Everybody knows that the world just keeps getting worse and worse.
A couple of months ago, Autodidact and I were discussing the discouraging mixture of politics and religion in the American evangelical church, and I was once again trying to make sense of how otherwise good people could have engaged in and defended slavery. Since I grew up in Mississippi, I have always wondered if I would have supported the system if it hadn’t been dismantled by the time I came along.
He said that I needed to read The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined by Steven Pinker.
I don’t generally take book recommendations. But fine, I looked it up. It’s a massive book. It’s full of graphs and statistics. And I was advised not to read the section about torture while eating. So I dipped cautiously into it. I was soon immersed.
Pinker’s basic premise is that the world is not getting worse, as we popularly believe. If we live in a society where we can trust the State to avenge our wrongs, then we’re not as likely to seek personal vengeance. If we live in a world that prospers by trade instead of land-grabbing, countries are less likely to incite wars. If the prevailing mindset is one of humanitarianism, to which the thought of torture is repugnant and even mistreatment of animals is unacceptable, then we’re less likely to endorse slavery, torture, and genocide.
Obviously we don’t live in a utopia, and obviously this “long peace” we’ve enjoyed can be shattered at any time. That wasn’t his point. His point was that the world has indeed gotten less violent, and there are compelling explanations for why.
He talked about the higher violence among poor neighborhoods — predominately black — and why, in the U. S., the South in particular is more violent. He suggested that in these societies, there’s much less trust that the State will act on their behalf. The black community has been very vocal recently about how, in their experience, the law enforcement and justice system acts against them; they’ve formed their own system of “justice.” As for the South in general, it was and is characterized by a society of “honor,” as in — if someone insults your personal honor or the honor of your family, you are bound to avenge it. Oh, I thought. That fits.
Pinker is a very engaging writer; not only was I interested in his premise, but I enjoyed his style. The book illuminated a lot for me, answering some questions I’ve had for a while. It also helped me understand previous generations better (Pinker is a Boomer). They seemed to think that the world had gone completely bad and listened to people who could promise that their children would be “safe,” if only they followed certain rules. The fact is, statistically speaking, the world did go crazy from the 60s to the 80s. Crime spiked, people’s trust in government effectiveness plummeted, and the world was a scary place. But starting in the 90s, violence dropped again, until today it’s at an all-time low. But parents in 1983 didn’t know that was going to happen. I, too, would draw my children close and look for someone who could promise me safety.
Pinker’s discussion both confirmed ideas I’d already had, and challenged ideals that I hold to be true. His perspective on religion is very different from mine. He dismisses the Bible as “blood-soaked fiction.” I didn’t find this opinion particularly harmful. If my faith can withstand the narcissism of Bill Gothard and the enthusiastic evangelical support of Donald Trump, then what’s the opinion of an atheist Jew to me? He gave me a lot to think about.
It took me two weeks to get through the book, and even then I didn’t read the last 200 pages about the structure of the brain and how it’s wired for both violence and peacemaking. I don’t have to be convinced that we are a mixture of good and evil.
This book did kind of answer my question about good “Christian” slaveholders. After all, if I had lived two hundred years ago, when animal cruelty was dismissed or considered good fun; if I had lost multiple children before they were ten, to the point that I tried not to get attached to a new baby before I knew if it would survive; if I knew that I was only one besmirched honor away from losing my husband to a duel; if I hoped he didn’t hit me but having no recourse if he did… If that was the world I lived in, then maybe slavery wouldn’t have seemed so horrific. Maybe it would fit right in with the way I thought things had to be.
This book reminded me over and over that, for all of the dangers and evil in this world today, I’m glad it’s the world I live in.