HAS TRAVEL MADE US NICER? – Steven Pinker’s Angels.

AngelsWhatever happened to the good old days?

The days when all members of the tribe were equal and everyone was looked after. The days when villagers knew their neighbours. The days when community spirit overrode individual ambition. The days when families prayed together and stayed together.

The days when there was no word for genocide. The days before weapons of mass destruction, suicide bombings, drug wars, street crime, terrorism and Call of Duty computer games. The days before most people had heard of Syria, Iraq, Darfur, Afghanistan and Rwanda.

According to Steven Pinker’s provocative book, The Better Angels of our Nature: Why Violence has Declined, the good old days have been overrated.

In the good old days your chances of being assaulted, bashed, raped, chopped up, enslaved or tortured to death at the hands of a fellow human being were far higher than they are today. There are shocking glitches in the trajectory, but we are now living in the safest, most peaceful and crime-free era our species has ever known.

I’m delighted to hear that, and I’m delighted that my particular interests – education, writing and travel – get a little credit for helping the process along.

Psychologist Pinker has packed a fat book (though thin enough on the Kindle) with mountains of data showing that, in percentage terms at least, violence has been massively reduced over the millenia. The 20th century saw two of the most destructive wars on record, but they were no worse, taking into account the world’s larger population, than the Crusades, the Mongol Conquests and the religious tiffs that swept Europe in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.

He makes a compelling case that killing people was considered just another day at the office for hunter-gatherers, tribal chiefs, knights and barons. Kings thought nothing of sending troops into bloody battles to avenge insults and protect ‘honour’. Churches of all denominations cheerfully endorsed holy wars on infidels, and on each other.

At a more local level, most of us have lost our taste for attending public burnings of heretics and witches. Bear-baiting has been on the wane for some time and we no longer think it right and proper to beat disobedient wives and children.

War atrocities are still atrocious, but these days perpetrators feel the need to deny them, cover them up or blame them on the other side. It’s a small but important advance; in days gone by, the slaughtering of every man, woman and child in a conquered town was occasion for celebration, boasting and giving thanks to gods.

The reasons Pinker suggests for changing attitudes to violence are many, and it’s impossible to quantify the effect each has had. Improved government and perceived fairness in policing laws makes people less inclined to take self-help vengeance or to strike pre-emptively against threatening rivals. Democracies are far less likely to go to war with each other.

The growth of trade has helped too; if you’re stronger than your neighbour you have the option of killing him and taking his stuff, but ultimately there’s more profit in loving thy neighbour, selling him your surplus and cultivating his return business.

The increasingly powerful role played by women in public life has a moderating influence – it’s those young guys who get into the most punch-ups. The weakening of religious or political ideology makes people less inclined to fight, or at least to fight with the moral certainty that God is taking sides or that weeding out dissidents will lead to a Marxist utopia.

So where do education, writing and travel come in?

While it’s natural that we favour family and friends over those who are further away and seem less like us, education helps us understand our interdependence on wider circles of people, and even to extend this to consideration of the welfare of other species and the health of the planet. We still have a long way to go here, I believe, though it’s good if we’re heading in the right direction.

Pinker credits the printing press and the writing of novels with helping to develop empathy. The work of writers like Charles Dickens and Harriet Beecher Stowe (Uncle Tom’s Cabin), to name but two, allowed readers to put themselves inside the heads of poor and oppressed people. Gradually such stories led to changing attitudes to social welfare and slavery. It would be nice if the pen really were mightier than the sword.

And finally, there’s travel. In a world where few people ventured further than the next village, it was easier to demonize foreigners. Greater mobility, first by ship, now by road, rail, air or internet, made it possible for more people to meet those from other cultures and religions, with consequent challenge to their preconceived notions that the natives were unfeeling, ruthless savages to be hated, feared and subjugated.

I’ve been fortunate enough to travel to places where I’ve initially felt apprehensive, self-conscious and even fearful. In every case the longer I stayed there, the less fearful I became. The more I came into contact with strangers, the more I recognized that the things we share are far greater than the things that divide us. Surely nearly every traveller has this experience.

Pinker has been accused of taking a Pollyanna-ish attitude to the lessening of violence in the world. ‘What about Afghanistan, Palestine and Glasgow after a Celtic v Rangers game?’ his critics cry. Does it matter whether the Holocaust or the Crusades killed a bigger percentage of the world population? Can’t corporations cause as much death and misery by predatory trade practices or environmental carnage as by going to war?

Certainly there’s no reason to rest on laurels. Pinker does not claim that the problem of violence will be solved any time soon or that the Long Peace we find ourselves in will last forever.

But I did find his arguments persuasive and heartening.

I commend the book to you.

Have you read it? What did you think? Is the world really becoming nicer?


Filed under Writing

8 responses to “HAS TRAVEL MADE US NICER? – Steven Pinker’s Angels.

  1. Debra Kolkka

    Travel definitely helps to get to know another culture and what makes people tick…let’s all travel more.

  2. I’m not sure Richard – there is still a lot of unpleasantness!
    On balance it probably is a bit safer to travel. I am reading Gerald Brenan who wrote about living in Spain in the 1930s and he writes often about the danger of being held up and robbed by brigands (what a great word) on the mountain roads and in unlit streets.
    The only time that I have felt mildly uncomfortable was in Montenegro when I stopped at a road sign that had been used for rifle target practice. I imagined my skull in the cross hairs of a telescopic sight so left rather hastily!

  3. A very well written response to the book, which sounds fascinating. I have read one of his earlier books, “The Blank Slate.” I do think that humans deserve some credit for transcending our usual response to the insults (or perceived insults) of others who cross our paths. But we do have a long way to go.

    • Thanks, John.

      Pinker has a solid chapter on the role of self control in moderating our innate tendency to lash out. He argues that self control increases with intelligence (makes sense – it’s often the smart option to think first) and that average intelligence is also increasing by some measures (harder to believe when you see what’s on TV or follow Twitter, though Pinker makes a case for this.)

      I enjoyed his earlier book The Stuff of Thought too.

  4. This sounds like a good antidote to the stories trotted put by the media. Perhaps I should say, t’he stories thrown around’ since their purpose is often to sell by inciting fear rather than to inform.

    • True. Pinker is not arguing that everything is fine and dandy now, just that things were worse in the past. The trick is to think about what has led to the improvement and to keep the process going.

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