We’re all taught to be nice to others. To treat people as we would like to be treated. Bumper stickers proclaim “Mean People Suck” and “Mean People Are Mean.” And while not terribly eloquent and apparently created by four year olds, their message is dead-on accurate. Mean people suck. But without them, humanity will wither and, eventually, die.
Though some would disagree, many believe that people are becoming more pleasant. Particularly here, in the United States. The manner in which we debate politically evidences this fact. Our politicians actually sing, they’re so happy with one another. They call each other by cute nicknames like “Mitt” and “Newt” and “That Black Interloper in the White House.” One group of conservatives who seems particularly desperate to reach out to others calls themselves “The Tea Party.” Clearly, it’s an invitation. Come on over. We’ll talk tax cuts and why it’s nobody’s fault but your own if you don’t have health insurance, and drink a cup of chamomile (No English Breakfast Tea – they’re bloody Socialists, dontcha know?). I bet they’d serve cucumber sandwiches with the crusts cut off if you requested it.
This level of friendliness has also impacted the manner in which our country deals with other nations. When U.S. troops visit other countries – without their permission – and in large numbers, this is no longer considered an invasion or war, but an “Operation” – i.e. Operation Iraqi Freedom, Operation Desert Storm. We no longer kill our enemies, we neutralize assets using smart bombs and surgical strikes. I don’t know about you, but sometimes, I’m not sure if we’re running a war or a MASH unit or fixing kid’s cleft palates. The whole thing sounds so civil and professional and medical. Even when we lose one of our own, it’s often to “friendly fire.” Did the deceased soldier feel that the bullets or bombs that took his or her life were particularly amiable? He or she must have because, otherwise, a term like friendly fire would almost be insulting to the families those heroes left behind. And nice people don’t insult widows and orphaned children. It’s inherently NOT nice.
Overall, this may be one of the nicest decades in history. According to Steven Pinker, Harvard psychology professor and author of The Better Angels of our Nature, “Today we may be living in the most peaceable era of our species’ existence.” What? We’re less violent today, you say? That’s just crazy talk! We’ve got non-stop wars going on. We’re armed to the gills. Our ghettos are infested with gangs. Schools employ the use of metal detectors. Someone threw glitter at Newt Gingrich. Paula Abdul was canned as an X-Factor judge. Kim Kardashian has to travel with multiple body guards. Paris Hilton’s house is continuously burgled. Jimmy Fallon’s band insinuated that Michele Bachmann is a “lyin’ ass bitch.” It’s a cruel, mean world.
Au contraire, says The New York Times journalist, Nicholas D. Kristof, who recently examined the warm-and-fuzzy worldwide trend in his article, “Are We Getting Nicer?” Actually, he didn’t really say, “Au contraire.” But he would – if he was here sitting next to me right now as I write this blog. Which he isn’t. He’d also say, “You know, it’s really late. Mind if I take a little nap?” What he did say is that in the 20th century, a time “notorious for world war and genocide,” only about 3% of all deaths involved “such man-made catastrophes.” By comparison, in Native American, hunter-gatherer societies, 13% died as the result of violence, and the 17th century’s “Thirty Years’ War reduced Germany’s population by as much as one-third.” Now either Kristof, like Bobby Fischer and David Duke, doesn’t believe the Holocaust occurred and is leaving out a whole lot of dead people in his calculations – or humans used to be much, much, much more violent. We were bad asses. A few centuries ago, “Oh, no she diddddn’t” was inevitably followed by the previously-referenced “she” person’s head being paraded around the town on a stick. Three hundred years ago, the Grimm brothers wrote fairy tales – for little children - involving cannibalism, the severing of various limbs, a talking dead horse head, kidnapping, murder, imprisonment in tall towers, and talking drops of blood. S&M wasn’t a sexual fetish; it was a religious conversion technique.
Further supporting the theory that society is becoming a kinder, gentler place is The U.S. Department of Justice’s 2010 report, Crime In the United States, which indicates a steady decline in violent crime over the last five years. Between 2009 and 2010 alone, there was a 6% decrease. And since 2006, the incidence of violent crime has dipped over 13%. If this is true, then surely – at this rate – we’ll all be dancing naked and banging drums around bonfires singing Kumbaya in another twenty years, and living in an Egalitarian society in which all food and goods are gifted to one another on the basis of need.
