Radical thinker Rutger Bregman paints a new, more beautiful portrait of humanity.
Optimism is what runs the world, and cynicism only serves as an excuse for the lazy.
Evil is not inherent to our nature. We have achieved so much because we are friendly and decent. The radical thinker Rutger Bregman paints a new, more beautiful portrait of humanity.
Try standing in front of the mirror and remember the worst things ever done – by you personally, and by Homo sapiens as a whole. And smile, because history shows that we are doing much better than you think. This subversive idea belongs to a Dutch historian, writer and TED lecturer. In his new book, Humankind: A Hopeful History, he finds out whether the conviction that humans are selfish, hostile and destructive by nature is actually true. And if we turn out to be intrinsically good after all, what would it change?
Rutger Bregman already shook up the minds of politicians, businesspeople and the general public several years ago in his book Utopia for Realists And How We Can Get There, in which he argued that a better world could be built straight away. Bregman's critics consider him a naïve fantast, but many CEOs and national leaders are seriously considering introducing his revolutionary postulates, such as much shorter workdays and universal basic income. In his new book, Bregman goes even further, proposing that we turn the world upside down. More precisely, he wants to put straight the image of humankind as created by philosophy, science and the media. And to change our behaviour for the better.
The author has created a daring, fresh story, filled with fascinating examples, analyses and discoveries, and constructed it as if it were an investigation. The accused was Homo sapiens, a species with alleged murderous tendencies since the dawn of time, seeing his own viciousness reflected in everything and everyone around. Bregman revised the evidence in question and tore the lining of this negative story, reaching deep into the discoveries of archaeologists, historians and biologists. He bursts through the philosophy of Hobbes, who had a defining influence on the image of humans, perceived as warmongering species who must be controlled by a powerful, Leviathan-like government at all times. Bregman uncovers swindles ensconced in the most famous psychological theses of the 20th century, laying bare the manipulations of such celebrities as Philip Zimbardo and Stanley Milgram, whose famous experiments are considered the final evidence that a Nazi and sadist is lurking in every one of us. Yet years later, those claims turned out to be a sham.
Bregman crushes the myths built by bestselling authors such as Nobel Prize laureate William Golding, best known for his novel Lord of the Flies, and by big media like The New York Times. He boldly debates the most popular authors of recent years: Steven Pinker, Yuval Noah Harari and Malcolm Gladwell. With the energy of a young and fearless researcher, he dug through all the critical files, finding new evidence in old cases. The turn of perspective is so surprising that Humankind keeps the reader on their toes. Whatever you think about humans, Bregman will derail your viewpoint. And there's probably nothing as baffling as how much we struggle with accepting the idea that we are better than we thought we were. The thought that most of us are intrinsically good turns out to be a challenge, as if the bar has suddenly gone higher. Such a positive image makes us want to try harder.
Bregman uses the phenomenon we call the Pygmalion effect, meaning that we become what others see in us. Those rats that researchers assumed to be intelligent did better with the tasks they encountered. Children with supportive parents and teachers do better at school and in life. And people who see good in themselves, start to cultivate it. Bergman believes cynicism to be an avoidance strategy.
The belief that people are vicious and that the world is going to the dogs justifies passivity. Optimism, however, has an opposite effect – it requires us to strive for kindness, trust, and generosity in an active way.
The common belief that crisis awakens the most primitive instincts in people is not reflected in the facts, writes Bregman. He calls it the greatest misunderstanding in history. "No, no, you go first…", "Please, you go ahead, I'll follow you," said the people leaving the towers of the World Trade Center, when their offices were ablaze and the building was starting to melt. There was no panic; almost everyone remained polite. This was confirmed by recordings and testimonies from the survivors.
On Christmas Eve of 1914, 100,000 soldiers, mostly German and French, left the trenches to meet. They exchanged gifts and sang carols. For years to come, most of them were shooting high above their enemies' heads, so as not to wound them. The same thing happened at other wars, before and after that one. After the Battle of Gettysburg in 1863, 90% of the guns were loaded and unused. The murderous instinct is a myth, Bregman insists.
