In 'Humankind,' Rutger Bregman Aims To Convince That Most People Are Good

May 30, 2020

Rutger Bregman begins his new book Humankind: A Hopeful History with what he calls this "radical idea" that most people deep down are pretty decent.

Bregman is a historian and writer for The Correspondent in the Netherlands and author of the previous bestseller Utopia for Realists.

"If we can actually trust each other, if we do have the courage to move to a more realistic, hopeful view of human nature, then we can move to a very different kind of society as well — and build very different kinds of schools and democracies and workplaces," Bregman tells NPR.

Interview Highlights

On whether this is a good – or bad – time to make his argument

You know, I think it's actually exactly the right time. We often assume that during times of crises, the veneer that we call civilization cracks and that people reveal their true selves. And that we really become quite horrible versions of ourselves. But in the first chapters of the book, I go over all the evidence of sociology that we have – and it's quite a lot. It's actually more than 700 case studies that show that, especially in times of crisis, we show our best selves. And we get this explosion of altruism and cooperation. This happens again and again after natural disasters, after earthquakes and after floodings. And I think that, if you zoom out a little bit during this pandemic, you see the same phenomenon.

On thinking this way amid all of the discouraging news

It's one of the ironies of writing a book about the power of human kindness is that you have to go on for hundreds of pages about all the dark chapters in our history. Right? Because on the one hand, biologists say we are one of the friendliest species in the animal kingdom. And they literally talk about survival of the friendliest, which means that for millennia it was actually the friendliest among us who had the most kids and so had the biggest chance of passing on their genes to the next generation.

But then, on the other hand, we're also the cruelest species, right? We do things that other animals just don't – when you think about wars or ethnic cleansing or, you know, racism, discrimination, you name it. It's true. Both of these things are true at the same time.

On media raising misperception of risk, anxiety, contempt and hostility

Well, the news is mostly about things that go wrong, right? It's about sensationalist incidents that happened today, instead of things that happen every day. So if you watch and follow a lot of the news, at the end of the day, you know exactly how the world is not working. And you'll have a quite bleak view of human history and human nature. And this is what you can see with people who, basically, just follow too much of the news. You know, they've become cynical and depressed and feel anxious. So, yeah, there's a real mental health hazard here. ...

Maybe we have to make a distinction here between the news and journalism. So I think that good journalism helps you to zoom out, to focus on the structural forces that govern our lives. And I think that good journalism is also not only about the problems, but also about the solutions, and the people who are working on these solutions. So I'm not saying that journalism should all be happy ... But it can give us hope, because there are a lot of reasons for hope in this world today as well.

On rules to live by

I think it's rational to assume the best in other people because most people are pretty decent. And it's, as I said, it's actually the reason why we have conquered the globe. You know, human beings are just incredibly good compared to other species at cooperating on a skill that other species just can't. Do you really want to live your whole life distrusting other people? That price is way too high to pay. I think it's more rational to say, OK, this is just going to happen a couple of times in my life that I'll be the victim of some confidence game. And if you've never been conned, then maybe you should ask yourself the question: Is my basic attitude to life trusting enough?

I'm just saying that we have to remember here that cynicism is, in the first place, it's a synonym for laziness. It sort of gives you an excuse to do nothing. And in the second place, it's often used as a legitimization of hierarchy, because if we cannot trust each other, then we need them – we need the CEOs and the monarchs and the generals and the kings and you name it. But if we can actually trust each other, if we do have the courage to move to a more realistic, hopeful view of human nature, then we can move to a very different kind of society as well — and build very different kinds of schools and democracies and workplaces. So people may think, oh, this is this guy has written this nice book about the power of kindness, but it's actually quite revolutionary in a subversive idea to go in that direction.

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SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Rutger Bregman begins his new book with what he calls this radical idea that most people deep down are pretty decent. His new book, "Humankind: A Hopeful History." He's historian and writer for The Correspondent in the Netherlands and author of the previous bestseller "Utopia For Realists." Rutger Bregman joins us now. Thanks so much for being with us.

RUTGER BREGMAN: Thanks for having me.

SIMON: Is this a good or discouraging time to try and make your argument?

BREGMAN: That's a good question. You know, I think it's actually exactly the right time. We often assume that during times of crisis, the veneer that we call civilization cracks and that people reveal their true selves - right? - and that we really become quite horrible versions of ourselves. But in the first chapters of the book, I go over all the evidence from sociology that we have, and it's quite a lot now. It's actually more than 700 case studies that show that especially in times of crisis we show our best selves, right? And we get this explosion of altruism and cooperation. This happens again and again after natural disasters, after earthquakes and after floodings. And I think that if you zoom out a little bit during this pandemic, you see the same phenomenon.

