If We Humans Are So Good, Why Are We So Bad?
Our carbon footprint and our negative emotional footprint are equally dangerous.
Posted Sep 10, 2019
Given that homo sapiens is the most evolved of all the species on planet Earth, we humans can indeed be immensely proud of ourselves.
Over the millennia of our existence on Earth, around 250,000 years, our brains and bodies have enabled us to withstand myriad challenges and create wondrous achievements.
We've conquered many terrible illnesses and plagues, and overcome natural and human-made disasters. We've taken communication to remarkably sophisticated levels, using strange sounds called "words,” and derived alphabets. We've created stunning technology, edifices, medicines and transportation, and inspiring works of art, music and ideas.
We like to think we’ve moved beyond the feral kill-or-be-killed lives of wild beasts. The very word "humane" implies that humans manifest traits like compassion, generosity, empathy, tolerance, respect, benevolence and integrity. A person like that is to be admired, a "perfect gentleman/lady" or a "mensch" (in Yiddish).
So, a question: If we are indeed so good (humane), how is it that we are so bad (inhumane)?
It turns out that the same people who embody those “admirable” humane traits can also act in ways which are their very opposite. We (individuals, families, groups, nations) can be rude, selfish, intolerant, racist, cruel, threatening or violent, the antithesis of humane. As the old cartoon character Pogo famously stated, “I have seen the enemy and he is us!”
That same brain power which created achievements benefiting us, exemplifying inclusivity and caring for others, has created weaponry to inflict violence, exemplifying exclusivity and hate for others.
Hate-fueled violence has always been part of human history and continues today. For all our avowed benevolence, extremes of hateful aggression seem intrinsic to our nature, either programmed in our genes or “bred in the bone,” embedded in our upbringing.
No human society has been totally immune to hateful attitudes and behaviors. Even Buddhists, long considered avatars of peace, have demonstrated abject cruelty in Myanmar and elsewhere. Sadly, at this very moment, there are thousands of domestic and other interpersonal violent incidents as well as military battles occurring throughout the world.
In addition to our capacities for compassion and loving, are we humans also “compelled” to express inhumane hatred and violence? Worse, might we be doomed to self-annihilation?
There are causes for some optimism:
The evolutionary psychologist Steven Pinker has shown that over the millennia human beings have actually progressed in a number of humane ways, including the reduction or eradication of some epidemics, the diminution of widespread profound poverty, and especially (for this column) fewer wars and conflagrations. His thesis is that there is hope for our species if one takes a long-range view.
There are also encouraging studies which show that we can overcome our destructive impulses: aggressive children can be taught to be peaceable, selfish youngsters can learn to share and cooperate, bitter enemies can learn to feel empathy for each other, racist attitudes and acts can be significantly lessened through psychological and educational interventions, and previous vengeful and hateful tribalism can be supplanted by harmonious living.
We hear valid warnings about threats to our survival because of our Carbon Footprint. Global warming is finally being addressed by many individuals and governments (not ours!) with concerted efforts to stave off these cataclysms. But there is another dangerous human footprint we are not warned about: This is our conflict-ridden Negative Emotional Footprint, the adverse ways we human beings often treat and affect each other.
Our Emotional Footprint can be positive or negative: A positive Emotional Footprint reflects our propensities for benevolence and caring, while a negative Emotional Footprint reflects our tendencies for belligerence and hate. These negative behaviors are seen in rudeness and anger in our dealings with each other, and on a larger scale, in hatred and violence towards others.
Of course anger and aggression are part of our normal range of emotions which occur during the vagaries of life. We cannot eliminate them by hope or by fiat but we can learn to control their frequency and intensity.
Positive and negative behaviors are learned by “modeling” and teaching, and by “social contagion.” Our natural capacities for benevolence can be reinforced by positive examples, but they can be undermined by those who provoke hate.
What a tragedy it would be if we allowed our inhumane tendencies to result in the demise of our species. Melodramatic, you say?
Humanity has to realize that our negative emotional footprints represent a “clear and present danger” to our very existence. As we are doing with our carbon footprints, we can initiate concerted efforts to strengthen our positive emotional footprints and lessen our negative emotional footprints.
The humane sides of us can enable us to live in better harmony, but we must first commit ourselves to this vital task both individually and collectively.
We can reduce our destructive tendencies. We have the brains and resources to accomplish this, but we first need the recognition and the will.
I hold the fervent hope that “We shall overcome.” If we (our children, grandchildren, subsequent generations) are to survive, we really have no reasonable alternative.