The Human Paradox

Posted on: 25 March 2011 by Alexander Hay

We're either wallowing in filth or reaching for the stars

We should contemplate the light and darkness in our natures

Today's jailing of Delroy Grant, the Night Stalker, after nearly 20 years of vicious sex assaults visited on possibly hundreds of vulnerable and elderly victims is a bitter-sweet event. The damage is done, and worse, as Grant goes to prison, it's with the knowledge that he could have been stopped a lot sooner.

In any case, Grant's disciplined, precise and sadistic behaviour over several decades suggests a level of vileness that is unthinkable.

Yet what does this say about the human condition? It's true that a few people are capable of acts like those of Grant - history is full of examples. More disturbing however are the many cases of apparently ordinary people being roped in or being active participants in atrocities.

Rwanda and the industrialisation of mass murder in Nazi Germany are cases in point. But so too was the Milgram experiment, where a majority of test subjects continued 'electrocuting' a man up to the point of 'death'. (Yes, he was pretending, but the test subjects were lead to believe otherwise).

Few of us are capable of Grant's depravity, but imagine a world with the likes of him in charge? How many of us would cooperate, or even assist in the worst acts imaginable? Human beings are intelligent, emotional beings whose main trait, it seems, is being unwilling to think for ourselves or acknowledge the suffering of others.

But this is an overly pessimistic view of the human condition. True, 65% kept on going along with the Milgram experiment, but 35% could not or would not go along with such acts. We should not forget that even in the worst periods of genocide and mass killings, many people were capable of great bravery or kindness despite the circumstances they found themselves in.

Take the recent example of Japan. It's almost a cliché now to acknowledge how the people of this country have endured the havoc wrought by a 9.2 earthquake and tsunami with dignity and little looting or disorder.

Even Japan's notorious criminal underworld has behaved admirably, with one outfit opening its doors to homeless people whether they be natives or ex-pats. "There are no [foreigners] in Japan right now. We all need to help each other" said one Yakuza boss. It's hard to see gang members in Peckham saying the same thing under similar circumstances.

Of course, this could all be ascribed simply to social conditioning. People tend to act the way they were raised. We ourselves might act quite differently due to the more 'individualistic' (read - 'greedy and atomised') society we live in. The Yakuza are all but part of the Japanese establishment and know the value of good PR, and so on. We mustn't forget Japan's own descent into sadism and xenophobia that lead to some of the darker chapters of World War Two, or its institutionalised sexismracism and caste system. And so the sceptics argue.

But consider this, maybe that heavily tattooed gangster really was being sincere. Maybe the Japanese have chosen to carry on with the good example they were set. Perhaps people are capable of good as much as evil. After all, contrary to much media coverage, most survivors of the Haitian earthquake were typified by their altruism and kindness. Unfashionable though it may seem, the old fashioned argument that we choose our actions starts to assert itself again.

In any case, it would be churlish to dismiss the bravery of the Fukushima 50, risking their lives right now to stop their nuclear plant from melting down as simply a sort of herd obedience taken to its extremes, nor that of the Soviet soldiers and firemen who faced even greater hazards in putting out the fires at Chernobyl. They all had to choose to carry on at some point.

It doesn't help that the media and its audience likes a good horror show. The occasional happy ending aside, we love a bit of carnage, and the day to day grind of rebuilding isn't so compelling. Even the coverage of Japan's resilience is portrayed as a freakish spectacle, or an excuse to moan about how we are going to the dogs in comparison.

The lesson we must learn is not to aggrandise or damn ourselves as readily as we or the media would like. Sometimes you don't really know who the heroes and the villains are until the point of crisis. With that in mind, perhaps it's best that we never have to find out who's who, at least for now.

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Alexander Hay

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