SIMON: But to zoom in for a second, I mean, just this week in the United States, two racial incidents, including a death in the custody of police officers. There are people taunting each other for wearing masks because of the coronavirus. There are - the deaths and layoffs reveal great race and class divides. There are borders closing to immigrants, you know, and I haven't even mentioned anyone in government. There's a lot of discouraging news.

BREGMAN: Yeah, I know. And it's one of the ironies of writing a book about the power of human kindness is that you have to go on for hundreds of pages about all the dark chapters in our history - right? - because on the one hand, biologists say we are one of the friendliest species in the animal kingdom. And they literally talk about survival of the friendliest, which means that for millennia it was actually the friendliest among us who had the most kids and so had the biggest chance of passing on their genes to the next generation. But then on the other hand, we're also the cruelest species, right? We do things that other animals just don't, whether you think about wars or ethnic cleansing or, you know, racism, discrimination, you name it. It's true. Both of these things are true at the same time.

SIMON: You - I've got to ask. You refer to the news as a drug. You say it causes a misperception of risk, anxiety, contempt and hostility. How so?

BREGMAN: Well, the news is mostly about things that go wrong, right? It's about sensationalist incidents that happen today instead of things that happen every day. So if you watch and follow a lot of the news, at the end of the day, you know exactly how the world is not working, and you have a quite bleak view of human history and human nature. And this is what you can see with people who've basically just followed too much of the news. You know, they've become cynical and a bit depressed and feel anxious. So, yeah, there's a real mental health hazard here.

SIMON: But you got to follow the news. And I'm going to keep those of us in the news business out of the discussion. We have to. But, I mean, these are stressful times that demand a lot of information for people to be able to make informed decisions, aren't they?

BREGMAN: I agree. I agree. And maybe we have to make a distinction here between the news and journalism, right? So I think that good journalism helps you to zoom out, to focus on the structural forces that govern our lives. And I think that good journalism is also not only about the problems but also about the solutions - right? - and the people who are working on those solutions. So, yeah, I'm not saying that the news should all be - or journalism should all be happy clappy about, you know, like, a panda was born yesterday in the zoo, but it can give us hope, right? Because there are a lot of reasons for hope in this world today as well.

SIMON: You conclude the book with 10 rules to live by, and we can't draw you out about them all. But let me ask you about a few if I could. You say when in doubt, assume the best.

BREGMAN: Yeah, we often do the opposite, right?

SIMON: Yeah. Well, I'll - and we would say that that's an intelligent, informed decision based on past behavior.

BREGMAN: Yeah, and I think it's not. I think it's rational to assume the best in other people because most people are pretty decent. And as I said, it's actually the reason why we have conquered the globe. You know, human beings are just incredibly good compared to other species at cooperating on a scale that other species just can't, right? Do you really want to live your whole life distrusting other people? That price is way too high to pay. I think it's more rational to say, OK, this is just going to happen a couple of times in my life, that I'll be the victim of some confidence game, right? And if you've never been conned, then maybe you should ask yourself the question, is my basic attitude to life trusting enough?

SIMON: You also suggest maybe we should avoid the news or at least what you say - I'm going to quote your words - think as carefully about which information you feed your mind as you do about the food you feed your body.

BREGMAN: Yeah.

SIMON: Now, left to our own devices, won't a lot of us just choose Cheetos and Stroopwafels?

BREGMAN: Hmm. Yeah, maybe. I'm just saying that we have to remember here that cynicism is, in the first place, it's an a synonym for laziness, right? It sort of gives you an excuse to do nothing. And in the second place, it's often used as a legitimization of hierarchy because if we cannot trust each other, then we need them, then we need the CEOs and the monarchs and the generals and the kings and you name it. But if we can actually trust each other, if we do have the courage to move to more realistic, hopeful view of human nature, then we can move to a very different kind of society as well, you know, and build very different kind of schools and democracies and workplaces. So people may think, oh, this is - this guy has written this nice book about the power of kindness, but it's actually quite revolutionary and a subversive idea to go in that direction.

SIMON: Rutger Bregman - his book, "Humankind: A Hopeful History." I hope you're right. Thanks very much.

BREGMAN: Thanks for having me, Scott. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.