It's probably no surprise to hear my nonfiction reading was a lot about how people behave in difficult circumstances. The pandemic and the partial shutdown of our economic and social lives has definitely been on my mind, as well as everyone else's. Add to that nationwide protests against police brutality, a record-breaking hurricane season and a tense election plagued by an outpouring of conspiracy nuts and it's been an... exciting year.
I read a lot of different things, ranging from my usual genre loves of science fiction to a few how-to books for projects and hobbies, but here are a few that really stood out as particularly relevant to the mood of the year.
Early on in the shutdown, before I had to return to in-person work I stumbled a book that really resonated with my new, involuntarily slowed-down life, How To Do Nothing: Resisting The Attention Economy by Jenny Odell. This book was not about actually nothing at all, but rather finding healthy ways to unplug from the "always on" demands of work, social media and advertising that are constantly clamoring for our eyeballs and attention. This book got me thinking more about the things I found satisfying away from the ubiquitous screens and made me re-evaluate my relationship with both social media and work. This re-evaluation is still ongoing, but the books that followed became part of it.
In the same vein I picked up Wanderlust: A History of Walking by Rebecca Solnit and The Managed Heart: Commercialization of Human Feeling by Arlie Russel Hochschild. While these books covered very different areas, the first being more about the values of looking at the world on a pedestrian scale (as in "walking" not "boring") while the second is about how the workplace has come to place more and more demand on not only our physical and intellectual labor, but our emotional work as well, as we're increasingly expected to show particular emotions and attitudes as part of our job. Demands that are made unequally along lines of status and often gender, which can create all sorts of hidden wear and tear on our psyche.
These books helped me look at the everyday grind, what was good, what was bad, and got me thinking about how not only my place in the whole machine, but the flaws of our economic and social structures and how they might be improved with a bit more thoughtfulness.
But of course, this wasn't an ordinary year, this was the year the machine broke down. The immediate cause was, of course, the COVID-19 Pandemic, though the fact that our cultural and financial institutions were woefully unprepared to deal with a large scale disruption made everything, and continue to make everything, worse than it had to be. So I got to thinking about disasters.
Two books that really opened my eyes to a lot of the reality of what happens when a disaster hit, the first, The Unthinkable: Who Survives When Disaster Strikes and Why by Amanda Ripley talked about ordinary people reacted to extreme circumstances, and in a lot of cases how what really happens contradicts the expectations of what's going to happen created by movies and pundits. It explored more than a hundred years of disaster reporting and sociology, involving earthquakes, fires, hurricanes and revolutions.
Much to my surprise, the pop-culture images of widespread panic and looting were fairly rare in real life. If anything, some people go too far in the opposite direction, waiting passively for things to make sense again, with tragic results. But for the most part, people seem to be pretty sensible in an emergency, working together, behaving rationally and getting away as best as they can. Often they'll behave extremely altruistically and help out others.
When panic does happen, it's often the result of predictable circumstances, where people are unable to move or act, and are packed too tightly to be able to respond with any sense of autonomy. The same seems to be true of rioting in times of civil unrest, protestors almost never spontaneously riot, it's usually the actions of police or military forces putting pressure on them that causes the situation to explode.
Looting too, seems a lot rarer than it's made out to be in disaster movies, even in actual riots and especially in life-threatening emergencies. It does happen, but it's hardly widespread. The much greater danger seems to be the vigilantes who take it upon themselves to "protect" the community from the looting they imagine is going to happen, which in practice often looks a lot like shooting anyone of a particular racial or socioeconomic group who dares show their face in certain neighborhoods (this was a big problem after Hurricane Katrina, exacerbated by police with much the same attitudes).
Ordinary people, it seems, do OK in disasters, while authority figures tend to be the ones who actually freak out, leading to what sociologists call "elite panic," and causing unnecessarily draconian or violent responses to an emergency in the name of maintaining the social order, as opposed to helping people in need (to see this happening in slow motion, just read anything dealing with the response of the US Congress to the current situation).
