Many in the modern Western world make use of a “humanity is ill” metaphor. Many imagine us as suffering collectively from the diseases of greed, bigotry, selfishness, entitlement, consumption and wastefulness, or the need to be constantly entertained. Our current behavior is something which must be cured, so that we can return to our prior state of healthy, purposeful life.
This is another version of the “It’s getting worse” story and just as destructive and counterproductive.
But there is another, perhaps even more insidious story. This is the story that humanity itself is a sickness, a disease, a virus. You might recall a scene from the 1999 film The Matrix. Agent Smith has captured Morpheus and tries to break his spirit by convincing him that humanity isn’t worth saving. He describes humanity itself as a virus, spreading endlessly, destroying everything in its path, consuming, consuming, consuming. Other species seem to find an equilibrium with their surroundings. Other species act as part of the greater fabric of life. Humans blow through like a tornado and simply spread to a new place one they’ve pillaged their home of all its natural resources. They leave destruction and misery in their wake. Why should we save such a mindlessly destructive species? Wouldn’t everything else on Earth be better off without humanity?
The scene has always sent chills up my spine. It’s an uncomfortable experience to be rooting for Morpheus and Neo, while acknowledging the truth in Agent Smith’s statement. Humanity in fact does share many qualities with viruses. It does seem to expand and conquer mindlessly. It seems resistant to ecological equilibrium. It can’t seem to control its over unending thirst for conquest and expansion. Other species would be more likely to survive if we were to simply up and leave. Should we really try to perpetuate such a flawed enterprise at all?
The key mechanism of this story is not to paint humans simply as destructive, but to isolate humanity from all other living beings and from Earth. Humanity is a sickness upon the Earth. All other living beings are united, they are kin with one another. We are set apart, alone, unaligned, different in some terrible and unredeemable way. Viruses after all are literally not even living creatures, according to our science’s current classifications. They are below the dignity of life. We humans are broken, defective, antithetical to life itself.
In The Matrix, this story is spun explicitly to demoralize and weaken, to impede change and humans operating from a place of strengthen and genius. It is designed to ignite shame, and therefore to fester with cynicism, despair, and hopelessness.
Yet notice how many humans, in the name of progressive values and the need for change, seem to call on this same story. Just Google it. Endless pages of “humanity is a virus.” Notice how yet again we try to inspire action through shame.