By David Brooks, New York Times, March 19, 2012
Any of us would be shocked if someone we knew and admired killed children. But these days it’s especially hard to think through these situations because of the worldview that prevails in our culture.
According to this view, most people are naturally good, because nature is good. The monstrosities of the world are caused by the few people (like Hitler or Idi Amin) who are fundamentally warped and evil.
This worldview gives us an easy conscience, because we don’t have to contemplate the evil in ourselves. But when somebody who seems mostly good does something completely awful, we’re rendered mute or confused.
But of course it happens all the time. That’s because even people who contain reservoirs of compassion and neighborliness also possess a latent potential to commit murder. ...
In centuries past most people would have been less shocked by the homicidal eruptions of formerly good men. That’s because people in those centuries grew up with a worldview that put sinfulness at the center of the human personality.
John Calvin believed that babies come out depraved (he was sort of right; the most violent stage of life is age 2). G. K. Chesterton wrote that the doctrine of original sin is the only part of Christian theology that can be proved.
This worldview held that people are a problem to themselves. The inner world is a battlefield between light and dark, and life is a struggle against the destructive forces inside. The worst thing you can do is, in a fit of pride, to imagine your insecurity comes from outside and to try to resolve it yourself. If you try to “fix” the other people who you think are responsible for your inner turmoil, you’ll end up trying to kill them, or maybe whole races of them.
This earlier worldview was both darker and brighter than the one prevailing today. It held, as C. S. Lewis put it, that there is no such thing as an ordinary person. Each person you sit next to on the bus is capable of extraordinary horrors and extraordinary heroism.
Because nature is good, then people are good vs sinfulness at the centre of human personality....
And we are still trying to accommodate our nature to the reality of events we see occurring every day around us. In Florida, a volunteer neighbourhood watchman (armed) allegedly shoots an unarmed teen with Skittles in his hand, after phoning in warnings to police that often went unheeded. An alleged AlQaeda suspect rides up to a Jewish school in Toulouse, France, and opens fires on a Jewish rabbi and his children, all the while apparently filming his horror. An American marine allegedly leaves his camp in Afghanistan and enters a village and the homes of its residents, and opens fire on women and children, killing 16 and then burning their bodies....all in the same week.
And our televisions are filled with the questions....and some of us merely reflect on our world view that 2% of the world's population are evil and commit such acts, leaving the rest of us free of guilt, conscience and grief, except for whatever compassion we might feel for the victims and their families.
How sad is such a view, eliminating the need for including oneself in the potential of committing such acts.
And then there is the Christian view, centred on "sin" at the core of the human personality...and an inner conflict between good and evil in every human and "each person you sit next to on the bus is capable of both extraordinary horrors and extraordinary heroism." While this view comes more naturally and easily to most people in the west. given our cultural debt to Christianity, what would it be like if humans were able to point to the "messiah" in each of us, more readily, more traditionally and more culturally.
Are we stuck between Calvin and Rousseau, believing as Calvin did that babies came out depraved or as Rousseau did that we are naturally good, and learn our evil as we grow?
Clearly, we have the potential for both good and evil. And yet, there is so much cultural fixation with our individual and collective evil as to suggest that we hunger for the feeding such stories provide. Conflict, and its motivations are the menu of most of our fiction, politics, sports, and even academic pursuits. Some of the conflict is evidently providing some good results, while much of it is generating both piles of broken and deceased bodies and broken and rusted equipment.
It seems impossible for us currently to dissuade the 2 percenters from their view, and it also seems unlikely to completely accept the more balanced view of two thousand years of christian doctrine.
Is there not some as yet uncovered perception of reality that frees us from this dichotomy, pointing us in the direction of our "noble angels" as a common, shared ambition and motivation, rather than to pit such minuscule differences between us as "power or control conflicts" generating much more heat than light, in a world needing light?
Are we so proud that only what our ancestors have told us is acceptable in the midst of such profound mystery? Are we so imbued with fitting it that we deny the potential for evil in 98% of all people or we include sin as the centrepiece of our theology and worldview, without fulling understanding how we contribute to its exponential growth every day by our thoughts, attitudes, actions and beliefs?
While we are living in a time of extended absence from "global war" (as in the great wars) we are nevertheless drowning in smaller, continuous and potentially more dangerous acts of crimes against humanity every day, and generating a full and growing industry in distributing the stories of those crimes, their perpetrators and their victims daily.
It is also interesting to note that our attention falls and remains much more with the perpetrators than with the victims of heinous acts against humanity almost as if we have an insatiable appetite for the horror.
And every day we generate and support more violence, and more hate and more revenge and reprisals and complain that "they" are doing it, not us, and continue to pour our cash into the box offices and the cable networks that feed us this stuff.
I am not confident that we have found a comprehensive, and commendable, and worthy worldview that does not debase human life, while at the same time also does not deny the potential for evil in each of us.