Hitler's air force raided London in 1940 to break the spirit of the British. Instead, people put messages in their windows, such as: "More open than usual" or "Windows broken, booze still strong!" The English kept calm. Churchill was proud, but soon he made the same mistake, assuming he could break the Germans with air raids instead. After the bombing, Dresden responded in the same spirit as London – with acts of everyday kindness, help and optimism.
After the war and annihilation, many sought an answer to what made the German soldiers so persistent and determined. The reasons were said to be blind obedience and fanaticism. And yet, Bregman reveals data that was previously omitted and passed-over in silence: the main force keeping the soldiers going was the sense of solidarity and camaraderie. They didn't want to abandon their mates, with whom they grew up and trained. When presented in such light, those alleged beasts suddenly start looking a lot like boys from the yard. Like ourselves, even.
Think again, insists the Dutch historian, and see how tragedy brings out the best in people. Evil only exists in us when it masks as good and nestles in our system of beliefs as a sense of righteousness, something important to the world. And don't believe the media, he warns, because they feed on extremes. The media distort reality and teach us to believe in evil. For example, take the famous story of the New York woman named Kitty who was stabbed and died alone in front of her house in 1964, watched by her 38 indifferent neighbours, out of whom just one called the police, the rest declining to get involved. That's the version promoted by The New York Times, with alarming words about an "epidemic of callousness". The facts, as shown by Bregman, are very different. Most of the witnesses didn't see the attack – they just heard the noise. Half of them called the police, and Kitty died in her friend's arms. What happened to the perpetrator? He was caught soon later when he was leaving someone's apartment carrying a TV, and an alarmed neighbour stopped him. People can feel, express concern, and help others – those are the facts on which the media rarely report. There are over a dozen such spectacular deconstructions in Bregman's book, using new evidence he pulls out like trump cards, one after another.
We follow the rules of kindness and cooperation not only in times of crisis, but also in everyday life. Bregman echoes other researchers who describe the phenomenon of ordinariness as the dominant truth about the world. He refrains from promoting naïve theses, and the strength of his reasoning lies in returning to the right proportions. There is more good in the world, so much of it that we take it for granted and forget to define it. In his view, society is not founded on obedience to the government, which makes us aggressive and insensitive, but on the human trust. That's why real democracy (as opposed to the current rule of sociopath elites over the sensitive majority) is possible. More examples? In Venezuela and Brazil, budget management in many cities was passed over to the inhabitants. As a result, they saw an increase in social investments and education, while poverty and crime plummeted. In Norwegian prisons, guards and inmates spend time together, share duties and wear no uniforms. The outcomes were shorter times of imprisonment, fewer re-offenders, and a lot of savings. And so on.
Humankind rearranges the mind like no other book published over the past few years. It should be mandatory reading in the 21st century, as it gives some balance to another milestone in the human autobiography, the bestselling Sapiens by Yuval Noah Harari from 2014. Bregman insists that optimism is solidly founded on facts. It is not a dream, just a new realism.
Translated from the Polish by Aga Zano
A second step is to determine where violence concentrates and who is most at risk.
Violence has always been one of humanity's most serious global challenges. This is because for most of history, we were natural born killers.
Hundreds of millions of men, women and children have been killed or maimed by armed conflict, crime, extremism and sexual and gender-based violence.
Not only does violence exact a massive social and economic toll, it also corrodes democratic institutions and undermines fundamental human rights. There is also a risk of certain forms of collective violence escalating in the coming decade, not least with the stresses imposed by climate change and the risks posed by new technologies.
Yet far from the chilling headlines, progress has been made over the past half century in preventing and reducing many types of violence. While promising, the comparatively recent drop in violence is no guarantee that it will continue well into the 21st century. But with targeted interventions and sustained financing - especially in cities - most forms of violence could diminish further still. This is, in fact, one of the central aspirations of Sustainable Development Goal 16 on peace, security and justice. The world has a real opportunity to halve violence by 2030. Achieving this will require taking stock of where we are and taking decisions about where we want to go. This is precisely what bold initiatives such as the Pathfinders Partnership seek to achieve.
