Human decency moves civilization forward
Editorial by James A. Haught
Remember a semi-comic Cold War movie, “The Russians Are Coming, the Russians Are Coming”?
A deadly Soviet Union nuclear submarine, capable of killing millions of Americans, suffered engine trouble and was forced to surface in a little New England fishing village. After some awkward dealings, villagers with shotguns and rifles went to the waterfront. Soviet sailors lined the deck with machine guns. Weapons aimed, they faced each other in a tense standoff. If anyone pulled a trigger, a double massacre would occur.
Suddenly, a little boy, watching the drama from a church belfry, fell and was caught tangled in a rope, suspended high above the ground, screeching. Abruptly, both Russians and Americans put down their guns and rushed to rescue the child. Sailors formed a human pyramid and untangled him. Then both Russians and Americans joined in a hugging, back-slapping celebration. Village girls kissed Russian sailors.
U.S. warplanes arrived to destroy the stranded sub, but villagers shielded it with their fishing boats and escorted it safely back to sea.
The movie had a deep meaning: Human decency – the urge to save a child – is stronger than political conflicts and military hostilities.
A similar message occurred on Christmas Eve, 1914, when British and German soldiers paused their hideous trench warfare on the Western Front for a spontaneous truce. They sang carols to each other, shouted holiday greetings, then got out of their bunkers to meet in No Man’s Land, where they traded small gifts and cordialities. Afterward, commanders had difficulty forcing the men to resume shooting each other.
Actually, human decency is the lifeblood of civilization. Abraham Lincoln poetically called it “the better angels of our nature.” The desire to help each other – or at least not kill each other – keeps humanity surviving and thriving.
Philosophers call it humanism, a craving to reduce slaughter and make life better for everyone. It’s the driving force of social advancement. Every government program that reduces poverty, improves health, prevents violence, upgrades nutrition, guarantees human rights, betters education, secures housing, assures equality, cures disease, enforces fairness, etc., is a step in the process.
And decency slowly is winning. Several scholars have written books outlining progress that has elevated personal living conditions.
For example, Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker asserts that rampant killing was 1,000 times worse in medieval times than today. In his classic 2011 book, “The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined,” he notes that international warfare has virtually vanished in the 21st century — and that murder, rape, genocide, torture, wife-beating, lynching, gay-bashing, dueling, racial attacks, and even cruelty to animals are vastly less than in the past.
“The decline of violence may be the most significant and least-appreciated development in the history of our species,” he wrote. “It is easy to forget how dangerous life used to be, how deeply brutality was once woven into the fabric of daily existence.”
Today’s instant flashing of lurid news scenes makes it appear that terrible killings are everywhere — but it’s misleading. All statistics show a clear decline in savagery. Humanity is kinder and fairer than before.
During a June news conference, President Obama told a young questioner:
“If you had to choose any moment to be born in human history… you’d choose this time. The world is less violent than it has ever been. It is healthier than it has ever been. It is more tolerant than it has ever been. It is better fed than it has ever been. It is more educated than it has ever been. Terrible things happen around the world every single day, but the trend lines of progress are unmistakable.”
These improvements arise from the best human urges. Intelligent democracy makes it possible for kindly instincts –the humane empathy locked in everyone’s inner mind – to prevail.
Researchers at the University of California’s Greater Good Science Center assert that compassion evolved as humanity did, and is crucial for social progress.
As long as supposed enemies drop their guns to rescue a dangling child, there’s hope that decency can outweigh the world’s ugliness, and civilization can keep on improving.
James Haught, syndicated by PeaceVoice, is editor emeritus of West Virginia’s largest newspaper, The Charleston Gazette-Mail.