As Mr. Kruiser says, "Everything isn't awful"

Glenn Reynolds links to a modern anti-"Lord of the Flies" story, in which a small group of shipwrecked boys survives on a seemingly uninhabitable island for 15 months before being rescued in good health and spirits.  Someone raised these kids up right, enabling them to bring their sane characters together in a sane community structure.  Glenn comments on the depressing view of Golding's famously dystopian novel and notes that Golding was a mess of a man, which could explain his conviction of the inevitable mess men must make of a culture.  And certainly the mess is inevitable if the men embrace vicious failure in themselves; it's hard enough to face disaster when we're all doing the best we can. The culture affects how the kids are raised, and then the kids affect the culture.

We got a lot of culture largely based on the “sad self-knowledge” of people who were psychological and moral outliers — social and moral losers, as I say — but who fancied themselves representative of humanity and who managed to sell that self-justifying delusion to the rest of society. The costs were significant.
Rutger Bregman wrote a book, "Humankind," about the six Tonganese boys who stole a fishing boat in 1966 to take a "three-hour tour" as a break from their strict Catholic boarding school. Mr. Bregman's book, not "Lord of the Flies," is in my Audiobooks queue for background listening while I paint or crochet this week.


Harmon Ward said...

We read "The Lord of the Flies" in High School. During the discussion period afterward is became apparent that many of the readers thought the book was representative of reality. It would be great to have a group of high school students today read the fiction and non-fiction versions of the story and compare them.

David Foster said...

There is also a Heinlein SF book which was published about the same time as Lord of the Flies, but which projects a very different view of human nature and of social organization. In this story, 'Tunnel in the Sky', a group of high school students is sent to a far-away planet for a two-week 'survival test'...(it seems that the technology is such that humans can be sent to galaxies far way, but contact must be very infrequent, since so much very expensive energy is required...hence, people who want to settle on other worlds must learn pioneer-grade survival skills)

Anyhow, something goes wrong and it looks like the students are stranded there *forever*. But unlike LOTF, the group (which, also unlike LOTF, includes girls as well as boys) is able to establish a functioning society.

Interesting passage in a speech given by one of the characters, who is running for election:

In his electioneering speech, Grant asks: "What is the prime knowledge acquired by our race? That without the rest is useless? What flame must we guard like vestal virgins?"

Members of the group give various answers: fire, writing, the decimal system, the wheel.

"No," says Grant, "none of those. They are all important, but they are not the keystone. The greatest invention of mankind is government. It is also the hardest of all. More individualistic than cats, nevertheless we have learned to cooperate more efficiently than ants or bees or termites. Wilder, bloodier, and more deadly than sharks, we have learned to live together as peacefully as lambs. But these things are not easy.."

Grim said...

Protagoras makes a similar claim in the Socratic dialogue that bears his name. He calls it the gift of Zeus.

Texan99 said...

I have read "Tunnel in the Sky" many times. Great stuff.

The Bregman book proved disappointing, however. Only one chapter deals with the fascinating castaway story. The rest looks like it's shaping up to be one more sterile rehashing of the "Hobbes vs. Rousseau" debate, as if we could finally prove that man is either all good or all bad, or could get by with zero social organization or must have totalitarianism to avert disaster.

The boys in the castaway were a small, intimate band with a strong bond. They were schoolmates in a strict school, with a common enemy and a plan to escape together on a great adventure. What worked for them won't scale up to even hundreds, let alone thousands, millions, or billions of distant strangers lacking a shared credo. What I get from the story is not that "people are intrinsically decent," as the author argues, but that the healthy culture people bring to a crisis, along with their strength of character (also informed by their culture, if it's a good culture), can make the difference between a vicious dystopia and success. Pitcairn Island is an obvious counterexample to the Tongan castaway boys' story: the Bounty's crew and their Tahitian allies tore themselves to shreds in no time flat.

The author makes a secondary point that's more solid: we tend to overestimate the likelihood of the Lord of the Flies result and to discount examples where people behaved rather decently in emergencies. It's just more hip to be cynical. I'd say a critical point to consider is whether people under stress can somehow see themselves as an intimate community, as they sometimes can in a pinch despite being thrown together with strangers. It also seems to make a huge difference whether people are facing a temporary crisis or trying to adopt an approach to an entire lifetime. We'll share in emergencies, but eventually get tired of chronic grifters and freeloaders. We trust people face to face when we have to, but mostly have learned that trusting distant strangers is a low-success shot unless we're all part of a really robust and trustworthy system.

ymarsakar said...

I read and linked this almost a year ago. The delay in the public consciousness is sstill large but smaller than it ever has been.

They have all been lying to you.