Why inhumanity is winning

It will win only if we let it. It has been said that, for evil to flourish, it takes only a few good men to do nothing about it.

What makes us human? Well, we’d have to define “human”, wouldn’t we? Apart from the trivial meaning of simply “pertaining to a member of the Homo sapiens species”, the word is usually used in two ways, which are related . . .

1) Characteristic of people as opposed to God or animals or machines, especially in being susceptible to weaknesses: they are only human, and therefore mistakes do occur; the risk of human error.

2) Characteristic of people’s better qualities, such as kindness or sensitivity: the human side of politics is getting stronger.

These definitions are straight out of Apple’s dictionary and are probably typical.

Here we see the qualities that we hope are to be found in us . . . and it’s noticeable that they are not the qualities of accumulating riches or power, or dominating what surrounds us. On the contrary, the qualities that we instinctively feel make us special as a race are the opposite of what so much of the world actually strives for. We apparently admire vulnerability, consciousness of our own weakness, and consideration of the sensibilities of other beings around us.

So it doesn’t take 700 words to define what makes us human – by common consent, it’s kindness. But if this is the general perception of what there is to be proud of in human behaviour, why is it that, when we look around, so often we see the very opposite? We see decisions being made purely on the basis of money, or to benefit the careers of those wielding power. We see people being cruel to children, to the disadvantaged, and to the other creatures with whom we share this glistening blue planet. We see people enjoying the pain they can inflict on other beings, and vigorously defending their right to do so as a “civil liberty”. It’s almost impossible to believe, but there are people at this moment working night and day to keep hold of their right to indulge in despicable cruelty.

Once upon a time it was legal to keep black men in chains, to burn so-called witches at the stake, to dig out badgers and use them as “bait” for training dogs to be vicious, to hunt wild animals with packs of dogs that would rip the quarry limb from limb. All of these things are now illegal, but there are still teams of people working to bring back blood sports – these inhuman behaviours. And they are supported by many rich and powerful people in Britain today.

It’s worse than this. Just as the laws that protect children from abuse are flouted behind closed doors, and time and time again atrocities are exposed, the laws, such as they are, against wildlife crime are routinely being broken in our countryside. Law and order have broken down. Thousands of badgers are being slaughtered and thrown on the roads. Fox hunts regularly hunt foxes to death, in contempt of the law, which the present regime is refusing to enforce. The sickening practice of badger-baiting is rife and actually increasing.

It appears that the inhuman side of humans is winning. But it will win only if we let it. It has been said that, for evil to flourish, it takes only a few good men to do nothing about it.

Perhaps, after all, the almost laughable simplistic generalisation is true. Perhaps there are two kinds of human being. On the one hand, are those who understand that we are all – human and non-human – just animals, and that the gift which has been given to Man is awareness, to make the world a kind place for all. And, on the other hand, are those who don’t “get it”; who cling to the idea that Man, or more accurately they, are the only thing that really matters on this planet, and that all other beings –men, women, children and animals – are to be used and abused at their pleasure.

It is shocking. But after the past few years, in which I have seen so much awful cruelty, and so much shining goodness, it seems to me that the good can never persuade the bad to change. The amount of wasted effort is enormous and depressing. All we can hope for is a decent, benign, compassionate government one day which will outlaw cruelty of all kinds, and enforce decent behaviour on those who cannot see that they are doing anything wrong. That has been the pattern in the past.

But are we human? Are we a humane race? Looking around at the concrete world we have created, in which the rich get richer, the poor get poorer, and the weak become persecuted to extinction, I seriously wonder if we have the right to call ourselves, as a race, human. We have a hell of a long way to go.

Brian May is a guitarist, formerly with the rock band Queen, and an astrophysicist This article is the third in a series published in association with BBC Radio 2 and the Jeremy Vine show

This article first appeared in the 20 May 2013 issue of the New Statesman, The Dream Ticket

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The age of loneliness

Profound changes in technology, work and community are transforming our ultrasocial species into a population of loners.

Our dominant ideology is based on a lie. A series of lies, in fact, but I’ll focus on just one. This is the claim that we are, above all else, self-interested – that we seek to enhance our own wealth and power with little regard for the impact on others.