At the outset, it is important to reflect on just how many people are affected by violence. While difficult to measure with precision, as many as 600,000 people - including almost 100,000 women and girls - die around the world each year as a result of conflict, crime, extremist and extrajudicial violence. Millions more suffer physical and psychological injuries associated with warfare, criminality, and sexual and gender-based violence. Over 40 million people are displaced by violence - including 26 million refugees. If no steps are taken to change our present course, it is not at all certain that these trends will improve in the next decade. Yet if measures are taken to reverse these tendencies, literally hundreds of thousands of lives and trillions of dollars in reconstruction, reparations, productivity losses and insurance claims could be saved.
Homicide rates around the world, according to UNODC
The first step to effectively reducing violence by 2030 is to have a clear sense of how it is distributed in time and space. Take the case of lethal violence. There is a misperception that more people die violently in war zones than in countries at peace. While total levels of violence oscillate from year to year, it turns out that the reverse is true. The UN Office for Drugs and Crime estimates that the ratio is roughly 5:1. Put simply, many more people are dying violently as a result of organized and interpersonal crime in countries like Brazil, Colombia and Mexico than in internal conflicts in countries such as Afghanistan, Syria and Yemen. This is not to say that one type of lethal violence is more important than the other, but rather to ensure a more fact-based diagnosis.
A second step is to determine where violence concentrates and who is most at risk. A considerable proportion of all violence - that is, deaths, injuries and extreme violations - is concentrated in cities. These tendencies are likely to increase steadily given the inexorable urbanization of every region on earth. Cities in Latin America and the Caribbean - already one of the world's most urbanized regions - feature some of the highest levels of lethal and non-lethal violence. It is home to 43 of the world's 50 most violent cities. Meanwhile, most conflict and terrorist-related deaths are concentrated in a handful of countries in Central Asia, the African Sahel, North Africa and the Middle East. Irrespective of where it occurs, young males are most at risk of perpetrating or being victimized, although women and girls experience horrific forms of violence ranging from femicide to rape and abuse.
The third step is to acknowledge the risk factors that give rise to various types of violence. Although violence is multi-factoral, a number of recurring risks stand out. For example, social and economic inequality is high on the list, as are concentrated poverty, rapid unregulated urbanization, a high level of youth unemployment, and weak security and justice institutions that lead to soaring levels of impunity. Other situational factors loom large, including exposure to narcotics and alcohol and the availability of arms. Many of these factors cluster in urban settings, especially in neighbourhoods exhibiting concentrated disadvantage, social disorganization, and low levels of social cohesion.
If violence is to be genuinely diminished, it is important to acknowledge its many "hidden" forms that are routinely excluded from the international agenda. Some governments are reluctant to discuss them on the grounds that they are considered an internal domestic matter. For example, there are more than 10 million people in prisons around the world, a significant proportion of whom are in pre-trial detention and living in inhumane conditions. There are also thousands of people who are missing - "disappeared" - not least union leaders, indigenous rights defenders, human rights activists and journalists.
The only way to make a serious dent in violence is by acknowledging its full scope and scale together with the factors that drive it. This must be accompanied by sustained investment in reducing the risks and improving the protection of affected areas and populations, and investing in solutions with a positive track record. In the US, for example, research suggests that a focus on reducing lethal violence in the 40 cities with the highest rates of homicide could save more than 12,000 lives a year. In Latin America, reducing homicide in just the seven most violent countries over the next 10 years would save more than 365,000 lives.
With targeted interventions, especially in cities, hundreds of thousands of lives each year could be saved
Image: Our World in Data
What are our next steps?
First, countries and cities should set out violence reduction plans with clear targets and performance indicators over the next decade. Effective data-harvesting systems to track trends, investment in in-house monitoring and analytical capacities to interpret results, routine supervision, ongoing training and professional development, and constant evaluation are all critical. This requires political leaders who are prepared to plan across electoral cycles and business and civil society champions who are willing to invest time, energy and resources to improve their communities.
