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  • Writer's pictureLuigi Gioia

Golems And Pygmalions

One of the main arguments in Rutger Bregman’s book Humankind. A Hopeful History is that even though the vision of human beings as inherently selfish is erroneous, it has imbibed our perception of ourselves to such an extent that it acts as a self-fulfilling prophecy. Insofar as they are the product of the ideology of Enlightenment, our political and economic structures are based on a presupposition eloquently summarized by the Scottish philosopher David Hume with these words: “Every person ought to be supposed a knave, and to have no other end in all his actions, that private interest” (245). This assumption seems to have proved right. The Liberalism issued from Enlightenment has empowered the individual but also inspired a State that, thanks to an elaborate system of checks and balances, makes sure that the principle of “each one for oneself” does not lead to anarchy. People are much more incentivised to act when they fight for their individual well-being. Capitalizing on this alleged trait of human nature has resulted in exponential growth over the past couple of centuries. We are right to complain that since the financial crisis of 2009 and even more so now with the pandemic, wealthy people are becoming wealthier and poor people poorer and that greed has its drawbacks. But it if is an inalienable aspect of human nature, rather than vainly trying to suppress it, it is better to harness it so that it generates growth for all, however unevenly distributed.

Bregman believes that the more we take this narrative for granted, the more we actually act selfishly, not because it is our nature, but according to a well-established principle of social psychology called “The Golem Effect”: a vicious cycle of negative expectations that influence human behaviour adversely. The contrary of the “Golem Effect” is the “Pygmalion effect” which occurs when high expectations lead people to perform better (257). Consistently tell your pupils that they are good at maths and you will see their performance improve dramatically.

Is Jesus anticipating the findings of social psychology when he tells his disciples: “You are the salt of the earth” and “You are the light of the world. … Let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven”? (Mt 5.13-16). Some might disagree, and with very good reasons. The dominant picture of the disciples in the Gospels is rather the contrary: querulous, ambitious, jealous, dim-witted and cowards. As for the scriptural take on human nature, it is customary to quote Paul’s fateful declaration: “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Rom 3.23). Not exactly great expectations on humanity!

However, there is no real contradiction between Jesus and Paul and the realism of Scripture on human capacity for evil does not result in anthropological pessimism. The ‘you’ whom Jesus calls salt of the earth and light of the world is not the confident and self-centered individual agent promoted by Liberal ideologies and exalted by Nihilism, but the community of those who are gathered around their trust in God and their commitment to care for each other. Taken individually, they are conflicted about their motivations, full of contradictions, and aware that left to themselves would not bring much light to anyone. But precisely because they are aware of their limitations, they stick to each other, not out of fear but joyfully.

Communities, of course, can be just as selfish and self-referential as individuals, as the recent rise of xenophobia and nationalism in our countries amply demonstrates. What makes the difference is fear. We become selfish and aggressive, both individually and as a community, when we are afraid. Our increasingly populist leaders understand this very well and thrive on our gullibility by pitting us against each other.

The “you” who become the salt of the earth and the light of the world are those who have learnt not to be afraid – of each other, of their own contradictions, of the stranger, the pandemic, the unknown, the future – the list can be long.

We can be our own and each other’s Golems or Pygmalions. In the end, it all hinges on a choice which we have to make at each step of our life, namely whether we spread fear or radiate trust.

A Celtic Prayer

You are the peace of all things calm You are the place to hide from harm You are the light that shines in dark You are the heart's eternal spark You are the door that's open wide You are the guest who waits inside You are the stranger at the door You are the calling of the poor You are my Lord and with me still You are my love, keep me from ill You are the light, the truth, the way You are my Saviour this very day.

(celtic oral tradition - 1st millennium)

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