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Steven Pinker: The Better Angels of Our Nature

April 29, 2014

This book from 2011 argues for the decline of violence during the span of civilized human history.

Seemingly controversial in the light of the dramatic world wars and genocides of the 20th century. Such optimism is the kind to often be ridiculed in the way a Voltaire, a Schopenhauer or a Nietzsche would ridicule the optimism of Leibniz in declaring this to be the best of all possible worlds.

But the facts and evidence do seem to support his thesis. I have long thought the sensibilities of people have been changing in a positive way regarding this kind of thing. Being less tolerant of needless violence, suffering and things of this kind. But I was always stopped short by the thought of the violence and horrors of the 20th century, of a social or factual declaration of this idea.

Steven Pinker may be on to something with this. He illustrates well some psychological tendencies to misperceive things. We see patterns and conspiracies where there is only randomness and we over-emphasise our recent history that we know of and remember, compared to all the mostly forgotten violence and suffering of the distant past.

Taking this as proven to be the case, of course (look at the evidence from the book for yourself), does not change the fact that we as human beings in this society, have good reason to be more concerned and attached to possibilities of potential suffering and violence that we may have to encounter or suffer through for ourselves. Yes, the feared cold war never did explode in nuclear disaster, and terrorism has not been as pervasive and regular in the western world as it was first thought it may be after the initial  9/11 climate of fear. But we are hardly in a position to rest on our laurels, as it is the attitude we have to the possibility of violent outbreaks that often is crucial in influencing whether they may happen or not.

For example, does anybody more set themselves up for defeat than a person who gloats about a short-term victory. Such a person, or a society in this case, would precisely make itself a target of ill feeling and begrudgement. So, though I agree it is important from this information that we have reason to be a bit more hopeful and a bit less cynical and despairing about the future of civilization. Open displays of such confidence would precisely have the reverse effect, bringing in a whole new level of psychology to the social situation. (One of the reasons it is so difficult to pin down and be scientific about social phenomena. The reflexivity of social facts as Anthony Giddens would call this.)

Another interesting point in this book regards his rebuttal of a common theory of aggression and violence since the time of the founding of psychoanalysis. Namely that we have natural instincts of the aggressive  kind that if they get repressed build up inside until they reach a point of explosion, and civilizations precisely have a tendency to repress these natural inclinations. Pinker disputes this “Hydraulic theory of Violence”, arguing that reasons for violence and aggression have various causes, much of it being situational, rather than based on internal sources of energy. A specific example he gives is of violence as an opportunistic urge. A situation of advantage is perceived and the opportunity is exploited to inflict maximum damage and injury on the victim. Another circumstance is in a revenge situation. A fear of revenge may cause a clan to violently, murder the whole of the opposing clan, as any left alive would hold a passion for revenge deep within them.

So there are some new insights here into violence, aggression, and its place in our human nature and in the history of civilization. I have found it to be a good read, allowing me to question my attachment to the psychoanalytic, civilization/repression, instinctual concept of aggression somewhat, and allowing me to place 20th century violence in its more general context of human history, for which I can only suggest reading the book for yourself.

Little though is said about how these situational tendencies to violence are to be curtailed, he seems here to rely to heavily on inner urges of empathy, reason, self-control etc.. Ignoring the social and structural difficulties that need also to be got to grips with. The reliance on natural qualities of human beings to move us further away from violence seems to me slightly naive and outdated, enlightenment or liberal style reasoning. Strong cultural ideals need to be propagated in society, and at times they must do so in ways that our nature may not at first be too happy about or comfortable with.

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