Some economists use a term to describe this presumed state of being – Homo economicus, or self-maximising man. The concept was formulated, by J S Mill and others, as a thought experiment. Soon it became a modelling tool. Then it became an ideal. Then it evolved into a description of who we really are.

It could not be further from the truth. To study human behaviour is to become aware of how weird we are. Many species will go to great lengths to help and protect their close kin. One or two will show occasional altruism towards unrelated members of their kind. But no species possesses a capacity for general altruism that is anywhere close to our own.

With the possible exception of naked mole-rats, we have the most social minds of all mammals. These minds evolved as an essential means of survival. Slow, weak, armed with rounded teeth and flimsy nails in a world of fangs and claws and horns and tusks, we survived through co-operation, reciprocity and mutual defence, all of which developed to a remarkable degree.

A review paper in the journal Frontiers in Psychology observes that Homo economicus  might be a reasonable description of chimpanzees. “Outsiders . . . would not expect to receive offers of food or solicitude; rather, they would be fiercely attacked . . . food is shared only under harassment; even mothers will not voluntarily offer novel foods to their own infants unless the infants beg for them.” But it is an unreasonable description of human beings.

How many of your friends, colleagues and neighbours behave like chimpanzees? A few, perhaps. If so, are they respected or reviled? Some people do appear to act as if they have no interests but their own – Philip Green and Mike Ashley strike me as possible examples – but their behaviour ­attracts general revulsion. The news is filled with spectacular instances of human viciousness: although psychopaths are rare, their deeds fill the papers. Daily acts of kindness are seldom reported, because they are everywhere.

Every day, I see people helping others with luggage, offering to cede their place in a queue, giving money to the homeless, setting aside time for others, volunteering for causes that offer no material reward. Alongside these quotidian instances are extreme and stunning cases. I think of my Dutch mother-in-law, whose family took in a six-year-old Jewish boy – a stranger – and hid him in their house for two years during the German occupation of the Netherlands. Had he been discovered, they would all have been sent to a concentration camp.

Studies suggest that altruistic tendencies are innate: from the age of 14 months, children try to help each other, attempting to hand over objects another child can’t reach. At the age of two, they start to share valued possessions. By the time they are three, they begin to protest against other people’s violation of moral norms.

Perhaps because we are told by the media, think tanks and politicians that competition and self-interest are the defining norms of human life, we disastrously mischaracterise the way in which other people behave. A survey commissioned by the Common Cause Foundation reported that 78 per cent of respondents believe others to be more selfish than they really are.

I do not wish to suggest that this mythology of selfishness is the sole or even principal cause of the epidemic of loneliness now sweeping the world. But it is likely to contribute to the plague by breeding suspicion and a sense of threat. It also appears to provide a doctrine of justification for those afflicted by isolation, a doctrine that sees individualism as a higher state of existence than community. Perhaps it is hardly surprising that Britain, the European nation in which neoliberalism is most advanced, is, according to government figures, the loneliness capital of Europe.

There are several possible reasons for the atomisation now suffered by the supremely social mammal. Work, which used to bring us together, now disperses us: many people have neither fixed workplaces nor regular colleagues and regular hours. Our leisure time has undergone a similar transformation: cinema replaced by television, sport by computer games, time with friends by time on Facebook.

Social media seems to cut both ways: it brings us together and sets us apart. It helps us to stay in touch, but also cultivates a tendency that surely enhances other people’s sense of isolation: a determination to persuade your followers that you’re having a great time. FOMO – fear of missing out – seems, at least in my mind, to be closely ­associated with loneliness.

Children’s lives in particular have been transformed: since the 1970s, their unaccompanied home range (in other words, the area they roam without adult supervision) has declined in Britain by almost 90 per cent. Not only does this remove them from contact with the natural world, but it limits their contact with other children. When kids played out on the street or in the woods, they quickly formed their own tribes, learning the social skills that would see them through life.

An ageing population, family and community breakdown, the decline of institutions such as churches and trade unions, the switch from public transport to private, inequality, an alienating ethic of consumerism, the loss of common purpose: all these are likely to contribute to one of the most dangerous epidemics of our time.

