It Gets Better: Against the Sentimental Conspiracy of Misery

Steven Pinker is asking for trouble. In a century so far distinguished by war, terror, social unrest, and unpleasant forms of extrajudicial punishment, what kind of person says hey, take a step back, everything’s basically getting better? Whiggery, complacency, nineteenth-century liberal Panglossianism – the counterattack writes itself.

The Guardian’s Andrew Brown was upfront:

I haven’t read all of Steven Pinker’s new book, The Better Angels of Our Nature, but quite enough of it to see that the mixture is the same as in his previous bestsellers: great piece of theatre in which half-truths do battle with straw men while the reader watches in safety, defended by barricades of apparent fact against any danger of actual thought…. I just opened it at random a few times and looked for references to subjects I know something about. It wasn’t hard. His range is wide. But the factual errors, although they destroy his thesis as a serious piece of history, point up its attractive weakness as a comfort blanket for the smug.

Pinker’s writing is friendly and accessible, and the text is broken up with graphs and illustrations: still, it’s a big dense hard book and I can appreciate that poor Andrew wouldn’t have been able to get through the whole thing in time to sync his piece with Pinker’s launch and Brown’s own columnar deadline. You can almost see his great moon-face frowning in puzzlement. (And as Richard Dawkins said: ‘one cannot, after all be expected to read every single word of a book whose author one wishes to insult’.)

The title says it all: Pinker argues that throughout the human story violence and cruelty have declined to lows unimaginable to previous ages. His tone is gratified rather than triumphalist, but this is still a big claim. So let’s do what Andrew Brown could not do and have a look at Pinker’s arguments in detail.

Brown’s colleague John Naughton, in an interview with Pinker, reflected on ‘the attractiveness of the idea of decline in western culture. It’s strange that the more ‘civilised’ people become, the more convinced they are the world is going to the dogs.’ You only have to turn on the TV or look at a newspaper to realise the truth of this. Post-riots, David Cameron frets over England’s ‘slow-motion moral collapse’; the phrase Broken Britain is repeated over and over by politicians and media personalities; entire newspapers are sustained by laments for a lost kingdom of the 1950s or the nineteenth century.

The romantic myth – actually not truly romantic, only sentimental – of the Decline has consumed most contemporary conservative thought and much of the left is going the same way. Pinker: ‘a hostility to modernity is shared by ideologies that have nothing else in common – a nostalgia for moral clarity, small-town intimacy, family values, primitive communism, ecological sustainability, communitarian solidarity, or harmonies with the rhythms of nature.’

The leftwing decline fable is slightly more sophisticated. The Enlightenment freed people from religious superstition only to discover that reason itself has a dark side: gas chambers built by IG Farben, atheist gulag hells and a hundred thousand Iraqi corpses as testament to liberal-rationalist imperialism. In the secularised West today faith exists mainly in prisons, closed psyche wards and AA meeting halls. It is viewed by today’s intellectuals as a loosely linked system of benign thought, whose influence on the planet has been a succession of kindly acts. Brown:

Whether or not you suppose Christian myth to be true, it is simply impossible to consider the development of ethical thought and practice in the west without understanding that almost all of it has been Christian, and that what comes after Christianity is itself incomprehensible without it.

More than anything in Pinker’s book that statement illustrates how far we’ve come.

In contemporary usage the expressions ‘pilloried’, ‘crucified’, ‘witch-hunt’ tend to mean ‘widespread criticism of myself or a public figure that I support’. Real physical torture is known to us in what Pinker calls ‘sporadic, clandestine and universally decried eruptions’. Its use as part of the war on terror is often cited by the public intellectual John Gray, who has made a career out of pious and sentimental pessimism. Yet for a glimpse of the prelapsarian you have to visit the Museo della Tortura e di Criminologia Medievale, located in in San Gimigano, Italy. There are similar museums in San Marino, Amsterdam, Munich, Prague, Milan and London: sentinels of a lost world and warnings from the Age of Pain.

Writers are cautioned against the pornography of violence. But Pinker is in a bind here because to chart a decline of violence over the ages is to risk forgetting the human tragedy behind each dot on the graph. The Better Angels of Our Nature therefore contains pages and pages of horrors that make the waterboard look like a wet dream.

