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Humankind Read-Along Part 7: Balancing Skepticism with an Open Mind

Updated: Jul 4, 2020

Humankind by Rutger Bregman open to page 250 with bookmark and pen

Hello and Happy Friday! Welcome to Part 7 of the Humankind Read-Along. 

After reading to page 250 of Humankind by Rutger Bregman, here is today’s discussion question:

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?

In this section of the book entitled “Why Good People Turn Bad,” Bregman argues that we are not born bad, but that we devolve into darkness over the course of life. 

While empathy allows us to take another person’s perspective, it has limits. As we zoom in on one person’s experience, we zoom out on that of entire groups. Bregman explains that,

Empathy makes us less forgiving, because the more we identify with victims, the more we generalize about our enemies [. …] The sad truth is that empathy and xenophobia go hand in hand. They’re two sides of the same coin (216-7).

Empathy contributes to our “survival of the friendliest” nature, but also serves as a mechanism to alienate others. 

Another chink in our friendly nature comes with the acquisition of power. Power strips a person of the motivation to be kind and considerate. Power becomes a tool a leader wields to assert socially constructed schemes that uphold the inequality between a leader and his minions. 

While religion previously served as the myth that rulers relied on for keeping control of subjects, with the Enlightenment came a new means of control: reason. The rule of law, rational and just, is now the foundation for a hierarchy of power, in lieu of an omniscient and omnipresent god keeping people in line. 

Bregman argues that the error in this setup is that laws of modern society were written with the assumption that people by nature are selfish, and this results in a nocebo effect. The nocebo effect occurs when negative expectations lead to fulfillment of those expectations. The laws and rules that undergird society belie a negative expectation of human behavior. Expecting the worst leads to a self fulfilling prophecy, in which people do indeed act selfishly. 

To me, this section serves as a bridge between Bregman’s arguments concerning the past and where we are now. I expect the final two sections will consist of solutions to civilization’s “curse,” and what he predicts would happen if we remove the nocebo. 

While I’m receptive thus far to Bregman’s New Realism founded on a belief in human decency, I find parts of his argument run thin. I’m not convinced that the Enlightenment and the newfound reliance on reason fully supplants the function of religion in controlling the masses to comply with social inequality. I’m not even totally convinced that civilization is cursed. When I take in all that I have read so far, I find that Bregman’s thesis spans so much time and so many disciplines that I just want more evidence to support it. 

While maintaining some skepticism, I find I’m nevertheless open to Bregman’s position. I agree with him that we humans have room to improve and that we have the capacity to do more good in the world. I feel compelled to read the final sections of Humankind. I want to see how Bregman argues his point home. 

What have you learned so far from the Humankind Read-Along? What examples can you think of that show empathy to be problematic? How have you seen power alter a person’s character? Share in the comments!

The next discussion prompt below follows page 295 of Humankind by Rutger Bregman. 

“Our biggest shortfall isn’t in a bank account or budget sheet, but inside ourselves. It’s a shortage of what makes life meaningful. A shortage of play”. 

Do you agree? How does play feature in your life and in the lives of those around you?

I’ll respond to this question on Monday.

Have a happy and safe Independence Day!



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