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Humankind Read-Along Part 6: Motivated to Avoid Shame and Violence

Open book with post-its between the pages, a cat-shaped post-it, a pen and writing paper on top

Hello Readers! It’s part six of the Humankind Read-Along. 

Here’s the discussion prompt:

On page 233, Bregman explains that myths were and are key to incentivizing the human race to cooperate: “Religions, states, companies, nations - all of them really only exist in our minds, in the narratives our leaders and we ourselves tell.” Money is also a fiction “but it’s enforced by the threat of very real violence” (page 236). Can you think of any other myths or fictions that we adhere to day-to-day? 

And what’s your understanding of “shame” and how it figures in society?

I’m going to address this prompt in two parts. 

Part 1: What is a myth or fiction we buy into, besides money, that incentivizes us to cooperate and threatens violence if we resist it?

First, why is Bregman talking about myths? Myths help explain the perpetual social inequality of the present and how leaders maintain sovereignty. Myths are used by leaders to explain their power over others and are enforced by threat of violence. 

Bregman explains that the friendliest of individuals rise to power, and the power such an individual gains changes them. Once in power, the friendly individual becomes less considerate and less friendly because they don’t need to be. 

How do they then stay in power? By convincing people that the inequality between the leader and them is fair. The leader argues that they deserve the privilege of power based on merit. They create a story—a myth—to explain the inequality and motivate the group’s obedience to it. 

The myth alone does not suffice: the leader stays in power because they threaten violence against people who resist the leader and their myths. The example Bregman uses to illustrate this is that if we don’t pay our taxes, we’ll be fined or imprisoned. Taxes are a myth we buy into or else face the consequences. 

Race, a social construction that divides humans into groups based on physical appearance, is a fiction with which we typically cooperate as well. Race is not an essential biological delineation; nevertheless it has been used to establish and perpetuate socioeconomic inequality along racial lines. 

In the current movement for racial justice, even while under threat of violence people are resisting the myth. For Black individuals in the U.S., the threat of violence is now so pervasive, regardless of compliance or resistance, that at this point the only way forward is to resist.

Black individuals have been victims of deadly violence while driving, walking, running, sleeping in their cars, sleeping in their beds. To protest this violence interrupts the fiction that one’s race determines the value of one’s life. To protest this violence invites the threat of further violence, but the threat carries no weight. Because the Black community is already subject to senseless physical attacks, the threat no longer acts to motivate people’s obedience to the systemic myth of race as justification for inequality. 

Part 2: What is my understanding of shame and how it figures in society?

Bregman brings up shame as a social regulator of leaders who would otherwise become corrupt with power. He explains that shame worked well in prehistory when humans were traveling nomads who formed relatively small groups compared with the states and nations of today. Shame was used to keep a leader from thinking he deserved better than everyone else. If a leader became too cocky and selfish, the group would unseat him.

Now, our leaders are harder to remove from power because they lead such large groups of people and have so much power that they are impervious to shaming by their followers. They can be arrogant and selfish and crooked because they have enough power to protect their power against the disapproval of the masses. Strategies such as voter suppression and gerrymandering are examples of such corruption. The pile-on of shame that once kept leaders in line no longer suffices. 

According to my therapist, as humans we will do pretty much anything to avoid feeling shame. Shame can be crippling: it’s the feeling of being bad, wrong, insufficient. Shame hurts when we take a risk to be vulnerable with someone and they reject us or break our trust in response. 

Shame can also be instructive. The drive to avoid shame leads you to care what others think of you. Shame motivates us to behave with integrity, especially if we know someone will hold us accountable. 

However, shame isn’t a necessary regulator of behavior if individuals inherently strive to do the right thing. If most people are decent, as Bregman posits, shame as a social regulator is superfluous. The minority of people who lack scruples, whose behavior needs regulating, will act initially to avoid shame, hiding their dishonesty, while working to obtain power. As they gain power, they grow increasingly impervious to shame, because the shaming has no real consequences. (Just look at Trump.) Ultimately shame only works to check the behavior of individuals who don’t need it, the decent people who strive not for power but to do right by others. 

What do you think? What fictions have we come to believe in society today? Does shame do good or harm? What else does a society use to check people’s behavior besides shame or violence? Write a comment!

Here’s a preview of our next discussion prompt for page 250:

At the end of this section, how in support of

Bregman’s concept of New Realism are you? What have you learned in the course of this section? Could things be different, do you think?



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