Posts Tagged ‘Human Nature’

Warning: amateur philosophy. 

People are basically good, and also basically asshats. We’re a mixed bag, is what I’m saying.

Put it another way: people are fucking flawed, from breath to blood to atoms. I don’t just mean bodies and brains, either; I mean whatever spirit or biological synthesis you choose to believe is steering each individual beast in the collective meatflock. We govern ourselves with an ever-changing yet eternal series of moral, spiritual, social and legal constraints more rigid, for the most part, than even the most optimistic view of human nature believes us to be capable of upholding en masse, because the alternative means giving up on our capability for goodness, change, improvement. We have the memories of mayflies and the cultural baggage of methuselahs, and are historically, as a species, very bad at noticing the dissonance, mostly because we’re so obsessed with the solipsistic present or one of any number of hypothetical afterlives to focus on the actual physical future, as stands to be inhabited by actual physical humans who are not, in point of fact, us. We are capable of extraordinary kindness and unthinkable cruelty, sometimes within the same body; sometimes, even, within the same action. You want to know what human sentience is? It’s the only thing in the universe capable of doubting its own existence. Being human means being awake to the fact that you can be tricked – by others, by yourself, by sense and thought and perception – and wondering, if only at the level of subconscious unease, how often you’re actually right.

Which means that being human, dealing with humans, requires a somewhat paradoxical approach. On the one hand, you have to allow for human weakness, gullibility, culpability, ignorance, whatever you want to call it – not just in the immediate, short-term sense, but over and over and over again, as an acknowledgement of the fact that inevitably, people are going to fuck up; maybe in lots of small ways, maybe in just a few big ones, or maybe in all of them together, but whether we’re nine years old or ninety, no matter how much we think we’ve learned, we still possess the capacity for error, because that is what human is. But on the other hand, we have to demand better of ourselves than a mere acceptance of imperfection; we have to adapt, apologise, learn, because otherwise, what’s to stop us from embracing our worst qualities, not just as inevitable negatives, but as behavioural mandates? For our own safety and sanity, we have to draw lines: to say, some weaknesses are inevitable, but this doesn’t have to be one of them; to say, I have reached my limit for forgiveness, for transgressions against me and mine, and this is it; to say, I am done with you. Human justice, if that isn’t an oxymoron, is as flawed and fickle an instrument as its executors, but in the end, it’s all we have, because we are all we have: there is nothing else. Whatever higher purpose we might believe in, whatever faith we might have, or not have, in some final dead day of reckoning, when Ma’at weighs our souls or Charon plucks the cold coins from our eyes, here and now, there is no unequivocal spiritual presence but what other humans claim to hear and feel; and if we are truly mediums for higher voices, in this capacity, we are still just as flawed – just as fallible – as we are in every other sphere of our mortal existence.

And I wrestle with that. Not with the idea that we might be poor spiritual vessels – I’m an atheist, and always have been – but with the inevitability of human error. Because I’m not a misanthrope; I don’t believe our species is fundamentally doomed or bad or broken. And yet, with screamworthy regularity and repetition, we hurt ourselves. We punish and exclude and torture and misconstrue; we continue to both tell and swallow lies all the more pernicious for their having been disproved a thousand times over; we willingly inhabit systems whose cruelties continue to shape us even as we once shaped them, and which can no more be dismantled by the individual than a single bee can demolish a hive, and that should terrify us; but instead, we shrug as though we expect nothing better, as though we’re only capable of a collective, humane memory when it means making rituals of our worst ideas; as though we can have no mutable traditions, nor enduringly gentle ones. By profession and inclination, I am a critic, which means I spend an enormous amount of energy discussing various human faults, and yet the act of criticism is, I think, fundamentally hopeful: why bother with deconstruction if you think we can never rebuild? I’m not a nihilist, either, some bitter Rorschach incapable of compromising, even in the face of Armageddon: whatever I feel on my bad days, I don’t believe I’m yelling into a void. Or I mean, I do, but only where void is a synonym for internet, this great greyscale maw into which we tumble our collective psyches, bruising as we bruise.

The problem with people is, we have a finite capability to give a shit about every other person, just as they have a finite capacity to give a shit about us. We’re just too goddamn numerous, and some of us are actively trying, and some of us just ran out of caring three asshats ago, and some of us are happy being those three asshats if it means we get left in relative peace for five fucking minutes, and all that could still describe any of us in the space of a given hour, because we’re mercurial creatures, too, and however much we want to put our backs to the firm and towering wall of Other People Are Fucking Wrong, it only takes a single mistake to turn us into them, and then we’re the ones who are Fucking Wrong, and the wall falls on us in direct proportion to how hard we’ve been leaning on it, and sometimes it’s irony, and sometimes it’s justice, and sometimes it’s just random chance – which is to say, both and neither, and part of life – but either way, it doesn’t hurt any less for being inevitable.

Ideologies be damned: we find our truths where we can, and break them if we must, and sometimes our best is a toxic wasteland, and sometimes our worst is a poem. I’m sick of feeling adrift, of twisting myself into endless shapes to accommodate the fear that someone, somewhere might hate me for trying to figure things out, when far more terrifying is the great seething mass of strangers who don’t even know what stories are, or why they matter. This is my anchor: at nine or ninety, I’m here to learn.

I’m here. I’m here. I’m here.

