I believe that most people are good, but that at the same time, human nature is both selfish and impressively benevolent. From an evolutionary prospective, we have only come this far because both of these things, while seemingly oxymoronic, are completely true. Our number one priority is to provision, protect and defend ourselves and our family; these are basically selfish acts. But we sometimes exhibit amazing, selfless acts towards others who are not related to us; this is the benevolence I mentioned. These kinds of behaviors are seen in social organisms like bees and ants, apes and, yes, humans.
What sets social organisms apart from others, is the construction of community and the behavior of individuals to act in apparently selfless ways. We have learned from science that the social structure created by these species actually provides benefits that solitary organisms would never experience. A simple example, from our own species, is the creation of community within a neighborhood. We know the people who live around us, and we tend to keep an eye on the neighborhood. You’ll hear of people bringing soup or cookies to a neighbor who is ill, or the postal worker who notices that an elderly person on the route hasn’t gathered their mail. We do good things for these people, because we care about them. Not only do these relationships satisfy a need for connection, they are part of what we gain by being social organisms. We gain security, knowing that others are around, and so sometimes we help them, knowing that sometimes we’ll need help and they’ll help us. This is called reciprocal altruism; you scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours.
This behavior goes beyond actions. It is observed in emotions. We rejoice with those who rejoice and weep with those who weep. When someone is mistreated we rally with them, angered by injustice. A clear example of this from history is the way the greater world aided and supported the liberation of the Jews from the Nazi concentration camps. We were outraged at such horrible acts of discrimination and oppression, and we acted in a way that showed our support of the Jews.
This weekend, across California and in many countries around the world, people rallied behind an effort to repeal Proposition 8, the ban on gay marriage. While attending a protest in my local community, I observed this phenomenon; the act of protest. What struck me most was the means by which people were showing their support of anti-discrimination laws, and the degree of power that emanated from the crowd. Through history we have seen time and time again, that power of people coming together. What is behind such strength? It is three things; the goodness of people, anger at injustice, and peace. These elements come together to create powerful change.
Goodness. Anger. Peace.
Because we recognize injustice, and we care about what happens to others, we become angry. Only those completely blind or selfish fail to be angred by injustice. But there is a key element of the power behind protests and movements that have changed the shape of history—peace. To watch people assemble yesterday, in protest of discrimination, was to see the roots of a powerful movement. It is a movement that has the three essential elements to make it so powerful as to be unstoppable. Discrimination should never be tolerated, and to see it makes people angry. Yet this anger is not a rage, without direction or focus. It is a peaceful anger, with intention and action, and this makes it powerful.
Let us all be awake and aware. Let us rejoice with those who rejoice, but when we see oppression and discrimination, let us be angry. Let that anger spark compassion for those who are served by the hand of injustice. Let anger transform into action to work against it. Let us be peaceful in our actions, and working together, we will be more powerful than any oppressor. Injustice will fall in the face of human goodness, anger and peace, for these elements, together, are powerful.