We'll finish off our series on trends in violence across societies and millennia...
...but first news that ought to send chills down your spine.
In an earlier comments section, rushmc shared a news item about cops arresting and prosecuting a man for videotaping his own traffic stop. It is one of the most horrific cases I’ve seen and I hope one of you will investigate whether the victim has a legal defense fund or attorneys who would like to have perhaps an amicus brief from the likes of me.
”Last month, Brian Kelly of Carlisle, Pa., was riding with a friend when the car he was in was pulled over by a local police officer. Kelly, an amateur videographer, had his video camera with him and decided to record the traffic stop.
“The officer who pulled over the vehicle saw the camera and demanded Kelly hand it over. Kelly obliged. Soon after, six more police officers pulled up. They arrested Kelly on charges of violating an outdated Pennsylvania wiretapping law that forbids audio recordings of any second party without their permission. In this case, that party was the police officer.
“Kelly was charged with a felony, spent 26 hours in jail, and faces up to 10 years in prison. All for merely recording a police officer, a public servant, while he was on the job.”
In my book (1997) I forecast the arrival of both cop-carried cameras and reciprocal cams carried by those who are questioned. This reciprocality is vital to a free society and can protect decent people on both sides of such encounters, while holding malefactors accountable... on both sides.
(In fact, someone please look into whether there's a group or fund to help win this particular case?)
This is PRECISELY the crisis I spoke of in The Transparent Society, not only over transparency, freedom and accountability, but also between the professional castes and the Age of Amateurs. This is a fight that we cannot afford to lose.
And now to complete the series (or Return to Part 1 of Trends in Violence)
Trends in Violence, PART THREE
WHY HAS VIOLENCE (APPARENTLY) WANED?
Stephen Pinker offers up a set of possible explanations for this decline in violence.
The first is that Hobbes got it right. Life in a state of nature is nasty, brutish, and short, not because of a primal thirst for blood but because of the inescapable logic of anarchy. Any beings with a modicum of self-interest may be tempted to invade their neighbors to steal their resources....These tragedies can be averted by a state with a monopoly on violence, because it can inflict disinterested penalties that eliminate the incentives for aggression, thereby defusing anxieties about preemptive attack and obviating the need to maintain a hair-trigger propensity for retaliation. Indeed, Eisner and Elias attribute the decline in European homicide to the transition from knightly warrior societies to the centralized governments of early modernity.
Payne suggests another possibility: that the critical variable in the indulgence of violence is an overarching sense that life is cheap. When pain and early death are everyday features of one's own life, one feels fewer compunctions about inflicting them on others. As technology and economic efficiency lengthen and improve our lives, we place a higher value on life in general.
A third theory, championed by Robert Wright, invokes the logic of non-zero-sum games: scenarios in which two agents can each come out ahead if they cooperate, such as trading goods, dividing up labor, or sharing the peace dividend that comes from laying down their arms. As people acquire know-how that they can share cheaply with others and develop technologies that allow them to spread their goods and ideas over larger territories at lower cost, their incentive to cooperate steadily increases, because other people become more valuable alive than dead.
Then there is the scenario sketched by philosopher Peter Singer. Evolution, he suggests, bequeathed people a small kernel of empathy, which by default they apply only within a narrow circle of friends and relations. Over the millennia, people's moral circles have expanded to encompass larger and larger polities: the clan, the tribe, the nation, both sexes, other races, and even animals. The circle may have been pushed outward by expanding networks of reciprocity, à la Wright, but it might also be inflated by the inexorable logic of the golden rule: The more one knows and thinks about other living things, the harder it is to privilege one's own interests over theirs. The empathy escalator may also be powered by cosmopolitanism, in which journalism, memoir, and realistic fiction make the inner lives of other people, and the contingent nature of one's own station, more palpable—the feeling that "there but for fortune go I.”
MORE PLAUSIBLE EXPLANATIONS
This is one of those rare cases where I go with all of the above. In fact, some of these explanations are core elements of the Lockean Wager, that progress and improved societies can help us to evade the mistakes of both Rousseau and Hobbes. That our salvation will not come from oversimplifying prescriptions...
...but rather from nurturing open and accountable complexity, and the emergent properties that arise therefrom.
I would add a fifth cause that obviously overlaps with the others.
