Op-ed: What Lord of the Flies Teaches us About Israel-Palestine

Reading Time: 4 minutes
Classic novel Lord of the Flies provides a commentary on conflict, applicable to Israel-Palestine and countless other wars. (Image Credit: NPR)

What is the initial reason for the Israeli-Palestine conflict? 10,000 Israeli citizens and Palestinian collateral and combatants later, it seems like all the answers offered by historians, analysts, communities, and foreign speculators have failed to capture the pervasiveness of the original lie that we were all told – still are told by politicians to galvanize “us” against “them,” to pursue a common good or in Israel’s case, avoid an existential crisis. The great hoax is this: Man is evil. I used to think likewise until I read about the ‘real’ Lord of the Flies.

In June of 1965, six schoolboys from Tonga set off on a journey to Fiji but ended up stranded on the island of ‘Ata’ for a full year. With only an old knife blade they transformed the island, and my perception of human nature forever. Their adventure is unlike William Golding’s Lord of the Flies – Golding’s salience is attributed to the massive shock of World War 1 and Nazism – how benign citizens could stand idly by as millions of their Jewish neighbors were being shipped like cattle to concentration camps, and how those same citizens could become cold accountants of death, staring cooly at balance sheets as they committed genocide with the flick of a pen. People needed a simple answer, and all Golding did was emphasize a perennial fact of human behavior: Man is evil. Though if we were truly rotten to the core, why were the Tongan boys able to not only survive but thrive on ‘Ata’? Why did they not recede into what Hobbes would call a ‘state of nature’? The answers to all these questions point to the simple, yet vexing conclusion: maybe we aren’t that bad after all.

Veneer theory is posed in opposition to my thesis. First coined by primatologist Frans de Waal in 2005, it states that when we take away the rules and order of society, what we are left with is the barbarian state of man: the essential sinew of human morality and civility is civilization, and authoritarianism alone is Man’s salvation. This view was initially crystallized in Thomas Hobbes’s Leviathan. While he is best known for his theories of the social contract, I’d like to focus on his philosophical diagnosis of pre-historic human life as a “Warre of all against all,” describing it as cruel, brutish, and short. Along his journey to justify state authority, he concluded that in the absence of a sovereign of absolute power, might makes right – that rights were ethically unenforceable and quite pointless – and that since nature was devoid of moral value, human morality must therefore be a social construct of organized government. Politicians throughout the ages have used this conclusion to justify dictatorship, draconian punishment, and the subjugation of the individual. ‘Give us power or all is lost’ they say, I say they are forcing snake oil down our throats: for all was lost when we allowed the monarchs, the church, the parties, and the unions to infect our thoughts and words like a malaise – I say the root of all human evil, is society. The 18th Century philosopher Jean Jacques Rousseau would agree.

Rousseau might have been born thirty years after Hobbes’s death; however, their names often touch gloves in modern philosophical boxing rings. Rousseau was one of the founding Fathers of anarchism. I do not support anarchy, but I suppose the most sublime thinkers were always the most radical and I support Rousseau’s views on our initial state of nature and the superficial nature of our societies. Essentially, he posited that man was once a noble savage, and that “government and laws … spread garlands of flowers over the iron chains which weigh men down, snuffing out in them the feeling of that original liberty for which they appear to have been born, and made them love their slavery by turning them into what are called civilized people.” By binding us to such disingenuous things as money, social manners, ‘refined taste’, and societal customs we have lost our minds and much of our ability to think for ourselves. Our leaders have become molded by elite private schools and preferential treatment into a clay of intemperance, yet they are so similar to one another, seeing through the lies of their fathers, of their grandfathers, and all those that came before them, yet holding together this great veneer with the adhesive claim that humans are essentially amoral.

Ironically, our hamartia is that we were born to live in societies – it was inevitable that we would mire ourselves in dogma and fanaticism, defining ourselves by the political party we subscribe to, our nationality, and our economic class because humans simply work better in groups. Anthropologically speaking, the sole reason we survived the Ice Age, and others didn’t, is because we were hardwired for socializing and communicating. According to a German study on how human toddlers compared to chimpanzees and orangutans in spatial awareness, social intelligence, calculation, and causality, the toddlers performed similarly to the other two testing groups in all measures except the second. Why? Because our superpower is to be conduits of ideas, inventions, and innovation despite Neanderthals being individually more intelligent, durable, and much stronger than us. Our collective intelligence and entrepreneurship exponentially raised the chance of our survival as a species.

Tribalism, however, is a double-edged sword. As our tribes grew larger, from villages to towns to cities and entire countries, it became necessary to compete for scarce resources. And so, we had wars, we experienced famine and human suffering on unprecedented scales but also saw the rapid industrialization of cities and millions of people being lifted from poverty, though all of this came at a great cost. We started to see some people as less than human. We started to use Darwinian evolutionary theories to justify genocide, and cruel competitive markets that reduce our lives to numbers on a stock market index because as our tribes got bigger, the Hyde to our empathy’s Dr. Jekyll showed us its ability to ostracize, demonize, and dehumanize. We started only caring about our tribe, and not realizing that once you remove that veneer that civilization glued to the sinew of our gums and eyes, we’re really all the same.

When you stop believing that we’re all savages who crave power, sex, validation, and influence, you start to see the individual human being manipulated to believe narratives expertly crafted by those in power for their selfish interests. Don’t become a political puppet, find that balance between group membership and intellectual autonomy.

Written by Zak Chen

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