This weekend I participated in an interesting exercise. A group of activists staged a debate in which some of us argued that peace and environmental and economic justice are possible, while another group argued against us.
The latter group professed to not believe its own statements, to be dirtying itself with bad arguments for the sake of the exercise — in order to help us refine our arguments. But the case they made for the impossibility of peace or justice was one I hear often from people who at least partially believe it.
A core of the U.S. argument for the inevitability of war and injustice is a mysterious substance called “human nature.” I take belief in this substance to be an example of how thoroughly U.S. exceptionalism pervades the thinking of even those who oppose it. And I take exceptionalism to mean not superiority over but ignorance of everybody else.
Let me explain. In the United States we have 5 percent of humanity living in a society dedicated to war in an unprecedented manner, putting over $1 trillion every year into war and preparations for war. Going to the other extreme you have a country like Costa Rica that abolished its military and thus spends $0 on war. Most nations of the world are much closer to Costa Rica than to the United States. Most nations of the world spend a small fraction of what the United States spends on militarism (in real numbers or per capita). If the United States were to reduce its military spending to the global average or mean of all other countries, suddenly it would become difficult for people in the United States to talk about war as “human nature,” and going that last little bit to complete abolition wouldn’t look so hard.
But isn’t the other 95 percent of humanity human now?
In the United States we live a lifestyle that destroys the environment at a far greater pace than do most human beings. We flinch at the idea of radically reducing our destruction of the earth’s climate — or, in other words, living like Europeans. But we don’t think of it as living like Europeans. We don’t think of it as living like South Americans or Africans. We don’t think about the other 95 percent. We propagandize them through Hollywood and promote our destructive lifestyle through our financial institutions, but we don’t think about people who aren’t imitating us as humans.
In the United States we have a society with greater inequality of wealth and greater poverty than in any other wealthy nation. And activists who oppose this injustice can sit in a room and describe particular aspects of it as part of human nature. I’ve heard many do this who were not faking their beliefs.
But imagine if the people of Iceland or some other corner of the earth got together and discussed the pros and cons of their society as “human nature” while ignoring the rest of the world. We’d laugh at them, of course. We might also envy them if we listened long enough to catch on to what they supposed “human nature” to be.