‘As the levers bent forward, the main force of my knees against the two planks burst asunder the sinews of my hams, and the lids of my knees were crushed. My eyes began to startle, my mouth to foam and froth, and my teeth to chatter like the doubling of a drummer’s sticks.’ ‘The Pear is a split, spike-tipped wooden knob that was inserted into a mouth, anus or vagina and spread apart by a screw mechanism to tear the victim apart from the inside; it was used to punish sodomy, adultery, incest, heresy, blasphemy and ‘sexual union with Satan’.’ ‘Executions were orgies of sadism, climaxing with ordeals of prolonged killing such as burning at the stake, breaking on the wheel, pulling apart by horses, impalement through the rectum, disembowlment by winding a man’s intestines around a spool, and even hanging, which was a slow racking and strangulation rather than a quick breaking of the neck.’

Torture, Pinker stresses, was not even confined to routine and trivial punishment: it was entertainment, diversion, the very texture of human life for hundreds of years on end. Sixteenth-century Parisians would gather round and watch animals lowered into an open fire, ‘singed, roasted and finally carbonised’. In October 1660, the great diarist Pepys wrote the following account of mundane pleasures:

To my Lord’s in the morning, where I met with Captain Cuttance, but my Lord not being up I went out to Charing Cross, to see Major-General Harrison hanged, drawn, and quartered; which was done there, he looking as cheerful as any man could do in that condition. He was presently cut down, and his head and heart shown to the people, at which there was great shouts of joy… From thence to my Lord’s, and took Captain Cuttance and Mr. Sheply to the Sun Tavern, and did give them some oysters.

‘Hanged, drawn, and quartered’, by the way, means that the unfortunate Major was ‘partly strangled, disembowled, castrated, and shown his organs being burned before being decapitated.’ A contemporary man, seeing something like this, would be offered post-trauma counselling, and feel no embarrassment about taking this up. Pepys went for beer and oysters.

The Better Angels of Our Nature begins with an honest look at the Bible: a charnel house of a book, a chronicle of rape, enslavement, torture and murder where the pain doesn’t end even with death. Although torture has existed in most cultures and civilisations, it is clear that the unleashing of Christianity onto the planet resulted in avoidable suffering of unimaginable proportions.

There is still one acceptable remnant of the torture age – the image of Christ crucified, displayed in churches and classrooms and hung around believers’ necks. I can’t help thinking of the counterfactual posited by biologist P Z Myers: ‘If we want a signifier for the human condition, imagine the culture we would live in now if, instead of a dead corpse on an instrument of torture, our signifier was a child staring in wonder at the stars.’

Pinker isn’t always hard on religion. He praises the temperance movement that reduced homicide rates in the Old West (apparently Deadwood wasn’t the half of it) as well as the Quakers who fought slavery and the inner-city US reverends who led black men away from a gangster life that could lead only to life sentences and early, bullet-holed death. The late Christopher Hitchens overplayed his hand when he said that religion poisons everything.

‘If you think that by reviewing the literal content of the Hebrew Bible I am trying to impugn the billions of people who revere it today,’ Pinker says, ‘then you are missing the point… Sensibilities towards violence have changed so much that religious people today compartmentalise their attitude to the Bible.’ Social norms changed and ultimately norms carry more weight than spirituality or dogma. There’s reason to rejoice in that, alone.

In any case, the decline of violence doesn’t just mean cruel and unusual punishment. Pinker’s study has a broad and eclectic range from homicide rates to domestic abuse to schoolyard bullying to blood sports. All the lines go down. The Second World War was horrific but in terms of proportional bodycount it could not compare to the An Lushan revolt or the Mongol Conquest or the annihilation of American Indians between the fifteenth and nineteenth centuries. Hitler’s pseudo-medical terminology and his use of poisonous chemicals to render millions into human smoke gave us a chilling implication that better technology means more killing. But as late as 1994 the Hutu extremists showed us that you could kill almost a million with machetes and clubs with nails.

Tribal warfare tends to be seen as harmless in the Blackadder style (‘ten thousand Watutsi warriors armed to the teeth with kiwi fruit and dry guava halves’). In fact stateless conflict was incredibly brutal, involving the killing of women and children, the destruction of entire communities and the use of rape as a weapon of war. Today Americans use sophisticated drone technology to take out senior Islamist combatants without killing civilians or damaging people’s homes. Twenty-first century soldiers are governed by strict rules of engagement. Afghanistan and Iraq are three-block wars where NATO troops spend more time on peacekeeping and infrastructural work than actually fighting. The idea that you can just walk into someone’s country and start spraying bullets around is a delusion popularised by antiwar writers and intellectuals who have never in their lives actually spoken to a soldier or even known anyone who has.

