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Humankind: a hopeful history by Rutger Bregman

It feels, doesn’t it, like the worst of times. And that things are getting still worse. Here is another view:

The reality is exactly the opposite. Over the last several decades, extreme poverty, victims of war, child mortality, crime, famine, child labour, deaths in natural disasters and the number of plane crashes have all plummeted. We’re living in the richest, safest, healthiest era ever. (13)

Rutger Bregman, the Dutch author of Humankind, goes on to say ask why we don’t realise this.

It’s simple. Because the news is about the exceptional, and the more exceptional an event is – be it a terrorist attack, violent uprising, or natural disaster – the bigger its newsworthiness. (13)

And it’s because we are susceptible to negativity bias and increasingly to availability bias and come to assume that the exceptional we are being told about is common. And in his book, Rutger Bregman goes on to challenge the myth that humans are but a small step from anarchy and violence, and basically selfish animals.

Humankind: a hopeful history

The pessimistic view of humans is exemplified in William Golding’s Lord of the Flies. In that fiction, some schoolboys are marooned on a desert island, and after some weeks, when the survivors are rescued, violence has broken out, some boys have died and the survivors have developed a system of rules and beliefs based on humiliation and terror. 

And, you may be asking, if humans are kind and sociable as Rutger Bregman claims, how did Auschwitz ever take place, or the murder of so many women and children in Gaza in the last few months? And I am sure you can think of many other occasions when humans have behaved very badly.

This is a hopeful history, and Rutger Bregman traces back the success of the evolution of homo sapiens to the development of kind communities. He reports a very long history of communal hunter-gathering, but the harmony was threatened when humans began to settle on farms and to create towns. This brought competition for land, from such competitions so many harms in the world arise.

But in small and local communities, he argues, the basic urge to kindness and community spirit holds good. The further you are from conflict the less you care about other humans. He finds a real-life example of boys being marooned on an island and finds that they survived without the conflict of Golding’s imagination. 

The story of the real-life shipwreck of six boys who survived over a year in harmony on a Pacific island of Ata in the 1960s is not well known. Their rescuer, Captain Warner wrote,

‘the boys had set up a small commune with food garden, hollowed-out tree trunks to store rainwater, a gymnasium with curious weights, a badminton court, chicken pens and a permanent fire, all from handiwork, an old knife blade and much determination.’ [quoted on p32]

The idea that humans are brutish and need rules to control them, a Hobbesian outlook, underpins how many institutions work. Rutger Bregman considers how the world might look, if our social institutions were based on more cooperative principles, in particular, schools, prisons and our governance. He finds examples where innovations have taken place: a school in the Netherlands, the prison system in Norway, a democratic local government in Venezuela. And he reminds us about the Danish under German occupation in October 1943 and their response to the plan to arrest and deport all Jewish citizens. It was defeated by the actions of thousands of Danish citizens who ensured that Jewish citizens escaped, often by small boats to Sweden. Rather than pitched into chaos and panic, the London Blitz produced resilience, helpfulness and camaraderie, known as the Blitz Spirit. While this upbeat approach was not universal, the bombing did not reduce the British population to panic and chaos. (Sadly, the example of this reaction did not stop the Allies using the same tactic on German towns and cities at the end of the war. The German population was not cowed either. The exceptionalism of the British response proves to be another myth.)

Rutger Bregman is not providing a prescription for individual lives, partly because it is not disputed that towards our immediate neighbours humans are for the most part compassionate, caring and generous. Rather Rutger Bregman considers that social institutions based on trust, generosity and friendliness may be more successful and cheaper for society than our current models, especially for prisons and schools. 

But here are three warnings:

  1. The opposing theory that humans are prevented by a very thin veneer from being violent and selfish is like a hydra. ’Veneer theory is a zombie that just keeps coming back’ (19).
  2. To stand up for human goodness is to take a stand against the powers that be, and you will be seen as threatening, subversive, seditious and a communist (where such a theory has a bad name).
  3. To stand up for human goodness will also produce accusations of naivety, ridicule, lack of common sense. 

Advocating more positive views of humans and their behaviour is not, however, doomed to fail. It is the right time.

