THERE is a scene in the spoof disaster movie Airplane which says it all: the moment when, over the Tannoy, the stewardess asks whether there is anybody on board who can fly a plane. In their panic, the passengers turn to cartoonish aggression: a nun and a member of Hare Krishna strangling one another, and two besuited gentlemen in a deadly duel. The “veneer theory” of human behaviour is as deeply engrained in our psychological self-perception as the veneer itself is shallow: the veneer, that is, of civility, which — when things get tough — is immediately stripped away.
The historian Rutger Bregman is here to cheer us up. In his latest book, Humankind: A hopeful history (Bloomsbury), which he discussed on Free Thinking (Radio 3, Wednesday of last week), he alleges that the Hobbesian depiction of human existence as famously “nasty, brutish, and short” must be challenged, and draws on a range of insights from anthropology to recent history to make the case for Rousseau’s more idealistic view.
Schoolchildren are taught Lord of the Flies and are invited to extrapolate from it assumptions about humanity’s natural instincts; but they are not provided with a counter-example from real life, when, in 1966, a group of boys really were stranded on a Pacific island, and survived for 15 months in well-ordered harmony.
The veneer theory is certainly convenient, Bregman argues; for it excuses hierarchical structures and social control. The reports of generosity and altruism which have proliferated during our present crisis appear to support the view that we do not all turn into savages when under threat. But Bregman’s invocation of the notorious Milgram experiment — which demonstrated how, under certain authoritarian conditions, we might be willing to administer pain to others — suggests another, more powerful, psychological force at play: the instinct of obedience both to higher authority and peer expectation.
Archive on 4: So bad it’s good? (Radio 4, Saturday) contained a survey of those performances and artworks that are so bad that they are good. Whether it be the prose of Dan Brown, the singing of William Shatner, or pretty much any film starring Adam Sandler, we all have our favourites.
The joy of this anthology was to revisit the truly awful not in a spirit of Schadenfreude, but, as the presenter Steve Punt expressed it, in celebration of our human right to fail — although there was more than a hint of snootiness around some of his guests’ choices.
The best examples are surely those that are created with sincerity rather than tongue-in-cheek. Even better is the thought that so much money and effort has gone into them: did it occur to nobody, in the hundreds of executive meetings that must have preceded its release, to express doubts about Snakes on a Plane?