Or take racism. God knows how many mountains of corpses stand as testament to our weird obsession with accidents of pigmentation. The black African slave trade, and the supposed inferiority of black people, was accepted by most people including the great minds and relative liberals of the day. (Lincoln vowed that he had ‘no purpose to introduce political and social equality between the white and the black races’ because their ‘physical difference’ would ‘forever forbid their living together upon the footing of perfect equality.’) Even antislavery organisations were motivated more by condescension than humanitarianism. Today racist acts and statements are a career killer for any public figure or professional.

Same goes for the old morbid prejudices regarding who people fall in love with and have sex with. Alan Turing helped to crack the Nazi codes and bring an end to World War Two. The British government of the day rewarded this service by chemically castrating him, and driving him to suicide. In 2009 the then prime minister Gordon Brown made an official public apology on behalf of the state for this shocking treatment of one of its finest heroes. This year David Cameron provided the one inspirational moment of his Tory conference speech when he affirmed that ‘I don’t support gay marriage in spite of being a Conservative. I support gay marriage because I am a Conservative.’

The civilising process necessitated the erection of new taboos to protect the rights of minorities and to protect the weak from harm. We call these taboos ‘political correctness’. Manifestation and mainstreaming of these taboos often proved silly in a well-meaning way, and Britain has a substantial cultural industry fuelled by the backlash against political correctness. Millionaire pundits moan about council diversity quotas and the banning of Christmas; ‘controversial’ comedians, trying to maintain public visibility, are reduced to laughing at cripples.

In recent years though, the backlash has begun to flag. Attacks on political correctness, however acute, are too bitter and obsessive to hold much appeal. The writer Tom Chivers, responding to yet another article along the lines of ‘Is Britain the world’s first politically correct totalitarian state?’ remarked that:

It’s only 45 years since a Tory party candidate campaigned on the slogan ‘if you want a nigger for a neighbour, vote Liberal or Labour’. Political correctness might be clumsy, it might go too far, it might occasionally lead to silly situations, but it is infinitely preferable to what went before.

In a choice between well-intentioned silliness and brutality, there’s no contest. Even the Daily Mail has dropped its Winterval story.

Despite the scope of Pinker’s book I believe I’ve found yet another supportive trend that the professor missed. The standard revisionist view of sexual freedom, from 1950s workout ads by way of Houellebecq, holds that women go for brute and thoughtless hunk-men at the expense of the nice guy. Our old friend Andrew Brown commented that: ‘the free sexual marketplace turns out not to be the recipe for happiness. It’s another arena where the strong make the rules and the weak suffer.’ Perhaps once it was, but no more. Anyone with any real experience knows that women respond to sensitivity and emotional literacy and empathy. As the novelist Ben Myers put it: ‘Girls go for the boys that look like girls.’

The August riots were translated quickly into a general fear and loathing of the young, and perhaps an envy of the young as well. We’re all on our guard, I guess, for the government’s ‘feral youth’. But are they really feral? Or do they just look that way?

Pinker writes of an experience aboard a ‘crowded Boston subway car’ where he was unnerved by ‘a fearsome-looking young man clad in black leather, shod in jackboots, painted with tattoos, and pierced by rings and studs. The other passengers were giving him a wide berth when he bellowed, ‘Isn’t anyone going to give up his seat for this old woman! She could be your grandmother!’ I had an similar experience on a bus. There was a guy in a baseball cap and sportswear who I instinctively dismissed as Cheshire chav scum. Almost at my destination, another passenger had a seizure, and the chav guy did everything right and quick, called the ambulance, found a breath bag, held the woman’s hand and said all the right things in compassionate and soothing tones. I got off and walked the rest of the way, ashamed of my prejudices and feeling like I’d learned something today.

Reason isn’t just rationalism. Reason leads to perspective, a sense of humility, the realisation that the universe doesn’t revolve around us. Pinker credits the decline of violence in part to the development of empathy, extended from our known and loved circles to encompass formerly hated minorities, people on the other edge of the world, animals, and finally humanity and life in general. Empathy is not perfect, Pinker concedes. You feel more for the standard traumas and unhappinesses of the lives of your loved ones than for a million starving Congolese. But empathy is a start.