Next, governments need to develop comprehensive approaches to preventing and reducing violence. This means investing in prevention - including the risk factors that give rise to violence. It also means building in peace architectures that can channel grievances non-violently. Ideally, governments can combine specific adaptations in policing practice with prevention and protection measures tailored particularly for at-risk places and people - from young out-of-work males to vulnerable women and children. This requires the creation of partnerships across institutional and bureaucratic silos – between state and city authorities, but also across different public entities. Central to success are strong partnerships with universities, research institutes, and businesses that can help identify evidence-based pathways for improvement.
What is the Annual Meeting of the Global Future Councils?
Another key ingredient of success is staying power. The most successful interventions take time to have a lasting effect. Consider São Paulo, for example, a city that has registered sharp reductions in its murder rate in recent years. Metropolitan São Paulo's homicide rate fell from 49.2 per 100,000 in 2001 to just 5.5 per 100,000 between 2001 and 2018, making it one of the safest large cities in Brazil. In 1991, the city of Medellín in Colombia registered a homicide rate of 381 per 100,000—among the highest ever recorded anywhere. Today it is 21 per 100,000, below that of Detroit, Baltimore or New Orleans. It is challenging to maintain support given electoral cycles and economic volatility, but when interventions are terminated prematurely, the positive effects typically vanish just as quickly.
It will take unprecedented global partnerships to reduce violence by 50% over the next 10 years. But there are grounds for optimism. For the first time, the UN and World Bank have united behind a common framework for preventing conflict. UN entities such as the Office for Drugs and Crime (UNODC) and the World Health Organization (WHO) have made commitments to reduce violence. UN Women has announced a Spotlight Initiative to end violence against women and UNICEF has joined forces with others to advance INSPIRE strategies to help governments improve safety for all. Another promising initiative is the global campaign to end violence against children, which has already raised close to $38 million, strengthening the work of 49 partners in at least 37 countries. At the city scale, UN-Habitat is promoting safer cities and a coalition of mayors have launched the Peace in Our Cities campaign to localize SDG 16 commitments. Yet much more needs to be done.
The world has an opportunity to dramatically reduce some of the most egregious forms of violence over the next decade. To do this, we will need the same kind of energy and dedication that was mobilized to eradicate other killers like smallpox. We know what works, and what does not. There is no excuse not to deliver a safer world.
What makes someone hypersane?
'Hypersanity' is not a common or accepted term. But neither did I make it up. I first came across the concept while training in psychiatry, in The Politics of Experience and the Bird of Paradise (1967) by R D Laing.
In this book, the Scottish psychiatrist presented 'madness' as a voyage of discovery that could open out onto a free state of higher consciousness, or hypersanity. For Laing, the descent into madness could lead to a reckoning, to an awakening, to 'break-through' rather than 'breakdown'.
A few months later, I read C G Jung's autobiography, Memories, Dreams, Reflections (1962), which provided a vivid case in point. In 1913, on the eve of the Great War, Jung broke off his close friendship with Sigmund Freud, and spent the next few years in a troubled state of mind that led him to a 'confrontation with the unconscious'.
As Europe tore itself apart, Jung gained first-hand experience of psychotic material in which he found 'the matrix of a mythopoeic imagination which has vanished from our rational age'. Like Gilgamesh, Odysseus, Heracles, Orpheus and Aeneas before him, Jung travelled deep down into an underworld where he conversed with Salome, an attractive young woman, and with Philemon, an old man with a white beard, the wings of a kingfisher and the horns of a bull. Although Salome and Philemon were products of Jung's unconscious, they had lives of their own and said things that he had not previously thought. In Philemon, Jung had at long last found the father-figure that both Freud and his own father had failed to be. More than that, Philemon was a guru, and prefigured what Jung himself was later to become: the wise old man of Zürich. As the war burnt out, Jung re-emerged into sanity, and considered that he had found in his madness 'the primo materia for a lifetime's work'.
The Laingian concept of hypersanity, though modern, has ancient roots. Once, upon being asked to name the most beautiful of all things, Diogenes the Cynic (412-323 BCE) replied parrhesia, which in Ancient Greek means something like 'uninhibited thought', 'free speech', or 'full expression'. Diogenes used to stroll around Athens in broad daylight brandishing a lit lamp. Whenever curious people stopped to ask what he was doing, he would reply: 'I am just looking for a human being' – thereby insinuating that the people of Athens were not living up to, or even much aware of, their full human potential.
