Name-Place-Animal-Thing: Of Human Nature and Institutional Fragility

This week’s column is an attempt to find uplifting life advice on how to constructively contribute to the world amidst personal and political confusion.

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“Radical personal insecurity”

Ken Sharpe. Credit: Swarthmore College

Ken Sharpe. Credit: Swarthmore College

I learnt something important about journalism this week. It requires the most of you when you’d rather not engage. When you want to retreat from the cacophony of opinions and attempt to patch over the deepening fissures in your world view is exactly when you’ll spend the majority of your waking hours navigating the ruckus. So today’s column will not address the news, instead it will seek to look inwards as I make sense of where to go from here.

This week I turned to commencement speeches for solace. Delivered at American college graduations by accomplished people, the genre is full of mostly uplifting life advice – something I felt I sorely needed. This particular one, by Ken Sharpe, a professor at Swarthmore College (my alma mater) is about bringing out the good in other people and our understanding of human nature.

Sharpe’s premise is a simple one: Philosophers like Hobbes might have believed that man’s natural state is a “state of war” but others, notably Aristotle, thought that human nature “contained both possibilities” – the capacity to be entirely self-interested but also equally empathetic.  

In Sharpe’s words, Hobbes’ version of human nature is: “The desire for gain and glory and power, coupled with radical personal insecurity – psychological as well as physical – create distrust, uncertainty, and a logic to be the first to attack.  Violent competition – not cooperation – is our human nature.”

“Radical personal insecurity” seems like an apt way to sum up much of the world right now. A large section of the electorate, first in the UK, then in the US voted out of fear of losing their social and economic privileges. And now millions of Americans – minority communities of race, nationality, sexual orientation, women in general – find themselves suffering from the same fear under a president that definitely subscribes to Hobbes’ idea of human nature.

Thinking of it this way, it seems all too easy to predict the kind of oppressive political institutions Trump will create to deal with the liberal backlash that has already begun. Under him, there is no possibility to overcome these divisions, no scope for dialogue, no chance to ‘set our differences aside’ because how do you sit and discuss abstractions when you fear for your life? If that fear of loss, specifically the desire to avoid death, motivates everything you do and your social and political institutions encourage exactly that, the choice to do anything else becomes much harder, even undoable.

However, according to Aristotle, Rousseau, Tocqueville and John Stuart Mill, human nature has the capacity to be both good and bad. The more modern field of moral development backs this up with research. As Sharpe said in 2012 (and continues to teach even now): “We know that people can learn to love their friends and families; that people have the potential for loyalty and commitment to their communities; they have the potential to be fair and just; to be caring; to be patient; to be good listeners; to be empathetic. These capabilities are just as innate as greed, selfishness, the lust for gain, the desire to dominate.”

To this end, such philosophers designed institutions based on public deliberation and openness. “They believed that if people were forced to publicly defend their ideas, and do so in terms of universal ideas and principles, this very process would create the possibility for people to bring out their better selves.”

The operative term here is “universal ideas and principles” because deliberation only works when you hold certain things constant. Some things are undebatable – equal rights regardless of skin colour, nationality, gender, sexual orientation – is a pretty straightforward one. But as we’re finding out, that doesn’t hold true anymore. And as Sharpe somberly added, “The possibility: it doesn’t always work.” If we can’t agree on what the social and political foundations of our society are in the first place, then that crushing sense of insecurity that Hobbes imagined is practically impossible to overcome.

Incidentally, Hobbes wrote during a civil war in England. So it’s safe to say that his view on human nature was more than a little influenced by the evidence of intractable opinions leading to bloody conflict all around him.

This is what Sharpe started with, so this is what I’ll leave you with. When we talk about doing good in the world, it is usually in reference to the world at large or doing good for others less fortunate than us. But we seldom talk about “helping to bring out the good” in others, such as friends, family members and members of the communities we belong to. In the college context, that could mean talking things out with a friend if they’re going through a bad time instead of finishing an assignment due the next morning. And if you’re currently in India, it could mean being patient with the bank teller who has been working 12-hour shifts trying to help people protect their hard-earned money.

This isn’t about politics, it’s about trying to lead a fulfilling life and working to improve the world even when the system outside doesn’t support your ideals. It’s about finding, creating and  supporting communities where you know that your companions share your understanding of the world and what it ought to be and then building out from there with an established set of universal principles.

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“Capital-T True”

David Foster Wallace. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

David Foster Wallace. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

In a similar vein, though in an entirely different style, David Foster Wallace 2005 speech at Kenyon College said pretty much that. When it comes to interacting with the world, “The only thing that’s capital-T True is that you get to decide how you’re going to try to see it. You get to consciously decide what has meaning and what doesn’t.”