The reasons for hope, by contrast [to the doomsayers], are always provisional. Nothing has gone wrong – yet. You haven’t been cheated – yet. An idealist can be right her whole life and still be dismissed as naïve. This book is intended to change that. Because what seems unreasonable, unrealistic and impossible today can turn out to be inevitable tomorrow.
It’s time for a new realism. It’s time for a new view of humankind. (20)

Humankind: a hopeful history by Rutger Bregman, published in 2020 by Bloomsbury. Translated from the Dutch by Elizabeth Manton and Erica Moore. 467pp

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Politics on the Edge by Rory Stewart

It is distressing and sad that the world seems to be in such a poor state, and that Climate Change and possible disaster loom over us. I lament the wars that seem to drag on in Ukraine, Sudan and the Middle East. I am shocked by the corruption that appears to have put our government ‘in the pocket of fossil fuel companies’ [Al Gore]. And I am horrified by the damage done to our water systems, rivers, seas and the bills we pay to subsidise the dividends to water company shareholders; I am appalled by the physical state of schools and the quality of the education we provide for the children of our nation and around the world; I am in despair about the state of prisons and the conditions in which prisoners are obliged to live; and the official attitude to refugees appals me. And … and … How did it get to this? Since Covid I have been reading more non-fiction alongside my usual diet in an attempt to understand all this.

Politics on the Edge

I enjoy reading books that help me understand how we got here. I am interested, in particular, in why politics and politicians are not working towards answers at this time. What is the context that has created so many areas of dysfunction? What should we expect and hope from our political system and from our politicians? It does seem to me that the fallout from both Brexit and Covid-19 and earlier from the unresolved banking crisis of 2007-8 has meant that different rules, different norms new and lower standards have crept in. Once the banking crisis no longer threatened the viability of the western economic system, the bankers who drove the crisis, were not required to accept responsibility or to atone for their mistakes. Indeed, I am not aware that anyone, any person, any banking group paid any penalties for what happened. Crisis over, move on.

The referendum and the negotiations for a Brexit deal ushered in a new era of untruths, lies, misdirection and political skulduggery. The Conservative party was deliberately cleansed of those who proposed alternative solutions to the complexities of Brexit negotiations. Consequently, the Brexit-at-any-cost brigade could ignore dissent and the processes by which negotiations and legislation are improved: argument and discussion.

And Covid seems to have challenged most of the population and all our politicians. The Covid Enquiry is revealing that government, in particular decision-making and procurement, were out of control. It was far worse than we suspected.

Rory Stewart is an interesting man and his backstory is not typical of a man who went into parliament as a Conservative Party MP and into government for all that he attended Eton. He had experience of the army and the diplomatic service in Indonesia, the Balkans and Afghanistan. He also had experience of running charities in Afghanistan. Additionally he is a long-distance walker and learned more about Pakistan and Afghanistan through walking. He later did the same in his constituency in Cumbria as an MP. 

In short, his life suggests that he is a man who wishes to make a difference to people’s lives. His experience forms the background to this book, which is focused on his political career.

He takes us through his attempts to be selected to stand for a seat in parliament, competing with others who have often done long years of service as local councillors, or as SPADs (special advisors). He was selected eventually to fight the 2010 election in Penrith and the Border, a huge constituency, far away from Westminster. He attributed his selection to the clear-out of sitting members following the expenses scandal. Having won he entered parliament, only to discover that the power and influence of a Conservative backbencher is to serve as lobby fodder: to vote in the divisions, to attend committees, occasionally to make a speech in the chamber, to expect nothing much for the constituency who elected you. 

Those who made decisions about deploying MPs appear to have ignored his expertise, experience and enthusiasms that were rooted in his pre-parliamentary activities. This continued even when he was given posts within the government. He watched as ministers who knew Afghanistan from a few days’ visit made decision about the deployment of troops and the assistance.

The constituency work was hard, but despite the distance from the House of Commons, he made himself known to the people of Cumbria and tried to improve their lives in practical ways. 

He was appointed to the Ministry of the Environment under Liz Truss. His account of his first day at the job is hilarious and shocking. The Civil Servants were careful to the point of obstruction and his boss required news points but no grounded action. And so it went on. He had positions in International Development, the Foreign Office, in Prisons and Probation. Ministers are moved around with such frequency that it is hard for them achieve anything productive.

 

The gates of HMP Dartmoor

My admiration for his work as prison minister is great. There are no votes in prisons, literally, but he was shocked by the state of many of them and set about trying to help the governors and officers improve conditions and work towards their purpose of rehabilitation. 

And then Boris Johnson, for whom he reserves his most searing criticism, and his circle prevented Teresa May’s Brexit deal and there was a leadership election. Rory Stewart challenged Boris Johnson and made a creditable fist of it. But following his defeat, he left the party along with many others who in various ways challenged the new leadership. The Conservative Party in parliament lost a great deal of talent at that time.

