The Rights Revolutions

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Review of The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined by Steven Pinker, Chapter 7

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

Chapter 7: The Rights Revolutions

I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: “We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal.” ~ Martin Luther King, Jr.

A long time ago, I remember watching a documentary about cave people. There was a scene in which a family sat in a cave with a blizzard raging outside. They looked cold, hungry, and destitute. A mother tried to comfort a screaming baby. The father gathered his dignity, took the baby gently from its mother’s arms and carried it outside to smother it. This winter was too harsh to be caring for an infant. I remember thinking at the time what a horrible world they found themselves in, not what horrible people they were. As it turns out, the killing of newborns is fairly common in mammals and primates. Mothers must hedge a biological bet, taking stock in their situation before determining whether the child has a reasonable chance to reach adulthood or if the potential leech must be killed before it dies anyway and squanders all their effort.

As it turns out, this has been the rule rather than the shocking exception for most of human history. Myths and fairy tales abound in which infants are left for dead, but grow up to become heroes, like Romulus and Remus. Myths give us a dramatized record of ancients’ actual practices. Sparta was not the only civilization that discarded weak or sickly babies. In 1527 a French priest wrote that “the latrines resound with the cries of children who have been plunged into them.” Enter Oliver Twist, the 19th century English exposé about an orphan growing up in a workhouse. When we think of the evil conditions of orphanages of times past we forget that they were a moral improvement upon infanticide. That is to say, at some point, the killing of unwanted children became unpalatable to our ancestors so social movements cropped up calling for institutions that could take them in. Our concern for children has continued to grow so much that the workinghouses of Dickens’ day, with their near ninety-nine percent casualty rate, seem repugnant to us.

The historical increase in the valuation of children has entered its decadent phase. Now that children are safe from being smothered on the day they are born, starved in foundling homes, poisoned by wet nurses, beaten to death by fathers, cooked in pies by stepmothers, worked to death in mines and mills, felled by infectious diseases, and beaten up by bullies, experts have racked their brains for ways to eke infinitesimal increments of safety from a curve of diminishing or even reversing returns. Children are not allowed to be outside in the middle of the day (skin cancer), to play in the grass (deer ticks), to buy lemonade from a stand (bacteria on lemon peel), or to lick cake batter off spoons (salmonella from uncooked eggs).

What’s going on here? If the long historical arc from infanticide to orphanages to child labor to public education to children’s rights to political correctness is real, then is this just one more instance of the overall decline in violence? Yes. In 1693 Locke coined the phrase “tabula rasa,” or “blank slate,” in describing for the first time in history the concept of a child’s brain being an “empty” version of an adult’s, that must be filled with wholesome knowledge in order to become a responsible adult. Neglect a child’s education and he/she will grow up to become a bandit, a fiend, a godless peasant. People picked up this Enlightenment call for public education. But what had they picked it up from? What Locke was arguing against was the age-old medieval idea that all children were possessed of demons, inherent from their sinful creation, and that child-rearing consisted of “beating the devil out of them” and replacing Satan’s stranglehold with scriptural knowledge and grace. (Note how modern expressions stick around long after the practice that coined them have disappeared.)

The subject of children’s rights is just one instance of a slew of rights revolutions that have blossomed, most notably in Enlightenment Europe and the 1960s and 70s. Civil Rights, Animal Rights, Children’s Rights, Women’s Rights, Homosexuals’ Rights, and (a bit further back in time) Laborers’ Rights have all become familiar by now. It is not difficult to conjure up images of the terrible violence that must have provoked them. The UN’s 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights seems to have marked an historical turning point, a reawakening of some of the Enlightenment ideals of freedom and equality for all.

When we look back in time, it is difficult to imagine how any rational person could justify an act we would today call a hate crime or a hate killing. But that just goes to show how our cultures have changed over time. People used to exist who really believed Jews had horns on their heads under their hair, or that negroes were physically unsuited for education. Discrimination, and worse, ethnic violence, starts with things like dehumanization. Even that very word is telling, for it implies that today we consider every 46-chromosomed person a real, fully whole and deserving human, and that our ancestors (or unfortunately, contemporaries) have de-humanized them, have stripped them of their inherent humanity in order to demonize them. But for them, it’s the other way around. A pervasive ignorance and an upbringing within a cultural norm that has never considered a class of people human in the first place cannot be guilty of de-humanizing them, only of ignorance. That is why the rights revolutions have always been driven by information, education, engagement, and in short, the spread of knowledge.

If I were to put my money on the single most important exogenous cause of the Rights Revolutions, it would be the technologies that made ideas and people increasingly mobile. The decades of the Rights Revolutions were the decades of the electronics revolutions: television, transistor radios, cable, satellite, long-distance telephones, photocopiers, fax machines, the Internet, cell phones, text messaging, Web video. They were the decades of the interstate highway, high-speed rail, and the jet airplane. They were the decades of the unprecedented growth in higher education and in the endless frontier of scientific research. Less well known is that they were also the decades of an explosion in book publishing. From 1960 to 2000, the annual number of books published in the United States increased almost fivefold.

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.