18th May, 2020

Debate of the Week

As a part of our Personal Development and Life Chances curriculum, the school is moving the debate topics which would normally presented in assemblies to a discussion group which can be used at home. Spend some time as a family debating the issue below.

Are people at their best in a crisis?

Dutch historian Rutger Bregman thinks so, and believes we have a persistent habit of ignoring the evidence that human nature is fundamentally good.

Civilisation is only skin deep. That’s the idea behind every disaster movie and dystopian novel. When the earthquake strikes, the aliens invade and the zombies rise up, society buckles under the pressure. Law and order break down. Panic, chaos and anarchy take their place. People turn on each other and show the very worst side of human nature.

It’s a depressing picture mirrored on social media and the news during the coronavirus epidemic. Fights in supermarkets over toilet paper, selfish people gathering in parks and ignoring social distancing.

But according to Rutger Bregman, it’s a distorted myth. The overwhelming evidence, he says, shows humans are pretty decent. And in a crisis, they are at their best. His book Humankind: A Hopeful History has made waves around the world, even before it comes out next week.

Back in 2005, the most devastating natural disaster in US history hit the city of New Orleans. Hurricane Katrina ripped apart the city, left 80% of the population underwater and killed 1,836 people. The news reported rumours of society falling part. Gangs roamed the city, looting shops and killing people.

Months later, researchers went back to uncover the truth. It turned out no one had been murdered and the looting was carried out by “Robin Hood” style rescue squads, ordinary citizens gathering food, clothing and medicine for people stranded by rising water.

This is not an isolated case. Bregman’s team has examined nearly 700 disasters since 1963 and found that in a crisis, crime drops and strangers come to the rescue. “People don’t go into shock,” says Bregman, “they stay calm and spring into action.”

It’s an idea Prince William expressed last month when he said, “I think Britain is at its best, weirdly, when we’re all in a crisis.”

But Bregman argues, “it’s not singularly British. It’s universally human.” In every society, we are distrustful of strangers, but when danger strikes we naturally reach out to ask for and accept help.

So, are people best in a crisis?

What do you think?

Some say no, this is just fanciful optimism. In an emergency, we don’t have time to think. Fear takes over and people start to behave selfishly and impulsively. It is every man for himself. Certainly, there are a few heroes, and professional emergency workers, who stand out. But most people revert to human nature and behave like selfish apes.

Others say yes, this makes perfect sense. It is in our nature to be social, friendly and helpful to those in need. Our ancestors survived war, famine and disease because they worked together in groups, and not because they struggled alone. Through adversity and shared suffering, we form life-long friendships, because we are fundamentally sensitive apes, that can’t help but be kind.