Review of The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined by Steven Pinker, Chapter 6
(Credit: All block quotes are excerpts from the book.)
Chapter 6: The New Peace
“Macbeth’s self-justifications were feeble – and his conscience devoured him. Yes, even Iago was a little lamb too. The imagination and the spiritual strength of Shakespeare’s evildoers stopped short at a dozen corpses. Because they had no ideology.” ~ Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn
This ironically titled chapter talks about quantitative declines in the most horrific categories of human violence: genocide and terrorism. It is possible to compartmentalize archaic forms of violence, such as soldiers dying by the thousands in musket line advances, because we know we have advanced past the point of ever seeing that again. It is much harder to prepare a subject like ethnic cleansing for objective, palatable academic treatment when so many people’s lives today have been ruinously touched by it. How can one’s blood not boil when looking at a chart displaying a downward trend in terrorist attacks, when that tiny blip at the far end represents those who died on September 11th, 2001?
Perhaps it is time to take a breath and remember the theme of the book. There is a common quote falsely attributed to the Koran that goes “if any one killed a person, it would be as if he killed the whole of mankind; and if any one saved a life, it would be as if he saved the life of the whole of mankind.” This is exactly the nerve that is touched by the detached academic vivisection of the emotionally devastating. Such as when we say “sure, slavery was abolished on paper, but black people still suffer needless discrimination.” Or, “yes, women can vote in most countries, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t still sex traffickers in the world.” This tendency to conflate the individual with the whole renders “progress” a dirty word. It is painful, and even offensive, to take two evils and attempt to weigh them against each other, to say that the more recent one is less harmful amounts to “progress,” or that a crime with ten victims is ten times “worse” than the same crime with one victim. Yet we have to be able to take these part-whole blinders off in order to make a fair judgment. It is disingenuous to claim that because black people still suffer needless discrimination, then “we’ve made no progress” since the times of slavery. That is factually incorrect and patently absurd, yet we hold it as a moral principle that if any one suffers needlessly, then the whole is broken.
The effort to whittle down the numbers that quantify misery can be heartless. But there is a moral imperative in getting the facts right, and not just to maintain credibility. The discovery that fewer people are dying in wars all over the world can thwart cynicism among compassion-fatigued news readers who might otherwise think that poor countries are irredeemable hellholes. And a better understanding of what drove the numbers down can steer us toward doing things that make people better off rather than congratulating ourselves on how altruistic we are. (p 468)
So long as any evil exists in the world, it is not the time for back-patting. But this is not what this book is encouraging us to do. His running theme is that recognizing a decline in violence is prerequisite to understanding what exactly it is that we have been doing right, so that we can pick up the threads of that effort and continue pushing it forwards. Pundits love to use phrases like “we live in dangerous times,” and “we are at a crossroads in history,” and “there is more at stake today than ever,” or most histrionically, “this is a battle for the soul of XYZ.” What they are doing is rousing us to action, engaging us to get involved in an issue or buy their sponsors’ products. They are exploiting the natural human misperception that times past were innocent because our ten-year-old eyes were incapable of perceiving wickedness. As we grow up and learn to see the world for what it is, our growing disillusionment can feel like a real decline in wholesomeness and purity. There is an ancient Greek word, kairos, which means “a passing instant when an opening appears which must be driven through with force if success is to be achieved.” We want to believe that we live in kairos, that we must be the vigilant driving forces to overcome the unique historical crisis we have for the first time found ourselves in. This is an illusion. There is nothing special about the time we live in other than the fact that we are here to live it. We are always living in kairos, in every age.
Baby boomers like to hearken back to the “innocent age” of the 1950s, when marriages were stable, families were whole and respectful, and jobs were plenty. But this was also a time when the lynching of a black man may not even make national news, when schoolchildren were taught their duck and cover drills in case the Russians dropped the bomb, and the Fadeyeen were terrorizing a nascent Israel. Has the world really gone to hell since these innocent times? Do we really want to go back there? Or was it simply that the five- to fifteen-year-olds of this time period remember it as being a time of childlike innocence because they were children?
Pinker writes that “[A] quantitative mindset is in fact the morally enlightened one. It treats every human life as having equal value, rather than privileging the people who are closest to us or most photogenic.” Thus, if the quantitative trends are real, then it means that fewer people suffer, and that we can thank the better angels of our parents’ nature for recognizing and working to decrease the suffering they saw in their world in order to build ours. We must pick up that torch.