A ‘really subversive idea’: Most people are pretty decent

Human beings’ friendliness and humility help us survive – but also make us dangerous

 Rutger Bregman: ‘Most people, deep down, are pretty decent’. Photograph: Simone Padovani/Awakening/Getty

Rutger Bregman: ‘Most people, deep down, are pretty decent’. Photograph: Simone Padovani/Awakening/Getty

 

Dutch historian Rutger Bregman has a reputation for switching into attack mode during interviews. Okay, just two interviews but still enough to make The Irish Times nervous during a morning video call.

“I think [following] the news is just not good for you,” he says with a mischievous smile. “Intellectually it’s not good for you. Mentally it’s not good for you. Psychologists even have a term for this: they talk about ‘mean world syndrome’. People who have just seen too much of the news have become more cynical, more pessimistic, more anxious, even more depressive. So, yeah, I think that is something you need to be wary of.”

If his words stung this ageing hack maybe they were meant to. Bregman believes in the power of shame, and he has become a shamer of renown over the past 18 months, taking on the financial elite, celebrity philanthropists and, yes, journalists.

“We so often tend to think our democracies are ruled by procedures and laws,” he says, “but they are also governed by implicit rules and assumptions and one of them is the ability to feel shame – that you can be shamed.”

All throughout history, those who have advocated a more hopeful view of human nature – often the anarchists – have been persecuted

His gripe with the media (or at least large sections of it) is that it creates a distorted view of humanity but there are guilty parties elsewhere, from scientists who claim selfishness is in our genes to economists and politicians who believe their role is to regulate people’s greed.

Just why misanthropy abounds has a complex explanation but “I think the most important reason is that a cynical view of human nature legitimises the power of those in power,” Bregman says, “because if we cannot trust each other we need them, right? . . . It’s a justification of hierarchy.

“If I say most people are pretty decent that may sound nice and warm but actually it’s really radical and subversive and that’s why, all throughout history, those who have advocated a more hopeful view of human nature – often the anarchists – have been persecuted.”

Bregman is dressed in a black T-shirt and speaks between gulps of tea. For the interview, he has commandeered his wife’s study in their home in a “very small and boring town” south of Utrecht.

Annoyingly accomplished at the age of 32, he turned a series of articles about the merits of universal basic income, the 15-hour working week and a policy of open borders into the 2017 bestseller Utopia for Realists.

But he is perhaps best known for a cameo appearance at the Davos world economic forum in January 2019. Turning on his hosts, he slated wealthy do-gooders – name-checking Bono and tech mogul Michael Dell – saying: “We gotta be talking about taxes. Taxes. Taxes. Taxes. All the rest is bullsh*t in my opinion.” The following month, he flipped a guest spot with Tucker Carlon on Fox News into a verbal assault against Rupert Murdoch and his media lackeys. Carlson responded with an expletive-ridden tantrum, saying Bregman was a “moron” with a “tiny brain” – a Trumpian commendation the author must have been tempted to put on his latest book.

Humankind: A Hopeful History is instead endorsed by various literary and scientific luminaries, and you can see why there is such a fuss. The central argument – that “most people, deep down, are pretty decent” – isn’t new but the method of proof is refreshing and original.

Lord of the Flies: William Golding, a man who was prone to depression, wrote the story to portray the darkest depths of mankind. Photograph: Two Arts/Cd/Kobal/Shutterstock
Lord of the Flies: William Golding, a man who was prone to depression, wrote the story to portray the darkest depths of mankind. Photograph: Two Arts/Cd/Kobal/Shutterstock

Bregman works his way through famous claims about man’s innate barbarity – the sort of examples cited in a million pub conservations – and debunks them one by one.

The Stanford Prison Experiment? A shoddy piece of research whose general conclusion that people in authority err towards sadism has been widely discredited.

Easter Island? No, its civilisation didn’t end in cannibalism, as some of have claimed. The historical record suggests the inhabitants were wiped out by European invaders.

Lord of the Flies? Eh, you do know it’s fiction? Notably, its author William Golding was a miserable bloke who once confessed to having “always understood the Nazis because I am of that sort by nature”.

One of the most shocking chapters of the book is on the murder of Kitty Genovese – a woman whose death was immortalised by the New York Times with its front page headline of March 27th, 1964: “37 Who Saw Murder Didn’t Call the Police”. The story has entered urban folklore and features in “every psychology textbook” as a lesson in how big cities make us cold-hearted.

