Life and Times – Trump v the Binman

Recently, at enormous risk to himself, a binman rescued a family and their dog from a burning house in the West Midlands. He had a cup of tea in Greggs and then carried on with his job.

How does this tie in with Donald Trump? Well, a recent Guardian article by George Monbiot pointed to the theory among psychologists that human beings can be broadly divided into two groups -‘extrinsics’ and ‘intrinsics’. What they mean by ‘extrinsics’ are Trump types – people attached to ‘prestige, status, image, fame, power and wealth’. They are a group that tends to ‘objectify and exploit other people’, to be rude and aggressive, to ‘have little interest in cooperation or community’, to dismiss social needs and care of the environment, and at the same time to be likely to exhibit ‘frustration, dissatisfaction, stress, anxiety, anger and compulsive behaviour’.‘Intrinsics’ on the other hand are ‘inclined towards empathy, intimacy and self-acceptance’, open to change and reasoned argument and ‘protective of other people and the living world’.

Winners and losers
If this theory is valid – and it does seem to correspond very much to the reality we see around us – how is it that different groups of human beings can be so different? How is it that Donald Trump can seem so manifestly uncaring about anyone other than himself while a binman can risk his life to save the lives of others who are complete strangers? Monbiot points out that, according to the theory, we are not born with either of these tendencies but rather pick them up from the environment – personal, social and political – in which we are nurtured. So ‘if people live under a cruel and grasping political system, they tend to normalise and internalise it, absorbing its dominant claims and translating them into extrinsic values’. In the same way, if they live in an environment ‘in which social norms are characterised by kindness, empathy, community and freedom from want and fear, their values are likely to shift towards the intrinsic end’.

This would seem to account for the widespread support enjoyed by an openly ‘bully’ politician like Trump, who divides humans into ‘winners and losers’, among not just some of the wealthy in the US but also among some of the poorest, most insecure and disadvantaged members of that society. Such people will blame their plight and vent their anger and frustration either on those they see as slightly better off than themselves or on those even worse off than themselves who they see as somehow spongeing off society by claiming ‘welfare’. And they will be particularly hostile towards the ‘intrinsics’, those behaving in a kind, cooperative way, labelling them as ‘woke’ or ‘snowflakes’ or the like. Monbiot suggests that, in the US in particular, this mentality has been engendered by ‘toxic myths about failure and success’ and the importance given to the idea that wealth needs to be acquired at any cost, solely by individual endeavour and without concern for other people or for social or environmental consequences (the so-called ‘American Dream’).

The same kind of mentality is of course widely found, if perhaps in a less overt and brutal way, in other countries too, subject as they are to the competitive ethic and the ‘sink or swim’ imperative of capitalism. In fact, everywhere we look, the system we live under pressures workers (ie, those who form the vast majority of all populations) to ‘get on’, to make money, to compete against others and, if necessary, to blame others if they fail to do that satisfactorily.

In trouble
Yet, as this column has often pointed out and is demonstrated by such acts as the rescue by the binman, people are on the whole powerfully inclined not to behave in selfish, self-seeking ways but to assist, support and be cooperative with their fellow humans where and when necessary. Such interactions are absolutely intrinsic to everyday life, be it in such everyday acts as giving others right of way in traffic, making contributions to and organising food banks, doing simple favours for others, but also in helping others who suddenly and unexpectedly find themselves ‘in trouble’. The fact is that we, as humans, will usually choose to help others in a worse situation than ourselves, if only because it makes us feel better about ourselves and, as has been shown by scientific research, gives us higher levels of well-being. Such examples of help and cooperation without the prospect of material gain or advantage abound but are taken for granted and are rarely reported or commented on precisely because they are so numerous, so common and such a perpetual feature of everyday life. Of course, human beings are also capable of the most horrendous antisocial acts, which may involve selfishness and brutality, but these are not the norm. This is so much the case that, when they happen, they stand out, leading to the ‘if it bleeds, it leads’ scenario whereby we seem to be constantly bombarded by ‘bad news’.

This says something about how human beings, though their behaviour is extremely flexible, are fundamentally ‘ultra-social’ creatures, who, given the opportunity, are only too ready to make common cause with their fellow creatures unless influenced into doing otherwise by circumstances or deeply embedded conditioning. This is the default, that, despite contrary ideas common in the past, is now widely accepted by those qualified in the subject of human behaviour. Of course, as exemplified by the Trump cult in the US, where the conditions of society push many people into behaving in unkind, uncooperative ways and in seeking to maximise their own self-interest, there is still a long way to go. Yet in a society organised in an entirely different way from the current capitalist one, it is clear that people will not have the slightest problem in behaving as ‘intrinsics’, ie, in operating in a harmonious and cooperative way most if not all of the time. In such a society, a socialist one of common ownership, free access to all goods and services and democratic organisation, the natural human tendency to share and cooperate will surely be its guiding principle.


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