We tend, all-too often, to conflate and confuse empathy with sympathy. In its root meaning, “empathy” is an ability to extrapolate and imagine the internal feelings, motivations and thoughts of others. Empathy does not automatically translate into altruistic behavior toward those others.
Indeed, take almost any carnivore whose pattern of predation involves patient, one on-one stalking. A tiger or leopard must have empathy with its prey -- in effect, constantly pondering “what would I do now, if I were the deer?” -- as a tool that helps bring the hunt to a satisfactory conclusion. The same thing is true in war. The best generals routinely put themselves “in the enemy’s shoes.”
In order for this feral level of empathy to transmute into something recognizably altruistic, sympathetic and giving, there generally needs to be a second ingredient. Satiation -- (along with a personality trait called satiability) -- is what allows the predator, the warrior, the citizen, to stop pondering how the adversary feels, in order to overcome him, and instead transform empathy into a desire to help.
In other words, when you and your children have full bellies, when all needs are satisfied and likely to stay satisfied for a good time to come, then your imagination may tend to start broadening the Horizons of Inclusion -- those you are willing to consider fellow members of your tribe. From immediate family to band, tribe, and clan all the way to nation, race, species, and possibly even world. By this way of looking at things, the effect of civilization on violence becomes obvious ... and obviously related to Robert Wright’s reasoning, when he talks about “positive sum thinking.”
(DO get Robert Wright's book NONZERO: The Logic of Human Destiny!)
By reducing our fear levels and letting us remain permanently satiated (for the basic needs of life) civilization allows us to gradually broaden these horizons of inclusion and transform feral empathy into sympathy, in which we can not only imagine being the other, but also want the other to do well.
Only then, just when it all starts making sense, there is this ironic twist!
The very process of expanding our horizons of inclusion is one that is complex in the extreme -- and often a fierce test of adaptability for both a nation and its citizens. For one thing, remember I said that satiation must be accompanied by satiability, in order for a secular decline in fear to translate into an increase in tolerance. Not all people or all civilizations are equal when it comes to this important trait. Indeed, many health care professionals report that insatiability is a hallmark of many kinds of mental illness. And even when a people or culture are basically sane, there are still old habits to overcome, as those horizons of inclusion expand outward.
We who experienced one of the greatest of those expansions -- during the Civil Rights and Gender Rights movements of the Sixties and so on -- can testify that decent people of basic goodwill can still need prodding in order to rouse themselves and re-evaluate old boundaries that have lost their relevance. Bad habits from older, more fearful times can be hard to break, even when the ingredients -- empathy, satiation, fear -reduction and an open society -- make things ripe for change. Like a super-saturated solution, ready for a state-transformation, there can still be a need for some kind of shock, to get momentum going.
Indeed, sometimes the provocation has to be vigorous, even militant, driven by a touch of indignant resentment toward past injustices that - in the context of those earlier, un-satiated eras - did not seem quite so unjust to peoples of old!
(For more on the good and bad sides of righteous indignations, see:
And here is where the irony comes full circle to touch upon Pinker’s topic -- the trend for so many nowadays to over-romanticize a supposedly peaceful and beneficent tribal existence. A bucolic moral superiority for which any evidence is sparse, at best. The Rousseauean fantasy of the noble savage. It is ironic because the real purpose of this guilt-tripping image is reformist and future-oriented! Its purpose is to propel modern and western culture forward, toward peacefulness and beneficence. And thus, at one level, it does not really matter if Pinker is right. The potency of guilt-by-comparison, as a motivator for social self improvement, is more than sufficient to keep this romantic fable forefront in the minds of many who seek social improvement and a better world.
BUT IS THE FABLE NECESSARY, ANYMORE?
Ah, but what if we are already motivated to fight injustice? To spread tolerance and truth and responsible goodness and all those other great things? Is it really necessary for us to continue wallowing in guilt trips that are -- all-too often -- lacking in evidence, or even simple outright lies? Is there not a level where saving the world with open eyes should be considered... well... more admirable than doing it because of silly myths?
Moreover, something else that Pinker does not say much about is the insidious immorality of the underlying impulse that causes so many well-meaning people to romanticize of ancient peoples and tribes. Quite independent of what the facts tell us, there is something darkly vicious and sanctimoniously self-serving about the reflex, which is shared by dogmatic, anti-future people on both the far-right and the far-left.