Catherine ‘Kitty’ Genovese: the orignal New York Times report on her murder was full of inaccuracies. Photograph: NY Daily News via Getty
Catherine ‘Kitty’ Genovese: the original New York Times report on her murder was inaccurate. Photograph: NY Daily News via Getty

However, the report was full of inaccuracies (the Times admitted four years ago that “significant elements” of the article have been called into question). The truth is a friend ran to Kitty’s aid and she died, not alone but, “wrapped in her neighbour’s embrace”.

In case you think Bregman is really down on the media, by the way, he writes for Amsterdam-based news website de Correspondent. “Not all journalists are sort of obsessed with breaking news,” he says. “A lot of journalists help us to better understand the world by zooming out and sometimes zooming in on a really important case but sort of helping us to get a grasp of what are the structural forces that govern our lives and our societies and that is incredibly important.”

Bregman writes in Dutch and his books are translated into English, although he has no difficulty communicating in the second language. His pronunciation of the US president’s first name comes out more like Dómhnall, and he occasionally punctuates a sentence with “how do you say that?” while searching for a phrase.

If Bono is Irish, pay your taxes in Ireland. What’s the top marginal tax rate? Just pay that, and don’t come up with all these tricks

Speaking of Trump, should Bregman accept by his own logic that the US president is also “deep down” a good person? “Well, you know, the title of my book in Dutch is ‘Most people are pretty decent’. I think it is important to recognise that some people are just different. There is a small minority of people who are born with sociopathic tendencies or psychopathic tendencies.”

However, psychological research does show that power has a corrupting effect on the brain – so much so that you start acting “as if your brain is damaged. Power damages the brain in that sense. It makes you less empathetic, less understanding of other people. So it’s a really, really dangerous drug”.

If Trump doesn’t get our sympathy what about Bono? “I’m not against philanthropy in any way,” he replies. “I’m just a bit pissed off with people who have all these wonderful plans and dreams and ‘Blah, blah, blah, look what I’m doing’, while they are not paying their fair share in taxes.

“It seems very simple to me. If he is Irish, pay your taxes in Ireland. What’s the top marginal tax rate? Just pay that, and don’t come up with all these tricks that normal people can’t afford.”

U2 has repeatedly defended its decision to move part of its business to the Netherlands with Bono saying the band pays a “fortune” in tax and restructured its business to arrive at a “sensible” rate.

Bregman’s home nation shares with Ireland a reputation for facilitating tax avoidance, famously through the “Double Irish, Dutch sandwich” loophole that was used by Google. “We have such a warm relationship,” he laughs. That prompts the question of reform. Can small countries such as ours raise taxes without serious economic consequences?

“The first question you’ve got to ask yourself is how much are you really benefiting from being a tax paradise. Is it a small group of rich bankers and accountants and lawyers that is really benefiting? . . . Also the question you should ask yourself as a country is how do you want to earn your money? Isn’t it a little bit sad that so much of your talent, smart young kids . . . end up in these socially meaningless jobs where they don’t add anything of value.”

Our longing for friendship and comradeship and loyalty is often implicated in our worst crimes. It can become group pressure; it can become tribal behaviour

From an historical perspective, his big claim is that humans evolved to be friendly – “Homo Puppy” he calls our species – and the more humble and pleasant characters in any tribe were put in charge until about 10,000 years ago. That was when nomadic hunter gatherers settled down, leading to more “civilised” communities that allowed for new types of leader.

“It’s such a striking fact of our species that we are the only primate, the only mammal, maybe even the only animal in the whole animal kingdom, that blushes. Why do we do that? . . . How can this be an evolutionary advantage?

“I think the explanation is that for a long time we lived in a very different kind of environment where humbleness and friendliness was really key to surviving. Now, in the political scene, we have the opposite, right? More like the survival of the shameless. That’s a highly unnatural state of affairs and very recent as well.”

The theory helps to explain why people do evil things. Bound up with an impulse to be nice is a desire to please the tribe. You can get people to perform barbaric acts by convincing them that they are actually helping out. Propaganda and appealing to authority are two effective methods of manipulation.

“One of the great ironies of my book is that I’m saying human beings have evolved to be friendly but at the same time I’m saying that is often exactly the problem. Progress often comes from unfriendly people; that’s one thing.

“The other thing is that our longing for friendship and comradeship and loyalty is often implicated in our worst crimes. It can become group pressure; it can become tribal behaviour. So people may think this is a very happy-clappy book about human nature but I think it’s very paradoxical actually.”

Humankind: A Hopeful History by Rutger Bregman is published on May 19th by Bloomsbury, £20

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