Sometimes, people try to convince me that the human race is slowly progressing. “Think about it,” they’ll say. “At least in our culture, there’s no more human sacrifice or slavery. Women can vote, and minority groups of all kinds are fighting for and receiving equal rights. Repressive and outdated moral codes are fading in influence, and we’re working toward justice and love for all. Also, Wonder Woman finally came out!”
And some days, I can almost believe them. Yes, I think, I’m delighted that I live in a society where, even though someone in my apartment building has a wireless network called “Racist Neighbor,” (yes, really) at least no one I know is heil-ing Hitler or boiling and eating their enemies. Could we be getting better after all?
And then I go on Facebook or Twitter or the comments section of blogs or articles, and I remember: nope, people are not basically good.
Social media might be the most obvious way to see our true selves: unscripted and unfiltered. Most bad behavior trends in and out, making resurgences like fashion fads: are we cynically self-sufficient this decade? Maybe legalistic condemnation is more in vogue. Or is lawless abandon making a comeback?
Our selfishness takes different forms, chants different slogans, and gets a rebranding to change the packaging, but the content is still the same, variations on those ol’ seven from church tradition: pride, greed, lust, anger, gluttony, envy, and sloth.
For a specific example, in some ways, I’m encouraged to see outrage every time President Trump is unprofessional or just plain mean on Twitter. It’s good to hold those in public office accountable to be thoughtful and deliberate in their choice of words.
That said, Donald Trump isn’t the first person to be rude, gossipy, and narcissistic on social media. There’s a greater shock value for what he says because we expect better of our president, and rightly so. But what we can learn from this is more bigly than just dissatisfaction with our current president’s behavior (sorry, couldn’t resist). It should remind us of something much more fundamental: our unrehearsed selves are not kind.
Not just Trump’s. Ours.
It’s easy to point to someone who flaunts their prejudice or blatantly attacks others and say, “At least I’m not as bad as that.” But you’ve said cutting but clever things about others to make yourself look good. You’ve changed the truth and, if caught, proclaimed the accusation “fake news.” You’ve written something online that you later regretted. And so have I.
I’ve seen a lot of people—friends and official commentators—pointing to Trump’s rants as the exception, as a disgrace to our decent country full of essentially well-meaning people. “Can you believe he said that? I have never and would never do anything like that.”
I don’t buy it.
If you’ve ever seen studies on the percent of people who respond to shouts for help from a stranger, or take a look at how average people respond to genocide when they’re not the ones being threatened, or if you have any social media accounts, understanding of history, or knowledge of your own motives, you have to admit: there’s not a ton of empirical evidence to support the innate goodness of humanity.
I recently listened to a TED Talk on the culture of Internet-shaming, focusing on one incident where the reactions to a woman’s crass, misunderstood joke ruined her life. The story has been repeated dozens of times over, as flares of outrage spread like wildfire across the Internet, taking down everything in its path, including, most of the time, real people just like you or me.
What I love is that the speaker recognized, quietly, that the enraged citizens passing judgment were themselves guilty of something deeply terrible and ugly: destroying someone for a minor offense just because it was fun.
In this situation, the “good guys,” the ones with justice on their side, started to look like the mob from Beauty and the Beast, where you watch the bobbing trail of torches and pitchforks and say, “Wait…who is the monster again?”
And I say we are the monster. Or, if that makes you uncomfortable, our sin is the monster. As a Christian, this fits very neatly into my worldview. We call it fancy theological names like “sin nature,” but it means that I’m never surprised by evil in myself or in the world. Do I believe evil has the last word? Of course not. But my fellow Christians and I go against the current trend by saying evil is out there, and more, that it’s in here—in all of our hearts.
Listen, it matters whether or not you think people are basically good. It has actual consequences, both in large-scale history (slavery lingered in the U.S. for generations partly because many believed that slaveholders would recognize their evil and slavery would die out on its own) and in small-scale interactions (when caught being a jerk, do you look for anything else to blame or justify yourself, or own up to it?).
For me, Donald Trump’s rants are symptoms of a deeper problem, among thousands I see every day, sometimes in my own words and actions.
The only conclusion I can come to? Selfish is humanity’s default, not basically good.