Column for the Forest Park Review, 7/6/16

By Tom Holmes




Why? Why? Tell ’em that it’s human nature


            When something terrible happens, like the mass shooting at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, people always seem to ask, “Why?”


            They ask why, it seems to me, because their view of human nature is that we humans are basically good.  If our nature is basically good, then killing 49 people is unnatural, and we feel compelled to find some reason for this behavior.  If human nature is basically good, then we have to find some cause coming from outside of Omar Mateen—like punitive toilet training or an abusive father or an alcoholic father or jihadist terrorists on the internet–which caused him to do such a terrible thing.


Diagnosing the cause makes us feel more secure, because that knowledge, we believe, will lead to finding a cure for the malady.  That seems to be the default response in our society to bad things that happen.  Mateen legally bought an SIG Sauer MCX semi-automatic rifle and a 9mm Glock 17 handgun, prompting anti-gun advocates say, “See.  Guns like that should be regulated.” 


His ex-wife and present spouse both described him variously as unhinged, abusive and mentally ill, so we hear people calling for better mental health care.  Mateen spoke in praise of terrorism at times, causing one presumptive candidate to promise to get rid of all Muslims as a way to fix that problem. 


If you assume that human nature is basically good, then it has to be something outside of us, in the environment or in the system that cause something good to turn rotten.  And it’s the creation of progressive programs that make our society healthy again.


But what if you see human nature as having a streak of bad as well as good in it, what President Obama in his recent speech in Hiroshima called, “humanity’s core contradiction?”  Obama said of the core contradiction, “The very spark that marks us as a species — our thoughts, our imagination, our language, our tool-making, our ability to set ourselves apart from nature and bend it to our will — those very things also give us the capacity for unmatched destruction.”


I heard the following story which, to my mind, says pretty much the same thing.  A Native American boy asked his father why people do bad things to each other.  The father explained that every person has within them a bad wolf and a good wolf.  “How a person behaves,” said the father, “depends on which wolf you feed.”


In that view of human nature, we mortals have a choice.  We are not determined by our environment.  We are influenced by it, to be sure, but we have choices regarding how to respond to what happens to us, both the good and the bad.  Instead of creating programs to create healthy environments, this view of human nature calls for individuals to repent, i.e. turn away from feeding the bad wolf and turn towards feeding the good wolf. 


William James over a century ago used the term “optimistic religion” to label those who held that human nature is basically good.  When people are not comfortable using the word “sin” they tend to view the world through the lens of optimistic religion.   James used the label “pessimistic religion” for those who see human nature including a bad wolf as well as a good one, as having a contradiction that is at its core.  Sin, for them, is a category which explains a lot of what we see around us.


To my observation, your view of human nature will determine how you see reality itself.  Those who subscribe to optimistic religion will acknowledge that we have problems in our socieety, but if we just created better environments, better programs and more just systems, we human beings would blossom into the good people we really are.  Better systems produce better people. That view has implications for everything from child raising to dealing with Vladimir Putin.


Those who subscribe to pessimistic religion contend that the cure for the world’s obvious problems involves creating character in each person, and involves daily repentance for not loving our neighbors. It includes acknowledging that our core contradiction needs enforced laws to keep us from hurting ourselves an others.  Superegos, if you want to be Freudian, are necessary.  Feed the good wolf and put the bad wolf in a cage.  Better people, in other words, produce better systems.


So which is it?  Do we need more police or more social workers?  Diplomacy or Mutually Assured Destruction?  Building up our children’s self-worth or disciplining them?  The right to concealed carry or gun control?  Pro-life or pro-choice?  Individual morality or a just society?


The great theologian Pogo said, “We have met the enemy and they is us.”


Another great theologian, Michael Jackson, sang,

If they say,
Why, why, tell ’em that it’s human nature
Why, why, does he do me that way
If they say,
Why, why, tell ’em that it’s human nature


            You’ve heard me tell this one before.  The pilot gets on the PA system and tells the passengers, “I’ve got some bad news and some good news.  The bad news is that we’re lost.  The good news is that we’re making real good time.”


            In the coming months, we’re going to hear a lot of people making promises—from injury lawyers on TV to clergy in the pulpit to candidates for the office of President of the United States.  My advice: do some hard thinking and praying about human nature.  Try to get that straight in your head and heart, and then check out if what these voices are saying are consistent with who we humans are at the core.