On human nature
Are human beings inherently evil? Or are we born pure, good and it is our parents, our society, our personal experiences that change or damage us? Neither philosophers nor psychologists seem to agree on an answer. Some studies show that humans as social beings want to please others and be part of a group or society which is why we tend towards the good, to share, to help. Other studies seem to conclude that humans mainly want to survive, and if that means eliminating the opponent who threatens our survival in anyway, that’s what we’ll do. Certainly, history seems to show us as basically violent and intolerant. You invade me, I attack. You make me nervous, I will eliminate you. You’re different from me, so I must kill you.
Film and television often serve to help us think of these things and reflect on our motivations. For example, The Act of Killing, a film that competed for documentary of the year at the 2013 Oscars, attempts to understand the motivations of the men who executed half a million Indonesian Communists in the 60s, instigated by the government which is still in power. Filmmaker Joshua Oppenheimer, who originally tried to film the survivors, but found they were afraid to talk about the affair, opted to tell the story of the murderers who still boasted of what they had done. The film follows two of the murderers, or gangsters as they prefer to be called: Anwar Congo and Herman Koto. It is not a comfortable documentary. It will make you cringe and wonder. But it also forces you to think about how we justify evil. In the film, the killers were “hired” to kill the communists who wanted to destroy Indonesia (doing things like sharing the land with the poor,)but in the long run many non-communists also died at the hands of the gangsters. If a merchant or neighbor refused to pay the bribes that the assassins imposed, they were also murdered. We do not know if in the end Congo or Koto, two of the paid assassins, change in the way they perceive themselves. Do they still see themselves as heroes or do they finally realize they are just vulgar villains? Congo, the main character, has nightmares in which the dead come to haunt him, but he doesn’t seem to accept any guilt for the killings. However, the closing shot follows Congo, dressed in a mustard yellow suit, physically affected by his deeds. Yet, there’s no way to tell. I wonder if by revisiting their conduct, which is what the film does, they can some day accept that what they did, exterminate their peers for thinking differently, was wrong if not downright evil?
HBO’s WestWorld also explores human motivations, and the question of good and evil. In WW’s case, the question is whether we perform goodness naturally or because society forces us to behave and once the restraints are removed, we tend towards violence, cruelty and evil? That is, we change once we know we can act with impunity. WW, based on a movie written by Michael Crichton in the 70’s, is about an amusement park in which the guests pay large sums of money to play at living in the Wild, Wild West. In this world there are hosts (androids) and guests (humans). The only thing that distinguishes the hosts from the guests is that the hosts repeat the same stories (narratives) and dialogs according to their prescribed programming whereas the humans can change theirs at will. According to the rules of the game, guests in West World can do whatever they want in the park and the hosts are there to serve and please them. Many guests motivated by impunity, participate in massacres, rapes, and all kinds of adventures assured there will be no fatal consequences.
Oppenheimer’s film and WW seem to conclude that humans need limitations; that we do not behave unless there is something, the government, the police, religion, something to stop us. In the case of Indonesia, everything went to hell because the government sponsored the crimes and Indonesians today still seem (as shown in the film) to believe the anti-Communist propaganda that supported the murderers as patriots and the victims as demons.