However, if you’re like me, you don’t trust the numbers. Former British Prime Minister, Benjamin Disraeli, may have put it best when he said, “There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies and statistics.” Numbers can be manipulated and our country’s leaders are quick to point that out. For example, Rick Perry emphatically stated in his book, Fed Up!, that global warming and the science supporting it is “one contrived phony mess.” Likewise, fast-food expert Herman Cain recently weighed in on the same issue, calling the whole thing “a scam.” Granted, neither of them possess an actual background in climatology, but they’re wealthy men with good jobs – and they recognize manipulation when they see it. One of them has years of experience running a corporation in which lobbying, greed and corruption are not uncommon, so he’s familiar with collusion; the other is an expert in numbers manipulation himself, most recently with his 9-9-9 Plan (though I personally think he stole it from a Beatles’ song). Just as these political giants dismiss global warming, I’m certain they’d disagree with all these crazy statistics that claim our world is gradually becoming a nicer place.
Perhaps some anecdotal evidence would be more convincing. Halloween is a perfect example. Unlike the Seventies when children were encouraged to go strangers’ doors dressed in strange costumes and rudely scream, “Trick or Treat!” into homeowners’ faces on an annual basis, parents now shepherd their rugrats to the mall, where they now shout “Trick or Treat” into the faces of mall employees. Wait! Isn’t this evidence of the fact that parents are worried about their children’s safety because the world is NOT a nicer place? No. No. Not at all. This is merely indicative of the fact that parents have recognized the burden that Halloween places on the average person. How rude is it to allow your kids to bang on some old lady’s door thirty or forty times in one night and threaten her with a “trick” if she doesn’t give scary looking children (who, in her mind, might be demonic dwarves) candy that she really can’t afford on her fixed income? Especially when she’s trying to watch Hot In Cleveland. You can’t miss a second of that show ’cause Betty “Don’t Buy Me Green Bananas” White could go at an any minute.
By taking children to the mall instead, parents are attempting to mitigate the impact of Halloween’s expense and inconvenience on others. Unlike the elderly woman I mentioned, mall employees aren’t watching television, so the children aren’t interrupting them doing something important. And they’re paid to be yelled at. In fact, they’re hollered at regularly (though less than before, because we are getting friendlier) and they don’t have to bear the expense of the candy distributed to the ankle-biters to get them to run along and harass someone else. This cost is absorbed by Corporate America and I don’t care what anyone says, they aren’t people and I don’t have to be nicer to them.
Assuming the statistics and anecdotal evidence supporting the Amiable Argument, as I like to call it, are correct, how is this a bad thing? Won’t we, as a society, be happier? Isn’t this what we’ve been aspiring to as humans – evolving over the years into more civilized creatures capable of empathy and love? It looks as though we’re almost there. We’re right on the cusp of Utopia, ready to fall off the precipice into the gorge of universal peace.
Yeah, okay. Lemme know when you’re done huggin’ that tree and are willing to put the patchouli incense away. Please. It stinks. Oh, and that crystal you’ve been rubbing under your armpits – not working. It’s like being downwind of a pair of Larry King’s Depends first thing in the morning before his
babysitter wife has changed him. Oh, and you – radical conservatives who doubt anything that God didn’t handwrite Himself in your translated-a-billion-times-over King James version of the Bible, I’ve got a question for you. If God created everything, then He created the metaphor, right? Why would the universe’s greatest super hero invent a linguistic tool, inspire one of the best-selling books of all time and not use a single metaphor anywhere in that very, very long book? C’mon – can’t we agree that maybe everything shouldn’t be taken literally? Maybe Christ wasn’t really a vine. Or a door. And maybe seven days is more like seven million years.
