Many artists have recorded the song “You’ve Got to be Taught” from the musical South Pacific. Barbara Streisand is among them. It’s a song about hate. Actor John Kerr in the original film version explains. ”It happens after you’re born.”
The philosopher John Locke would have agreed. He believed human nature began as a blank page upon which experience imprinted its truths. Hate wasn’t innate.
His older contemporary, Thomas Hobbes demurred. Humankind was born with a brutish nature, he insisted.
The 2022 election has reopened the question. A recent study of outcomes revealed a stunning fact. A large swath of voters across the political spectrum favored uncompromising leaders who were decisive. What’s more these voters would abandon democracy if autocracy protected people like themselves from groups that threatened their values or status.
As evidence of this truth, the American electorate sent more than 100 incumbent and newly elected members to Congress who cast doubts about the electoral process, and who affirmed the 2020 election was “rigged.”
Equally troubling is the plethora of Internet hate sites that continue to grow. A recent Pew Report noted that 46% of teens use the web “almost constantly,” giving a boost to fearmongers and misogynists like Andre Tate. Tate describes himself as a “life coach.” One of his messages to impressionable minds is that women bring rape upon themselves.
Do Tate’s remarks and those of others like him prove humans have a dark nature? The prevalence of psychopaths in our society might give us pause. Or, do we learn from the example of tyrants? Vladimir Putin is one. His Ukraine invasion has decimated many cities, reducing their schools, libraries, and hospitals to rubble. What lesson does he teach?
He owns many palaces while nightly, newscasters show us images of his victims–Ukranian mothers with babies slung on their hips pleading for food. Is Putin incapable of remorse? Has he reduced his life to a game of winning and losing? And, is that enough?
One Russian mercenary thinks it is. He makes headlines by beating his chest and challenging Ukraine’s president to a duel. Tomorrow, I will fly a MIG-29. If you so desire, let’s meet in the skies. If you win, you take Artyomovsk (Bakhmut). If not, we advance till (the river) Dnipro.
Does brutish sentiment reflect a diminished intellect? Do people who behave like an animal think like an animal?
History suggests otherwise. Tyrants like Caligula, Joseph Stalin, Mao Zedong, Pol Pot, and Hitler aren’t counted as fools. Studies suggest wrong-doing may be an offshoot of creativity. It’s a talent that allows reprobates to offer excuses to assuage their conscience. Why did Putin invade Ukraine? To rid the country of Nazis.
Despite Locke and Hobbes, we humans know little about our nature. We enter the world with two fears, a fear of falling and loud noises. Do we extrapolate other fears from those? Or is fear more biological than philosophers imagined? Studies suggest it is innate, a neurological response to threat. What we do know is that it promotes violence and hatred.
To those who would throw away our democracy, I ask that first, they appreciate its value as a bulwark against fear. To secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity are the opening lines of the U. S. Constitution. They hold the promise of universal suffrage and equal justice under the law. The ambition is noble and represents the best that is in us.
Preserving that ambition exacts a price, however. We are obliged to make room for diversity and to respect habits that to some seem foreign. Yet to deprive equality to any individual or group destroys our mutual protection. As a consequence, we abandon ourselves to the law of the jungle. Or, we surrender our freedom to a dictator.
Whether hate must be taught or is part of our brutish nature, we transcend both when we hunger for justice. One day, we may prove to be worthy of the democracy we have fashioned. Till then, we must guard against fear. Democracy demands resilience. That is its one true thing.