Sunday, June 15, 2008

Humans: Threat or Menace?

I think it was in ninth grade that my English class was not only assigned to read the novel Lord of the Flies by William Golding, but to watch the 1963 film based on the novel. I hated them both, passionately. In the years since then, I have occasionally remarked that it's the one book I would "unread" if I could, and one of only two or three films I would "unsee."

Then today I saw "Midnight," the newest episode of Doctor Who which just aired in the UK. I don't like to go on too much in this blog about the plots of episodes that have not yet aired in the U.S., but I must tell you that this particular story shook me. It was a psychological horror story about human beings at their worst, pretty much the opposite of the pro-humanity message usually put forth by Russell T Davies, the showrunner and author of this episode. While it's true that there are extenuating circumstances (including a particularly mysterious alien) that help to bring about the characters' paranoia and potentially murderous behavior, that doesn't make it any easier to watch or accept.

Yes, I know that people sometimes behave horribly in the real world, especially when stressed or frightened. On the trivial, relatively harmless end of the scale, I was ganged up on by a circle of kids on the school playground in fourth grade, and laughed at by the teacher who should have put a stop to such things. People have been killed for cutting someone off in traffic, or for money, or because people have convinced themselves and each other that another human being is one of Them, subhuman and evil.

If I need reminding of the failure of humans to behave humanely, I have only to listen to the news. The United States currently has a president who believes in denying habeas corpus and other protections to offshore prisoners for years on end, on the theory that they're "bad guys," and resists making any attempt to prove this assertion in civilian court. The Supreme Court finally made a stronger statement about this unconstitutional policy than in its previous decisions on the subject, and John McCain made some horrible, ridiculous statement about it being the worst decision in the history of the country. And in the same week, this paranoia about Them has led to erosion of similar principles in the U.K., and protections that go all the way back to the Magna Carta. Aside from being unethical, this Us and Them attitude backfires on the country that behaves this way, making Us seem ignorant and cruel and hypocritical.

That's all real stuff. I don't like it, but I accept that people behave that way. So why can't I handle seeing six fictional characters on a space bus, excluding the inciting alien, being mean to the Doctor? That's crazy, isn't it? Don't I know that people under duress can be horrifyingly evil? How else does one explain the Holocaust?

Okay, yeah. But.

By and large, I don't see people murdering each other over money, religion, political power, sexual orientation or any other motivating factor. Heck, I've never seen a murder at all, and hope I never shall. I think one reason I listen to NPR rather than watching tv news is so I won't see people suffering and dying in Iraq or Zimbabwe or Myanmar. And on NPR I also hear the voices of people trying to help, the Doctors Without Borders rep, the reporter who sneaks into a third world country at the risk of his own life, the Red Cross or UN spokesperson.

And I know that there are a lot of good people out there, and that people are mostly good most of the time. For every xenophobic jerk who thinks that a young Mexican man or woman sneaking across the border in search of a better life is a lawless, freeloading "invader," there's someone else who is trying to reduce the horrible death toll in the Arizona desert of "invaders" who didn't manage to survive the dangerous trek. I've seen many people behave with kindness and compassion - and that's what I prefer to see in people, not the awful flip side.

The question is, what can we do about human brutality, paranoia and mob behavior? Is it inherent? Can it be overcome? I'd like to believe that it can. What it would take, I think, is for people to be taught to reason and to understand, and to have compassion. Most of all, we need to know, finally know, that we're all human beings and there is no Them. If every person saw the value in every other person - the Muslim, the Jew, the undocumented alien, the opposition leader, the member of that other tribe or religion or nation or faction - it would be much harder to have wars and murders and other horrible things that we do to ourselves.

Unfortunately, I know of no way to accomplish this. All I can do in support of the cause, apparently, is rant in this blog.

Rant over, until next time.


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