After being exiled from his native Sinope for having defaced its coinage, Diogenes emigrated to Athens, took up the life of a beggar, and made it his mission to deface – metaphorically this time – the coinage of custom and convention that was, he maintained, the false currency of morality. He disdained the need for conventional shelter or any other such 'dainties', and elected to live in a tub and survive on a diet of onions. Diogenes proved to the later satisfaction of the Stoics that happiness has nothing whatsoever to do with a person's material circumstances, and held that human beings had much to learn from studying the simplicity and artlessness of dogs, which, unlike human beings, had not complicated every simple gift of the gods.
The term 'cynic' derives from the Greek kynikos, which is the adjective of kyon or 'dog'. Once, upon being challenged for masturbating in the marketplace, Diogenes regretted that it were not as easy to relieve hunger by rubbing an empty stomach. When asked, on another occasion, where he came from, he replied: 'I am a citizen of the world' (cosmopolites), a radical claim at the time, and the first recorded use of the term 'cosmopolitan'. As he approached death, Diogenes asked for his mortal remains to be thrown outside the city walls for wild animals to feast upon. After his death in the city of Corinth, the Corinthians erected to his glory a pillar surmounted by a dog of Parian marble.
Jung and Diogenes came across as insane by the standards of their day. But both men had a depth and acuteness of vision that their contemporaries lacked, and that enabled them to see through their facades of 'sanity'. Both psychosis and hypersanity place us outside society, making us seem 'mad' to the mainstream. Both states attract a heady mixture of fear and fascination. But whereas mental disorder is distressing and disabling, hypersanity is liberating and empowering.
After reading The Politics of Experience, the concept of hypersanity stuck in my mind, not least as something that I might aspire to for myself. But if there is such a thing as hypersanity, the implication is that mere sanity is not all it's cracked up to be, a state of dormancy and dullness with less vital potential even than madness. This I think is most apparent in people's frequently suboptimal – if not frankly inappropriate – responses, both verbal and behavioural, to the world around them. As Jung puts it:
The condition of alienation, of being asleep, of being unconscious, of being out of one's mind, is the condition of the normal man.
Or, on society's role:
Society highly values its normal man. It educates children to lose themselves and to become absurd, and thus to be normal.
Normal men have killed perhaps 100,000,000 of their fellow normal men in the last 50 years.
Many 'normal' people suffer from not being hypersane: they have a restricted worldview, confused priorities, and are wracked by stress, anxiety and self-deception. As a result, they sometimes do dangerous things, and become fanatics or fascists or otherwise destructive (or not constructive) people. In contrast, hypersane people are calm, contained and constructive. It is not just that the 'sane' are irrational but that they lack scope and range, as though they've grown into the prisoners of their arbitrary lives, locked up in their own dark and narrow subjectivity. Unable to take leave of their selves, they hardly look around them, barely see beauty and possibility, rarely contemplate the bigger picture – and all, ultimately, for fear of losing their selves, of breaking down, of going mad, using one form of extreme subjectivity to defend against another, as life – mysterious, magical life – slips through their fingers.
We could all go mad, in a way we already are, minus the promise. But what if there were another route to hypersanity, one that, compared with madness, was less fearsome, less dangerous, and less damaging? What if, as well as a backdoor way, there were also a royal road strewn with sweet-scented petals? After all, Diogenes did not exactly go mad. Neither did other hypersane people such as Socrates and Confucius, although the Buddha did suffer, in the beginning, with what might today be classed as depression.
Besides Jung, are there any modern examples of hypersanity? Those who escaped from Plato's cave of shadows were reluctant to crawl back down and involve themselves in the affairs of men, and most hypersane people, rather than courting the limelight, might prefer to hide out in their back gardens. But a few do rise to prominence for the difference that they felt compelled to make, people such as Nelson Mandela and Temple Grandin. And the hypersane are still among us: from the Dalai Lama to Jane Goodall, there are many candidates. While they might seem to be living in a world of their own, this is only because they have delved more deeply into the way things are than those 'sane' people around them.
