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BETTER ANGELS



By Natalie Maroun

Managing Director



"Few ideas have as much power to shape the world as our view of other people. Because ultimately, you get what you expect."
- Rutger Bregman

Wednesday, 29 May will be a watershed moment for our country.


This will be, without doubt, the most important election of our lifetime. More important even than 1994. If you have never voted. If you are feeling despondent or unsure. If you are thinking about staying away to cast a protest vote. Please. Reconsider.


Your vote, and your voice, matters more than ever before, because the stakes couldn't be higher.


The future of our country quite literally depends on it.


Understand the magnitude of this moment. And the extreme responsibility that rests with each and every one of us, as we grapple with how to exercise this fundamental and critical constitutional right.


And when you step into the voting booth, know this: Contrary to what the headlines and social media trends so often tell us, we are not predisposed to conflict or division. In fact, we are hardwired for kindness and compassion. And we want to contribute to a greater good, one that transcends our own narrow self-interests.


As a country, and as 61 million individual heartbeats, we ultimately want the same thing: To be safe. To be happy. To prosper. We want this for ourselves, and, whatever our political differences, we overwhelmingly want this for others.


Because we all yearn for connection, and community, and to belong.



We always have. Even on our darkest days.


INTO THE FIRE

Multiple global conflicts, and the untold human suffering we are witnessing at the moment, taint and distort our true nature. A more nuanced reading of history shows: We are better than we know.


Consider the Second World War, one of the bloodiest conflicts in human history, even by modern standards. By May 1945, after nearly six years of brutal, often hand-to-hand combat, more than 80 million people had been killed. Over 50 million were civilians.


Amid this close-contact carnage, however, were incredible acts of compassion and humanity. Like the stoic, compassionate resilience of the British people during the Nazi bombing of London. For eight terrifying months, the German Luftwaffe rained down over 20,000 tonnes of explosives on the capital.

The Blitzkrieg – or ‘lightning war’ – had one singular objective: To break the spirit of the British people, and in doing so, cower the United Kingdom into submission.
It achieved precisely the opposite.

Far from breaking their spirit, shared hardships and the horror of nightly raids forged an incredible sense of togetherness and camaraderie, which would become emblematic of the British wartime experience. In the face of widespread destruction, Londoners showed an unwavering determination to not only carry on with their lives, but to help others rise – often quite literally – from the rubble.


Teenage volunteers fought the city’s omnipresent fires. War veterans no longer fit for active duty transported the injured in makeshift ambulances. Women donned hard hats and picked up tools to repair and strengthen damaged buildings. Children as young as 12 became runners, darting through the city to relay messages when telephone lines failed.


London citizens after Nazi bombing during World War II


Instead of descending into the atavistic, survival-of-the-fittest stereotypes fictionalised by dystopian novels like Lord of the Flies, the people of London rallied – for, and around, each other.


And the exact same thing happened 1000km away, in the German city of Dresden.

Like London, Dresden suffered heavy bombings that razed much of the city to the ground, inflicting incalculable suffering and killing at least 30 000 civilians.

And like the people of London, Dresden citizens rallied in solidarity with those around them. As their city burned, ordinary citizens braved extremely dangerous conditions day after day to rescue those trapped under the rubble, and to extinguish hundreds of fires raging throughout the city.


Rebuilding Dresden after Nazi bombing during World War II


In areas spared the worst of the attacks, families took in displaced strangers, even amid acute food shortages. When the bombings subsided, the citizens of Dresden came out in their thousands to participate in impromptu clean-up operations, salvaging whatever materials could be reused for the reconstruction of hospitals, churches and shelters.


On their darkest day, the instinct of the Dresden people was not survival of the fittest. It was survival of the collective. The people of Dresden, like the people of London, chose self-sacrifice over self-interest.


HARDWIRED FOR KINDNESS

"It’s a radical idea, but most people, deep down, are pretty decent."
- Rutger Bregman

 

In his excellent book Humankind: A Hopeful History, Dutch historian Rutger Bregman argues that, contrary to what we’ve come to believe, history tells a different story about who we really are.

We tilt towards greatness, no matter how grim the circumstances.

It’s a history we’ve seen repeated over and over again, all around the world. We saw on September 11, 2001, when a handful of civilians brought down a hijacked plane to prevent mass casualties, and ordinary office workers ran back into burning buildings to rescue their co-workers.


We saw it in 2004, when thousands of people formed human chains to pull survivors from raging waters after the devastating Indian Ocean tsunami.


In 2011, when elderly volunteers in Japan, known as the "Skilled Veterans Corps," offered to expose themselves to high radiation to stabilise the Fukushima nuclear plant to protect younger people from the long-term effects of exposure.


The Skilled Veterans Corps, Fukushima


And in 2018, when a retired Thai Navy SEAL gave his life in the flooded Tham Luang Cave, diving through perilous waters to deliver oxygen to 12 trapped schoolboys and their coach, ensuring their survival until a rescue could be orchestrated.


THE REAL LORD OF THE FLIES

In one of the most compelling anecdotes in the book, Bregman recounts a real-life version of the novel Lord of the Flies, in which a group of Tongan boys were stranded on the remote island of ‘Ata for a period of 15 months.


Unlike the bleak outcomes of the fictional account, the boys worked together, established rules, and supported each other, ultimately surviving in good health and spirits until they were rescued.


He also revisited the Stanford Prison Experiment, infamous for showing how easily ordinary people can engage in cruel and abusive behaviours under certain conditions. Bregman points out critical flaws in the design and conduct of the experiment, including the influence of the experimenter, who explicitly encouraged the 'guards' to be authoritarian. This significantly skewed the results, and further popularised the false narrative of human beings as innately cruel.


Stanford Prison Experiment


On the contrary. Our true nature, he concludes, is overwhelmingly altruistic and morally sound. The vast majority of people are decent and compassionate. We treasure our connectedness and shared humanity, despite individual differences. We naturally and routinely go to extraordinary lengths to help others.


Because our default is not self-preservation. It is cooperation.


WHO WE REALLY ARE

"When we hole up in our own trenches, we lose sight of reality. We’re lured into thinking that a small, hate-mongering minority reflects all humankind. It definitively does not."
- Rutger Bregman

Bregman’s inspiring view of human nature can be hard to reconcile with what so often feels like an avalanche of strife, conflict and violence. On any given day, our better angels feel in short supply. And Bregman’s optimistic view of our innate bias for cooperation is deeply at odds with our current reality.

As a country, we have proven to be spectacularly bad at cooperating for the greater good.

The headlines bleed the evidence:

Our politics are antagonistic, at best, anarchistic at worst.

We’ve embedded social, ethnic and economic factionalism that divide rather than unite us.

We’ve squandered our resources and our infrastructure.

And we elect – and keep re-electing – narcissistic, power-hungry leaders who no longer even pretend to operate in the national interest.



But this is not who we are as South Africans. And on May 29, we will have another opportunity to live into our true nature.


Because what we have allowed to happen, is not who we are.

 

We are hardwired for compassion and cooperation.
We yearn for connection and community.
To transcend self-interest.
And to contribute to the greater good.

Because our better angels tilt towards greatness.

 

Even on our darkest days.


© The Performance Agency

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