In the early days of our human race we had hunters and gatherers. Now it would appear that quality has, for the time being, degenerated into a constant search for what is bad and negative and destructive in our fellow man (while attempting to avoid looking at the same qualities in ourselves).
The findings are presented to us in the morning news.
We spent last Columbus day reading… not accounts of the reaching out of forces to pull the world closer together in times of exploration. We heard about the ugly and destructive way Columbus bungled his dealings with the indigenous peoples he confronted. The conclusion presented after a fling into horror was that we drop Columbus as an historical hero and honor the indigenous people instead.
Of course the built-in flaw in this plan is that the same approach, at some point can also be aimed at the indigenous people. Tales of horror, torture, cannibalism (as in what happened to Verrazzano) and other traits of our human nature will be found here as well. Eventually we become like the drunk man who falls on the Limburger cheese and after roaming around a bit, decides “the whole world stinks.” (And we all know where the smell was coming from.)
We have given similar treatment to the memories of many of our founding fathers who took from the best in their natures and fought for our liberty and to create a protective constitution for us. A constitution that is in place for everyone here in our country. Not just some.
So what point am I making? That the findings of Dr Zimbardo and Dr Milgrim are quite correct. Given permission, and often light permission we will all, men and women alike, perpetrate atrocities. If we’re going to look at ourselves let’s really do it folks.
When the men or women who thought they were giving electric shocks to people in another room and could hear their screams of pain were told to keep turning the power up a further notch, they did it without question to the point where death would have occurred. When the Jailers in the Prison experiment realized they had been granted the mock power to exercise cruelty over the prison inmates, they did it gladly and with real sadism. The prisoners suffered terribly, and were willing to suffer as their part in the experiment. These were not people gathered from an insane asylum or such; these were well-educated students demonstrating their human nature. And from this we learn.
We hear tales of wealthy motion picture magnates who abused their power and took advantage of those who worked for them. They were guilty of ugly and sociopathic behavior. Ugly and self-serving to the max. Famous actors and politicians who have been guilty of the same and similar offenses all point fingers and say “tisk, tisk.” We take turns siding with one unsavory politician or another not looking at the fact that a good portion of the brew is sour.
We tear down statues of those who once perpetuated slavery, feeling justified because of our cause in acting like vandals and thieves, until we also tear down a peace statue, but that’s OK because our cause was good. Then we go home stopping by a giant chain store that offers low prices because many of its suppliers live in other countries and work for pennies an hour, some living in boxes and with nothing remotely like adequate food to eat. But that’s OK because we don’t see them. Out of sight out of mind. My, what bargains we got! We sit and eat our overly large supper with a feeling of total complacency. We made a statement about slavery today.
So what am I suggesting? That we realize that where there are wrongs we can certainly work to change them. But throwing out the good of history because there was also bad is for us a kind of suicide. We recognise ourselves in the badness. We should. When we shrink from those lessons it is ourselves we shrink from. That recognition leads us often to throw away our mirror and try to point a finger at anyone but us.
We shrink from our religion also. It is a little too close for comfort for us because it illuminates our proclivity for evil. But the spiritual lessons are good ones. “He who is without sin among you, let him cast the first stone,” How much better could that have been said by a complacent scientist or tech wizard? We learned along the way but the lazy part of our natures wants to spurn the knowledge. Easier to call the higher spiritual values of the centuries “Myth” and “make believe,” certainly much easier than actually trying to follow strong, moral precepts and lessons. We try to transfer our allegiance from a spiritual outlook to a scientific one, only to find out that our human flaws follow us the whole journey and are still fully intact. And we are much less comforted by the thought that we have only ourselves to turn to, knowing when we are honest just how imperfect we actually are. Looking to a higher and perfectible self was one of the good lessons we learned. It gave us saints and heroes to sustain us. Of course we are loath to see it go. And the good in us will not let it. That is the other side of the coin.
One story I saw in the news was I think quite hopeful. One person after a very graphic account of Columbus’ wrongdoings pointed out the rightness of another early companion of Columbus, Las Cassas. How he took up for the poorly treated Natives of America and urged against slavery (the writer did his homework properly in also pointing out LasCassas had originally sponsored slavery but saw the error of his ways and changed). This lesson gives us the full picture to work with. How we can raise ourselves beyond our lower human nature to heroic activity. How we can make that choice and have it real. I’m glad to have found that story. It’s the nugget we need. We should keep Columbus, because bad and good, he’s part of us. We keep LasCassas too because, thankfully, he’s also part of us. Out of our uncensored history we find the true strength to look at ourselves first when heading out to judge the world and our human past.