2 April, 2014
I have this problem.
At least, some people tell me it’s a problem, insofar as it’s not really very “normal”. I’m not sure either way any more.
See, I’ve got this pathological need to understand people, to understand motivation. This is coupled with a similar compulsion to assume that most people are sensible, normal, decent human beings who aren’t any more prone to insane, crazy or irrational behaviour than anyone else.
When someone does something I don’t understand, my default reaction is to assume that what they did is perfectly rational from a certain point of view, and that my misunderstanding of what they did results not from anything “wrong” with them, but simply from my current inability to see the world from their perspective.
In short, I assume I’m the one with the problem.
Of course, this is my default behaviour, but it often doesn’t take me long to flip around to what I’m told is “normal”: that perspective on the world which tells me that the only reason other people do things I don’t understand is because they’re stupid, selfish, deliberately provocative or simply malicious.
Sure, there are probably some people out there who fit that description, but enough to make this a default behaviour? I’d hope not.
But there it is: most people I know seem to view my assumption that people are generally decent as great in the abstract, but when presented with a specific case (say of some customer support person being a jerk, or of a person bullying another person, or of a head teacher obstinately refusing to look at playground improvements, even when literally handed a sack full of cash), they tend to “make exceptions”.
“Person x was being a jerk, therefore it’s okay to suspend our normal civility and MOB ON!”
And hey, I’m as guilty of that as anyone else. This stuff is hard, and it’s also likely hard wired. But that doesn’t mean it’s good, or—more critically—that it’s unchangeable.
Even hard wiring can be ripped out and routed around. It’s just, well, hard.
I remember when my dad and I really started to get into Philip K. Dick. We hoovered up everything that we could get our hands on. I was maybe 14 or 15 at the time, and even then, I was struck by the simple question that he seemed obsessed with asking, over and over again:
What makes us human?
Of course, the cold, analytical answer to that question is increasingly “very little”. We’re biological machines, here on this Earth to fart around (and don’t let anyone tell you any different). We’re mechanisms, following the laws of nature and rationalising our decisions after the fact. And yet.
Dick’s ultimate conclusion was that what makes us human wasn’t some abstract, pure notion. It isn’t “soul” or “spirit” or “opposable thumbs” or anything like that: it’s “empathy”. Not that empathy singles us out, or is unique to humanity, but that without it, we cease being human.
Empathy isn’t sufficient to be “human”, but it is necessary.
We seem to spend most of our time attempting to kill our empathy. Adversarial TV shows, contests. Look at our culture just now: we’re obsessing over zombies: humans without life, without emotion, without empathy, a mass movement that is as unstoppable as it is terrifying. Look at The Hunger Games, at the sheer volume of films and TV right now focussed on the end of the world being defined by an end to the desire or ability to care about other living things.
Is our culture fixated on a perceived threat? The dehumanisation of “the rest of them”.
Of course, there’s nothing new. This has been an ongoing tension in the human condition for millennia: the fear of “them” helps us define “us”. It helps us to keep tribes together, helps us to maintain pack behaviour to survive in the wilderness.
Remember, we’re survival machines. If it all goes horribly wrong, then next generation will be built by those ruthless enough to survive.
Evolution demands that we can both empathise and compartmentalise in times of peace and war.
Which is most likely why, when it rains, I get angry. I get angry at myself. I get angry at my lack of discipline. I get angry at my anger, at my irrational annoyance at the world.
But most of all, I get angry at those stupid, arrogant guys walking alone under their golf umbrellas, soaking everyone along the busy pavement who is lucky enough to avoid getting poked in the eye.
Seriously, fuck those guys.