You know that whole “not of bread alone.” It is true. Man is not a creature of food and water, of enough oxygen and taking another breath.
Sure you can get humans to that state. It usuallya takes something like a prison camp, or the vast prison camp that are places like the former soviet union or present day North Korea. You can get humans to where they wake up every morning and their only goal is to live another day. They’ll betray anyone, break any law or taboo, eat anything, do anything to survive one more day. But even in that situation it is not as simple as it sounds.
Man is a creature of story.
We are not, alas, just animals living in the moment (actually we’re not sure animals just live in the moment. Neurological studies, at least, seem to indicate cats and dogs have memories, ideations and hopes. And we know elephants do.) We’re creatures of thought as much as of body and our thought needs to have a shape and a direction, too.
Even in prisoner camps — one of the things I read, like I read stories of revolution both successful and failed, and biographies of tyrants, is biographies of people who were reduced to the most extreme conditions and how they survived. No, I don’t know why. Shut up — people do have narratives. What type of narrative they have often determines if they survive. And it’s not a matter of “positive narratives survive.” Humans aren’t that simple. It’s more if you think you’re serving some purpose with your life, you will survive everything. Some of the successful narratives are “in the end the communists/nazis/this person who kidnapped me and held me in a box under his bed fro seven years” win, “but I can spite them/him by living another hour, another day, and by d*mn and h*ll, I’m going to do it.”
More down to Earth and in normal everyday circumstances, humans live by story. You might think you don’t have a story in your head, but you do. It can be as simple as “I’m a really good dad” to “I’m one of the righteous, headed for salvation.” The narrative in your head will inform how you make big and small choices from “do I give up seeing the movie to play with my kid?” to “Do I buy the big house, or save the money and give it to the poor?” to just about everything.
The story is not just about who you are. It’s also about what kind of place the world is, and what other people are like.
If you’re the sort of person who thinks that most people, however annoying, are basically decent, just trying to live their lives, it will inform your choices, and your own narrative in a far different way, than if you think every human being who ever lived is a sh*tweasel, and that a not inconsiderable number of them are out to get you personally. Or that they will be dishonest if given the slightest chance.
It informs your politics. If you think most average, normal humans are basically despicable, you will crave a big government that will keep “them sonsofdogs” under control, so they can’t hurt/steal from the “good people” like you. This view requires you to have in your head a natural aristocracy, the “good people” who are like you and don’t have ill intents and can, therefore, be trusted with power.
People who think people are basically decent, though they can respond to incentives not to be, and so we try to keep people free to be as decent as they can be, and not to short-circuit them into being evil.
A lot of our views of the world are informed, not just by news and stories of the real world, but by our entertainment, the religion and legends of our culture, the protocols of our society.
If you expect everyone to be decent, your public holidays and the way you keep your property will be different. In Portugal where private property isn’t as secure (partly through an history of invasions that got ingrained in the deep consciousness) tall walls surround properties and you don’t leave outside anything you don’t want to walk away. In the states, in most places, we leave whatever outside in our un-walled properties, secure in the belief it will stay there.
Lately — no, I mean that, more so than in the past — our public narrative has disturbed me. It is clear from even sitcoms that the writers for television don’t expect anyone to be decent or honest. They behave as if the average human being is just waiting to become monsters if not watched/if you aren’t vigilant/if laws don’t hold them in check, etc. Even “heroes” will commit adultery and behave like weasels away from their area of heroism.
These are not just bad narratives, they are objectively wrong narratives. Even in places like NK or Cuba, good and decency flourish, sometimes as a single grace note, sometimes against all odds.
The thing is that people model themselves on the narrative. If the societal narrative is “nobody’s clean” you’re going to get more evil.
Also people model what they expect. If you haven’t discovered The Room by Tommy Wasseau (arguably the worst movie ever made) google something like “what is wrong with The Room” but the narrative of The Room (trust me, I’m not spoiling anything) is a respected, hardworking man who is betrayed by everyone and kills himself. It was written, directed and acted in by an immigrant and in the book about it by one of his co-stars (groan) it is mentioned that the co-star got the odd idea that the guy making the movie thought the main character was “living the dream” even with everyone betraying him, and it ending up in death.
I’ve seen this. I lived/grew up abroad. People think that the US is corrupt, horrible, but they still want to live here. That is because subconsciously, since most of their narrative is imported from the US, they have internalized that “story” as “the way things should be.”
Long ago I came to the conclusion that people raised in the dystopian/rusty future SF of the sixties and seventies thought that the future was supposed to be that way, and got annoyed/upset when it deviated. A lot of the community’s hatred of Reagan was that he wasn’t heading that way and they got dissonance. They had to identify him as crazy and also come up with ways that his future would be worse. Had to. Because the narrative in their heads demanded it.
A great part of the left meltdown after the election is the narrative being broken. They thought from now on, it would only be their side in control. We were the rump of the resistance, old people who “just need to die.” That in SF/F this was said by a woman who is all of ten years my Junior tells you how much this is a crazy narrative in their heads. They thought that history had an arrow, and they were “on the right” (left) “side.”
They will now be concocting stories to fit the narrative, to explain how they’re still on the right side, even if they lose.
How successful that rebuild will be depends on how much respite they get.
But for us the important part is this: the world our kids inherit is more dependent on story than on facts on the ground. Story shapes the future. It can’t completely shape it, against the facts, but it can shape it more than you’d think from the outside.
We need stories in which humans are decent and in which the future can be exciting/interesting and prosperous WITHOUT being either poliannish or boring.
Some of these got through even when the gatekeepers were trying to enforce their bleak vision, but now we are largely free of them. (Okay, not totally, they still have the big megaphone, but given their cluelessness, it’s a matter of time.)
You know what to do. Go create a narrative for a society of freedom and human happiness. You can do it. If you don’t write, you can always read and review, can’t you? And you can reward good shows and avoid those that aren’t. And you can discuss worldviews in shows with other people?
Go forth and work. Be not afraid, and create a future in which fear is less and less warranted.