Yes, I do mean dangerous. The stress response triggered by loneliness raises blood pressure and impairs the immune system. Loneliness enhances the risk of depression, paranoia, addiction, cognitive decline, dem­entia, heart disease, stroke, viral infection, accidents and suicide. It is as potent a cause of early death as smoking 15 cigarettes a day, and can be twice as deadly as obesity.

Perhaps because we are in thrall to the ideology that helps to cause the problem, we turn to the market to try to solve it. Over the past few weeks, the discovery of a new American profession, the people-walker (taking human beings for walks), has caused a small sensation in the media. In Japan there is a fully fledged market for friendship: you can hire friends by the hour with whom to chat and eat and watch TV; or, more disturbingly, to pose for pictures that you can post on social media. They are rented as mourners at funerals and guests at weddings. A recent article describes how a fake friend was used to replace a sister with whom the bride had fallen out. What would the bride’s mother make of it? No problem: she had been rented, too. In September we learned that similar customs have been followed in Britain for some time: an early foray into business for the Home Secretary, Amber Rudd, involved offering to lease her posh friends to underpopulated weddings.



My own experience fits the current pattern: the high incidence of loneliness suffered by people between the ages of 18 and 34. I have sometimes been lonely before and after that period, but it was during those years that I was most afflicted. The worst episode struck when I returned to Britain after six years working in West Papua, Brazil and East Africa. In those parts I sometimes felt like a ghost, drifting through societies to which I did not belong. I was often socially isolated, but I seldom felt lonely, perhaps because the issues I was investigating were so absorbing and the work so frightening that I was swept along by adrenalin and a sense of purpose.

When I came home, however, I fell into a mineshaft. My university friends, with their proper jobs, expensive mortgages and settled, prematurely aged lives, had become incomprehensible to me, and the life I had been leading seemed incomprehensible to everyone. Though feeling like a ghost abroad was in some ways liberating – a psychic decluttering that permitted an intense process of discovery – feeling like a ghost at home was terrifying. I existed, people acknowledged me, greeted me cordially, but I just could not connect. Wherever I went, I heard my own voice bouncing back at me.

Eventually I made new friends. But I still feel scarred by that time, and fearful that such desolation may recur, particularly in old age. These days, my loneliest moments come immediately after I’ve given a talk, when I’m surrounded by people congratulating me or asking questions. I often experience a falling sensation: their voices seem to recede above my head. I think it arises from the nature of the contact: because I can’t speak to anyone for more than a few seconds, it feels like social media brought to life.

The word “sullen” evolved from the Old French solain, which means “lonely”. Loneliness is associated with an enhanced perception of social threat, so one of its paradoxical consequences is a tendency to shut yourself off from strangers. When I was lonely, I felt like lashing out at the society from which I perceived myself excluded, as if the problem lay with other people. To read any comment thread is, I feel, to witness this tendency: you find people who are plainly making efforts to connect, but who do so by insulting and abusing, alienating the rest of the thread with their evident misanthropy. Perhaps some people really are rugged individualists. But others – especially online – appear to use that persona as a rationale for involuntary isolation.

Whatever the reasons might be, it is as if a spell had been cast on us, transforming this ultrasocial species into a population of loners. Like a parasite enhancing the conditions for its own survival, loneliness impedes its own cure by breeding shame and shyness. The work of groups such as Age UK, Mind, Positive Ageing and the Campaign to End Loneliness is life-saving.

When I first wrote about this subject, and the article went viral, several publishers urged me to write a book on the theme. Three years sitting at my desk, studying isolation: what’s the second prize? But I found another way of working on the issue, a way that engages me with others, rather than removing me. With the brilliant musician Ewan McLennan, I have written a concept album (I wrote the first draft of the lyrics; he refined them and wrote the music). Our aim is to use it to help break the spell, with performances of both music and the spoken word designed to bring people together –which, we hope, will end with a party at the nearest pub.

By itself, our work can make only a tiny contribution to addressing the epidemic. But I hope that, both by helping people to acknowledge it and by using the power of music to create common sentiment, we can at least begin to identify the barriers that separate us from others, and to remember that we are not the selfish, ruthless beings we are told we are.

“Breaking the Spell of Loneliness” by Ewan McLennan and George Monbiot is out now. For a full list of forthcoming gigs visit: monbiot.com/music/

This article first appeared in the 20 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brothers in blood