Thursday, February 4, 2016

Humans are nice by default?

There's an old joke about a viking whose buddies go to meet him at the local drinking lodge, or at somebody's long house or some such place where feasting and drinking is going on.

The friends walk into the place, and everyone in the place is dead. It's just blood and guts and severed limbs all over the floor and walls, and the viking is standing in the middle of it all holding his dripping broadsword.

And they go "What the hell happened here"?

The viking replies "This guy (holding up a severed head) insulted me, and I didn't want to embarrass him in front of all his friends".

I appreciate the joke, having been inculcated in a culture of quiet psychopathy. Norwegians are quiet peoples who are taught not to brag. This kind of limits responses when it comes to bluster and the whole threat escalation thing. It basically goes from zero to slaughter with nothing in between*. This is not to say that northrons are unique in basic savagery, just that other cultures have come up with ways  that don't automatically result in mass homicide as the only solution to life's little problems.

Take for example, Black Jesus:

(Yes, that's the venerable Keith David as Reverend Otis of the Church of Jesus Christ in Compton humiliating Black Jesus in front of the congregation. I love the talent that has been attracted to this series).  First off, Vic bullies Black Jesus with the funny "aboriginal conman" opening line, and then Reverend Otis commences to savage Black Jesus with funny insults. And Black Jesus just takes it and leaves.

Why doesn't the Son of God kick righteous ass?

Now, of course, Black Jesus has to be a little constrained and do the turn the other cheek bullshit, but I can't help but think that reason he doesn't respond to these threat displays is 1) he knows he's in the right and things are going to work out in the end, and 2) humans are fundamentally nice and would prefer, if at possible, to avoid conflict even in conflict situations.

I'm gonna submit, on the basis of watching lots of episodes of Nature, that actually, most animals would prefer to be nice. It's just the path of least resistance. Conflict requires a lot of time and energy, and if it can be avoided, or deflected through deceptive threat displays, so much the better.

It doesn't always work that way, but advantages can be gained by other means. There was an episode of Nature where an orphaned monkey was adopted by another species of capuchins. The head capuchin monkey would bully the orphan. The orphan, twice of the size of the head monkey, could easily have beat it down, but did not. Why? Well, the orphan lived with other monkeys too. They liked him, sympathized with him, and would undoubtedly fear him if he wiped the jungle floor with the head capuchin monkey.

Alright so maybe nice is wrong word. How about appearing nice? If we view social interactions as patterns of mutual abuse rather than of a shared utility, appearing nice has some decidedly distinct advantages.

Beat downs can be useful. I remember once in college, there was a boxing craze when the first Rocky movie came out. The study lounge on the dorm floor was turned into a boxing ring for awhile. I was in there one day, and two football players decided to do some practice sparring. After the one hulking bruiser had pummeled his buddy into submission, the buddy left and it was just me and the lineman in the lounge. He asked if I wanted to go a few rounds, and I said "Sure why not". It wasn't like the fight scene in Cool Hand Luke where George Kennedy demolishes Paul Newman, but I went along long enough to end up with a split lip and a slightly puffy face. (It was an interesting intellectual exercise as to how to go about dealing with someone who outclasses you in every department of physicality. I didn't come up with general solutions, but it did give me the insight that there are other options besides brute force and frontal assaults).

There was no animosity between us prior to this, but we got along a lot better afterwards, and hippy boy me got lot less shit from the other football players on the floor.

Some were actually nice to me.


  1. * That's not strictly true. The Norse have the tradition of flyting, verbal dueling. All the characters in Norse mythology are comicly human, possessed of all our frailties (unlike the pantheon of Greek and Roman mythology, who are all just viciously and sadistically bugfuck crazy). Read the Loksenna sometime, in which Loki insults every deity in Asgard, in what, I suppose at the time, must have been pure comedy gold.

  2. I don't know about being nice by default. human beings are some pretty nasty creatures if you ask me.

    1. Nasty creation. The Universe is nasty. Life obeys the rules.

  3. I wonder if the capuchin monkey adoptee submitted to the littler Head Monkey because he was raised among them and that was his adopted hierarchical "station" in the group? Not so much that he was afraid the other monkeys would fear him if he kicked the Head Monkey's ass, but that he just accepted his place in the pecking order? Or maybe it was that he was young? It just doesn't seem possible he would be able to work out such an abstract prediction of the future consequences of his actions as to imagine he would alienate other monkeys if he overpowered the leader.

    By the way, I'm using Chrome to view your blog today, if this comment goes through, it'll be the first time I've been able to get one through in years, and it'll be thanks to using Chrome I suppose.

    1. Missed you, Zina. Wondered that happened to you. Welcome back!

      Yes, it's entirely possible the orphan identified with as capuchin. How you gonna tell, with none of your own around? In which case, the orphan, being perceptive like all animals, just put 2 and 2 together and that's the way it was.

  4. Whoa!! It WORKED! Now you'll never get me to shut up!