 

Advertisements

At my Long-Suffering Husband’s insistance, we rented The Invasion last night. I’d read more than one dud review and was therefore sceptical, but the end product, if not blindingly original, was at least well-executed and entertaining. Based on Invasion of the Body-Snatchers, the premise is classic sci-fi horror: humans infected by an alien host become little more than emotionless copies of their former selves, spreading malaise through the populace while a few savvy protagonists fight back. Morally, the film queries the fundamental nature of humanity, asking whether our innate predeliction for violence could ever be removed without rendering us a different species. In this respect, the execution is strongly reminiscent of the main plot-arc of Angel, Season Four, which culminates, in the penultimate episode Peace Out, in an almost identical scenario: a declaration of world peace after an alien, assimilatory force takes control on a global scale, followed by the successful application of a vanquishing panacea. In both instances, our heroes are left with uncertainty as to whether restoring the human race was actually the right choice; and in both instances, this uncertainty is validated by the fact that the invading force was comparatively benign, leaving the memories and personalities of the populace intact, but removing all aggression.

It’s worth taking the comparison further. Jasmine, the assimilatory power in Angel, requires the loss of two human lives to enter the world. While manifest, she consumes approximately ten lives every few days, but these are willing victims whose deaths involve a painless, beatified moment of transcendence. In The Invasion, the only alien violence is towards those who are immune or still human; it is implied, but not demonstrated, that the former are killed, while the latter are purposefully rounded up and infected. Similarly, Jasmine’s acolytes seek to kill the few who resist; the remainder are peaceably converted.

Within the context of both narratives, the heroes are justified for several reasons: there is no freedom to reject the change; hostility is shown to outsiders; deaths are accepted as part of the process; and in each instance, the alien/assimilatory claim that those changed are still fundamentally human is challenged by the emergence of a hive-mind, not quite on par with, say, the Borg, but nonetheless profoundly different to the usual human experience. On the other hand, Jasmine and the Invaders also seek justification: any deaths they cause as part of assimilation are minimal compared to the daily injury humanity wreaks upon itself, and are in any case a one-off; human personalities remain; all religious differences are eradicated; and global violence has, effectively, ceased. Post-victory, it is these arguments which cause our protagonists to doubt the wisdom of their choice.

Objectively, it’s an interesting moral dilemma. As a species, we prize personal freedoms even when they grant individual licence to be unpleasant, vindictive and ignorant, because we struggle to find a workable moral basis from which to allow positive freedoms while disallowing their negative counterparts. This is further compounded by the fact that, particularly as regards culture and religion, we’re far from a universal definition of ‘positive’ freedoms – sexuality is a particular sticking point, both in terms of orientation and practice. Even more challenging is the fact that freedom of and from religion becomes innately problematic if sublimated to a set of universal human rights: as things stand, and as they are likely to remain standing, it is impossible that any such code not infringe on individual belief, which opens a whole new can of worms. Inevitably, our greed for personal freedom denies the idea that, as part of the bargain, we might have to change our minds; and yet, day to day, this is exactly how the world works. It’s a system we simultaneously laud and resent, finding balance in the margins and grey areas: small wonder, then, that the idea of some powerful, all-encompassing assimilatory force sweeping in and wiping the slate clean both lures and terrifies.

Historically speaking, we’re rightly mistrustful of any human agency attempting what Jasmine and the Invaders almost succeed at, Hitler, Stalin and Robespierre having demonstrated what atrocities such plans necessitate in the hands of our own kind. But when we put an alien or external agency in charge, the hypothetical becomes more serious: not only are we removing the possibility of the new order being destabilised by human malcontents, as such dissention cannot actually exist, but we’re voiding ourselves of blame. Proportionally, our main fear is a kind of technical genocide: if none of the social, cultural or behavioural hallmarks of humanity remain – or at least, if lack of violence and passion irrevocably alters their application – then has humanity been destroyed? It’s an uneasy thought, as well as discomforting: that our innate selves are fundamentally tied to our aggression. Even if this is one factor among many, to lose it would be to absent a crucial aspect of ourselves. Which begs the (much harder) question: in a world where, potentially, we can be a less-violent other species, is being human for the sake of being human actually a defensible choice?

The problem, as with all hypotheticals, is that we have no test scenario: along with violence, we don’t know what else we’d lose. Anecdotally and, to a certain extent, culturally, there’s a belief that our aggression stems from the same place as our creativity and passion: that without anger, we couldn’t love, or dream, or hope. Emotionally – and we are emotional creatures – it’s a compelling fear, and one which, on an intuitive level, is hard to combat. In an odd way, it’s a bit like the dilemma of the criminal justice system: let a guilty man walk to save innocents, or condemn innocents to be sure of incarcerating the guilty? Ultimately, I’d opt for the former: for better or worse, I’d rather keep our flaws than lose our virtues, and so – I believe – would most of us.

Narratively, however, we still need reassurance on this point: which is why both Jasmine and the Invaders are selected against by subtle, but deeply intuitive, markers. Beneath her human face, Jasmine has the appearance of a monster: only those with immunity to her powers can see it. The metaphor is one of rottenness, internal corruption; if she isn’t truly beautiful and conceals the fact, then she cannot be trusted, and so – horrifically, in one sense – we feel better about her destruction. Similarly, dogs don’t like the Invaders: they bark, whine, growl, attack and are subsequently killed for their trouble. After tens of thousands of years of co-evolution, it’s deeply ingrained in the human psyche to trust the intuition of dogs: as part of our family pack, they warn us of threats. You’d be hard-pressed to find a story in which our canine companions happily lick the hands of attacking aliens; and so, because we trust the wordless sense of dogs, we know the enemy are Bad.

In the end, we justify our species by providing a pro for each con: love for anger, passion for rage, creativity for cruelty. But that, to paraphrase Terry Pratchett, is the fundamental essence of humanity: where the falling angel meets the rising ape, we are what’ve always been. 

Half angel. Half devil. All human.