How did we reach the Age of Empathy? Part of it was urbanisation. For all the talk of the violence and alienation of modern cities, the occidental metropolis makes us healthier and happier. As Pinker puts it:

Is it your conviction that small-town life, centred on church, tradition and fear of God, is our best bulwark against murder and mayhem? Well, think again. As Europe became more urban, cosmopolitan, commercial, industrialised, and secular, it got safer and safer.

So we should challenge the politicians and policy wonks who idealise small, closed communities. The decline of violence is in large part due to the rise of the individual over the community.

There’s an interesting thread in the book on the rise of popular fiction. To say that art changes nothing is a staggering misjudgement. Dickens’s novels exposed the treatment of London’s poor. Solzhenitsyn blew the lid off the gulag. Pinker credits Orwell, Melville, Koestler, Vonnegut, Azar Nafisi and Harriet Beecher Stowe as writers who ‘raised public awareness of the suffering of people who might otherwise have been ignored.’ (Lincoln is supposed to have said to Stowe in 1862 that ‘you’re the little woman who started this great war.’) Empathy is a vital attribute in a fiction writer. You need to be able to get into people’s heads and hearts. Post-Arab Spring, it’s to be hoped that there will be a popularisation of censored and marginalised writers and poets in the theocratic world.

Pinker describes the horror ideologies of the twentieth century as romantic blood-and-soil reactions to the civilising process. The idea that fascism and communism are products of the Enlightenment is of course absurd. Nazism was heavily influenced by a crackpot ariosophic mysticism, popular among Teuton aristocrats of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, that proclaimed the innate superiority of the Aryan race, which apparently emerged from the lost continent of Atlantis. (Again, there was a decline myth: the Aryan priest caste had been undermined by generations of interbreeding.) Leading Nazis including Hess and Hans Frank attended meetings of the Thule Society which promoted such völkisch occultism and also sponsored the DAP organisation that became Hitler’s NSDAP.

Soviet communism was on the face of it a more rationalist ideology. But Pinker counters that Marxism ‘helped itself to the worst idea in the Christian Bible, a millennial cataclysm that will bring about a utopia and restore prelapsarian innocence.’ Plus: ‘it violently rejected the humanism and liberalism of the Enlightenment, which placed the autonomy and flourishing of individuals as the ultimate goal of political systems.’ Stalin modelled himself on the murderous medieval king Ivan the Terrible (‘Who remembers the boyars?’)

Pinker rather unfairly, to me, lumps in all this crap with the great romantic artists as part of a general ‘family of romantic movements that gained strength during the nineteenth century. Some of them influenced the arts and gave us sublime music and poetry. Others became political ideologies and led to horrendous reversals in the trend of declining violence.’ But Keats was medically trained and subscribed to the scientific method (‘axioms… are not axioms until they are proved upon our pulses’) and Shelley was sent down from Oxford for writing The Necessity of Atheism.

It’s my belief that there’s more romance in materialism than in spirituality, and that romance is too an Enlightenment virtue. But that’s an argument for another time.

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3 Responses to “It Gets Better: Against the Sentimental Conspiracy of Misery”

  1. Bob-B Says:

    This looks like a more serious critique of Pinker’s thesis:

    http://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/136957/timothy-snyder/war-no-more?page=show

    I haven’t read it properly, but I would take Snyder more seriously than Andrew Brown or John Gray.

  2. paul murdoch Says:

    I’ve finished Better Angels; it’s a masterpiece. Whatever you think of Pinker’s thesis, the statistics alone justify its publication. A major theme is the widespread statistical illiteracy which pervades western culture; particularly in respect of those opinion formers and commentators who tend to set the tone of so much public discussion.

    “But the sources Pinker cites for the numbers of dead are themselves just aggregates of other estimates, the vast majority of which, if one follows the thread of sources to the end, turn out to be more or less informed guesses.”

    This, from the Snyder review, is so ridiculously inaccurate as to defy belief. Pinker spends almost as much time discussing the validity, limitations and possibility of his data sets as he does in their interpretation. The statistical basis of his conclusions are untenable. That a ‘distinguished history professor fails to grasp this is hardly a surprise. This is just another example of an academic from the humanities employing dogmatic casuistry to refute something he seems to fail to undertsand. He may have issues with Pinker’s interpretations, which is fair enough, but to dismiss the statistics on the basis of “they don’t really conform to my particular worldview” is petulant, ignorant and childish.

    As it happens, I’ve never had much time for Pinker before but I absolutely loved this. It’s hardly a light read and he does have a tendency to make his case through sheer force of repetition but, then again, that can hardly be helped when time after time after time we see the same downward trends.

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