For one thing, it lets them play “I’m more moral than you are” games directed at their living neighbors. They do this by by associating themselves with people and tribes of the past who - because they are long dead - can be conveniently cleaned up, idealized and used for trumped-up, strawman comparisons.
(In this respect, by remaining conveniently dead and silent, ancient shamans and Gaian priestesses are much more cooperative than, say, today’s poor villagers in China and other developing nations, who keep choosing (despite being told they should not) to leave the countryside and head straight for the big city, preferring T Shirts and apartments and industrial jobs over grinding toil for rural land-owners. That choice, made by every group that has been offered development, since the days of Dickens, can seem annoying to those who preach hatred of modernity. Hence a growing preference for examples taken from the past.)
And yet, that isn’t really the worst moral fault of retro-nostalgists. I want to focus on another. One that I have not heard raised before, but that makes their position psychologically - as well as ethically - deeply worrisome.
Think about it. Every generation and every civilization has had some wise and decent people in it. Women and men who, despite whatever madness was going on around them, strove hard to improve conditions, to generate comfort for their families, to seek wisdom, to increase knowledge and also, above all, to raise a generation of offspring better than themselves.
That last part is the one that nostalgists find particularly threatening, because the very notion of ongoing human improvement smacks of hubris. Even worse, it threatens the notion of “eternal verities” that, by their asserted perfect nature cannot be improved. The implication, that no generation ever gets the “last word,” is one that’s been explicitly rejected, time and again, by dogmatists. From Marx to Rand to Saint Paul -- to University English Professors who dwell forever on the angst of Henry James -- the underlying psychology is the same.
“I can see the Truth - it is permanent - and no one after me will see it any better.”
But people CAN improve. Children CAN be better than their parents. Progress is possible. At least the best human beings always thinks so. (And here “best” is unambiguously applied. Try comparing those who you know, who are raising kids. It is a rare case of a truth that is obvious without need of proof or argument.)
The crux: when you claim that people in the past were better than we are, you are implicitly insulting those past people! Because you are thus saying that they failed in their greatest and dearest project. To make us better than them. I know for certain that I don’t want my descendants saying that about me! That I was better than them... and hence failed in my dearest hope? ouch!
(Though I would not mind them saying “He was a lot better than his times, and he helped to make us what we are.”)
Yes, there are some good reasons, as well as bad, to idealize ancient tribes. Modernism must not lose touch with older sources of wisdom. Especially empathy with how much our ancestors accomplished with so little to work with. I am thrilled by history channel shows that show (and sometimes exaggerate) “ancient marvels.” My kids are in scouting so they can appreciate both nature and how gritty life used to be. And may be again.
Still, I can see evidence of maturization all around me. My own kids seem to be better people than I was at the same ages. Moreover, they have almost no experience with the bullying and violence that used to be a routine part of growing up. I was pushed around, beaten or thrown into desperate battles almost monthly, back then. Though they study karate, not one of my kids has experienced, or even witnessed, a real fight. And yes, the ghetto is probably much worse... though probably better than it was.
Another reason that good people nurse nostalgic fantasies is fear of backsliding. If we acknowledge that any progress has been made, at all, then the pressure to reform and improve and push ahead - to take on injustice and poverty and our still rich flow of vicious violence in today’s world - might diminish.
I have dealt with this liberal impulse elsewhere, and I think that - while it is sincere - it is also smug, wrong-headed and deeply counter-productive. Worse, it is deeply puritan! Sourpusses who can only chide, without ever giving modern people a chance to feel good about progress, are latter day Cotton Mathers who believe that only guilt can motivate.
Make no mistake. These people have deeply harmed the very cause they believe in. Liberalism has suffered deeply because so many proponents of racial and social and sexual and ecological justice refuse ever to add a carrot to the stick. To use a little praise, as Pinker does, saying (in effect):
”Look how far you all have come! Our ancestors, who struggled to get us here, deserve half the credit. But you have also acted to repair so many faults. So many nasty habits. Good for you. The job is maybe halfway done!
“Of course, if we stop now our uneven levels of justice and inclusion may spark fires that bring it all down. We must continue the process. Become even better.
“Ironically, that is what the best of our tribal ancestors would have wanted of us! To be better than them, in countless ways. If we are part of the way toward making their greatest dream come true, that is neither an excuse for complacent smugness not a reason to disparage how much has been accomplished.
“It can only be reasonably taken as a challenge to keep moving forward. To take this journey as far as it can go.”