I Am Not Human
We talk a lot about human nature. It’s one of our favorite explanations for people’s behavior.
Why do right-wingers hate immigrants? Because it’s human nature to “fear the other.” What explains cancel culture? The human instinct to “support the tribe” and punish heresy. How could anyone believe the earth is flat? “Confirmation bias” is a part of human nature.
But when we say these things, we neglect to mention that we are humans. That’s a pretty important data point. If we’re trying to explain some weird thing we don’t do, and our explanation is “it’s human nature,” then we need to say something about why human nature doesn’t apply to us. Are we mutants? Are we aliens?
We usually don’t think this way. Instead, we appeal to human nature to imply that we’re superior to some “less evolved” group of humans. Belief in the dark side of humanity, or at least the rest of humanity, is a humblebrag. It feels good to think that we’re higher beings—that we’ve transcended our atavistic urges and become civilized.
But if that idea were true, if we really were overcoming something primal within us, it would be hard. It would be hard in the same way that it's hard to resist gorging on tortilla chips or compulsively checking our phones. It would be so hard that we’d regularly slip up, and we’d forgive others for their slip-ups.
I don't know about you, but it's not hard for me to, say, support immigration. There's nothing inside me I have to resist, no urges I need to suppress. I’m not transcending human nature when I express my political views, and I shouldn’t give myself credit for doing so.
Here’s a useful test. When you’re trying to explain something weird about a group of humans, and you want to blame human nature, ask yourself: has it been hard for you to resist that nature within yourself?
If the answer is “no,” then maybe you’re moved by the same instincts as the people who disagree with you, but in ways you cannot see. Maybe that “fear of the other” is inside you as well, but merely directed at different others. Maybe you’re just as vulnerable to “confirmation bias”, and you’re just biased to confirm different beliefs.
Sure, you have "good reasons" for why you believe the things you do, and why you dislike the people you do. But so do the humans who disagree with you—at least from their perspective. "Good reasons" for one’s prejudice and dogma are never in short supply. If anything is a part of human nature, it’s the tendency to rationalize our prejudice and dogma, to make it seem like it’s not prejudice or dogma at all, but basic decency and common sense. To transcend that part of ourselves is, and ought to be, hard.
If it's not hard, you're not doing it right.
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