I wasn’t a very strong student in most of college, but I remember getting inspired a few times. One time, in my very first semester, I was assigned a presentation on Hobbes in a survey course on classic politics and philosophy, which was mostly a very dull endeavor. But I liked the way Hobbes wrote, and I put real work into my presentation and did well.
I think about his most famous line every so often even now, how, without society, our lives would be “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” And he’s right. It’s not really pessimistic to say that. You only need to look at the lives of undomesticated animals to see. It wasn’t cruel when the seagull I saw on my run yesterday plucked a fish out of the water and ate it. Indeed, the only animals we can consider unkind are the smarter ones. Chimps can exhibit brutality for its own sake, and so can dolphins.
So if intelligence (baseline intelligence, not some sort of human genius) is required for true cruelty, and I believe it is, then what does it mean when so many of us seem to desire dominion over others and endless, ceaseless power and influence? I’m sure it’s fun, to be able to do what you want. But these people have convinced themselves that their social status inherently imbues them with additional worth, and to risk losing it is to risk becoming less worthwhile. To become less worthwhile is to become vulnerable to the whims of the people of whom they consider themselves to be equals. And to challenge the hegemony of their peers is to expose yourself to their animal wrath.
Ultimately, as much as the people in power enact laws and construct social mores that devalue the others, what would send them truly quaking is the full emancipation of their perceived peers. I grew up with a fair amout of class privilege, had (and have) access to people and institutions that most black people are fully excluded from. That’s not a good thing, that these spaces are private, but if they are (and they are), and I’m allowed to stick my head in, it’s on me and the people like me to speak truth to the people around me. And it’s on you, too, because most of the people who read what I write are in the same position as me.
They should be scared of the masses and the uprising that may yet occur someday. But they’re not. They’re so far removed they don’t really think about them in the daily routine, though they’re happy to enact the type of brutality only human intelligence can conjure, so long as they don’t really have to look directly at it.
But us? If we’ve been to the same schools, held the same jobs, felt some of the same power, and we reject what has been constructed? If we shine a spotlight strong enough to burn their flesh? That’s what they can’t accept.
Ultimately, humans are born with a nearly infinite capacity for love, barring a quirk of genetics. If things work out okay, we can continue to bring love to ourselves, our families, our communities, the disadvantged in our societies. Or we can only love the status quo and the people protected by it. It’s easier to be a coward. It’s exactly what society, broadly speaking, was supposed to prevent, the necessity of perpetual fear. People may think that the poor live closer to an animalistic lifestyle because of the trauma inherent in their lives, but it’s really the pampered and cosseted that live the same way our cave-dwelling ancestors once did, constantly afraid of their loosening grip on power and willing to exact ceasless cruelty to maintain it. The poor aren’t more violent by nature; after all, slaves learned violence from the people who enslaved them. The cowards who run the world had every opportunity to learn courage and they felt it easier to stay afraid. This has been exacerbated by capitalism but it precedes it and will be here long after its demise, before you start with that.
It’s really sad, actually, and it would be easy to empathize with if it weren’t for the devastating results of their refusal to help build a society that benefits all of us.
We can be better than this. We don’t have to go live in a fantastical place where all are perfectly kind to one another, as this won’t ever occur. We don’t have to just up and quit our jobs, because being self-destructive won’t actually help anyone. But we, those who went to those schools and hold those jobs, when we’re around these folks, the most fearful of all people, those who are the closest to the animals from which we evolved yet so dearly obsessed with trying to prove otherwise, we cannot allow them to feel comfortable. At the very least, we need them to fear their peers who have learned to think and behave differently from them. We need them to know, hard though it will be for them to admit it, that they can never be the best and the brightest through pure brutality and exploitation. Because, honestly, most animals rule their sphere in that way. We can do more in a society. Or we can let these people doom us to the fate of the natural world.
All it takes is courage, and if you are someone who reads what I write, I believe you have it in you. It took me many years to find mine, years wherein I didn’t know how to both be smart and kind, and I don’t blame you if you haven’t quite found all of yours yet. Keep reading, keep talking, keep learning. And then let’s make them scared of the fact that we can do what they never could: be brilliant and loving at the same time.