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There is an idea that floats around the boundaries of discourse about civilization, wherein a sudden lack of civilization instantly causes people to turn upon each other, because humans are inherently selfish, greedy and impulsive, held in check by Society and always waiting for the chance to grab everything they can, unable to trust each other and coordinate any kind of collective survival when everything falls apart. Lord of the Flies, and all that. Every Man for Himself.

One wonders what it would take for this scenario to actually happen, because the immediate aftermath of every natural disaster has the affected people trying to do whatever they can for each other. The situation within the New Orleans Superdome during Hurricane Katrina might serve as a counterexample, considering the reports of chaos, sexual assault and death; as it happens there were only four actual deaths inside, three of elders with medical conditions and one of a man who jumped from the bleachers. As for the rest, such reports have never been substantiated, nor supported by witness testimony. Thus the Superdome's infamous reputation stands as an example to what people think happens in a crisis, versus what actually happens.

I imagine that things play out this way because everyone understands the situation to be temporary and locally limited, with aid flowing in from outside as swiftly as possible. A complete and sudden collapse of civilization might show different effects as everyone decides their personal survival now depends entirely on the immediate acquisition and hoarding of resources.

For the most part humanity has not suffered a sudden worldwide systems collapse since whatever caused the genetic bottleneck seventy thousand years ago. However, the effects of the Black Plague in Europe got about as close as anything ever did to an Apocalypse, so the behavior of the population in those four years could be instructive. What DID they do?

Effects varied depending on location, with some cities quarantining whole families together, some places having family members abandon each other in fear, some places having people try to tend to the sick and thereby dying themselves. A mixed bag on the whole.

What about today's plague, then?

Mostly a matter of people trying to stay away from each other physically but keep in touch over the wires, and do whatever they can for each other without exposing each other to danger.

What about today's riots?

Mostly a matter of protestors providing First Aid to each other, sending each other messages about how to survive a riot, and sending money to bail-relief organizations, as the police seem to be inciting most of the violence in any given area. If people within the mess are running away from each other it is because the tear gas forces them to disperse. They run back as soon as they have a chance to wash out the eyes of the victims.

What about actual shipwreck-stranding scenarios?

in 1965 six schoolboys wrecked their ship on a small island south of Tonga and had the perfect opportunity to re-create the Lord of the Flies scenario. Far from collapsing into chaos the children worked with each other to survive on an island everyone thought was uninhabitable. Apparently they did their work well enough that they had time to set up a rudimentary badminton court.

We hear so much of evil deeds that it is easy to believe evil lies at the heart of humanity, and that this basic instinct would be the death of any efforts for immediate survival, as every person turned upon each other, as if they had been waiting for that chance all along. I think it is more accurate to say that humans treat each other poorly when their societies are solid enough that selfishness and rough treatment do not pose immediate risks to survival. As soon as such actions pose clear risks the game changes, unless one is a suicidal fool.

And yet -- in the moment of someone's peril their rescuers rarely wait to make this calculation. Perhaps the desire to rescue someone is more of an instinct than a rational response. It doesn't always happen, of course, but usually it takes a great deal of enmity to ignore that desire, and if such enmity is less than personal, it is built out of a great deal of politics, ethnic chauvinism and propaganda. Those tend to blow away when the hurricane winds approach.

I imagine we wouldn't have survived the last seventy thousand years without that instinct. Most of those millennia were well before anyone had the chance to build any surplus food stores from agriculture. Those were ages of hunger, lives spent from one end to the other in wandering, facing blizzards here and forest fires there, snake bites and broken bones, terrible wounds and blinding disease -- and yet, those who suffered survived, and we're here to remember them.

In The Mist a few of the the characters assert that humanity is unstable, insane, monstrous, kept from killing each other just by the thin veil of normalcy, at each other's throats the moment order breaks down -- "you put two people in a room together and they'll start picking sides and dreaming up reasons to kill each other," as Ollie says.

In my experience putting two strangers in a room will result in either tense silence or pleasant small talk. Maybe that's just how the culture of my valley works, and elsewhere people are more prone to picking sides?

But you have to have sides external to both parties for that to happen and sudden disasters tend to obscure those externalities, leaving only...someone else, someone to talk to, someone to hold onto, maybe no more than a buoy in a storm but better than nothing when all else is water and wind.

When you were a young one, what did you run to after any trouble? Arms to hold you and a voice that soothed your fears. You lost this habit as the years went by, but it is not all gone away. We still try to hold each other when there is nothing else to hold.

You would think that in The Mist the affected people would thus huddle together in their fear rather than tear each other apart, if the situation is actually a matter of survival. It is not as though these people are suffering the paranoia that arises from creeping disease. Their basic survival instincts are not driving individuals apart as they would in a plague scenario. At least not until Mrs. Carmody blames the Mist on a couple of the kids and orders them to be sacrificed. Before that point everyone is just being stupid and selfish in their panic, as if none of them actually cared about each other's survival, as if their instinct in the face of danger was to scatter instead of run to each other --

I can hardly call that realistic. If the movie shows such panic causing one death after another then it appears to argue that such actions do not help groups of people survive, and to say thereafter that humans are inherently selfish in survival situations is to run right into the solid fact that we're still alive in a cold and dangerous world.

In The Dark Knight the Joker says that civilized people will devour each other as soon as the chips are down. If he's right it's only in terms of a well-built civilization. Without that solid foundation the only solid foundation we have is each other. We are not savage as a primal instinct, but as an option enabled by living settled and easy.

As soon as that civilization is shaken to pieces, we see the primal instinct of human beings clearly -- it is the sight of one hand reaching out to another.

 

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