Unbalanced Entertainment

I have not been bingeing on streamed entertainment during our enforced break from normal social interaction. I’ve poked around the Prime Video, Netflix and HBO Go menus a few times, and even started in on a few movies, but I abandoned them after a few minutes each. Too dark.

It’s not that I’ve been looking for family fare or comedy; I generally find those categories so featherweight as to be uninteresting. I’m more looking for serious drama – a movie or a miniseries – with characters (and not only the lead) who I see as normal people in challenging situations. I find few of them. Most that look like genuinely grownup fare show a world largely devoid of simple kindnesses.

It’s one thing to be forthright about our weaknesses and their effects on others, but another entirely to simultaneously ignore mankind’s more generous impulses. To me, featuring either side of our natures in isolation from the other presents a false and unsatisfying picture.


I read a really fantastic article in The Guardian yesterday, and shared it with friends (https://www.theguardian.com/books/2020/may/09/the-real-lord-of-the-flies-what-happened-when-six-boys-were-shipwrecked-for-15-months). It’s the real story of Lord of the Flies, and quite different from the famous novel.  In short, in 1966 six boys were marooned on a desert island for 15 months; given up for dead, they not only survived, but thrived in every sense until their eventual rescue, and remained lifelong friends thereafter. Their superpower, as Rutger Bregman, the author of the book of which the article is a synopsis remarked, was cooperation.

Which leads me to some thoughts of broader application…


If (as Yuval Harari pointed out in Sapiens*) we had looked down from outer space on our few, scraggly forebears on the African savannah a couple of hundred thousand years ago, we probably wouldn’t have picked them out as the eventual winners in the battle for species dominance. How could early man become the apex predator – let alone the eventual master of the atom – when the lions, the rhinos and lots of other animals were so much faster, stronger and more fearsome? Humans couldn’t even run quickly enough to catch most game.

Again, as Bregman posits, our ancestors’ superpower was cooperation; and the tool that made co-operation possible was language. Early man could work together efficiently to catch prey, warn of threats and share knowledge of fire or edible plants. Cooperation enabled mankind to survive, then thrive. People need other people.

The reason that cooperation – which, by definition, is voluntary – is so effective is that both intelligence and particularized knowledge are broadly distributed among humans. Many minds can solve one problem – like how to kill the lion, or how to build an airplane – that one cannot.

The assertion of centralized power over the life decisions of millions inevitably conflicts with distributed intelligence because it ignores individual differences in circumstances and knowledge. In addition, it is definitionally coercive, rather than cooperative. The premise of centralized governance is that the presumed efficiency of having everybody following one set of orders outweighs the costs of imposing such orders. The flaw with that premise is that it assumes that the individual making the decisions can know as much as others do collectively.

Voluntary cooperation is a more efficient – to say nothing of more liberal (in the original sense of the word) – use of disbursed intelligence than coerced behaviors. It’s also the difference between free market systems and socialism.


All people have good and bad in them. We have our own knowledge and our own ability to find advantage for ourselves … or others.

Just as we’ve all seen innumerable examples of cruel behavior, we’ve seen as many of kindnesses, some to the extent of self-sacrifice. Mostly, the behaviors we see are muddled mixtures of the two.

It’s the constant rebalancing of our individual decisions in the face of changing, particular circumstances that makes life (or entertainment) interesting. And voluntary cooperation with others, which at best is love, is what makes it rewarding.

M.H. Johnston      

2 comments to Unbalanced Entertainment

  • DENNIS A PAINE  says:

    Mark, that Guardian article is amazing! Thank you for that link. And I’ve calendared the May 19th livestream Q&A with Bregman.

    Your comment on our forebears brings to mind “Sapiens” by Yuval Noah Harari. I was struck by his ability to elucidate the processes of evolution, from natural selection to intelligent design, and to challenge the reader to look into the future. It is a fascinating read . . . providing that view from above.

    • M Johnston  says:

      *Dennis, you’re right. That image of our ancestors as the surprising winners on the savannah was originally from Sapiens – which I had forgotten when I wrote this post. A very interesting book.

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