I’ve been working on a new novel, which is one of the reasons I’ve been so quiet lately. When people ask me what the book is about, I tell them that one of the things I’m trying to do is reconcile the conflict between my wanting to view people and humanity as fundamentally good and deserving the best, and the reality of how people and humanity generally behave.
It’s the old question of if little kids are so sweet and innocent, why are sandboxes often the site of bullying, fights and generally feral behaviour.
I’ve been doing a lot of reading on the topic and totally by accident came across a book that helps put things in perspective. The book, by Australians Eleanor Learmonth and Jenny Tabakoff, is ominously entitled No Mercy: True Stories of Disaster, Survival and Brutality (Text Publishing, 2013).
I had no intention of reading that book. It sounded too much like the lurid stuff I used to read in junior high school, but it hooked me from the first page. The book is a compilation of disasters, primarily shipwrecks, and the authors analyze the behaviour of the survivors to see if there are patterns of human behaviour and group dynamics that emerge in times of stress.
Most of the cases are shipwrecks from the days of sailing ships because back then it was easy for survivors to be marooned in isolated parts of the world for long periods of time. It turns out that these situations are perfect laboratories for observing how groups behave and for spotting behaviour patterns.
One of the things that makes the book so readable is that is it not simply a litany of disasters with each chapter being a gruesome account of a different disaster. Rather, the chapters are organized around the types of things that become issues in these situations–for example, leadership, personal relationships, care of the sick and wounded, and dealing with things like hunger, thirst, conflicts in the group and adverse environmental conditions. Different groups’ handling of these things are compared and contrasted.
The bad news is that in a survey of 23 disasters spanning from 134 BC to 2010, in only one case did the group of survivors manage not to end up spiralling out of control into acts of inhumanity. You can imagine what I mean by “acts of inhumanity.”
Yes, it’s grim reading but one of the things that makes it all worthwhile is the stirring story of the Grafton, which was wrecked in the Southern Ocean in January 1864. The crew was stranded for 20 months in impossible conditions but actually managed to survive and save themselves with no loss of life. It is an amazing story of human ingenuity and endurance. Interestingly, 4 months after the Grafton was lost, another ship, the Invercauld, ran aground only 15 kilometres away. The two groups were unaware of each other and the Invercauld crew suffered from appallingly bad leadership and group friction. Eighty-four per cent of the crew died before they were rescued even though they were stranded for a shorter time.
You might wonder what centuries-old shipwrecks have to do with us today. In the last chapter, the authors summarize their findings and conclude that there are nine factors related to the social decay that lead to failed survivor groups. Although each case is different, as groups fall apart they fail at each of these steps and move to increasing levels of violence and savagery. And what invariably starts a group down the track of inhumanity is a failure of leadership.
If you think of Planet Earth as a lifeboat or desert island and the human race as survivors, it might be interesting to map our performance against that of failed groups. How many of these nine characteristics of social decay do you think we are experiencing in our lifeboat today:
1. Neglect of the sick and weak.
2. A rapid descent into bickering over resources and labor.
3. The corrosive, emotional effect of hunger, paranoia and fear.
4. The collapse of leadership.
5. Fragmentation into hostile factions.
6. The emergence of personal hatred.
7. An absolute loss of compassion and altruism.
8. Casual acceptance of death.
9. Violent fights that escalate into murder and, finally, the emergence of killing for entertainment.
The authors demonstrate that each of the failed groups progressed through these stages as a result of breakdowns in leadership and problems with the interactions between the leader and the group.
Some of the stories are funny, even though they led to tragedy. In a shipwreck, the captain, if he survives, is generally by default in charge once the survivors are on land. A surprisingly large number of captains choose not to go down with the ship but rather delegate that duty to other crew or passengers. This doesn’t get things off on a good footing.
Also, once on land, a captain can create problems by not being sensitive to changed conditions. A group stranded near the North Pole started to disintegrate when the captain insisted that the crew continue to do his laundry, as had been their duty on shipboard. Inflexibility, stupidity, inability to listen, arrogance and inability to cope with change were all characteristics of leaders who ended up leading their groups to disaster. And the people who let themselves be led into disaster are complicit.
It might be a bit of a reach to compare global society to a lifeboat, but I think it’s important to reflect on these nine characteristics of social decay as metaphors for what might be happening in our world. Many workplaces and communities are marked by neglect of the sick and weak, bickering over resources, paranoia and fear and breakdown into hostile factions. We can see many examples of loss of compassion and altruism both by governments and corporations. And the news has given us a casual acceptance of death (as long as it’s far away).
The authors indicate that no matter how far down the track of inhumanity groups have progressed, when they are rescued, they quickly re-adapt to normal societal conventions. The question is, who is going to rescue us?