The recent return of former Haitian dictator Jean-Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier to his home country and the groundswell of support he received from ordinary Haitians got me thinking about the assumption that “human beings are rational” and the effect this has on society. As part of my university curriculum I studied a few law courses and one of the things we were taught was what they called “the reasonable person test” and the key question asked in that regard was, “what would the reasonable person have done in that situation?” As I watch the news and read different newspapers on a daily basis to keep myself informed about events around the world, I find myself questioning whether it is reasonable to assume that the average person in society is indeed reasonable.
Are human beings inherently rational and reasonable or are we more driven by emotion in our analysis and interpretation of events as they happen around us. The fact that ordinary Haitians could celebrate the return of a man who ruled with an iron fist, tortured, abused and killed so many innocent civilians is an indicator of how irrational the average person is and how little thought is given to the people and causes the average person supports. It is ordinary citizens who we see supporting Laurent Gbagbo in the Ivory Coast and believing his rhetoric about a western plot to oust him from the presidency. I have been even more surprised to see how many of my educated South African friends have bought into this argument.
It is ordinary South Africans who cheer for the likes of Robert Mugabe and treat him as a hero whenever he visits South Africa, despite the fact that he has butchered, murdered and tortured so many innocent Zimbabwean citizens. All this because of the highly emotive argument that he is at least “standing up to the west” unlike other African leaders. It was ordinary young people who turned up in droves to support Mao’s diabolic “Cultural Revolution” which led to the death of millions of innocent Chinese people and spread chaos through Chinese society, only alleviated when Deng Xioaping took over the reins in 1976. It was ordinary Germans who supported Adolf Hitler and his NAZI party, based on their emotive promises to restore German pride and by the time they woke up to the consequences of their support for so evil a man, Hitler and his cronies had plunged the world into an unnecessary war and millions of lives had been lost.
The best and most popular politicians are those who appeal to people at an emotive level and not at an intellectual, rational level. That is why South Africa’s two most popular politicians of the last two years are: Jacob Zuma and Julius Malema. Love them or hate them, these two are brilliant politicians because they have figured out that the way to make it in politics and to attain power is to appeal to the emotions and not the minds of the majority. That is why Sarah Palin and the “Tea Party” movement have had such a massive impact in American politics. Barack Obama’s messianic “Yes We Can” political campaign, which brought him to the White House, showed a clear understanding of this aspect of human nature. Hence he overpromised knowing he could only under-deliver, out of the knowledge that this is what people wanted to hear.
A glance at the world and at history clearly reveals that human beings seldom use reason in making key decisions and are often driven by emotion. This means that the assumption that human beings are “inherently rational and reasonable” could be one of the most dangerous assumptions to make when you are trying to order and structure society. This is the fundamental assumption on which democracies are built but we have seen democracies bring into power some of the worst despots in history owing to populist politics that appeal to people’s emotions.
Because the average person is more emotive than rational, we find that whatever political system you set in place, there will always be an elite minority who are rational enough to govern an irrational, emotive majority. That is why every peoples revolution that seeks to restructure society and usher in an era of greater equality and justice for all ends up either re-enforcing the power of the existing elite or producing a new elite which ends up lording it over the majority. That is why every revolution has been such a colossal failure when judged from its long term effects. The celebrated French Revolution ended up falling prey to Napoleon’s dictatorship, the Iranian Revolution to a dictatorship led by Islamic clerics, the Bolshevik Revolution to a corrupt Communist elite. Because the majority are irrational and unreasonable they are open to the manipulations of a more rational, calculating, elite minority. This is what you find happening in all corners of the earth, irrespective of what kind of political system you are in.
The result is that whether in crisis times or boom times, the more rational elite minority always thrives and the irrational, emotive majority always struggles. This happens under all kinds of varied political systems. It is an inevitable fact of human existence which men across the ages have tried to change with no success at all. Maybe the primary assumption we should make when we think about how to organise and structure society is this: that the average human being is irrational and emotive, often to their detriment.