As he relates this political journey, his disillusion becomes ours, the time serving, the lack of power, the need to temper ambition and intentions, the moving ministries to suit political purposes, and finally his ejection through challenging Boris Johnson. His characterisation of Boris as a liar, interested only in himself, is now familiar. As a result of reading this account I was depressed by the inability of the political system to used people of talent, to resist corruption, and failing to achieve much, including in local areas. It has continued under two further prime ministers. Such high hopes, so resolutely defeated.

I also learn a great deal by listening to the Podcast: The Rest is Politics with Rory Stewart and Alistair Campbell.

Politics on the Edge: a memoir from Within by Rory Stewart, published in 2023 by Penguin Random House. 454pp 

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Writing as therapy, despite Zadie Smith

… most writers groups moonlight as support groups for the kind of people who think that writing is therapeutic. Writing is the exact opposite of therapy. [Zadie Smith, from  interview on Random House site*].

Really!!? It’s a poor arguments that uses the phrase ‘the kind of people who …’. And that suggests underhandness by the choice of the word ‘moonlight’. I wonder if Zadie Smith has reconsidered this rather sneery comment. She is an excellent writer herself, of course, and one who knows about the craft and skill of writing as art. But she should know that for some people writing is therapeutic.

145 old handsLet us make a distinction between writing for publication (art) and writing as therapy and probably not for publication.

Therapeutic Writing

For people who are hurt, traumatised and perhaps depressed, writing is often part of their recovery. Therapeutic writing has a pioneer: James W Pennebaker. It has 30 years of established research and guide books, such as Gillie Bolton et al’s Writing Works. And it has many, many practitioners, who use writing as part of a therapeutic process, in groups and in individual support. We should not be surprised that writing is beneficial – both art and music therapy are well established.

In addition to individual therapeutic writing we can note that it has also been used to help people in groups.

For survivors of torture

At Freedom From Torture there is a writers’ group called Write to Life. The members are refugees and their mentors. The refugees have experienced violence and torture and writing is part of their healing process. FFT also has a bread-baking group, art therapy and a gardening group. Therapeutic activities are not limited to writing and talking. Some of the benefits come from the social aspects of the group’s activities.

239 The Land Hasani

For people with dementia

In Reading Writing and Dementia I described how people with dementia have benefited from writing therapies. You can listen to a podcast of an event held by English Pen at Free Word Centre in March 2014: Dementia and the Power of Words.

Gemma Seltzer’s article (in 69 Mslexia March/April/May 2016) describes co-writing with older people in a project funded through Age UK. In the project called ‘This is How I see You’, Gemma talked to many of the people in a day centre and returned with a poetry portrait of each of them. She comments that it raised issues about her right to write about someone else’s experience of dementia.

For prisoners

In prisons, reading and writing can make a huge difference to prisoners’ lives. Many prisoners have very limited literacy skills. There are many projects helping prisoners to learn to read and to read more. The Writers in Prison Network uses reading and writing workshops and mentors to achieve their aims. Their strap line is ‘helping you change for the better’. Here’s a link to a Day in the life of a writer in residence.

How does therapeutic writing work?

It is the process of writing that helps in the therapeutic process. Sometimes it the expression of feelings, too dangerous or painful to say out loud, but needing some articulation. Sometimes it is the act of choosing words, metaphors, analogies that opens up thinking and reactions in the writer. Metaphors and imagery are ways into understanding depression, for example. And the metaphors and images we use, unconsciously, to make sense of our lives, can be revealed and new ones tried out through writing.

Sometimes the act of choosing words, in writing clarifies a thought. A writer can then reflect and learn from their insights, rather than being locked in a maddening repetitive cycle of emotions. How do I know what I think until I write it down?

Creative Writing Class, Southtown USA by Leesa February 2009 via wikicommons.

Creative Writing Class, Southtown USA by Leesa February 2009 via wikicommons.

Sometimes the significance is in being heard – by a group, a therapist or a friend. And sometimes the responses of a group to a writer’s efforts has a therapeutic effect. Having a voice is to have agency and presence in the world.

Publishing therapeutic writing

The projects I’ve described are about the process of writing. This process does not necessarily produce art or even text for sharing. Sometimes writing that began with therapeutic intent emerges to have something to say to others and is worth publiccation.

Related

Not long ago, in January, I wrote a related post called Reading is good for you. Today’s post was conceived as a companion piece, but quickly turned into a post about therapeutic writing.

* I tried to check the source of Zadie Smith’s quotation, but although it is repeated many times on the internet I couldn’t find it.

Over to you

Where do you stand on this issue? Do you have experience of therapeutic writing?

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