Being Naive

The social structures we have operate, as far as I can make out, on the assumption that people are basically selfish and in it for what they can get, that money is the main motivator for most folks and that fear of chastisement will just about keep people in line. If people happen to be nice, it doesn’t take the system down, which is an added bonus. One of the reasons communism doesn’t work, is that the ideas Marx proposed (as best I understand it) depend on people being fair and mutually supportive, and it only takes one greedy manipulator to wreck the whole thing.

Suggest any system which involves trusting people or assuming that folks will be basically decent and honourable, and someone will call you naive. It’s not reality, it’s not human nature, that’s not how politics, nations and big business work.

I recall a Christian man (his name escapes me) talking about the enthusiasm with which American politicians refer to Christianity. He analysed the words of Jesus to see how this works for policy. If a man takes your shirt, give him your coat as well. Turn the other cheek. These are not traditional political values. The conclusion he came to is that this kind of gentle morality cannot, must not, be enforced as a top down system. Not only is it unworkable, but it kills the spirit of the thing. If we want to be communists, Christians, Druids, Buddhists or anything else of that ilk, it should be individual, not state choice. You can’t make people treat each other well, it doesn’t work.

But does that mean we shouldn’t aspire to live in a culture where people act not out of greed, but enlightened self interest? Wouldn’t it be better if everyone had an eye on the greater good, the need to protect shared resources (air, water) for the benefit of all? Wouldn’t it be better if we all felt that those around us were basically honourable folk and that the default would be to trust their word? Most of believe that our politicians lie to us, that the media misrepresents to suit its own agenda, that companies manipulate us, systems will screw us over, and that there are a lot of dangerous people out there just waiting to take what we have and stab us in the back.  We don’t, for the greater part, like or trust the social systems we have built, but to imagine it could be different is naive. Apparently.

I’m not sure who benefits from things the way they are. I suspect no one does. We feed each other’s fears, we cling to our stuff and gaze out mistrustfully. Through politics, the media and sometimes religion as well, we tell each other stories about how dangerous the world is, how awful people are, and how we must not trust each other. If someone asks you the time in the street, it means they’re going to mug you. If you leave your door unlocked, your possessions will be stolen. If you hug a frightened child you will be done for being a paedophile. If you clear the snow outside your house and someone slips on it, they will sue you for everything you own. We’ve all heard these, and more. That we tell such stories does not make them true.

My experience of people is that most are decent and compassionate folk, who try and do the right thing even when they are scared. I see a lot of kindness and goodwill when I’m busking. Being a volunteer, I see the generosity of other  volunteers. I see community in my area and people who look out for each other. But we still tell each other the fear-stories, and the media is full of them. Yes, there are people who take, who damage, mock, alarm and otherwise cause trouble. They are not the majority. Sometimes all it takes is a word, or a smile, to deflate them and change their direction. Some of them are just posturing, because they are afraid too. Some are just bored, or in need of attention. Things are not always as they first seem.

I’m naive, I guess. I think we, as a species can learn to treat each other, and the planet, a good deal better. I think we can develop systems that are more compassionate. I think we can be honourable, take pride in our honour and be able to trust in the honour of others. I don’t think we’re anything like close to this, but while we persist in saying ‘it is human nature to be greedy, competitive and obnoxious’ we deny ourselves the chance to be more. Being wilfully naive does not mean being wilfully stupid or downright suicidal though. Some people are greedy, competitive, destructive and obnoxious, but not everyone. Where possible, I will judge people based on what they actually do – not on what they say, or what fear inclines me to suspect they might do. It’s a choice we can make as individuals, and I invite you to consider it.