Wallace’s point is that we’re all naturally inclined to be self-centred. After all, we experience our own thoughts and feelings with a vividity that we simply can’t access for other people’s experiences. Leaving us to subconsciously, or even not, think of ourselves as the centre of the world.
Wallace used the example of going grocery shopping at the end of a long day at a challenging job; and dealing with the infuriating existence of other people, those who block the aisles, cashiers who fumble, drivers who jam the roads with large cars. He’s right, as I’m finding out, there’s a lot of banality that’s easy to hate in adult life.

But here’s the thing, you can be mad at all these people, offended, even, that your tiring day full of stressors is getting even longer. But you can also choose to imagine pressing scenarios for these other people, put yourself in their shoes as it were. It’s effortful, sure, but longer run may leave you feeling better about the world you live in, less “radically insecure” if you humanise the concerns of those around you and remind yourself that it’s not always a competition to survive.

A more current example of this would be extending empathy to the guy that just cut you off in the god-awful ATM queue as you both try to live through the hell that is demonetisation. May he needs the cash urgently for a family emergency, making his thoughts and feelings more vivid than yours in that moment, placing it in some perspective in the larger scheme of things.  

We all want freedom and the power that comes with it: in the form of rights, money, influence, what have you. According to Wallace, that’s the default setting, to be selfish but it’s not the only possible setting, we can learn to exercise empathy and cultivate a different understanding of freedom.  

In his inimitable words, “The really important kind of freedom involves attention, and awareness, and discipline, and effort, and being able truly to care about other people and to sacrifice for them, over and over, in myriad petty little unsexy ways, every day. That is real freedom. The alternative is unconsciousness, the default-setting, the “rat race” – the constant gnawing sense of having had and lost some infinite thing.”

His message, in the end, is not different from Sharpe’s. While Sharpe starts out with a larger-scale political institution in mind (since that’s where political philosophers are professionally required to end up), Wallace too emphasises the need to overcome the angry, insecure moments in our personal lives and to embrace a different kind of community-based rather than individualistic freedom. Right now as the world swerves towards isolationism, there isn’t only a need for large-scale protests but also a need to focus on the smaller scale of daily interactions, or else how will we find meaning in what we do.

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“Innately fragile”

David Remnick. Credit: Youtube screenshot

David Remnick. Credit: Youtube screenshot

All this sounds good in theory and it’s easy to let it slip away. Like Wallace also acknowledged, some days you just won’t want to. But you’re not alone in this battle. There are institutions already in place that codify and promote the values that Sharpe talks about and the capital-t Truth Wallace discusses. For me, the New Yorker, is one of them.

I’m late to the podcast party, but early last week I discovered Longform, a show where the hosts interview writers and editors about their work and lives. Scrolling through the list of interviews on the metro, I settled on David Remnick, the editor of the New Yorker.

The entire interview, and the podcast in general, makes for wonderful listening. But Remnick’s brought me a sense of profound relief – the man whose editorial choices have shaped a large part of my worldview seems like a really nice,thoughtful and engaging man.

Something he said about being an editor seemed straight out of the empathy lessons preached by Sharpe and Wallace. Remnick talked about a recent situation when he sent a curt email to two editors working on a story that was taking too long. And then was reminded to be more considerate of the other side of things by one of those editors, who pointed out that Remnick’s comments had served little constructive purpose, only succeeding in making the recipients feel bad about themselves. We all mess up, we all make these choices. And being self-aware enough to go back and correct it if we can seems to be the only way onward.

As he put it, writing tends to be about yourself, but “editing is about getting the best out of Max, its about encouraging Jane…” and so on. It’s this perspective that shapes the institution.

The interview was recorded before the election results came out and here’s how Remnick outlined the core of the magazine and his role in relation to it:

“My job in this particular moment is to get the New Yorker from one era to the next with its soul intact. Without cheating it, with keeping it accurate and decent and rigorous and tough on power and itself.”
Its coverage after Trump’s win shows Remnick’s commitment to the institution. The magazine is already producing rigorous critiques of not just the president-elect but American society. These are opinions that may be harder and harder to come by if Trump cracks down on the freedom of the press but that would only make such institutions even more valuable.

For me, reading helps foster a sense of belonging, it reminds me of the existence of people and institutions out there that subscribe to the same worldview as me. But these are still fragile. As Remnick put it, “I think it’s important — not just for me, but for the readers — that this thing exists at the highest possible level in 2016, in 2017, and on. That there’s a continuity to it. I know, because I’m not entirely stupid, that these institutions, no matter how good they are, all institutions are innately fragile. Innately fragile.”

If institutions are so profoundly fragile, the philosophies that hold them up are more so. Making it all too clear that just because something is codified, whether in a print magazine or a constitution, doesn’t mean it is secure.

I realise that seeking out these pieces of advice from successful white men, a demographic that has comparatively little to lose in practically any scenario, has many caveats attached to it. And different groups with varying levels of societal and political privilege will exercise these ideas differently, but the idea that exercising empathy is a choice we can all make is a compelling one to me, personally and institutionally.

Want to suggest a piece that should be included in this column? Write to me at [email protected]
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