Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Better Angels in the news

I have long been receptive to evidence that human life is improving -- growing less violent and more fulfilling for more people. I have rejected C.S. Lewis' warning against chronological chauvinism  -- against the assumption that we have more moral, political, social wisdom than our predecessors -- asserting that in fact contemporary international treaties and codas do embody ethics superior to those articulated in ancient scriptures. I have inveighed against boomer-bashing and idolization of the so-called greatest generation.  I have set my face against all forms of originalism.

Thanks to this confirmation bias, I knew the starting premise of Steven Pinker's  The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined -- that "violence has declined over long stretches of time, and today we may be living in the most peaceable era in our species' existence" -- before I cracked the book, having read various interviews, Pinker articles and responses.  And yet, within pages of the beginning, I could feel the book changing my world view - sweeping away the vestiges of ancestor worship, golden age nostalgia, boomer guilt, and who knows whatever other mental gestures of obeisance to outmoded authority.   This effect began to register in Pinker's preface:
How, in particular, are we to make sense of modernity of the erosion of family, tribe, tradition, and religion by the fores of individualism, cosmopolitanism, reason, and science?  So much depends on how we understand the legacy of this transition: whether we see our world as a nightmare of crime, terrorism, genocide, and war, or as a period that, by the standards of history, is blessed by unprecedented levels of peaceful coexistence (location 138)...The belief that violence has increased suggests that the world we made has contaminated us, perhaps irretrievably. The belief that it has decreased suggests that we started off nasty and that the artifices of civilization have moved us in a noble direction, one in which we can hope to continue (location 142).
My sense of liberation gathered strength through Chapter 1, a  quick tour of the more-violent mores of past eras, particularly Pinker's account of relatively recent and modest changes -- how jarring a 1950s ad showing a husband spanking his wife seems, or even the old Charles Atlas ad showing a newly bulked-up onetime 98-pound weakling decking a beach bully.  I was reminded, looking back at these quasi-violent vignettes, what a young poet asserts with regard to humor:
It seems our comedy dates the quickest.
If you laugh out loud at Shakespeare's jokes
I hope you won't be insulted
if I say you're trying too hard.
Even sketches from the original Saturday Night Live
seem slow-witted and obvious now.

The recent changes Pinker chronicles coincide with an acceleration in the decrease of violence worldwide. In light of that fact, the kind of rapid cultural shifts we've become accustomed to look more unequivocally like progress, rather than some uneasy mix of, say, tolerance and permissiveness. If it's not quite true that Everything Bad is Good for You, most of what's new in human mores is likely to be.*

I felt the first fruits of this change in my own attitude this afternoon, encountering the following on Andrew Sullivan's Dish:
Pew recently reported that younger generations "favor multilateralism over unilateralism and the use of diplomacy – rather than relying on military strength -- to ensure peace." Two-thirds of Millennials (66%) say that military force can create hatred that leads to more terrorism, while only 46% of Boomers agree.
David Sirota credits Ron Paul, who is popular among voters aged 18 to 29, for this generational shift. Sullivan invokes the hard lessons of the Iraq invasion, presumably formative for young adults.  Both may be right to a degree: the Iraq war certainly showcased the horrors brought on by unnecessary unilateralism, and young people have found Paul a resonant critic of foreign adventure.  But working through both I see Pinker's larger trend: in recent decades, every cohort is less invested in aggression than its predecessors, more empathic, less inclined to violence.

None of this is to suggest that disaster and catastrophe can't strike.  In the past, progress away from violence has hardly been linear. Recent trends toward increased income inequality worldwide and away from democracy in some parts of the world are disturbing and dangerous setbacks. Then too,  the deep disillusionment of many twentieth century thinkers with Hegelian and other theories of progress seems an appropriate response to the world wars and subsequent nuclear standoff.  But Fukuyama in 1989 was able to take a step back from that great derailment, and Pinker has taken another giant step.  After a "long peace" among major powers longer than that which preceded World War I, we have reason to believe in progress again, even as we fear its sudden reversal.

*Update, 11/30: This post, like its predecessor, suffers somewhat from the effects of premature blogging.  Pinker's third chapter tackles the major spike in crime that plagued the U.S. and Europe from the sixties through the eighties.  Pinker credits a "deformalizing" and indeed "decivilizing" process, triggered in part by technology that enabled a self-conscious youth culture to take hold of the boomer generation, unleashing a radical questioning and undermining of authority on multiple fronts, including "authority" to deter petty crime and punish violent crime.  So let me partially dial back the everything-bad-is-good-for-you exuberance and remind myself more forcefully that progress is not linear, that any society can tear itself apart or undermine itself in whole or in part, that change for the worse can be reversible or long-term, that creative destruction entails a good deal of destruction, and that changes that are necessary in human affairs often trigger overreactions.

See also:
Religion helped develop our better angels
The bettering angels of our nature

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