable in a living, changing system. (This is why AI is not a thing…) Living organisms work in a coordinated fashion to make mutually beneficial decisions in the midst of flux and flow. That is the nature of being alive, that capability to decide on this path or that in order to spread maximal benefit throughout the whole web of being. Only an inert thing is fixed to the path in front of it. And only a suicidally stupid thing will choose to take the path that leads to short term gain in the midst of widespread devastation…
I am human… I do not consider the last several hundred years of my culture an example of humans just doing their best. Nor of humans acting in their own wonted nature. There are too many counterexamples. There are too many other people on rational paths. And there are far too few of these people who have made bad decisions for their own perceived personal benefit. It may be their nature… but it is not human nature.
©Elizabeth Anker 2022