The BBC News website recently reported that a “group of Conservative politicians has called for tougher action against the rising number of migrants crossing the English Channel”. The 23 Tory MPs and two peers told ministers that they must do “whatever it takes” to address attempts from migrants to enter the UK using small boats. In a letter to the Home Secretary, Priti Patel, they said that the “current surge in illegal immigration must be addressed urgently and radically through stronger enforcement efforts. It is strikingly clear that, rather than a ‘hostile environment’, invading migrants have been welcomed”. This last phrase echoed a comment from Nigel Farage a few days previous when he described a small group of adults and children landing on a beach in Kent as a “shocking invasion”. Comments on the Conservative Facebook page are even less benevolent, with repeated calls to stop economic migration, take back control of our borders, stop treating them like royalty by putting them up in our best hotels, and return them to their country of origin. Why do we feel so threatened by fellow human beings fleeing from war, persecution and / or starvation that we term their arrival an ‘invasion’? Why do we want to create a ‘hostile environment’ for them? Why does their arrival provoke so much anger and hatred?
In his recent book, Humankind, Rutger Bregman presents an argument that, if the above example is anything to go by, is struggling from the very start:
There is a persistent myth that by their very nature humans are selfish, aggressive and quick to panic. It’s what the Dutch biologist Frans de Waal likes to call veneer theory: the notion that civilisation is nothing more than a thin veneer that will crack at the merest provocation. In actuality, the opposite is true. It’s when crisis hits – when the bombs fall or the floodwaters rise – that we humans become our best selves. p4
He goes on to point out that:
The doctrine that humans are innately selfish has a hallowed tradition in the western canon. Great thinkers like Thucydides, Augustine, Machiavelli, Hobbes, Luther, Calvin, Burke, Bentham, Nietzsche, Freud, and America’s Founding Fathers each had their own version of the veneer theory of civilisation. p17
However, using a number of real examples, like a group of six British schoolboys who successfully lived as a group of castaways for more than a year after surviving a plane going down somewhere in the pacific without exhibiting any behaviour predicted by Lord of the Flies, and overturning the results of several famous psychological ‘experiments’, like the Stanford University ‘prison’ and Stanley Milgram’s ‘shock machine’, Bregman makes a very convincing argument that we human’s are not innately selfish at all.
With regards to the above reactions to the so called invasion of the Kent coast by a number of economic migrants, Bregman’s argument begs a number of questions. First, assuming that he is correct in his analysis, why do so many people seem unable to be in touch with their ‘kind nature’? Why do so many people seem unable to feel any empathy for the migrants? Why do so many people seem unable to appreciate the situations that compel these migrants to risk their lives to get here? Maybe it’s this selfishness that’s the veneer; a hard crust built up by many years of capitalist ideology covering a deeper kindness. Maybe it will take some kind of disaster or trauma to allow this kindness to break through.
Perhaps it’s that we reserve our kindness for people that we are in close contact with. That without this contact we treat others in a less benevolent way than we do our ‘home’ group. It’s a well known social phenomenon that no matter how prejudiced we may be towards a certain group, if we inadvertently get to know someone from that group we soon think that they are different from the group – that they are ‘ok’. This may be related to the sociological concept of ‘othering’, a process whereby we define our own ‘normal’ identity by distancing ourselves from ‘the other’; where we understand or give meaning to a society or culture (say Britishness) by creating an intrinsic difference between it and other societies. Such a process, by definition, excludes members of other societies or cultures from our own – effectively making them aliens that must be kept from the gates. In which case, perhaps we need to get to know, have real contact with those fellow humans we regard as ‘others’? That if we do, we will quickly discover that they are just like us.
Or maybe Bregman is wrong, that human life is really like Hobbes described it: a ‘state war of all against all’ where life is ‘nasty, brutish and short’, a condition that we can only soften by giving up our liberty to a monarch or state. Such a condition would also vindicate the premise of capitalism, that we are all motivated by self-interest and that if allowed to work through this will be for the benefit of everyone. The main problem with this view, however, is that all the anthropological evidence suggests otherwise. The accumulation of wealth and power, and the dominance of self-interest, only became an issue some 20,000 years ago when human hunter-gatherer tribes started to farm and create fixed settlements. Prior to that any emergent self-interest was kept firmly subservient to co-operation and the needs of the group / tribe. In other words, our ‘natural’ condition, human life as lived for 85-90% of our evolutionary past, was pretty much as described by Bregman.
The bottom line is that I haven’t got a definitive answer to any of these questions. But I do believe that if human life is going to survive on this planet we need to start not just seeing others as our fellow human beings, but to genuinely start feeling positive towards them; we need to ditch the self-interest and righteous indignation and start to foster a sense of global co-operation. If you have a view on this, whether you agree with me or not, you are more than welcome to debate the issue at the next Bridport Philosophy in Pubs (virtual) meeting on August 26th. If you want to join us please email me through this site and I’ll send you a link. And don’t worry if you are not from Bridport – that’s one (the only?) advantage of virtual meetings.