So back to why nice people will be the death of us all. Darwin. Natural selection. Oh, let me guess. That’s more poppycock, right? Darwin’s theories are up there with global warming and the Holocaust and the moon landing. Crazy talk! Fine, but the dinosaurs probably dismissed him as well and it didn’t turn out so well for most of them now, did it? No, I’m not saying that being amiable will be the catalyst for the natural disaster that will spawn another Ice Age – for which we are sorely unprepared.
What I’m saying is that when everything’s good, when everything’s easy-peasy, is when our DNA becomes complacent. Instead of developing opposable big toes like Beast in X-Men: First Class or the ability to communicate with one another almost entirely through pheromones like ants, we’re doing nothing. We’re letting our technology do our thinking for us, sitting in front of our computers all day while our muscle tone slowly dwindles, and our girths expand until width is the term used to describe one’s size, not height. I’m no wack-a-doo soothsayer, either. Pixar foretold this future a few years back in WALL-E.
Think I’m crazy? Visit any Wal-Mart or grocery store and see how many of those scooters are now available for shoppers. Twenty years ago, they didn’t exist. They were called wheelchairs – and you brought your own with you. Because you were crippled – not fat and lazy. One upon a time, heavy-set people just waddled up and down the aisles like the rest of us. For us, it was shopping; for them, it was an aerobic workout, but it was better than sitting on your ass because you might get a tad out of breath. Now you have to be careful where you walk at a theme park because you’ll get run down by someone who can’t be bothered to get off their butt (or just wants to get to the next ride faster – those friggin’ scooters have some serious horsepower). And this is bad for us as a species. When apex predators get fat and lazy, they get eaten by new apex predators.
Without mean people, the human race will lose it’s only predator. As apex predators, we are remarkably similar to sharks and crocodiles, neither of which has changed much since the K/T Extinction Event that wiped out the dinosaurs 65 million years ago. Still, a long time ago, both were quite a bit larger, but after being the big guys on campus for so long, they inevitably began to take it easy, evolutionarily speaking. Imagine an crocodile thinking to himself millions of years ago, “Wildebeest aren’t getting any bigger. I couldn’t probably lose a few inches of tail, spend a little less time at the gym and a work on my tan more often and still get plenty to eat. Same with sharks. For 14 million years, the 50-foot long Megalodon was, literally, the big motherfuckin’ fish in the big motherfuckin’ pond. Though some dispute that the Great White Shark is a descendant of the Megalodon and the reason for this monster’s extinction has never been determined, it’s possible that Mega Mouth just got tired of chewing (My husband often claims that it’s the most boring of activities) and filling its enormous belly. Maybe he thought, “If I dropped a good 35 tons, I could still rule this roost no problem and I wouldn’t have to feed all the darn time. I could take up Scrabble or write that novel I keep talking about.” And The Great White Shark was born.
Regardless, these apex-predators of the oceans and rivers are in trouble. The Great White is now more endangered than tigers. In the United States, alligators were endangered for years and are now a protected species. Numerous species of crocodiles across the world are currently endangered. Why? Ultimately, because we are the Uber Villain in the comic strip called, “Earth.” We hunt them, we steal and pollute their habitat, we make awful films about gimongous versions of them. Except, as we get lazier, spawn fewer evolved children and destroy our DNA with crystal meth, the chimps out there are eating well, throwing poo (a sign of intelligence and one step away from learning to use an uzi) and are fashioning and using weapons. Whaaaaaat? Weapons? Yep. Santino, a chimp in the Furuvik Zoo in Sweden, began creating disks out of concrete and collecting stones – even after hours – to throw at annoying tourists while the zoo was open. Scared yet?
So keep it up, Nice People. If you do, Planet of the Apes could be your future. Mean People keep you on your toes. They pick on you so that you’re too embarrassed to ride around on that scooter, hogging the damn cereal aisle. They mind-fuck you at work to keep your synapses firing, and cut you off in traffic to keep your eye-hand coordination intact. They beat you up in the playground to teach you how to defend yourself, mug you in the alley so you understand when to fight and when to flee, and steal your girlfriend so you learn to treat the next one like gold. Mean people make your books and films interesting. Conflict is what makes the world go round…not conservation of angular momentum. That’s just more science poppycock. Back me up on this one, Rick Perry.