I haven't watched much television for a number of years. So on those occasions when I am exposed to the full effect of programming and advertising, I am stunned by the negativity and fear. Why is such a depressing picture of humanity so popular? Does it sell more products or shape elections? Does it increase contributions to various causes?
One of the most pervasive messages on American television is that human nature is aggressive, competitive and banal. News and entertainment programming expand this theme, even in what purports to be comedy. Good guys may triumph over evil, but usually by utilizing the same violent or immoral behaviors as the bad guys. The news isn't any better, consistently showing the worst one percent of daily life.
Even the weather channel isn't safe from this poison, for while sidelined in a motel room with sore feet recently, I ended up seeing eight murders being committed in detail in an hour's time--thanks to numerous previews of other channels, video games, and movies!
The Bahá'í Faith doesn't teach that humans are innately evil, although capable of appalling viciousness and incredible stupidity when ignorant of their true potential. Bad behavior is a choice, based upon misperception or misinformation, incorrect assumptions or lack of good role models. Rugged, self-serving individualism is not even the daily norm, or the species would not have survived to 7+ billion.
Contrary to what is shown on television, most people do not lose their veneer of civilization at the first opportunity. Ask the folks in Joplin, Missouri; or New Orleans, Louisiana; or any other site of disaster. Read the accounts of refugees of both world wars, not to mention countless other violence. In most cases, people did not lose their cool and go crazy. Quite the opposite.
Lee Clarke, a sociologist at Rutgers University, has examined many potentially panic-inducing situations. It's a widespread misconception, he says, that in fires and other conflagrations, the rules of society crumble and "our true animalistic" selves come forth. "I'm no Pollyanna," he goes on. That kind of "self-interested bastard" behavior definitely exists in the world. But in times of hazard, he argues, the "other human nature kicks in." Social values like altruism are heighted in emergencies, not lessened. "After five decades of studying scores of disasters such as flood, earthquakes and tornadoes," he writes, "one of the strongest findings is that people rarely lose control." In fact, "the more consistent pattern is that people bind together in the aftermath of disasters." Quoted in Ken Sherwood's, The Survivors Club: The Secrets and Science that Could Save Your Life, pp. 61-2
The purpose of religion, according to the Bahá'í Faith, has always been to guide moral thinking and train ethical behavior. As mankind has matured, new guidance was needed, as well as clarification of misunderstanding. Which is why Bahá'u'lláh says that it has been renewed every 600 to 1000 years.
Since the Bahá'í Faith teaches that there is only one Creator with many names, and one religion with many chapters, whose purpose is to allow mankind to develop the potential to mirror divine attributes, Bahá'ís are about counteracting the prevailing negative view of human nature. This can be done by improving one's own character, raising up children with good role models, and assisting in the process of building healthier communities.
All of that is a choice each one has to make: whether to see evil and shortcomings, or to see goodness and potential. That choice can't be made without vision and hope. The Bahá'í Faith is about that hope and that vision for this day and age. The future does not have to be what entertainment and advertising can make it seem, but to see a different direction requires effort.
Bahá'u'lláh says quite specifically that although God made humanity in His own image, each one much choose the path of virtue for him- or herself: "All that which ye potentially posses can, however, be manifested only as a result of your volition." - Gleanings from the Writings of Bahá'u'lláh, p. 149