Monday, September 15, 2008

In Defense of Optimism

The first political idea I ever remember absorbing, when I was very young, was that history moves in cycles. The idea came straight from my mother, and because it became so deeply ingrained, I've looked at both history and current affairs though that assumption ever since. When you look at particular episodes of human history, they really do come across as variations on eternal themes. In fact I'd go as far as to say that theories to explain our past are only credible if they take into account these themes. Human history is, after all, build on human nature. And since history began, human nature has changed very slowly, if at all.

I blogged about this while in Arequipa, comparing the Incas' ambitions of empire with those of the Spanish. Later in Cusco I returned to the theme, trying to explain why I couldn't trust our guide Natalie's portrayal of an entirely benign Inca culture. It occurred to me then that what I was saying about human nature probably came across as fatalistic, and even pessimistic. I'm neither of those things, and so for my own peace of mind I can't leave it there. I need to explain myself a little better. For your own peace of mind, you are better off ignoring me.

Fine - stay. But I did give you fair warning.

I said that I was damn glad that Nina and Sara were not born into Juanita's time, or the time of the Santa Catalina nunnery. I am happy that they will have the chance to live beyond a brutal and premature end as a human sacrifice (assuming they behave), and beyond the confines of the cloisters. Of course I should have said time and place. There are parts of this planet where humans, and especially female ones, have strict limits imposed on their aspirations. In the small villages of Peru, like Akorakai, adolescents depend on missions like the Medical Centre of Belen for sexual education, but they are usually delivered, unfortunately, without any reference to artificial contraception because of the Catholic sensibilities of those staffing and running those missions. Early pregnancy is, unsurprisingly, very prevalent in such communities. Today, girls in places like North-East Africa are more likely than not to have their genitalia mutilated in the name of religion or culture. Child labour and soldiery are rampant, and make a mockery of all our fine century's worth of legislation. Nothing has changed.

Nothing has changed. The incubus of medieval superstition and faith-driven barbarism seems to sit on the chest of our pretenses to progress in the industrialised world. We continue to make the same historical mistakes. Today's empires use different instruments to achieve the same ends as
Cortes, Pizzaro, the British admiralty and the Sons of Heaven. And yet - here am I writing about this from the comfort of my kitchen table, with my un-firewalled access to the internet and my uncensored bookshelf to refer to, in a country that less that a century ago was a dominion and now enjoys autonomy. A country that a century ago was ruled as much from Rome as from London, but now respects the necessary gap between church and state. Sitting at the edge of a continent that a century ago was about to descend into bloody civil war, but now has learned the error of its ways. Something surely has changed.

Something has changed, but what? Not human nature. The situation has changed. According to Philip Zimbardo, designer of the Stanford Prison Experiment and author of The Lucifer Effect (how good people turn evil), the situations in which we find ourselves have more of an influence over our behaviour than the kind of person we are. It's obvious that the situations in which we find ourselves are dictated by the systems in which we live, and those in turn are built by history. The way we live today is shaped by the memory of the accumulated mistakes and successes of our planet's past, and as such, it has the capacity to improve.

If you want to fall asleep how do you go about it? (Try to get to the end of this blog entry, I hear you say). You close your eyes, lie down and breathe deeply. In short, you pretend. Sooner or later, depending on how much coffee you've swilled that day, your pretence turns to reality. How does a society shape itself into what it wants to be? It pretends. It makes laws that may or may not be well enforced, may or may not be well supported, perhaps representing merely a cynical ploy from cynical legislators. Give that law a generation or two to bed in, and it becomes the norm, the starting point for the generation of legislators. The abolition of slavery, the introduction of universal suffrage, the abolition of capital punishment (where that has happened) are examples of building society from the facade inwards.

It's ironic that the central argument in the Zimbardo's book, which at first blush seems pessimistic, is actually a great relief. We don't all have to be heroes or saints - this would be impossible. As a group, we just need the right structures in place to keep us civilised. (The subtitle of the book could just as easily be how evil people turn good.) It's possible to see this aspect of our human nature as a reason in itself to be downbeat, and point out that civilization is just a veneer over the beastly truth. But what a veneer! Nobody scoffs at Everest because it's just part of a thin Earth's crust. Nor should they undervalue the veneer of human civilisation. It did not have to come into being. It didn't come about by accident. It arose from our nature as a species. And while we do keep repeating the same mistakes, as our civilisation gets older, and our our various national histories get woven into one international story, we are getting just a little better.

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