Thursday, June 21, 2012

A Longer View

These days, the days events support the feeling that we are spiraling down rapidly into madness and a new Dark Age.  The medium term view--when people my age look back several decades--provides some solace, but not much.  Back in the 60s we sang a song with the refrain "when will they ever learn?" and it seems just about everyday we get the answer, "Probably never, or at least, not yet."  For example, the GOPer madness of a Clinton impeachment repeated on a smaller scale (so far) with the GOPer House committee's contempt citation against Attorney General Eric Holder.  Rachel Maddow argued persuasively that this is yet another scary example of GOPer Rabid Right madness (fixating on guns), while I doubt I'm alone is seeing the racist component: in a time when a new GOP racist treatment of President Obama arises somewhere nearly every day, GOPers try to take down the first black Attorney General of the first black President.  

But maybe there is some solace in the longer view.  At least that's according to Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker, who makes the case that over the centuries, violence of all kind has decreased.  I wouldn't entertain what he says without pairing it with psychologist James Hillman's views in his book, The Terrible Love of War, which looks at the archetypal needs that war addresses, but there is some common ground: I think both would agree that institutionalizing  non-lethal ways of addressing those needs is both possible and desirable--or frankly, necessary.

It seems to me that Pinker very ably sums up his thesis in the first two answers, the first two paragraphs of his interview with The European:   

The European: Your current book addresses the question of violence. What is the focus of your argument?
Pinker: That violence has declined over the course of history on multiple scales of magnitude and time. Homicide, war, genocide, rape, corporal and capital punishments, and the harsh treatment of children and animals have all become less frequent. It’s not that human nature has changed during these transitions. But human nature is a complex system with many parts. Some tempt us towards violence – exploitation, dominance, revenge – and others can inhibit us from being violent – self-control, empathy, moral norms and reason. My goal was to identify the historical forces that have increasingly favored “the better angels of our nature,” as Abraham Lincoln called them.

The European: What historical forces can be causally linked to a decline in violence?
Pinker: A major one is the rise of effective government, which helped to pacify society, just as Thomas Hobbes had predicted in his theory of the “Leviathan.” Governments removed the incentives for exploitative violence on one side, and thereby reduced the temptation for pre-emptive attack and for violent retaliation on the other. Another force was the expansion of trade and commerce, which made it cheaper to buy things than to steal them, and meant that other people were worth more alive than dead. A third was the rise of cosmopolitan forces like literacy and travel, which expanded people’s circle of empathy. At the same time, reason and free speech were enhanced, which encouraged people to become cleverer to treat violence as a problem to be solved."

The GOPer threat to effective government is a clear and present danger, and this suggests what one result might well be if they succeed.  Two other trends seem likely to continue as long as civilization does: trade and commerce, literacy and travel (if you include storytelling by any form in the "literacy" category.)  Reason and free speech are always threatened, and today the internal threat is coming from the overthrow of consciousness by the raging unconscious of way too many Americans. 

The point here--which actually comports with my medium term view--is that positive trends that are supported by institutions and partly through them by culture can make a difference in what aspects of human nature are emphasized more often and with greater, wider effect.  And therein lies the hope of the future: through individuals certainly, their consciousness of themselves and their commitments to the kind of person they want to be and the kind of society they want to support.  By also through the norms supported by the important institutions of the time, over time, beyond the medium term of one individual life into the long term. 

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