Monday, January 2, 2012

Today I finished reading Steven Pinker's Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined. It took me about three months: I read slowly, the better to mull over and digest the ideas in this remarkable book. Over that time, I also had plenty of time to notice how controversial this book is, and how odd the controversy: this book isn't controversial because of the things is says but rather because of the things people think it says (that we live in a happy fun-land and war and violence are a thing of the past), or in some cases, think it implies (that serious crimes "don't really matter").

Pinker, to his credit, anticipates these criticisms and addresses them both throughout his book and outside of his book. He has a page on his site devoted to "frequently asked questions" about Better Angels, and, having just read the book, I can tell you that his answers are simply taken from it, and usually contain a page reference. For example:
How can you say that violence has declined when we continue to murder millions of unborn babies? 
As I discuss on pp. 426–428, the rate of abortion worldwide has been in decline. I also discuss the question whether people perceive abortion as a form of violence, given the evolving understanding of the locus of moral value over the centuries. 
What about all the chickens in factory farms? 
I discuss the chickens in a section on Animal Rights in chapter 7, pp. 469–473.
What about the American imprisonment craze?
As unjust as many current American imprisonment practices are, they cannot be compared to the lethal sadism of criminal punishment in earlier centuries (pp. 144-146). For a discussion of the causes and effects of today’s imprisonment binge, see pp. 121–123.
I sympathize with Pinker's situation; in a weird way, I've experienced it for him. He introduced some of these ideas to the cyberpublic with a 2007 TED talk titled, "The Myth of Violence," and I used that video in my Advanced Exposition course at Florida Atlantic University last year and the year before. My course focused on Classical Rhetoric in modern contexts, and I chose his video not particularly to advocate his thesis, but to give my students an example of a speaker who must advocate an unpopular position, who must therefore genuinely persuade his audience to consider something they are disinclined to consider. His argument is tightly organized and based upon explicit reason and copious evidence. Other speeches I showed them had a more emotional bent, more showmanship -- Pinker's speech was our example of a solidly logos-based approach.

When I chose it, I didn't anticipate that my students would have a bit of a meltdown over it. They couldn't articulate why, but they were just sure he was wrong. And they were so short-circuited by their angst over his argument that analyzing it became very difficult for them. They were emotionally driven to prove that he was "wrong" at all costs, and were unwilling to even acknowledge that he'd done anything right -- and they even, sadly, descended into ad hominem attacks, asserting that they couldn't take Pinker seriously because he's stiff and has funny hair and says "um" a lot.

I came to the conclusion that even though Pinker's speech is a great example of a certain kind of persuasive argument, it's also an example of how such arguments fail in the face of the human animal. Ideally, we would be a race of beings who were primarily driven by logic and reason, but we aren't. Reason is a big part of who we are, but we are driven more strongly by our emotions and our loyalty to certain cultural norms. And one of the strongest, most abiding, most universal, and most pervasive norms is the belief that the past was better and we're all going to hell in a handbasket.

“The children now love luxury; they have bad manners, contempt for authority; they show disrespect for elders and love chatter in place of exercise. Children are now tyrants, not the servants of their households. They no longer rise when elders enter the room. They contradict their parents, chatter before company, gobble up dainties at the table, cross their legs, and tyrannize their teachers.” attributed to Socrates (~400 years BCE), and the Ancient Greek myth of the "Golden Age" seems to sum up the problem: once upon a time, long ago, men were made of gold. Then, they were made of silver. Then they were made of bronze. And finally, today, men are made of soft and worthless flesh. Had Prometheus not crossed the gods to give us fire, we'd all be dead by now.

The myth is a metaphor for what all people at all times come to believe: the past is a better, simpler, more noble and meaningful time. The politically conservative version of this dreams of a pastoral heyday of order and authority -- "and you knew where you were then, girls were girls and men were men..." the comfort of a small country town, conformist in-group rules. The politically liberal version goes back even further to dream of Man in a State of Nature, living rule-less but cleanly and in harmony with his environment, all noble and wise and peaceful.