Often, in fact, everyday people will work together at their local level to create temporary communities in the wake of a disaster, trying to keep each other fed and safe, which was the topic of the other Rebecca Solnit book I read this year A Paradise Built In Hell: The Extraordinary Communities That Arise In Disaster. In this book, Solnit describes how some of the improvised communities built in the wake of earthquakes, hurricanes and the like allowed people to not only survive, but to thrive. Often the sense of purpose and the breaking down of routines and social strata made people happier for a short time than they may have been in their everyday lives, and these cooperative bands of neighbors were more effective in distributing relief than the official government response was (which led to more of that elite panic and sometimes interference with grass-roots relief efforts in the name of imposing top-down order once again).
It's worth noting that the current situation, where the best way to help each other is to keep our distance and stop the virus from spreading, doesn't particularly lend itself to neighborly measures like erecting spontaneous soup kitchens or street medic stations. But think about how many people have been sewing masks or donating blood, volunteering where they can. In times of crisis, the human instinct is often to do SOMETHING to help out, which is pretty great. And, honestly, not terribly surprising, in spite of what all the post-apocalyptic movies we all watched might have told us. We are, as a species, instinctively cooperative, which is probably the most important reason we've been so successful.
The final book that really tied into my theme for the year was probably the meatiest and most complicated of the bunch, Behave: The Biology Of Humans At Our Best And Our Worst by Robert Sapolsky. This book explored not only the way we act, but the hormonal, neurological, genetic and environmental factors that influenced all of those. I could probably (and maybe will) write a whole blog post on what I learned from this book alone, but there are a few takeaways that tie into what I read in the other books.
Probably the most important ones are that we human beings, like other primates and most other social animals in general, are very good at dividing the world into "Us vs Them." And we'll often make all sorts of excuses for Us, and blame anything we can on Them. Now who constitutes and "Us" and what terrible enemy counts as "Them" from moment to moment can be very fluid, because we're pretty complicated critters, even compared to our closest cousins in the wild. It can be along racial, political or religious lines, it can be between fans of rival football teams or even between people who like football and people who don't. And we can exist simultaneously in several Us/Them relationships at the same time. "Sure, he's a Dallas fan, but he shares my love of '70s heist movies, so he's not all bad."
The Us/Them paradigm can be manipulated, for good but more often for ill, because of something else that makes humans particularly human, our ability to think in metaphors. We literally feel sick at seeing an image of something repugnant, like we smell rotten meat, we feel joy at a particular song that reminds us of home, symbolism is so closely tied into reality in our minds that we have trouble separating them on a subconscious level. And terrible people use that to exploit the Us/Them division. "Look at these people from group X," they say, "are they even really people? They're more like cockroaches." And part of our brain stops seeing other people as human beings, and if they're not human beings, does it matter how badly we treat them? This is called pseudospeciation, and it's one of the most effective propaganda tools out there. It works well because, sometimes, the more we hate the Thems out there, the closer and more loyal we feel to Us.
And all this works because we're never as rational as we like to think we are. Probably especially people who pride themselves on being rational all the time. What we think of as rationality is often rationalization, our very clever brains looking to make excuses for our unconscious biases and things that lurk in the deep, dark currents of our psyche. We don't like to admit to ourselves that we don't trust a person because something about them reminds us of our third grade bully, or because we're a little bit prejudiced against something. Or maybe we need to eat lunch and we're just cranky, but we'd NEVER let a little thing like slightly low blood sugar affect our judgement, would we?
But in spite of all our strange, chaotic, and seemingly unpredictable irrationality, Sapolsky tells us, we're surprisingly nice to each other most of the time. There are evolutionary and personal benefits to cooperation, and studying our primate cousins teaches us that the noisiest and most aggressive are almost never the most successful, rather the ones who are really good at getting along with each other. No man, (or chimp, or baboon) it seems, is an island.
The takeaway from all this? Well, for me, a lot of it's still percolating, but in spite of the chaos of this year, I feel a bit more optimistic about human nature, and have been really thinking about my own place and where I want to go from this kind of transitional place I find myself, career-wise. There's a lot to be said about the feeling of satisfaction in finding a way to serve the greater community, and maybe I'll figure out how to do that (and buy groceries) in the future. But I've still got a lot of reading to do, either way.
Happy New Year, folks!