"Nature, Mr. Allnut..."
Inevitably professors teach in ways that reflect their own cognitive biases. I wrote the other day about getting my students to make more inter textual and cross-disciplinary connections ("Only Connect..."). I want them to leap between ideas, forge connections and work out the conceptual linkages because that's the way my own brain works much of the time. One idea reminds me of another, and then that one reminds me of still another. I get bored easily and am a bit of an intellectual flibbertigibbet.
Every semester, for example, the ideas in one class either start talking to the ideas in another class or there arises a strange kind of synchronicity. The latter seems to be happening this week. In the first-year honors seminar, for example, we're reading the fourth voyage of Gulliver's Travels, a savagely dark satire of human nature. By this point in the novel, Gulliver has convinced himself that human beings are violent, greedy and destructive creatures possessing some small pittance of reason that they employ only to exacerbate their natural depravity.
Coincidentally in the senior capstone we are discussing David Livingstone-Smith's Less than Human: Why We Demean, Enslave, and Exterminate Others. Smith takes a disquieting look at the cultural, psychological and perhaps even biological factors that make us prone to denying "humanness" to other human beings. He makes it clear that genocide and slavery are not aberrations in history. Indeed, the evidence from history suggests quite the opposite. Dehumanizing, enslaving and exterminating others is pretty much how we humans roll. Under the right manipulated conditions, ordinary people will do some disturbing things. It's a mistake to think genocidal killers are monster or madmen. They aren't. They're us.
So my thoughts have been jumping quite naturally between Smith's book and Swift's novel. In the first-year honors seminar I've been working hard to get the students to resist Swift's pessimism, which we can all too easily buy into. Swift is a strong author and it isn't very hard to see that--as Edward Gibbon once said--"History is little more than a register of the crimes, follies and misfortunes of mankind."
In the senior capstone, on the other hand, I've been challenging the students to think about ways we might counter program ourselves against eliminationist rhetoric, a default obedience to authority and our seemingly innate tendency toward "us vs. them" tribalism. Is it really in our nature to dehumanize others? Or is it environmentally-cued?
I point out that not everyone in Stanley Milgram's famous social psychology experiment followed authority to the point of hypothetically killing someone. About 35 percent refused. Also, people don't collectively begin to murder their neighbors. A lot of deliberate manipulation by unjust authority figures, mass media reinforcement and social conditioning have to happen, all moves that can be fought.
Many of my students take the position (in both courses) that there isn't much we can do. They say people are just naturally this way. It's an argument that always makes me think of a line from John Huston's 1951 film The African Queen. Humphrey Bogart plays a crusty riverboat pilot lost in the wilds of Africa with a stiff-upper-lipped Katherine Hepburn. At one point Bogart complains that it's only human nature to let one's baser side out now and then.
Hepburn, in her inimitable way, responds, "Nature, Mr. Allnut, is what we are put in this world to rise above."