Niceness should matter

By Ande Jacobson

A few weeks ago, I wrote an essay about needing more cooperation and less competition. I still stand by that as a means to improve society and human quality of life overall. After more thought, I’ve begun to wonder if perhaps humankind is experiencing a negative aspect of evolution and as a result is breeding for greed, aggression, and other negative traits because they achieve more evolutionary success in the short term. Yuval Noah Harari posits in his book Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind that to be an evolutionary success, an organism needs to create as many copies of itself as possible. Seeing the changes that society has incurred over the last several decades, it appears that for a variety of reasons, people have gotten meaner toward one another. We need look no further than the ultra-extremism in today’s GOP and its supporters. Their devotion to the morbidly rich, their love affair with guns, and their ongoing efforts to strip away the rights of everyone who isn’t a rich, straight, white Christian male to have any say at all in society has pitted everyone against one another for a smaller and smaller piece of the pie. They want to achieve a complete destruction of democracy through violence and domination. They keep talking of revolution while freely displaying weapons of war.

Humans have been too successful in overpopulating the planet as discussed in another previous essay about there being too many people. Evolution doesn’t care about quality of life, only the quantity of a given organism. Aggression, despite its dangerous and damaging effects on individual lives, increases the population through force. Rape is too often used as a tool of conquest and domination in war and in peace. In the U.S., the legal changes in red states prohibiting abortion have also forced more humans to be born, many as a result of sexual assault. Wouldn’t it be better for everyone if every person born were born of love and was wanted rather than being forced into existence?

The American love affair with guns is a direct manifestation of aggression. The 2nd Amendment was never intended to support individual gun ownership. It reads:

“A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.”

In an aggressive move several decades ago, the NRA and the extremist faction of the GOP chose to focus on individual gun ownership that has nothing to do with a well-regulated state militia. This uptick in aggression sparked an increase in gun violence and massive profits for gun and ammunition manufacturers. It was about fear mongering to achieve wealth, power, and control, not safety.

As all this is happening, I can’t help but think about a meeting I had many years ago. My tech lead and I were meeting with our director as he was extolling the virtues of niceness. He worked through cooperation and treated people fairly and kindly. He stressed the importance of essentially following the Golden Rule, not for any kind of religious purpose, but because it was the right thing to do. He recognized that everyone had their strengths and weaknesses, and through cooperation, everyone was able to perform at a higher level. The work was higher quality that way, and people were happier and eager to contribute. It was good for the individuals, and it was good for the company.

To his credit, our director had numerous high performing teams throughout his career both in the military and later in industry. He also was an expert in many areas and was skilled at presenting technical concepts at whatever level was necessary for the audience to fully understand the material. He was a true pleasure to work for. Sadly, he was a bit of an anomaly in our industry. There were a small number of managers cut from his mold, but most were not. Most assumed a far more aggressive and predatory style because that was what was rewarded by the upper management.

The executive focus on making profits above all else wasn’t unique to any one company. It’s fairly common across multiple industries. Business’ first goal is to make money, lots of money for their executives and their shareholders. Everything else is secondary, and employee morale and health usually aren’t a consideration. The workforce is viewed as replaceable.

There is another way. Compassion toward one another goes a long way toward improving everyone’s quality of life. Thom Hartmann wrote an interesting column on how in America, our core values have shifted from patriotism and religion to money being the overriding concern. He also traces the origin of this shift to President Nixon, Justice Powell, President Reagan, and the GOP’s predatory economic policies. He includes a couple of salient observations:

“Ralph Waldo Emerson noted that ‘we become what we think about all day long.’ It’s as true of nations as it is of individuals.”

He further notes:

“It shouldn’t surprise us. Patriotism and religion are essentially luxuries. When you can’t pay the rent or feed your family, when you’re pestered daily by bill collectors and can’t afford your medications, it’s hard to think of anything other than money.”

While I disagree that religion is a positive value given it is so often used as a weapon for control, his focus is on the community building and caring aspects of both patriotism and religion, not on nationalism which is the more militant and dangerous manifestation that we are seeing today.

Given the worldwide rise in authoritarianism, I have to wonder if part of what’s spurring such actions is an evolutionary trend that’s pushing humankind toward greed and aggression and away from compassion and service. The thing is that while in the short term that may indeed force more humans into existence, it greatly decreases everyone’s quality of life and puts the planet’s resources in jeopardy making humankind’s long term survival far less likely. In essence, is our own evolution pushing us to destroy ourselves? More importantly, can a concerted effort toward “niceness” reverse that trend? Time will tell.


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