Can We Really Make the World a Better Place?
30 July 2018 at 7:15 am
Psychologist Adam Blanch questions whether we could, or should, change the world.
It seems we are meant to want to change the world. No longer just the purview of beauty queens giving vapid speeches about saving the children, now we are awash in exhortations to live a “life of purpose” and to “make a difference”. Not that there’s necessarily anything wrong with that, but before we do this, I think we need to ask a few important questions.
1. Should we change the world?
Let’s start with a little context. In my long study of the human condition I have come to believe that there are two world histories. The first, which rarely gets talked about, is the history of love. It gets largely ignored because it is largely unremarkable and offers up little drama. This is the history of ordinary people who spend their lives being kind, decent and caring to those around them. They tolerate disagreement, respect each other’s rights, forgive each other’s trespasses, ask forgiveness for their own, admit to their own flaws and generally try to avoid conflict if possible. They aren’t trying to change the world, they are just trying to make their world the best it can be. Ordinary lives of ordinary greatness.
The second history is the history of hate. This is the one we write books and make TV shows about. The apparently endless cycle of human conflict. Now, when I say hate I’m not just talking about genocidal maniacs with silly laughs, but everyday, every person hatred.
“Woah. Hang on a minute. Not me. I’m not a hater”. I hear people say.
Well actually, you are. We all are. It’s hardwired into our brain, has been for millions of years. What is often misunderstood is that hate isn’t an ethos or an attitude, it’s a feeling, albeit sometimes a very subtle one. Hate is the most used emotive word in the English language, because it’s the most common feeling we have. What we often fail to understand is that like all human emotions, hate is on a spectrum.
“I hate this weather, I hate my job, don’t you hate it when the train is late,” and so on. Most of us say it several times a day, without even noticing. The function of this feeling is discernment. It’s biological underpinning is disgust, our natural aversion response to things that are rotten, corrupt and poisonous, like faeces and rotten food. It exists to alert us to the presence of things that we don’t want, to people whose behaviour we don’t want to be around, to ideologies we find offensive. It exists to protect us against things that would harm us.
At the lower end of the hate spectrum is distaste and dislike leading to avoidance behaviours. From there it escalates to contempt and derision, leading to exclusion and disparagement behaviours. Finally, it goes all the way up to a sense of righteous entitlement to have power over others, leading to tyranny, oppression and war.
I’ve come to believe that the history of hate is the story of a single conflict, endlessly repeated with an ever-changing cast of characters. Every few decades the dominant teams change – women vs men, rich vs poor, religion vs religion, race vs race, nation vs nation, capitalism vs socialism, ideology vs ideology, and so on. But the conflict is always the same – a war between freedom and control.
Now most people would read this and side with freedom. In fact, virtually everyone involved in this conflict believes that they are fighting for freedom, specifically for their own freedom and the freedom of whichever group they are aligned with. What few involved in these conflicts will admit to is that they are trying to attain their freedom by denying it to others.
Tyrants don’t believe they are tyrants, they believe their opposition are terrorists. Freedom fighters don’t believe they are terrorists, they believe their opposition are tyrants. If history teaches us anything it is that today’s tyrant is yesterday’s freedom fighter, and that today’s emancipatory revolution will become tomorrow’s fascist regime.
Every genocidal maniac in history, from Genghis Khan to Adolf Hitler, believed that they were bringing enlightenment to the world. Every coloniser, every warlord, every revolutionary, every military coup – all driven by the belief that the people they are committing violence against are corrupt and evil and need to be controlled or destroyed. This is the fundamental nature of upper spectrum hatred – it seeks control and power, and having attained it, it uses it.
No one believes that they are on the wrong side of history in this perpetual conflict, but everyone is. Their philosophy may be noble, their desires worthy and their intentions good – but their behaviours are essentially violent. Whether that is the violence of social vilification and exclusion, or economic oppression, or prejudice and discrimination, or dominance and assault.
The truth is we can’t “fight” for goodness, because fighting is the opposite of what goodness is. If we fight for our rights, we cannot avoid violating the rights of others. Those on the bottom end up on top, and those on top become the oppressors, and then those who are oppressed fight their way back to the top, endlessly. That’s why they call it revolution, the same violence going around and around.
Should we try to make the world a better place, when almost every attempt to do so just keeps the revolutionary wheel turning? I’ll answer it with another question.
2. Are we entitled to make the world a better place?
Here it gets tricky. We certainly can change the world, it happens all the time, mostly by accident and sometimes by design.
But where is the line between making the world a better place and imposing a righteous tyranny on others? For me the answer lies in entitlement. Too little of it and we are a pushover, too much and we are a bully.
I have come to believe the point of demarcation can be defined by a single word – “should”.
When we decide that the world “should be” the way we want it to be, we are going to be constantly angry that it isn’t. Our anger motivates us to make it that way, and anyone who won’t cooperate or who disagrees with us becomes our enemy trying to prevent things being as they “should be”. Once someone is our enemy, we no longer have empathy for them and we no longer grant them the same rights that we allocate to ourselves. Once we have stripped them of their rights, their moral validity, their humanity – we are psychologically free to impose, punish, oppress and even kill them.
Of course, they see us the same way. They have their own “should” going on, and we are the enemy that is trying to stop things being the way they “should be”. That’s why people on both sides of any conflict are essentially hypocritical – they are doing the exact same behaviours they are condemning the other side for doing. Take a look at any “hot topic” on social media and we will see two groups hating on each other and accusing the other one of hating on them.
3. How can we make the world a better place?
Well, not by violence, no matter how righteous we think our violence is or how despicable we judge our enemy to be.
Positive change starts with a “could”. It could be different, it could be better, it could be fairer. The power of could is that it allows room for disagreement, but also allows room for discussion and negotiation and learning, for everyone. “Could” invites others into the possibility of a better outcome for all. An outcome that “could” be to everyone’s benefit.
“Could” is not a tyrant the way “should” is. Could says “I want it to be different, I believe it can be different, I’m willing to work to make it different – but I’m not going to force you to agree with me, because that would be more of the same”.
Could is a word that respects the free will of others and ourselves. Most importantly, it doesn’t allow us to cross the line into tyranny. If I believe things could be better, and I accept that I need your agreement to make them that way, then I must figure out how what I want also serves your needs so we can work on it together.
So, can we make the world a better place? We could, if we wanted to, and we were willing to leave some room for the “could” of others. The world is a big place, with a lot of room for a lot of “could”.
About the author: Adam Blanch is a Melbourne-based psychologist, who supports clients around Australia. He provides support for individuals and group trainings for organisations through Good-Psychology, and a specific service for men’s health and wellbeing through Mentor Psychology. He is also a member of The Xfactor Collective community.
Do you have a question for Adam? Adam Blanch writes for Pro Bono News every fortnight. He will be answering all your people and culture questions. Send your questions to firstname.lastname@example.org
Please note the views expressed are the opinion of Adam Blanch and do not necessarily reflect the views of Pro Bono Australia, its staff or contributors.