Great Tidings of Comfort and Joy!
Steve has done another great job of finding the real value in a long book. Here’s the “takeaway” in just 1,000 words – a 4 minute read.
It’s something realistically nice with which to start the New Year.
The Better Angels of Our Nature: why violence has declined. Stephen Pinker (NY, Viking Press, 2011)Book Review.
If you have ever despaired of humanity because of all the violence and injustice in the world, this book is a lovely breath of fresh air and optimism. However, despite its clarity and fascinating thoroughness and detail, it is also a long breath. I think it’s likely that even those who buy the book may not find time to read the nearly 700 pages of small print. (I had the luxury of a vacation, and it still took me a week.) So I thought you might appreciate a brief sharing of a few of the books highlights. There are many reviews of this excellent book online; I will only add a few thoughts for those who may not get around to reading it.
Pinker first demonstrates that violence of all kinds — from tribal and national wars to infanticide — has declined steadily by a factor of 100 since Medieval times. This conclusion is based on analysis of hundreds of datasets, and the book includes a compelling array of figures and graphs showing this basic trend. This puts current violence into perspective, and holds out significant hope that the decline will continue.
After establishing the evidence for the decline, Pinker goes on to ask the question, “What accounts for the change?” He carefully examines many different factors that could have played a role, checking across cultures through time, and noticing where there are consistent correlations. I don’t have space for Pinker’s thorough and thoughtful reviews and analyses, only for a few interesting conclusions — and a couple of quotes from the book so you can sample the flavor of his writing.
One factor is the rise of democracies, which are based on periodic voter feedback. Democracy is based on the assumption that people with different ideas and desires can usually work things out without fighting and killing each other. Even when a “democracy” is deeply flawed or entirely bogus, the idea of democracy and universal rights has a near universal appeal, and sooner or later people are likely to demand some substance beneath the idea.
An increase in empathy (a word that is only a century old!) is clearly a major factor. One factor that surprised me with its simplicity and obviousness is the impact of the invention of the printing press. While initially it was used only for religious texts, after the late 17th century, books became more widespread, and the rise of the novel increased people’s experience of others’ viewpoints, and this was correlated with a further decrease in violence.
Reading is a technology for perspective-taking. When someone else’s thoughts are in your head, you are observing the world from that person’s vantage point. Not only are you taking in sights and sounds that you could not experience first-hand, but you have stepped inside that person’s mind and are temporarily sharing his or her attitudes and reactions.
. . .
Slipping even for a moment into the perspective of someone who is turning black in a pillory, or desperately pushing burning faggots away from her body or convulsing under the two hundredth stroke of the lash may give a person second thoughts as to whether these cruelties should ever be visited upon anyone. (p. 175)
Another factor was the rise of central governments with effective laws and enforcement. When you can reasonably hope that most criminals will be brought to justice, there is much less incentive to take matters into your own hands — and likely be brought to justice yourself. Pinker quotes a Croat who described the situation in pre-breakup Yugoslavia, “There was a policeman every hundred meters who made sure that we all loved each other very much.”
These are only a few examples of the many, many aspects of a fundamental shift in human consciousness that this book documents and explores, much of which has taken place within the last hundred years. Though Pinker is very careful not to make predictions, the trajectory is clear, and gives us hope for a future with even less violence. I would like to end this review with Pinker’s closing paragraphs:
To review the history of violence is to be repeatedly astounded by the waste of it all, and at times to be overcome with anger, disgust, and immeasurable sadness. I know that behind the graphs is a young man who feels a stab of pain and watches the life drain slowly out of him, knowing that he has been robbed of decades of existence. There is a victim of torture whose contents of consciousness have been replaced by unbearable agony, leaving room only for the desire that consciousness itself should cease. There is a woman who has learned that her husband, her father, and her brothers lie dead in a ditch, and who will soon ‘fall into the hand of hot and forcing violation.’ It would be terrible if these ordeals befell one person, or ten, or a hundred. But the numbers are not in the hundreds, the thousands, or even the millions, but in the hundreds of millions—an order of magnitude that the mind staggers to comprehend, with deepening horror as it comes to realize just how much suffering has been inflicted by the naked ape upon its own kind.
Yet while this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, that species has also found ways to bring the numbers down, and allow a greater and greater proportion of humanity to live in peace and die of natural causes. For all the tribulations in our lives, for all the troubles that remain in the world, the decline of violence is an accomplishment we can savor, and an impetus to cherish the forces of civilization and enlightenment that made it possible. (p. 696)
The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined on Amazon.com
Great Tidings of Comfort and Joy! – Steve Andreas’ NLP Blog
Posted: 23 Dec 2011 02:26 PM PST
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That’s it for this year. Thanks for reading and being part of our community! We’ll have a lot of new developments for you starting as soon as next week, so stay tuned!