Sunday, October 2, 2011

Civilization or Violence

I haven’t read Steven Pinker’s new book The Better Angels of Our Nature, but at least I have a good excuse. It has not yet been published. Look for it on Tuesday.

I have read Pinker’s synopsis of his argument and James Q. Wilson’s review of the book.

That should allow for some preliminary observations.

Pinker is arguing that over the past centuries violence has declined markedly. 

The noble savage of Rousseau’s imaginings seems to have been largely more violent than today’s civilized humans. In per capita terms olden days saw more far more everyday violence than do our modern times.

Civilization, Pinker argues, has diminished the quota of human violence.

At first glance I am tempted to disagree with his observation about the extent of modern violence. Surely, the twentieth century was among the most destructive on record, what with world wars, policy-driven famines, terrorism, and nuclear weapons.

Pinker counterargues that a smaller percentage of the population was affected.

If Genghis Khan and his Mongol hordes murdered 40 million people, that number was proportionately smaller than the 40 million people who perished from the famine that was precipitated by Mao Zedong’s communist agricultural policies.

As long as we understand that civilization’s war against barbarism has not been won, I am inclined to consider Pinker’s point well taken.

Without having benefited from reading his book, I see his argument as a refutation of Freud’s famous exercise in negative thinking: Civilization and its Discontents.

In opposition to Freud, Pinker is saying that the advance of civilization has had a salutary effect on human behavior. I assume that he will also say that good behavior, the kind that is promoted and fostered by civilization, is more natural to humans beings than is its violent opposite.

James Q. Wilson summarizes Pinker’s idea: “Mr. Pinker looks skeptically at several theories and notes that only one survives his analysis. It is a theory that helps to explain why the people who crowded into big cities, living anonymous lives amid class conflicts and coping with the Industrial Revolution, experienced fewer, not more, homicides. ‘As Europe became more urban, cosmopolitan, commercial, industrialized, and secular,’ Mr. Pinker writes, ‘it got safer and safer.’ How could this have happened?

“He supports the argument of Norbert Elias about the civilizing process. Elias, a German-Jewish sociologist who died in 1990, traced in careful detail how European views of bodily functions, table manners, sexual behavior and casual violence were transformed by a process of inducing shame and self-restraint. What began as court etiquette ended up as ‘the right way to behave’ for ordinary people. Manuals of etiquette were widely studied, not to make certain that one could avoid picking the wrong fork at dinner but to guide one's moral conduct. Erasmus, the great Dutch thinker of the 16th century, wrote ‘On Civility in Boys,’ and it proved to be a best seller for two centuries. It taught boys how to become men by learning to control their appetites, delay their gratifications and consider the sensibilities of others.”

As it happened, the social upheavals produced by the Industrial Revolution led to a reordering of society according to rules that defined good behavior. And good behavior was civil behavior.

Social mobility meant that people needed to learn the rules of proper behavior, because that was the only way to signal friendship with people who had not been brought up in the same community or did not belong to the same tribe.

Seeming to take a page from William James, Pinker also argues that the expansion of commerce and trade, activities where everyone can benefit, has provided an incentive for cooperative enterprise that is neither exploitative nor oppressive.

Here I am thinking of William James’ famous argument that economic competition is “the moral equivalent of war.”

Yet, the larger cultural war has not been won.

Some forces in our culture, driven by ideology and fanaticism, still refuse to believe that commerce and trade are mutually beneficial.

Some people still see the world through the lens of a fiction where one person’s benefit can only be purchased at another person's detriment.

In rejecting the civilizing process that was provoked by the Industrial Revolution and Scottish political economists, some people hold on to the gospel of oppression and exploitation.

While I agree with Pinker that civilization civilizes I would add that there has been, and there still is, a strong reactionary movement that despises the civilizing process.

As long as civilization is identified with the cultures that advanced it, people who belong to different cultures will attack it as an alien force.

The civilizing process arose largely in Great Britain and America. In other parts of Europe fascism, Nazism and Communism took hold and practiced an ideologically-driven barbarism.

These systems committed acts of mindless and senseless violence because they were trying to make a point. They were saying that the civilizing process was a fraud, that it was merely repressing natural human impulses that would eventually return.

Totalitarian governments unleashed an extraordinary amount of violence because they believed that they were in harmony the truth about human nature.

Communist tyranny rejected everything that Pinker considers to be of positive benefit in the civilizing process. It rejected free trade, political speech, free thought, and the ability of free people to define their own future and to make their own decisions.

Even though communism has mostly been overcome, the enemies of civilization and modernity are still on the march.

Islamic fascists have thrown the everyday lives of far too many people into a cycle of terror and violence. 

If these groups acquire nuclear weapons or other weapons of mass destruction, the peace that civilization has brought will have to be defended again with force of arms.


David Foster said...

A Russian writer...I believe it was Solzhenitsyn, but can't find a citation...proposed the Law of the Conservation of Violence. The idea is that violence that doesn't come out in day-to-day crimes and aggression will likely be stored and come out in massive eruptions of state-sponsored or other large-scale violence.

France, Britain, Germany, and Austria were all extremely law-abiding nations circa 1914...

Craig said...

Steven Pinker is appearing in Chicago at the Chicago Public Library to discus his new book on Thursday Oct 13 at 6PM, here are the details.