Must self-interest and distrust make us inhumane?

Am I overly sensitive to people’s selfishness? Or is a greedy attitude overtaking Americans this year because we feel our lifestyles (or our aspirations) have been threatened for far too long by a poor economy? Can pushing aside the concerns of entire groups of people because of their ethnicity or perceived status actually help us feel powerful and righteous?

Part of our animal nature makes us pigs at a trough—each squealing and rooting to get to the slop, heedless of the weaker ones, and oblivious to our ugliness.

However, as human beings, we are not completely ruthless in our determination to thrive. It’s wrong to believe that our natural state of mind is to lack empathy for people of other cultures, races, and economic strata. Our minds and hearts are much more complicated than that.

True, it’s not as easy for us to feel empathy for people who are different, because our overriding initial response to them is fear. From an evolutionary perspective, our fear is useful. It makes sense. Yet, if we have even a little time to get to know someone who is different, the fear often dissipates, and then we can feel empathy naturally.

What we cannot do, unless we’re psychopaths, is handle the cognitive dissonance that results from harming another human being when we really don’t need to—in an immediate, literal sense. If we’re put into the situation of doing harm to someone, we quickly rationalize in order to eliminate the cognitive dissonance and feel good about ourselves. In other words, we make up a story the way a toddler would. To onlookers whom we haven’t recruited to our self-righteous worldview, our story is about as convincing as a child’s.

Balancing our opposing natures is not easy. It’s a challenging, often frustrating, lifelong endeavor to know ourselves. The importance of making the attempt is why one of the criteria I use for selecting new clients is a writer’s skill at presenting ideas that bring people together and help them understand each other.

If you share an interest in recognizing our common humanity, I invite you to attend the first U.S. screening of Riccardo Valsecchi‘s documentary film Schwarzkopf BRD at the Bat Haus in Bushwick, Brooklyn, on February 10, 2015, at 8:00 p.m. Tickets are free. Watch for it on the Bat Haus Film Club‘s Facebook page. There’s also an Indiegogo campaign underway.

More on this topic

I can’t link you directly to Philosophy Talk Podcast 361: Humanity Violated (featuring David Livingstone Smith), which you can buy from iTunes. Smith makes the argument that dehumanization soothes people’s guilty consciences.

In the podcast, host Ken Taylor asks Smith about the process of dehumanization:

If I could just get….an evildoer to see, “Oh, that’s a human being you’re doing that to! That’s a fellow human being you’re doing that to”—and they could see it—do you think all this would stop? I’m not convinced that if I could just see that the “other” was a human being like me it would make all this stuff go away. What do you think?

Smith answers:

It would not make all this stuff go away. People would find other ways to solve the problem—the problem being overcoming inhibitions against harming others.

This, I believe, is one of the many tendencies we need to understand about ourselves.

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