18 May
Posted in: Books
By    Comments Off on Half-Full and Getting Fuller

Half-Full and Getting Fuller

All things being equal, I tend toward an optimistic view of the world….which could be why I totally LOVE the book I finished reading over the weekend — The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined, by Steven Pinker.

Or maybe it’s because this just happens to be FABULOUSLY well researched and BEAUTIFULLY written book!

Here’s a sample from near the end, which responds to the common notion that today’s technology is the big problem we are facing, and that somehow we would all be better off if we could go back to an earlier, less “modern” way of life.

“Even with all these reasons [modern medicine, transportation, literacy, etc.] why no romantic would really step into a time machine, the nostalgic have always been able to pull out one moral card: the profusion of modern violence. At least, they say, our ancestors did not have to worry about muggings, school shootings, terrorist attacks, holocausts, world wars, killing fields, napalm, gulags, and nuclear annihilation. Surely no Boeing 747, no antibiotic, no iPod is worth the suffering that modern societies and their technologies can wreak.

And here is where unsentimental history and statistical literacy can change our view of modernity. For they show that nostalgia for a peaceable past is the biggest delusion of all. We now know that native people, whose lives are so romanticized in today’s children’s books, had rates of death from warfare that were greater than those of our world wars. The romantic visions of medieval Europe omit the exquisitely crafted instruments of torture and are innocent of the thirtyfold greater risk of murder in those times. 

The centuries for which people are nostalgic were times in which the wife of an adulterer could have her nose cut off, children as young as eight could be hanged for property crimes, a prisoner’s family could be charged for easement of irons, a witch could be sawn in half, and a sailor could be flogged to a pulp.

“The moral commonplaces of our age, such as that slavery, war and torture are wrong, would have been seen as saccharine sentimentality, and our notion of universal human rights almost incoherent. Genocide and war crimes were absent from the historical record only because no one at the time thought they were a big deal.

“From the vantage point of almost seven decades after the world wars and genocides of the first half of the 20th century, we see that they were not harbingers of worse to come, nor a new normal to which the world would grow inured, but a local high from which it would bumpily descend  And the ideologies behind them were not woven into modernity but atavisms that ended up in the dustbin of history.

“The forces of modernity–reason, science, humanism, individual rights–have not, of course pushed steadily in one direction; nor will they ever bring about a utopia or end the frictions and hurts that come with being human. But on top of all the benefits that modernist has brought us in health, experience, and knowledge, we can add its role in the reduction of violence.”

Comments are closed.