Sunday, November 30, 2008

The Vagaries of Humanity

Just a reminder of the enormous possibilities of humans.

On the one hand we have heroes. The employees at the Taj Mahal Hotel who literally took bullets for the guests (here) and women who have lived through the worst I can imagine and work to help other women (here)

On the other hand there are the folks who are willing to stampede into a WalMart at 4am leading the death of a temporary employee (here and here). Then there's shootings at Toy 'R Us.

Humanity certainly is a many splendored thing.

We've got amazing art, architecture, music, sacrifice and then horrific crimes, genocide, apathy, poverty, greed, immense creativity regarding how to kill and harm others, consumption to end all consumption.

Of course, from my perspective, it's worth mentioning that, in many cases, the moments of human triumph and horror, the behavior is propelled by the group. One person doesn't make a stampede. The hotel staff had an ethos of helping.

An interesting discussion of the logic behind the panic of stampede (here) suggests that this idea of never having enough and what happens if we somehow find ourselves without the flat-screen tv is crucial to what's behind these moments of human horror. Is it feeling that we aren't part of the group and that we have to fend for ourselves or we'll be lost and without? That we have to eradicate the others because if we don't they'll take what we want (the worst I've ever been cursed at was when I accidentally "stole" someone's parking space -- we were coming from two different directions and I didn't see her).

What then is the thinking behind the moments of heroism? There is something to the fact that these heroes don't view themselves as heroic as doing that which needs to be done (a sentiment that was shared by many of those who helped during the Holocaust and in the genocide of Rwanda).

It's far easier to understand the moments of human panic and our creativity for hurting others than it is to understand the moments of sacrifice and what we, optimistically and self-flatteringly, call "humanity."

I am going to go out on a limb and say that the staff at the Taj Mahal Hotel, the women in Pakistan exemplify the Christmas spirit far better than the folks at WalMart and Toy R Us and that I could learn a good deal from them.


eric said...

"feeling that we aren't part of the group and that we have to fend for ourselves or we'll be lost and without?"

I think this could actually be considered the evolution of a survival mechanism (for example, if you're a cave man and there is only one dead animal laying on the ground, the person who gets it first gets something to eat/live on and the other people are out of luck).

But now what could have formerly been a survival mechanism has become, "I DESERVE this flat screen".

It's really just an example of narcissism, where other people don't exist to you/only exist to serve YOUR needs, and their needs (such as the Wal Mart employee's need to keep breathing) aren't important. This is what I think leads to the crowd mentality now, a bunch of narcissists all fighting/charging like rhinos for the same "great deal/flat screen/etc".

There are some times though when the crowd mentality can be positive. An example is slam dancing at a concert, most people look out to make sure no one gets slammed too hard and they pick people up if they fall down, and the crowd catches people when they stage dive so they don't face plant. This is sort of the medium range between the crowd mentality and the heroism you're talking about, I think.

As far as being a hero goes I have actually been in a situation last year where I had to help this girl who fainted after class, and I didn't really think about it, I just noticed no one else was doing anything so I just did what was supposed to be done. I have fainted before so I just did what was done to me, and the girl was fine. She came to almost immediately, I just helped her recover afterward, I guess you could say. I really didn't and don't think what I did was a big deal, I just knew what to do when no one else did, so I did it. I really didn't even think about it, I just acted. Most people had left class and the rest were just standing around looking like, "What do we do?", so I told someone else to help me lift the person onto some chairs and put their legs up parallel to the wall, and I watched the girl who'd fainted to make sure she was ok, and had a friend take her back to her room.

She would have been fine without my help, but I just have this impulse where if I see something is wrong, I have to fix it or else I feel bad for not doing anything.

Ernie said...

Well said, Jmc.

JMc said...

I think Eric that the explanation you've given is one that we believe and think is true but evidence suggests that this really isn't (a) what is evolutionarily advantageous or (b) what we've evolved to do. Co-operation is vastly more advantageous to continued living given humans relative inability as individuals to do much of anything and, in fact, those who co-operate actually tend to live longer (insofar as they make it to the next day). I think that thinking we're alone makes us panic whereas being part of a whole is less conducive to panic. Of course, this is not to say that being part of a whole is always conducive to moral behavior.