On May 4, 1886, a contingent of police marched into Haymarket Square in Chicago, bent on dispersing a peaceful labor rally. Someone (it was never determined who) threw a bomb into the midst of the police squad, killing half a dozen men.

Seven men were condemned to death on account of the bomb-throwing. Four of them were eventually hanged. But no evidence was ever presented showing that they had planned the bombing or knew who did. They were hanged for having exercised their supposed right of free speech. In spite of the manifest injustice of the convictions, an appeal to the Supreme Court did no good.

In the course of a wonderful, if rather hefty, book called The Rise of Industrial America, Page Smith discusses the Haymarket affair and numerous other atrocities. In the chapter on immigration, he describes the vicious treatment of Jews in Russia during that period. He lifts the lid on the sheer terrorism unleashed on former slaves in the South, the murders and beatings and robberies carried out, with impunity, by white men determined to retain their pathetic power and pitiful prerogatives.

When I was a kid, my father had some highball glasses with cartoons inked on them. The caption beneath one of the cartoons (by now I can’t recall the image itself) said, “People are no damn good.” That’s about the sum of it, I think. For every Shakespeare, a hundred demented monsters. For every Mozart, a hundred vile fools. For every Monet or Van Gogh, a hundred policemen swinging their billy clubs.

And you think you’re special?

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5 Responses to Beastliness

  1. Conrad says:

    The beastliness of men is more spectacular, and captures our attention better (because it appalls us); but it is manifestly not the strongest force in human nature.

    We know this because, over time, and as society becomes richer, people become more civilized. It’s a gradual, quiet process. It doesn’t attract our attention. But if you look at the long view in history, the over-arching pattern is clear: as societies become more powerful, they become, gradually, kinder.

    If mankind’s beastliness were the dominant force in human nature, we would see the opposite: societies would become beastlier and more ruthless as they become wealthier. But that manifestly doesn’t happen.

    So, even though mankind’s ugliness is more noticable, it is not the dominant force in human nature.


    • prophet-5 says:

      I’m not willing to accept as a blanket proposition that material wealth always leads to greater kindness. There are simply too many examples of people who were fabulously wealthy and also fabulously cruel.

      On the contrary: Often the people who are kindest to one another are those who share the same terrible privations.

  2. Conrad says:

    I’m not willing to accept as a blanket proposition that material wealth always leads to greater kindness.

    And I never offered you that to accept.

    You tend sometimes, Jim, when you want to disagree with someone, to deliberately (I assume) mis-understand what they’ve said. It doesn’t reflect well.


    • prophet-5 says:

      What you said was this: “…as society becomes richer, people become more civilized.” You didn’t specifically impute causation, that’s true — you didn’t state that getting richer makes people more civilized. It might just be a coincidence: Societies are getting richer (in general), and people are becoming more civilized (in general). But if there is no connection between the two factors, your sentence is pointless. Ergo, you were implying a causative connection.

      Also, to be fair, you didn’t state that “civilized” means “less inclined to brutalize one’s fellow humans.” You could probably make a case that plenty of brutal people are also highly civilized.

      Leaving aside those two rather far-fetched interpretations, we’re left with the uncomfortable fact that you have asserted a proposition — namely, that material wealth leads to greater kindness — and then tried to claim that you didn’t assert it.

      I’m left with the impression that you’re objecting solely to my use of “blanket proposition … always”. But rather than say so, you’ve launched an ad hominem assault. On whom does this not reflect well? Look in the mirror.

  3. Conrad says:

    Asserting a trend between two sociological factors is not generally understood to mean that the two are always found jointly in every particular person.

    I have come to believe that most people are as kind as they feel they can afford to be.

    It’s also true, as you mention, that comparably poor people are often more generous with what they have than are comparably rich people. That has to do with managing resources, the expectation of reciprocity, and a “teamwork” mentality. (Nietzsche mentions this as one of the characteristics distinguishing ubermen from untermen.)

    However, richer societies are generally institutionally kinder than poorer societies. They are also generally institutionally kinder than they themselves were when they were poor. Also, when societies become poor they tend to become mean.

    And what is true in agregate is true on average: People from richer societies are on average kinder than those the indivuals from poorer ones. Presumably, that’s because on average they feel they can afford to be.


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