The Indian philosopher had a lot to say.
- The Indian philosopher taught that concepts get in the way of observation, and only by ridding yourself of concepts can you experience freedom.
- Reared to be a Theosophist leader, Krishnamurti rejected that system (along with all others) in formulating his outlook.
- His books touch upon topics such as education reform, physics, and meditation.
Of all the philosophers on my bookshelves, Jiddu Krishnamurti might be the hardest to implement. Born in India in 1895, he was initially groomed to be a "world teacher" in the Theosophical tradition, reared under British socialist Annie Besant, who in turn was trained under the cult's founder, Helena Blavatsky. Though owing his oratory powerful style in this tradition, he eventually rejected Theosophy, along with every other system created by man. Observation, not prejudgement, is a recurring theme in his talks, pointing to a path to understanding meaning — if meaning is even to be derived.
Following a transformative experience in Ojai in 1922 — some claim it to have been a possession or spiritual occurrence, others the result of an illness that he emerged from — Krishnamurti effectively mimicked the path Gotama had taken in achieving Buddhahood: reject all teachers for the wisdom of the experience. Yet even "self" is a debated topic in his many books and lectures over the next six decades until his death in Ojai in 1986. (I highly recommend visiting his center there, simply to gaze out into the beauty of the Ojai valley.)
Reading Krishnamurti, as mentioned, is no easy task. Many of his directives require a complete overhaul of how we view and live through reality. As demanding as he comes across on the page, he demanded much of his own mind. He openly discussed and debated with mystics, psychotherapists, and physicists in an attempt to encourage collaborative disciplines. All paths, he felt, describe one reality.
Krishnamurti's books are sometimes best read as koans, insights for further thought and internal debate. No worthwhile achievement is easily won. The man taught us to grapple with the contradictions in nature as well as our own minds, the highest form of intelligence.
Why are you here? | J. Krishnamurti
"That is the first thing to learn — not to seek. When you seek you are really only window shopping." (Freedom From the Known)
"It is man's pretense that because he has choice he is free. Freedom is pure observation without direction, without fear of punishment and reward. Freedom is without motive; freedom is not at the end of the evolution of man but lies in the first step of his existence." (Public talk in Ojai, April 1980)
"If you escape from the battle, you have not understood the battle. The battle is you." (The Awakening of Intelligence)
"Freedom comes with self-knowledge, when the mind goes above and beyond the hindrances it has created for itself through craving its own security… Freedom is at the beginning, it is not something to be gained at the end." (Education & the Significance of Life)
"One is never afraid of the unknown; one is afraid to the known coming to an end." (Fearless Soul)
Indian philosopher Jiddu Krishnamurti arrived in Sydney, 14 November 1970. Photo credit: Fairfax Media via Getty Images
"Freedom and love go together. Love is not a reaction. If I love you because you love me, that is mere trade, a thing to be bought in the market; it is not love. To love is not to ask anything in return, not even to feel that you are giving something — and it is only such love that can know freedom." (Think on These Things)
"When we look at what is taking place in the world we begin to understand that there is no outer and inner process; there is only one unitary process, it is a whole, total movement, the inner movement expressing itself as the outer and the outer reacting against the inner… Nobody need tell you how to look. You just look." (Freedom From the Known)
"Education in the true sense is helping the individual to be mature and free, to flower greatly in love and goodness. That is what we should be interested in, and not in shaping the child according to some idealistic pattern." (Education & the Significance of Life)
"When you call yourself an Indian or a Muslim or a Christian or a European, or anything else, you are being violent. Do you see why it is violent? Because you are separating yourself from the rest of mankind. When you separate yourself by belief, by nationality, by tradition, it breeds violence. So a man who is seeking to understand violence does not belong to any country, to any religion, to any political party or partial system; he is concerned with the total understanding of mankind." (Krishnamurti: Reflections on the Self)
"Sacredness is a fetish." (The Awakening of Intelligence)