Better Angels part 2

Part 2 of 5

This is the second in a 5 part series of notes I’m taking on the book Better Angels of our Nature by Steven Pinker.

Sorry it took so long to get to part two.  I actually finished reading it a while back and am currently through most of chapter 5.  I just got distracted by other books and became daunted by the note writing process.  I don’t know if I could go back to college without a lot of prep.

Anyway, here’s part 2:

Chapter 3 – The Civilizing Process

Pinker starts off this chapter with some more numbers to show that violence has been steadily declining for the last several hundred years.  What then follows are his explanations for this decline.  He again uses literature to show that there was a culture that celebrated violence, and if not celebrated, saw it as nothing out of the ordinary.  Then shows how literature began to try to emphasize controlling our baser nature.  Books on etiquette began to appear.  In 1530, a book called On the Civility of Boys instructs on such things as not grabbing your genitals under your clothes with your bare hands and my favorite, “If you come across something disgusting in the sheet [when sharing a bed with someone], don’t turn to your companion and point it out to him, or hold up the stinking thing for the other to smell and say ‘I should like to know how much that stinks.’”

There was advice on all sorts of things, including the use of knives.  In fact, the butter knife is evidently a response to knife violence at the dinner table.  Pinker claims, using a theory by Norbert Elias, that it is this continued controlling of our behavior that led to a decrease in violence.  The more rules we created for ourselves, the less violence we carried out.  The two triggers for this increasing control of our base behaviors was the Leviathan (strong government) and the second was an economic revolution.  Once commerce became the norm, rather than trade/barter or everyone just working to give stuff to a king, violence declines.  Once you could use money to buy something, and save up money for things, we became more civil.

From my thinking, the difference is that instead of needing “things” to trade, which if you couldn’t make them you could steal them (leading to violence), you had money, which granted you could still steal, but allowed you to buy things from more people. Say for example, you had sheep and needed metal.  But the guy with the metal doesn’t need sheep.  You’re screwed.  Unless you can find someone who has what the metal worker needs that you can trade for.  Say he needs grain, so you find a grain guy who needs sheep and trade, then take the grain back to the metal guy…you can see how this gets complicated and how maybe if you’re strong enough you just bully the metal worker into giving you what you want.  But with Money, the metal worker can buy whatever he needs and he can set a price that anyone can meet.

Money needs the Leviathan in order to exist.  Without a government setting the value of money, and backing it up, the paper or coins would be worthless.  This requires that the people trust the state to an extent.   This “trusting of the state” is the other part of the civilizing process.  As we trust the government to handle things, we’re less likely to engage in violence.

Think about it.  When you get into a car wreck your first response isn’t to challenge the other driver to a duel or try to kill him (you may want to and it may cross your mind, but you rarely follow through – I hope).  No, your first thought is that you hope he has insurance and then you call the police to act as official witnesses for the eventual report.  His insurance will, hopefully, pay for your damage.  If worse comes to worse, you’ll both meet in court, where you’ll sue him/her for damages.

Even in cases of murder we don’t take action like a vigilante, we allow the cops and courts to exact justice.  It may not always go the way we want, but we don’t just get a posse and mete out “street justice”.  We entrust to the state those things.  That’s made us a less violent society.

The two exceptions, lower socio-economic classes and “inaccessible or inhospitable territories of the globe”.

When you think of gang-violence you think of poor neighborhoods.  When you think of poor neighborhoods you think of people who don’t trust the police.  People who think the police cause more problems than they solve.  People who think like this are more likely to take matters into their own hands and to do so violently.  This is regardless of race.  Think of white southern towns the same as you’d think of inner city ghettos.  Observe the number of gun sales, to predominately white NRA members in Texas, who distrust the government and are “stocking up” in advance of some perceived threat to the 2nd amendment.

The other, places where either the Leviathan hasn’t taken over, or where the Leviathan is a despot (can’t trust the government).  In these places, the third world, violence is still a matter of everyday life for large groups of people.  These people live by the code, as Mal Reynolds of Firefly put it, “If someone tries to kill you, you kill them right back.”

The rest of the chapter goes on to show how all these ideas work in different parts of the world including the U.S.  and even attempts to explain why there was a surge in violence during the 60s and why the south is more violent than the east (hint distrust in government plays a good part)

Chapter 4 – The Humanitarian Revolution

The Humanitarian Revolution refers to the process by which we as humans eventually started treating everyone as if they were “human”.  That’s an over-simplification, but it’s essentially what it is.  We stopped treating people who disagreed with us an “animals” or “inhuman”.  This chapter starts out recounting several of these practices, from witch burning & heretic torture to slavery and the treatment of prisoners.  Pinker makes the case that as literacy grew so did empathy.  Literature was able to expose you to thoughts and ideas of others.  Books will, sometimes literally, put you in the mind of another person.  As people began to realize that other people had thoughts, feelings, and opinions that were just as deeply felt, if also completely different, from ones own, it became harder to treat others as thoughtless, evil creatures.

I wanted to share this passage from page 169 that I think sums up most of the chapter,

In explaining the Humanitarian Revolution, then, we don’t have to decide between unspoken norms and explicit moral argumentation.  Each affects the other.  As sensibilities change, thinkers who question a practice are more likely to materialize, and their arguments are more likely to get a hearing and then catch on.  The arguments may not only persuade the people who wield the levers of power but infiltrate the culture’s  sensibilities by finding their way into the barroom and dinner-table debates where they may shift the consensus one mind at a time.  And when a practice has vanished from everyday experience because it was outlawed from the top down, it may fall off the menu of live options in people’s imaginations.  Just as today smoking in offices and classrooms has passed from commonplace to prohibited to unthinkable, practices like slavery and public hangings, when enough time has passed that no one alive could remember them, became so unimaginable that they were no longer brought up for debate.

When thinking about this Humanitarian Revolution, I thought about the recent Occupy Movement.  Many were outraged by the actions of the police when they pepper sprayed a group of students who were protesting on a college campus.  I’m not going to get into whether I agree or not, but it’s evidence of this humanitarian revolution that people were outraged and that the tactics used were much less violent than what happened to protesters is the 60s.  In the 60s, they used tear gas, rubber bullets, hoses, attack dogs, etc. to disperse the crowds.  They beat up protesters with nightsticks.  In 2011 the cops used some pepper spray given with much advance warning.  I’m not saying what those protesters experienced wasn’t bad, I’m just saying, we’ve come a long way.  And the fact that people were outraged by it shows that our country is better off than many think it is.  Our country is a less violent one than we think it is.

In the end, the Humanitarian Revolution was, along with the Civilizing Process and the Leviathan, part of what has brought down violence around the world.


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