Inner Demons

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Review of The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined by Steven Pinker, Chapter 8

(Credit: All block quotes are excerpts from the book.)

Chapter 8: Inner Demons

“The myth of pure evil bedevils our attempt to understand real evil.”

It was Carl Jung who said “Knowing your own darkness is the best method for dealing with the darknesses of other people.” One of the most damaging sources of violence in our world today is the persistent myth of good vs evil. We often perceive ourselves as good guys suffering an unprovoked attack by bad guys and are therefore justified in routing them, not necessarily for personal revenge, but for the general safety and welfare. But what happens when the bad guys feel the same way about themselves? In our personal conflicts, in world events, in our perception of crime, we are naturally biased toward our own position.

The Perpetrator’s Narrative: The story begins with the harmful act. At the time I had good reasons for doing it. Perhaps I was responding to an immediate provocation. Or I was just reacting to the situation in a way that any reasonable person would. I had a perfect right to do what I did, and it’s unfair to blame me for it. The harm was minor, and easily repaired, and I apologized. It’s time to get over it, put it behind us, let bygones be bygones.

The Victim’s Narrative: The story begins long before the harmful act, which was just the latest incident in a long history of mistreatment. The perpetrator’s actions were incoherent, senseless, incomprehensible. Either that or he was an abnormal sadist, motivated only by a desire to see me suffer, though I was completely innocent. The harm he did is grievous and irreparable, with effects that will last forever. None of us should ever forget it. (p 713)

Sound familiar? Consider for a moment when you have witnessed this phenomenon firsthand, as a third party observer to, say, a road rage incident or a spat over money or a fight between siblings. During the rare chances you may have had in your life to be an unbiased observer, you have probably seen how naturally the same facts can be construed in opposite narratives. Now, consider a few times when you yourself have been wronged and think of which narrative you used to relate the story. What about the times you’ve been guilty of wronging someone else?

Once you become aware of this fateful quirk in our psychology, social life begins to look different, and so do history and current events. It’s not just that there are two sides to every dispute. It’s that each side sincerely believes its version of the story, namely that it is an innocent and long-suffering victim and the other side a malevolent and treacherous sadist. And each side has assembled a historical narrative and database of facts consistent with its sincere belief… The victims of a conflict are assiduous historians and cultivators of memory. The perpetrators are pragmatists, firmly planted in the present. (p 716)

The ultimate lesson here is that we are all human, with common motives, desires, and safety mechanisms. What we perceive as evil is all too often “perpetrated by people who are mostly ordinary, and who respond to their circumstances, including provocations by the victim, in ways they feel are reasonable and just” (p 720). Does this imply that they deserve a free pass? After all they are only acting out the same impulse we all feel and can relate to, right? No. The purpose of empathizing with the perpetrator, and not just the victim is to understand what drives criminals to commit crimes (or countries to commit atrocities, or individuals to act coldheartedly). By understanding bad behavior we are more likely able to prevent it. By empathizing with the victim we are only able to vilify the perpetrator and console the survivors, but by empathizing with the perpetrator we are able to anticipate and hopefully prevent future tragedies.

No baby is born evil. Ideology is the real killer. Most ideologies persist in a vacuum, filling their constituents’ minds with one-sided rhetoric and arming them with a strong sense of revulsion for any hint of dissent. Repeatedly, we have seen in this book that one of the root causes of the decline in violence is the increased awareness, empathy, and instant communication there is in the world. Knowledge is an ideology-buster, but the thirst for knowledge must out-compete the indoctrinated revulsion for new and conflicting facts. The advance of science is also a force for good, not just in its ability to extend lifespan and connect disparate parts of the globe, but also for its moral imperative: that doubt is good, that any open mind welcomes new and conflicting facts because they stimulate questioning. Historically, players on the world stage have only ever seen the world through their own eyes, but increasingly, we are learning to anticipate our opponents’ moves, and in anticipating them, we are understanding and empathizing with them.

Increasingly we see our affairs from two vantage points: from inside our skulls, where the things we experience just are, and from a scientist’s-eye view, where the things we experience consist of patterns of activity in an evolved brain, with all its illusions and fallacies.

Pinker echos Jung in his assertion that by understanding our own personal inner demons, we can understand, and then destroy, the demons “out there” in the world.

If all of this sounds intriguing, even counter-intuitive, watch Pinker’s TED Talk for a wonderful summary of the book.

Victor A. Davis has always loved reading and writing short stories. He is an avid hiker and even when away from the world of laptops and wifi, keeps a pocket paperback and a handwritten journal to keep him company on trail. He is the author of two short story collections, Grains of Sand and The Gingerbread Collection. Join his Mailing List for special announcements about upcoming works.