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Planet A or Planet B?

[Photo: UNIVERSAL STUDIOS / MOUNTAIN, PETER / Album / Universal Images Group Rights Managed]   

I will pay a final visit this week, at least for the time being, to Rutger Bregman’s ‘Humankind: A Hopeful History’, because it is a book for optimists, and I think the world needs as many optimists as it can find just now.   As I mentioned a couple of weeks ago, Bregman’s aim is to give us hope that life is not a constant war of all against all, but in reality a world where we help each other to overcome our problems.  It was written before the pandemic, but I do not think the author will have changed his mind about anything as a result of the last twelve months.

Early on in the book, he asks the reader to imagine that a plane makes an emergency landing and breaks apart.  As the cabin fills with smoke, everybody inside realises that they have to get out.  We are asked to picture the scene and to think about what would happen next, with two choices in parallel universes. 

On Planet A, the passengers turn to their neighbours to ask if they are all right.  Those needing assistance are helped out of the plane first.  People are willing to give their lives, even for perfect strangers.  On Planet B, everyone is left to fend for themselves.  Panic breaks out.  There is lots of pushing and shoving.  Children, the elderly and people with disabilities get trampled underfoot.  Now the question: which planet do we live on?  If you said Planet B, you are in good company.  Apparently, over 90% of people choose that option.  Bregman says that reality, on the other hand, based on studies of what actually happens in almost every case, is that we live on Planet A.

We need our imagination again when he asks his readers to think about a new drug that has come on the market.  It is super-addictive, and in no time at all everyone is hooked.  Bregman tells us that scientists have investigated and concluded that the drug causes a misperception of risk and anxiety.  It lowers mood levels and creates learned helplessness, as well as contempt and hostility towards others, while at the same time causing desensitisation.  We are asked if we would use this drug, if we would allow our children to try it, and if the government would legalise it.

The answer to all these questions, unfortunately, is yes, because this drug is already one of the biggest addictions of our times.  It is a drug we use daily, that is heavily subsidised and is distributed to our children on a massive scale.  The drug is the news.  Bregman goes on to say that if you are an avid follower of the news, it is easy to get trapped by hopelessness, asking yourself for example about the point of recycling, paying taxes or donating to charities when others shirk their duty.  But If you are tempted by such thoughts, we are reminded that that cynicism is just another word for laziness.  As the saying goes, a cynic is someone who has given up but who has not shut up.  It is an excuse not to take responsibility because, if you believe that most people are rotten, you do not need to get worked up about injustice.  The world is going to hell either way.

My working title for this blog was ‘Don’t Punch Nazis’, but I was concerned it might look a bit odd on the website to someone who randomly googled the school and whose first impression risked being significantly misled about the sort of school we are.  You may be aware of Godwin’s Law, which states that as a discussion on the Internet grows longer, the likelihood of a person being compared to Hitler or another Nazi reference increases, usually by whoever is losing the argument.

Earlier this term, I referred to Bregman’s ‘Ten Rules To Live By’, one of which is ‘Don’t Punch Nazis’.  I changed this, for similar concerns about being misleading, to ‘Don’t Punch People’, but this meant I could not share this lovely story about why meeting force with force is not the best way forward. Bregman illustrates his point through what happened in the small town of Wunsiedel in Germany. 

In the late 1980s, Adolf Hitler’s deputy Rudolf Hess was buried in the local cemetery, and Wunsiedel rapidly became a neo-Nazi pilgrimage site.  Even today, apparently, skinheads march through the town every year on 17th August, the anniversary of Hess’s death, hoping to incite riots and violence.  And every year, right on cue, anti-fascists come along to give the neo-Nazis exactly what they want.  Inevitably, a video surfaces showing someone proudly taking a swing at some Nazi.  But afterwards, the effects prove counter-productive.  Just like bombing the Middle East is manna for terrorists, punching Nazis only reinforces extremists.  It validates them in their worldview and makes it that much easier to attract new recruits.

Wunsiedel decided to test a different strategy.  In 2014 a wisecracking German named Fabian Wichmann had a brilliant idea.  What if the town turned the march for Rudolf Hess into a charity walk?  Residents loved the idea.  For every metre the neo-Nazis walked, the townspeople pledged to donate ten euros to Wichmann’s organisation EXIT-Deutschland, which helps people get out of far-right groups.  Ahead of the event, the townspeople marked off start and finish lines.  They made banners thanking the walkers for their efforts.  The neo-Nazis, meanwhile, had no idea what was afoot.  On the day itself, Wunsiedel greeted them with loud cheers and showered them with confetti upon crossing the finish.  All told, the event raised more than twenty thousand euros for the cause.  Where the neo-Nazis had expected disgust and outrage, they got an outstretched hand, which they found disorienting and hard to deal with.

Bregman’s uplifting conclusion is that being a realist has come to be associated with being a cynic, but cynicism is an outdated approach to the modern world.  He truly believes that people are much more inclined to good than evil – and this is the reality of our world.  He tells us not to be afraid to be realistic, to be courageous, to be true to our nature and offer our trust, to do good in broad daylight, and not to be ashamed of our generosity.  He says that you may be dismissed as gullible and naïve at first, but he reminds us that what is naïve today may be common sense tomorrow.

Bregman introduces his final thoughts with this comment from Richard Curtis: ‘If you make a film about a man kidnapping a woman and chaining her to a radiator for five years – something that has happened probably once in history – it is called a searingly realistic analysis of society.  If I make a film like Love Actually, which is about falling in love, and there are about a million people falling in love in Britain today, it is called a sentimental presentation of an unrealistic world.’   

I know which world, which planet, I want to live on – and, whisper it quietly, ‘Love Actually’ is my favourite film!

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