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Humankind Read-Along Part One: The Best and Worst of Humans in Crisis

Humankind by Rutger Bregman

Hello and happy Monday! I hope you all ordered, or borrowed, or downloaded a copy of Humankind by Rutger Bregman over the weekend. Today marks the beginning of our read-along. 

Upon reading the prologue, we are presented with this first discussion question:

In the prologue, Bregman cites Le Bon’s observation of how people respond in a crisis: “man descends several rungs in the ladder of civilization.” Evidence in fact shows that crisis brings out “not the worst, but the best in people.”

On starting this book, which camp do you fall into? Can you think of any examples from the current crises we find ourselves in that support either of these viewpoints? 

To put the question in succinct terms, does crisis bring out the worst or the best in people?

First, I consider the Covid crisis as an example. Hoarding toilet paper and bleach doesn’t reflect the best in people. In a more extreme scene, those who stormed Michigan’s capital carrying assault rifles in protest of the state’s shelter-in-place policy could represent the worst. Plus, people who, regardless of what the research says, refuse to cooperate with the public health mandate to wear masks in public demonstrate selfishness. 

On the other hand, in my experience with the pandemic, people on the whole have been friendlier. A smile hidden by a mask is often replaced with an audible “hello”, showing people make an extra effort to be kind. On the street I grew up, a neighbor offered free home-sewn masks that she hung in her front yard (with a written reminder to wash before use). An independent bookstore in my husband’s hometown was able to raise enough money from online donations to keep their business afloat when quarantine measures almost closed their doors permanently. Surely this generosity shows the best of human nature. 

A second widespread crisis we’re now experiencing is the movement to end police brutality against Black individuals. Of course the news tends to cover protests that end in riots, looting, and further police violence against protesters (even when the protesters demonstrate peacefully—which just perpetuates the push to protest against the police). I know that there are enemies to the movement that include white supremacists, racist cops (even “neutral” cops) and President Trump, who show what humans at worst are capable of in such a crisis. 

In contrast, throughout social media and in my own experience protesting this weekend, I see that demonstrations across the country—across the world—have been peaceful. I feel moved by seeing so many people come together in defense of Black lives. Part of this movement is a call not to merely avoid being racist, but to be actively antiracist. In this call to action people are educating themselves, listening to Black voices, participating in the movement, and using any privilege they have to fight for justice and sociopolitical change. From where I stand, I see a lot more people doing their best to improve the world we all live in for the collective good. 

All in all I think the police brutality crisis and the Covid crisis show people at their worst and people at their best, not one or the other entirely. However, these two examples are similar in that they are occurring on a national and global scale. What about crises that involve small groups of people? 

To that end I consider next a smaller-scale crisis. Years ago when my dad became sick and died of cancer, it was as if a bomb had been dropped into my family. My mom, my siblings, and I came together, gave all that we could, and did our best. We received support from our extended family and from our church too. Looking back I’m still floored by the generosity we received and the strength my family showed during such a difficult time. 

Still, there were instances in which we buckled from the trauma, and our best fell short, and to be honest, was kind of shitty. When we showed our worst selves, it wasn’t because any one of us was being selfish or mean. We were under stress and managing loss, and our ability to cope was (understandably) less than perfect. 

Regardless of the scale, I think that when a crisis hits, on the whole people do their best to handle it. Sometimes we show amazing grit, but sometimes our efforts are inadequate. In that case, the worst in us that eeks out demonstrates not malice or greed, but human fallibility.

Does this apply to everyone all the time? No. I recognize that some people are sadistic and selfish, but I don’t think it’s a crisis that unearths these traits. When it comes to a crisis, I often see people doing their best, and those that don’t are the noted exceptions. 

Whether you’ve read the prologue to Humankind or not, I want to hear your thoughts. What has been your experience with humankind during crises? If you’ve encountered a crisis at work, how did people handle it? If you have kids, does that change your perspective? 

Here’s a preview of the next discussion question to which I’ll be posting a response on Friday. 

After reading to page 20, do you agree with Bregman’s “radical idea” proposed on page 1, that “most people, deep down, are pretty decent”? What cynical or pessimistic worldviews would you admit to having? 

There are ten discussion questions in all, and I’ll be posting on Mondays and Fridays for the read-along through Friday, July 10th.

Thanks for participating in the read-along, and share your thoughts in the comments!

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