Opinions, Writing

Mark Twain Offers A Few Thoughts On Humanity

I felt that this “story” from Mark Twain was an appropriate addition to my earlier article “We’re acting like animals?”

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“Man is the Reasoning Animal. Such is the claim. I think it is open to dispute. Indeed, my experiments have proven to me that he is the Unreasoning Animal… In truth, man is incurably foolish. Simple things which other animals easily learn, he is incapable of learning. Among my experiments was this. In an hour I taught a cat and a dog to be friends. I put them in a cage. In another hour I taught them to be friends with a rabbit. In the course of two days I was able to add a fox, a goose, a squirrel and some doves. Finally a monkey. They lived together in peace; even affectionately.
Next, in another cage I confined an Irish Catholic from Tipperary, and as soon as he seemed tame I added a Scotch Presbyterian from Aberdeen. Next a Turk from Constantinople; a Greek Christian from Crete; an Armenian; a Methodist from the wilds of Arkansas; a Buddhist from China; a Brahman from Benares. Finally, a Salvation Army Colonel from Wapping. Then I stayed away for two whole days. When I came back to note results, the cage of Higher Animals was all right, but in the other there was but a chaos of gory odds and ends of turbans and fezzes and plaids and bones and flesh–not a specimen left alive. These Reasoning Animals had disagreed on a theological detail and carried the matter to a Higher Court.”
Mark Twain, Letters from the Earth: Uncensored Writings, Harper Perennial Modern Classics, 2004.

Opinions, Writing

Humanity, Violence and The Serengeti

Like many others, I’m struggling with the “why” regarding the recent shooting in Las Vegas.  Why did he do it?  Was he crazy, angry, frustrated or all/none of the above?  Was there a latent issue, perhaps a medical condition that caused him to take this action?  The general consensus, at this point, is that he was “crazy”.  He must have been, right?  The current evidence suggests that from the window of a hotel he shot and killed 59 people and wounded hundreds more.  Does that act alone define one as “crazy”?  Be careful here, there are many documented cases of military snipers who have each shot and killed at least as many people or more.  Most are described as heroes of their respective countries and the word “crazy” is absent from their biographies.  Aside from their military feats, most were considered to be “normal people”.

The Las Vegas shooter’s life history has been placed under a microscope as law enforcement searches for a reason, the “why”.  We, the people, need an adjective to separate him from “us”.  We need some reason: he was crazy, he was angry and frustrated, he was…, something that we, the “normal people”, are not.  He needs a label and law enforcement seems desperate to apply one.  As of now, his life appeared to be “normal”.  To the rest of us, that is terrifying and unacceptable.  He needs to be labeled, and soon.  To think that all of us “normal people” could be capable of this behavior is “not normal”.

What is “crazy”, what is “normal” and who or what decides the definitions?

Merriam-Webster.com defines the word “crazy” as “1. a: full of cracks or flaws, unsound b: crooked, askew 2. a: not mentally sound: marked by thought or action that lacks reason.  It continues in subcategories using words like “insane, impractical, erratic and unusual” and so on.

Normal is defined as “2. a: according with, constituting, or not deviating from a norm, rule or principle. b: conforming to a type, standard or regular pattern. 3. occurring naturally. 4. a: of, relating to, or characterized by average intelligence or development b: free from mental illness: mentally sound” and so on.

The common theme here is “mentally sound”; the word “crazy” suggesting that you’re not and the word “normal” suggesting that you are.  The dictionary defines “mentally sound” as “normal, sane”.

I suggest that the term “normal” is subjective.  Is it East coast normal, West coast normal, European, African, Russian or Iraq normal?  Talk about a broad spectrum!  I honestly have no idea if I’m even “normal”.  I’m reasonably sure that I’m not crazy, at least not normally.

Law Enforcement will keep digging and I’m quite certain that labels will be found and added.  We can then go back to feeling secure in the knowledge that he was different from us and definitely “not normal”.  I say that of course with a wink and a smile.

We can add all of the labels that we want and separate all of the people who, by their acts, are “different” than us.  But the sad reality is that we, the “normal people”, are really “not that normal” and are capable of anything and everything.  “Normal” people have had to go off to war and for a myriad of reasons, take human lives.  Some people have supported the death penalty and abortion, while others have not.  Death has been our constant companion throughout human history, always familiar and never far away, yet we still seem surprised when it occurs naturally and shocked when it is by our own hand or the hand of another.

I’m not suggesting that the shooter in Las Vegas should be pitied or his actions tolerated.  But, I am suggesting that we stop trying to always find excuses to separate “these” people from ourselves.  The reality is, they are us, an ugly reminder of what we are capable of as humans.  It would be nice to move forward as a species, to become less violent, but our track record suggests otherwise and morality cannot be legislated.  Aggression seems to be our default setting, being held in check only by a greater fear of punishment through the enforcement of laws and their subsequent penalties.  In other words, we don’t generally behave because we want to, we behave because we don’t like discomfort.

It’s the Serengeti out there and we’re nowhere near the top of the food chain.  We need to accept this as our reality, act accordingly and hope that evolution will move us in a peaceful direction.  To quote John Young, “If you want to see an endangered species, get up and look in the mirror”.