• Even the people we love can appear to us as inconsiderate bastards. Rationally, we know that they’re not. Emotionally, we are sure that they are. (MOODBOARD/Getty Images)Source: MOODBOARD/Getty Images
Media today is crammed with the claim that ‘people are awful’: we, the awful people all over the globe, eat bad food, make bad decisions and vote in awful politicians. But what if we understood each other’s motivation a little better, asks Helen Razer? Surely the world would be a kinder place to live.
By
Helen Razer

8 Dec 2016 - 3:29 PM  UPDATED 8 Dec 2016 - 3:30 PM

People are just awful. You and I know this and it’s perfectly okay if we remind each other of this dreadful truth in private conversation. When we do it in public, though? That’s another thing entirely.

Making this disclosure about people we know to people we know is fine. Making it about people we don’t know to people we don’t know is very unhelpful. Actually, doing this makes us awful people. And these days, we do it all the time. Both news media and social media are crammed with the claim that “people are awful!”

Why did people vote for Donald Trump? They’re awful. Why do people over-eat in a world where others starve? They’re awful. Why do people break wind on trains? They’re awful. (Okay: that last group of people truly is awful.)

We want to please ourselves, but we also want to live in groups. We are herd animals who have an individual instinct. In other words, evolution is not perfect.

That there are certain people we are going to find awful is an inevitable fact. We humans have this weird and very human thing going on inside us. Each of us is constantly balancing our desire to scratch our personal itches—I’m hungry, I want a cuddle—with that natural social itch. We want to please ourselves, but we also want to live in groups. We are herd animals who have an individual instinct. In other words, evolution is not perfect.

An easy way to see this everyday human war play out is to try to decide on dinner plans with a group of friends. You all really want to see each other and connect. But, you all have individual desires and needs. Someone suggests a suckling pig feast, forgetting the vegan and halal commitments of two others. You suggest 8pm, forgetting that your best mate, whom you’ve known forever, rises at 5am. Everyone seems to have forgotten that the food preference-friendly restaurant on which almost everyone can agree was the very place you were dumped, and that you even avoid walking past it because all you can taste are your tears and all you can hear is the miserable sound of Coldplay. How COULD they not remember? Do they want to hurt me?

And, jeez. When you actually get to the restaurant. I mean, you love your friends, but why can’t they concentrate on ordering? Don’t they know you have blood sugar issues?

We want to be with others. We want to meet our own needs. This mess is never going to resolve itself into perfect order.

Even the people we love can appear to us as inconsiderate bastards. Rationally, we know that they’re not. Emotionally, we are sure that they are. This is the conflict of being alive and human. We want to be with others. We want to meet our own needs. This mess is never going to resolve itself into perfect order.

We are upset by others we treasure, even when we know their motivations for behaving in a certain way. We can even tell ourselves “I know you were just hungry and you didn’t mean to hurt me by forgetting that I don’t eat pork”, but we still feel the sting of that neglect. We do this so easily even with people we know. We try to stop ourselves. But, when it comes to people we don’t know, whose motivations we can barely imagine, we just pull the rip cord and decide, out and out, that they are awful.

And these are people we know. It is even easier to say that someone in a distant land did something because “people are awful”. It is not at all easy to take the time to try to understand their motivations.

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If we were raised in a Western tradition we might look, for example, at a nation like Yemen and say something like, “I don’t know why those people seem so keen on getting their young daughters married. Clearly they are awful”. But what we might ignore is that vast tracts of Yemen are under economic and physical attack by the US-backed Saudi regime. What if you have a choice between sending your daughter to live with a man who can afford to give her food and her starvation?

If we were raised in a progressive tradition, for example, we might look at someone voting for Donald Trump and say something like, “I don’t know why these people seem so keen on voting for a racist. Clearly they are awful.” But what we might ignore is that vast tracts of America are under attack by underemployment. What if you have a choice between a nominee who says “I’m bringing the jobs back,” and one who never mentions employment growth at all?

We can look at our little group disagreeing about its dinner plans. We know that our friends have different motivations and we forgive them. We might think these “people are awful”, and we might even say that. But, we usually work it out in our heads and live with the idea that not everyone is going to come to identical conclusions that precisely suit us.

This understanding we have, that people are both awful and not awful, is one that is vital to extend to world events. It’s not so much that people are just awful. Most of us are really just trying to get to dinner.

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