Tendências emergentes, factos e dados reveladores da evolução dos media, cultura, economia e sociedade. Impacto social, económico e cultural da tecnologia.


quarta-feira, abril 19, 2006

Confronting the new misanthropy

All of today's various doomsday scenarios - whether it's the millennium bug, oil depletion, global warming, avian flu or the destruction of biodiversity - emphasise human culpability. Their premise is that the human species is essentially destructive and morally bankrupt. 'With breathtaking insolence', warns Lovelock in his book The Revenge of Gaia, 'humans have taken the stores of carbon that Gaia buried to keep oxygen at its proper level and burnt them'.
The rising popularity of a term like 'ecological footprint' shows how much resonance the association of normal human activity with destruction has today. This term, which implies that having an impact on the environment is necessarily a bad thing, is rarely criticised for its misanthropic assumptions. On TV and in film and popular culture, the development of civilisation, and particularly the advance of science and technology, is depicted as the source of environmental destruction and social disintegration. The idea that civilisation is responsible for the perils we face today depicts the human species as the problem, rather than as the maker of solutions. And the most striking manifestation of this anti-humanism is the belief that, if the Earth is to survive, there will have to be a significant reduction in the number of human beings.
Our declining faith in humanity might be most clearly expressed in apocalyptic thinking about the environment, but it pervades everyday life. So it is frequently assumed that people have emotional deficits. We are described as having addictive personalities, or we're seen as 'damaged' or 'scarred for life'. Human relations come with health warnings. We don't simply pollute the environment, it seems, but also one another. We talk about 'toxic relationships', 'toxic parents' and 'toxic families'. Indeed, scare stories about the risks of human relationships are often very similar to discussions about the environment.
Back in the Fifties sociological research found that there was a clear correlation between how society viewed people and the prevailing political attitudes. One study of individuals' views of human nature suggested they were shaped by political attitudes in general (14). So attitudes towards the democratic ideal of free speech are directly influenced by whether we believe people are capable of making an intelligent choice between competing views. 'The advocate of freedom of speech is likely to believe that most men are not easily deceived, are not swayed by uncontrolled emotions, and are capable of sound judgement', noted this 1950s study. This implied a high level of faith in humanity. In contrast, 'the individual with low faith in people tends to believe in suppression of weak, deviant, or dangerous groups'. The study concluded that the 'individual's view of human nature would appear to have significant implications for the doctrine of political liberty' (15). People who viewed human nature positively tended to be more tolerant towards free speech and social experimentation. People who saw humans as being driven by narrow self-interest, greed and other destructive passions were inclined to support measures that curbed freedom.
Today, the growth of censorship, the criminalisation of thought by the enactment of so-called hate crimes legislation and speech codes, and the widespread frowning upon causing offence to individuals and groups is underpinned by the idea that people cannot be trusted to make up their minds about controversial subjects. Today's censorious imperative is driven by a paternalistic and negative view of human nature, and by a lack of faith in people's capacity to discriminate between right and wrong.

Not since the Dark Ages has there been so much concern about the malevolent passions that afflict humanity. Panics about Satanic abuse have erupted on both sides of the Atlantic, and throughout the Western world there is a morbid expectation that virtually every home contains a potential abuser. Predatory monsters are seen everywhere. People regard others with a suspicion that would have been rare just a few decades ago. Parents wonder whether the daycare centre workers looking after their children can be trusted; in schools, children with bruises arouse teachers' suspicion about their parents' behaviour, while parents wonder whether any physical contact between their child and his or her teacher is permissible. In Britain, any adult employee who might come into contact with children has to undergo a police check, and sections of the child protection industry believe this police vetting should be extended to the university sector, too.

The obsession with abuse is not confined to relationships between adults and children. All interactions that involve emotions, physicality or sexuality are labelled as potentially abusive. 'Peer abuse' is seen as one of the key problems of our time; others demand action against 'elder abuse'; and for good measure alarms have been raised about 'pet abuse' and 'chicken abuse'.
How we view humanity really matters. If we insist on seeing humans as morally degraded parasites, then every significant technical problem from the millennium bug to the avian flu will be feared as a potential catastrophe beyond our control. Today's intellectual pessimism and cultural disorientation distracts the human imagination from confronting challenges that lie ahead. All the talk about human survival expresses a crisis of belief in humanity - and that is why the real question today is not whether humanity will survive the twenty-first century, but whether our belief in humanity can survive it.

Despite Western culture's profound sense of estrangement from its human sensibilities, individuals possess an unprecedented potential for influencing the way they live their lives. It is only now that significant sections of the public have real, meaningful choice and control. We must reinvigorate the belief in autonomy and self-determination, and recognise that we have moved from the Stone Age to a time when people's transformative potential is a remarkable force.

We also know that history does not issue any guarantees. Purposeful change is a risky enterprise. But whether we like it or not, taking risks in order to transform our lives and ourselves is one of our most distinct human qualities. That is why, instead of worrying about our 'ecological footprint', we should take all the steps necessary for moving towards a better future.

Misanthropy threatens to envelop us in a new Dark Age of prejudice where we become scared of ourselves. In such conditions, we have two choices: we can renounce the human qualities that have helped to transform the world and resign ourselves to the culture of fatalism that prevails; or we can do the opposite. Instead of abandoning faith in humanity we can turn our creative energies towards taking control of our futures. Instead of being preoccupied with 'what will happen to us' we should search for answers to the question: 'What needs to be done to humanise the future?'
Frank Furedi

spiked-essays | Essay | Confronting the new misanthropy


Add a comment