One of the most unsettling things in recent years is how the rosy-tinted, enlightenment perception of human nature has persisted for years, despite relentless evidence to the contrary. It staggers me that after the 20th Century we can still persist in thinking that we’re all basically good, just dependent on right circumstances. It’s just wishful thinking, surely? But still, surprising people emerge from the woodwork every now and then to cast doubt on this hollow mantra – and bizarrely in the last few weeks, I’ve encountered 3.

An Architect of Social Welfare

Some may take this quote as some sort a knock-down argument to undermine the whole premise of social welfare, just because one, if not many, of its key architects had this sort of view. But that’s obviously ridiculous as it is a far too complex a question for that. Still, it is intriguing to read this nevertheless:

Beatrice Webb, whom many consider the architect of Britain’s modern welfare state, wrote:

Somewhere in my diary – 1890? – I wrote “I have staked all on the essential goodness of human nature…” [Now thirty-five years later I realize] how permanent are the evil impulses and instincts of man – how little you can count on changing someof these – for instance the appeal of wealth and power – by any change in the [social] machinery…. No amount of knowledge or science will be of any avail unless we can curb the bad impulse.

from Tim Keller, COUNTERFEIT GODS (p xx)

An Historian of Disturbing Realities

One of my favourite reads is BBC History magazine. Fantastic stuff, full of all kinds of research. One highlight for me is columnist Dominic Sandbrook, who can be relied upon to come up with contrary views which challenge consensus and/or provoke a reaction. Well, last month, he bit the bullet in terms of going to ‘the darkest places imaginable’ in an article called ‘We’re not as different from the Nazis as we like to think‘. As he continues, ‘Far more than any religious text, the historical record of mankind is the story of sin and suffering played out again and again.’

Holocaust memorial in Usti nad Labem (photo by Ladislav Faigl)

With the Holocaust Memorial Day having just happened, it is a fitting that this is a focus of discussion. A few years ago, I had what I sometimes refer to as my dictator phase – not that i expressed megalomaniac tendencies but that I read a string of books about the eras of Hitler and Stalin (sparked by reading Alan Bullock’s masterly parallel biography). One of them was Daniel Goldhagen’s ultra-contraversial but challenging book Hitler’s Willing Executioners, referred to in Sandbrook’s piece. Sandbrook tackles the lurking questions about human nature that the Holocaust doesn’t just provoke but demands.  In relation to what one writer calls ‘the Holocaust industry’ Sandbrook touches on some important points. One is to recognise the legacy of British anti-semitism – which illustrates his bigger point:

The great danger, it seems to me, is for the Holocaust to become ossified, to be cordoned off as the stuff of museums and costume dramas. There is a tendency, exacerbated by our eagerness to cast the Nazis as supremely and uniquely evil, to see it as a uniquely German crime, orchestrated by a gang of fanatical madmen. In fact, many of the people who carried it out were otherwise decent husbands and fathers, people like us.

It was this sort of realisation that led to William Golding writing his chilling Lord of the Flies. And it led to the article’s unsettling conclusion:

… the truly chilling lesson of the Holocaust is not that the victims were people like us. It is that the perpetrators were, too.

An Internet Pioneer Facing Facts

Now, the final illustration is hardly on a par with the Holocaust – but it strikes me as on the same continuum, albeit a long, long way off from the extremes just touched on.

Pierre Omidyar, a co-founder of eBay, credits the success of his business to trust in the users; he has often said that one of his founding assumptions was that people are basically good. The reality is more complex: eBay may have been founded on a basic trust in human goodness, but within a couple of months after it launched, enough of the transactions were going awry in one way or another that the company had to respond. Ebay’s solution was to create a reputation system, allowing the buyer and seller in any transaction to publicly report their satisfaction with each other. The system was designed to cast the shadow of the future over both parties, giving each an incentive to maintain or improve their standing on the site; with that addition, eBay became the site we know today. Omidyar was right, with a caveat: people are basically good, when they are in circumstances that reward goodness while restraining impulses to defect. The rewards and restraints can be quite simple and small, but in big groups with relatively anonymous actors, they need to be there or behaviour will decay over time.

from Clay Shirky, HERE COMES EVERYBODY (p283)

These of course hardly amount to a coherent argument. They are merely resonances. But they resonate with what those far more ancient and far wiser than we are have been on about for centuries. The bible has insisted on the schizophrenic, disturbingly complex nature of human beings. Yes, we are surely remarkable beings, bubbling with potential for great good. There is such a thing as altruism and generosity, deeds that are truly good. Too many Christians overlook or even ignore that. But we are also full of gruesome perversities and destructive impulses. Too many moderns simply blind themselves to that.

Which is why it is so good to have people of sanity and humanity like G.K. Chesterton to turn to. Famously, in answer to a series of correspondence in the Times newspaper about what’s wrong with the world, Chesterton simply wrote:

Dear Sir,

I am,

Yours faithfully
G.K. Chesterton

Which is why it is such a joy to meditate on this other great axiom of his:

We do not want a religion that is right where we are right – we want a religion that is right where we are wrong.

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This Post Has 4 Comments

  1. Findo

    Thanks for the interesting post Mark. I would really recommend the Docuentation Centre in Nürnberg if you’re ever in the area. It’s shocking, but not because it goes into gory details of persecution (though neither does it ignore them) but for the way it shows how such a thing could take hold in society – it’s shocking for how ‘normal’ it was in many ways.

  2. markmeynell

    thanks for the tip – would love to spend more time in Germany. I’ve only ever really driven through or changed planes etc

    1. Findo

      Well you’re always welcome at ours (it’s, as real estate agents would say, cosy) – and I’m sure our little eclectic english speaking congregation would welcome you too 🙂

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