In the shadow of disaster, we find out new facets of ourselves

There exist two really simplistic views of human nature. The first is that people have a certain essential character that tends to shine through no matter the situation. If someone is polite to waiters and gives up their subway seat to pregnant ladies, then they’re probably also honest in their business dealings and heroic when faced with calamity. In this point of view, there’s room for conflict and imperfection, of course, but that conflict is something deep inside the soul, and one tends to see this fissure in all sorts of subtle ways throughout the person’s life.

This is the point of view that tends to be adopted by most fantasy novels, for instance. For instance, Daenerys has a great well of pity for the oppressed people of the world (probably because she herself was oppressed by her brother), but she is also a conqueror who lusts for power. And these warring impulses come out on both the macro scale (conquering Slaver’s Bay) and on the micro scale (deciding whether or not to forgive Jorah for his treason).

The other simplistic, though perhaps more accurate, point of view is that the different parts of a person’s life have nothing to do with each other. This is the view that’s taken, for instance, by many historians, who’ve tended to observe that human beings often behave, when under extreme strain, in ways they’d never behave in private life. For instance, a man could run a concentration camp, but he’d never kick a dog or cheat on his wife. A man could pick up a machete and hack his neighbor apart, but he’d never give short change to that same neighbor if the man came by his market stall.

In many ways, this latter conclusion is difficult to avoid, whenever we look at genocides. Look at Rwanda, for instance, which was a genocide perpetrated on an intimate level, by ordinary people, oftentimes using machetes and clubs. If the fabric of society had never broken down, most of these people never would’ve become killers.

Furthermore, it’s oftentimes not the worst people, in ordinary life, who become killers or scoundrels during times of calamity. There are exceptions–people whose natural sadism or sociopathy was given freer reign by a disaster or by an authoritarian state–but these do feel like exceptions, and oftentimes when you look into the biography of people who commit atrocities, they don’t seem to have exhibited antisocial behavior in their private life.

I’m reading a book right now about private life in the Soviet Union, The Whisperers, and what’s striking is how often peoples’ friends and families turned on them once they were arrested or denounced. Sometimes this came from honest belief–“If you were arrested, there must be a reason”–but usually it was expediency. Children were left to wander the streets or to enter state orphanages by their own siblings or grandparents or uncles or aunts, who were themselves afraid (not without reason) that they’d be purged if they took the children in.

And yet some people weren’t. Some relatives took that risk. Some friends and strangers did too. In several cases, Moscow- or St. Petersburg-based relatives took in these children even though they were informed that if they did so it would mean they’d be exiled to Siberia.

There was no predicting who would be honest and who wouldn’t. Who would help and who wouldn’t. In some ways it felt like a mystery.

On a much different scale, I think this is what leads to literary critics who are reluctant to engage in “bio-crit”: the use of an author’s biography or psychology as a way of explicating a text. We, as readers, have simply observed too often that authors are frequently pretty ordinary people. Oftentimes, they’re not even more intelligent or insightful than the average educated person. Frequently they’re less so. Authors aren’t titanic, overweening individuals, they’re just human beings who sit down every day to write, rather than sitting down to cast accounts or to design computer chips, and frequently they live rather ordinary lives, no different from others who don’t produce great works.

And researchers have found that human beings have situational ethics. We believe in different ethical codes for different areas of our lives. This is why Donald Trump, somebody who seems to have the worst possible impulse control, can eschew alcohol and drugs. This is why someone who cheats on their wife isn’t necessarily more likely to cheat their business partner. People draw distinctions between various theaters of behavior that we, as outsiders, might not necessarily perceive.

As I said, though, this notion that the different parts of a person’s character are entirely unrelated oftentimes seems, to me, to be pretty simplistic as well.

I think partly that’s because I am an author, and I see that although what I write does come from somewhere mysterious and almost-inaccessible, it’s nevertheless true that the work is a reflection of me. When I write something, it seems an answer, in some ways, to questions I didn’t know I was asking. My work is deeply related to my own needs and desires.

In the same way, I think the way people act in a crisis also, obviously, comes from within them. People don’t just pick up a machete and slaughter somebody without thinking about it. There is some need or desire that’s being fulfilled there.

To me, I think the answer is that there’s far too much focus, in a lot of our thinking about other people, on the outer life. We see their actions and their words, and we create, in our minds, the simplest possible figure who’d be able to do and say these things, but we forget that so much more is happening inside them. People have immense parts of themselves that they never reveal to the outside world.

There is a dream life that we all lead. A life of fantastic and unrealized desires. And during moments of crisis, I think this dream-life often comes to the forefront. It’s in these moments that fantasies of omnipotence or of heroism crawl out of the realm of dreams and seem, in some way, realizable.

For some, the thing they realize is that they value their own lives too much. We all say that there are things we would die for, but is saving your sister’s kid really that thing? Because the risk existed: people were shot because they aided the children of ‘enemy of the people.’ You are a person with your own hopes and dreams. In most cases, you’re never required to make the philosopher’s choice: ‘What if realizing your ambitions required murdering two children?’ But during times of crisis, it does.

But for other people, the crisis is an opportunity. Their lives had been dull and untoward. And now it can mean something. They can stand up and be counted. They have, in some sense, been waiting for this moment. So they do what it takes to become larger than life. In some cases that means hacking their neighbor apart, and in other cases it means saving their kids.

On a slightly more specific level, this means that some huge percentage people would, if they lived in Nazi Germany and were assigned to Police Battalion 101, would go out and shoot innocent jews in the forest (not all of us, but roughly 90% of us). Some huge percentage of us would, if exhorted to do so, go out and kill our neighbor. Some huge percentage of us would, if we were Vikings, rape and pillage the castles and monasteries of innocent people. Some huge percentage of us, if we were rich antebellum white southerners, would own slaves. Note, not ALL of us! In all these times, there were people who were like, “Err, that’s not cool.”

But some huge percentage.

Similarly, when we read about Harvey Weinstein and his sexual harassment, we know that this behavior is really common amongst men in power. And if you’re a college-educated man, then you know that there’s no essential difference between you and the men in power–the only difference is that you happen to not be very successful. So you know, I mean come on, you know, that if we were powerful, some huge percentage of us would act the same. Not all of us! And it wouldn’t necessarily be the ones you think. But it would be some huge percentage.

For a novelist, that’s really interesting. I am happy to explore what separates the people who do from the people who don’t.

But from a policy standpoint, we shouldn’t expect people to be good, we should engineer systems that punish misbehavior. If Harvey Weinstein had known he’d get caught and lose control of his company, he wouldn’t have done this shit. But instead he lived in a consequence-free world. So, like, yeah, to me, from a public policy standpoint, it doesn’t matter whether you’re a good person or not, because barring some major change in your circumstances, I can’t really ever know the answer to that, what matters is if you support systems that make misbehavior more uncommon (and in this case public shaming is one of those systems, but that’s another blog post).