Cut from fantasy past, meanwhile, the present is a chaos, as a learned dinner guest in Candide (1751) says,
"I find that all in this world is set the wrong end uppermost. No one knows what is his rank, his office, nor what he does, nor what he should do. With the exception of our evenings, which we generally pass tolerably merrily, the rest of our time is spent in idle disputes and quarrels, Jansenists against Molinists, the Parliament against the Church, and one armed body of men against another; courtier against courtier, husband against wife, and relations against relations. In short, this world is nothing but one continued scene of civil war."
As for the future, we can only imagine some kind of dystopia, for what else could result if the world is run by these half-witted young'uns? Or worse, an End Times scenario. We imagine our "great" forebears would roll in their graves if they knew what a mess we were making of things. Humans have been experimentally shown to suck at imagining the future with any accuracy, but we suck just as hard at imagining the past: we can't smell London and Paris before plumbing, and when animals were slaughtered on city streets. We can't imagine enduring the minor pains of life without aspirin or novocaine. We know that when we are hungry or have a stubborn back-pain that it makes us irritable and unpleasant for the short time we must endure it, but we fail to imagine how an entire planet of people who are hungry and pained and unable to find any lasting relief would behave.

The reason people are responding so badly to Pinker's book is that his book sets out to prove that the past was far more violent than the present; this is a reversal and a violation of a cherished cultural norm. We don't have many taboos left in the Western world, but this is one of them.

Perhaps if his methods weren't so logos-based. The Daily Show managed to make a much lighter version of the same point through comedy, but they only explored backwards in living memory -- they show the psychology of it, the theory: of course I remember the 1970s as a peaceful happyland, but that's because I was no older than 4 years old in the 1970s. If you were an adult then, you'd recall a violent and chaotic and desperately polluted world, near-hopeless and plagued by wars, riots, hijackings, gas lines, deep and hate-soaked divisions between the various demographics, and leadership associated with words like "tricky," "crook," and "malaise."

So Steven Pinker comes along with his facts and his figures and his documents and he shows you that this goes far, far beyond just living memory. The past just keeps getting more and more violent, the further back you go. Whatever is wrong with our world today, we should be grateful that we live now, and not any time in the past, for now is more peaceful. How dare he? Does he not take seriously the wickedness that is so clearly in our midst? Does he think the world is perfect now? That we are inevitably marching towards a utopia?

There's a second part to the psychology that the Daily Show didn't tackle: as the world has become less violent, we've become less tolerant of violence, and so every instance of violence we see makes us react strongly -- we are genuinely alarmed, go into emergency mode, and feel we have to do something! Or, all will be lost! We feel it. And that sense of emergency is what motivates us to act, and when we act, we make the world even safer, and this safety-feedback loop probably shouldn't be sabotaged by the knowledge that past people saw far worse far more often and didn't care half as much.

As just a random example, in 2009 a teenage boy was brought to trial in Miami accused of being a "cat serial killer" (he was aquitted when it was scientifically determined that at least some of the cats had been killed by dogs). It was international news (that link is to the UK Guardian). So think about that: in 2009 one boy in one city believed to be killing cats is worth, to our society, the expense of a trial, and the attention of people around the world. For most of human history, killing cats has been considered completely okay, a mainstream entertainment.

We should acknowledge we live in the better world. 

But does acknowledging that we live in the better world now make us less likely to keep pushing for a safer, less cruel and violent future? I think with many people it probably does. And I believe this sense of Pinker-as-saboteur-of-the-Good is what motivates a lot of the negative reaction to his ideas. We sense that he's going to undermine our desire to make the world a better place by convincing us that it's "good enough."

And I think that lies at the heart of most people's problem with this book: we are afraid that if we're not always screaming as though the handbasket ride to hell is a breath away, we're doomed. That might be right. Pinker gives a lot of external reasons why the world has gotten less violent, but internally, non-violence breeds non-violence, and people raised in a more peaceful world have higher standards of peacefulness, a "new normal" that they're willing to fight to maintain. They want animals slaughtered painlessly or not at all. They want children to get a "time out" instead of a spanking. They want criminals to get fines instead of whippings. They don't want their children sent off to fight in wars.

Personally, I think that the truth is an inherent good, and so worth the risk. But not everyone will come to the same conclusion.

I also think that we should take account of the successes of the past the better to repeat them. Learning from History isn't all just learning from mistakes.

Most importantly, though, I think that we should be careful of living in crisis-mode all the time, especially when that crisis-mode is combined with a false nostalgia: if we're erroneously convinced that the past is better than the present, we may foolishly attempt to re-structure the present to make it look more like the past. (Consider how many political positions are structured "we should go back to..." -- in economics, education, everything.)

The arrow of time points in only one direction -- we can't go back to the past. More importantly, we shouldn't want to. The past is a hell, and the handbasket is nostalgia. If we want a better world, we're going to have to keep working for it, but we need to push ourselves into the future, not the past.

PS: I recommend this book.

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