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Humankind Read-Along Part 3:Cynicism in Literature

Welcome to another read-along post!

Here’s our third discussion question which corresponds with page 40 of Humankind by Rutger Bregman. 

Bregman uses Lord of the Flies as an example of the embedded belief that people are inherently bad. Can you think of any other literary or cinematic depictions of human nature that perpetuate this cynical view?

In the first twenty pages of Humankind author Rutger Bregman introduces his argument for the fact that most humans are basically decent. He explains that nevertheless, most of Western society adheres to “veneer theory” which states that the laws of civilization are a thin veneer without which humanity would descend into chaos, depravity, and violence. 

In the next section, Bregman addresses the novel Lord of the Flies. The story was written by William Golding after World War II, a time in which people wanted an explanation for how the Holocaust could have happened. How could civilized society have condoned and enabled such horror? Well, if deep down we all are just awful, then it could happen to any group of people assuaging a sense of culpability. In the novel Golding tells the story of a group of boys stranded on a deserted island. The boys fail to establish the veneer of society that holds their true nature at bay. They act exactly as veneer theory would have them act, proving the inner violence, anger, and selfishness of humankind.

Bregman then counters the novel’s message by telling the story of an actual group of school-age boys who become stranded on a deserted island. The six boys survived for fifteen months. Cooperation was key to their survival. Once they got a fire lit, they took turns to make sure it never went out. When drinking water was scarce, they evenly meted it out among them. They created a system to deal with arguments. When one of the boys broke his leg, after setting it they pitched in to do his work until it healed. Finally they were rescued when a boater happened upon them one day. Unlike in Golding’s novel, the boys established rules, worked together, and all survived. 

Lord of the Flies inspired reality TV shows such as The Real World and Survivor. Reality TV often supports a cynical view toward humanity. For example, always at least one contestant on The Bachelor says, “I’m not here to make friends. I’m here to win.” And they proceed to actively make enemies while simultaneously convincing the bachelor that she is the most lovable of them all.

Dance Moms takes the bad behavior to another level—I think the dance instructor was jailed for a time, although I don’t know why. And no matter what I thought could have possibly been even remotely embarrassing about my own mother when I was a pre-teen, she never, ever acted like the insane catty women that make up the Dance Moms. These women are seriously unreal, and I would be mortified to be the child of any one of them.

When it comes to reality TV, I think it’s backwards that an artificial, manipulated environment is used to show how people “really” are. At the same time, what people are willing to do for fame or money on reality TV doesn’t speak well to humanity either. 

For literary examples of cynicism toward humankind, I think of JD Salinger’s The Catcher In the Rye. In this book Holden Caulfield feels contempt for all phony adults and dreads that all children will grow up to be corrupted and phony too. It seems he thinks that humans are born good and then turn bad in the process of growing up. 

I also think of Carson McCuller’s The Heart is a Lonely Hunter. In this book the character meant to represent God is intellectually disabled, the character that represents Jesus shoots himself in the mouth, and our main character Mick learns that she can only trust herself and no one else. As a whole, the book gives a grim take on religion, political action, and familial relationships. 

The most recent book I read that grapples with the nature of humankind is The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes by Suzanne Collins, which I quoted in my last Humankind post. This book, the Hunger Games prequel, tells the story of President Snow’s past. Collins I think shows faith in humankind while explaining how Snow got on the path to become president of Panem. I don’t want to give away spoilers, so all I will say is Ballad is a great book to read alongside Humankind because they have such similar themes. 

What examples can you share from books, movies, or TV shows that depict humanity in a cynical light? Share in the comments. 

For next time, read to page 134 and consider the following question.

At the end of this section, how in support of Bregman’s concept of New Realism are you?  Discuss your position.



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