Friday, November 25, 2011

A Long History of Something or Other (Part 4): Read a Book, Save a Life

I had been about to forget The Better Angels of Our Nature, to disappoint absolutely no one by letting this series end with Part 3. But then I came across this New York Times column, in which Nick Kristof takes a break from shaping his personal impressions of world travel into U.S. policy imperatives to describe Pinker's book as "astonishingly good." That's certainly not the word I would follow "astonishingly" with in describing it. Several possibilities present themselves-- "sloppy," "facile," "self-congratulatory"-- but "good"? Nah. So I was irritated, and here we are again.

Chapter 4

This chapter is about "the Humanitarian Revolution," in which humanity, spurred on by great thinkers in an emerging marketplace of ideas, abandons wanton cruelty in favor of a recognition of human dignity. As before, the horrors of the past are thoroughly explored, with descriptions of instruments of torture, the nasty spectacle of public execution, and the viciousness of slavery. What's missing is an examination of how enthusiastic the great mass of people was about these trends. At one point, Pinker writes, "“Most people today have no desire to watch a cat burn to death, let alone a man or a woman. In that regard we are different from our ancestors of a few centuries ago." But what does "desire" mean in this context? Are we to believe that the Joe Six-Pack of 1700 woke up of a morning and thought, Goodness, I have a hankering to see someone broken on the wheel? Or did he respond to something that was part of the world as he knew it?

Pinker, who as a supporter of the state as theoretical model can only intermittently bring himself to acknowledge its failings as a force in the real world, slides too easily past the origin of torture and public execution in government policy to argue that it reveals something about what "people" are like. But the number of people who participated in torture or attended public executions is, as a proportion of the population, unlikely to be large, and Pinker, whose interest in facts continues to wax and wane with their usefulness for his preferred conclusions, doesn't investigate the question, preferring the implication that the entire past had a constant high appreciation for cruelty. This vagueness, which also occurs in a discussion of the occurrence of human sacrifice, prevents him from looking at variations in these practices within violent societies, which might allow for correlation with various explanatory measures.  How enthusiastic was the average citizen of Western Europe about auto-da-fes and iron maidens? It would be hard to find out, especially since the expression of reservations about these methods might well have ended in firsthand experience of them, a prospect that would tend to encourage circumspection. But if there's any evidence that might shed light on the topic, it's not examined here.

Let's put the issue another way: is the percentage of people who cheerfully attended public executions in medieval Europe radically different from the percentage who in the modern era gawk at traffic accidents, pore over autopsy photos, and download videos of terrorist beheadings? Yes, those who do such things are condemned now in a way they wouldn't have been in the past, a fact on which Pinker places great emphasis. But is the movement of these behaviors underground worth much celebration in and of itself, regardless of whether they're actually less common? We don't allow people to publicly take pleasure in torturing heretics anymore, but if they get their kicks by kidnapping, raping, and murdering college girls instead, I'm not sure we've gained much.

But let's grant for the moment that people are less bloodthirsty than they used to be. Pinker's explanation for this is something he calls "Enlightenment humanism." This worldview allegedly coalesced from "the ideas of thinkers like Hobbes, Spinoza, Descartes, Locke, David Hume, Mary Astell, Kant, Beccaria, Smith, Mary Wollstonecraft, Madison, Jefferson, Hamilton and John Stuart Mill." Not surprisingly given the laundry list of philosophers involved, Enlightenment humanism turns out to be a vague phenomenon, a wishy-washy belief in human rights that's meaningless precisely because it's so unobjectionable. It has less to do with the complexities of the eighteenth century philosophical trend now known as the Enlightenment, and more to do with contemporary principles that have been Whiggishly projected onto the past. Pinker writes, "If all this sounds banal and obvious, then you are a child of the Enlightenment, and have absorbed its humanist philosophy," but a more pertinent reason it sounds banal is that Pinker has drained all specificity from it.

Part of what's drained away is the violence and anti-humanism of which Enlightenment states are capable. Pinker is very good at waving away the failures of states and thinkers he admires to apply their high-minded principles to all peoples, instead of those they already like. The Declaration of Independence's airy statement that "all men are created equal" is, "however hypocritical" in light of slavery,  "a built-in rights widener." (Sounds like something you'd buy at the hardware store.) Obviously it's true that a broad declaration of principle leaves the door open for practice to catch up with it, but that only invites us to ask why such catching-up happens or fails to happen in the way that it does. Pinker, however, has no interest in dwelling on such failures. Colonialism, for instance, doesn't warrant an entry in the book's index, and is mentioned only to proclaim (shortsightedly, but we'll get there) that its end removed a major cause of war.

Not content to paint the Enlightenment as the source of everything good about modern ideas, Pinker also spins a yarn about the counter-Enlightenment, a real boogeyman responsible for militant nationalism, romantic militarism, Marxist socialism, and the Nazi Party. Surely there's some truth to this notion, but intellectual history isn't a sporting event where everyone has a jersey indicating an unshakable loyalty. And indeed Pinker is capable of acknowledging, at least tangentially, that Enlightenment ideas can have bad outcomes. In one of his more impressive feats of reductionism, Pinker tells us that "the engine of Enlightenment humanism" is rationality, and that rationality "can never be refuted by some flaw or error in the reasoning of the people in a given era. Reason can always stand back, take note of the flaw, and revise its rules so as not to succumb to it the next time." Well, of course it can, just as communism can justly distribute resources for the good of the people. But will it? 

Does rationality allow people to learn from their mistakes, or merely to recapitulate them with a new intellectual gloss? The answer is obviously "Yes"-- depending on the circumstances, either outcome is possible. The point here is not that reason is bad, merely (as Pinker would surely agree, at least in the abstract) that it's always in conflict with the human capacity for self-delusion. Develop a society in which reasoned argument is required to support a proposition, and people will put together reasonable-sounding nonsense to back up preexisting beliefs. Deemphasize religion to the point where traditional Christian anti-Semitism no longer passes intellectual muster, and lo and behold, racial, "scientific" anti-Semitism arrives to take its place. Ironically, Pinker, a critic of extremism in left- and right-wing political ideologies, holds with regard to Enlightenment humanism the core belief of the extremist: that the movement can never fail, and can only be failed. Debating the accuracy of that claim is beside the point: either way, there are failures, and sometimes catastrophic ones. Despite Pinker's habit of presenting his run-of-the-mill beliefs as under constant attack (“Today the Enlightenment is often mentioned with a sneer”), no one today would call for an abandonment of reason, but to lay too much emphasis on it as the source of positive values causes problems both for interpreting the past and for shaping the future.

In any case, Pinker is typically vague about causation when it comes to Enlightenment humanism and (putative) declines in cruelty. He cherry-picks a few nice-sounding quotes from major thinkers, as if general statements of humanism can't be found throughout history. He throws out some data about the explosive growth in book publishing, on the theory that a wider marketplace of ideas leads to better ideas, a notion that would seem to be called into question by the intellectual poverty of contemporary society, a phenomenon his own book could stand as evidence of. And he tells us that, based on a rising capacity to sign their own names, people were more literate, a mundane fact he spins into a fanciful theory about greater exposure to Enlightenment ideas and empathy-enhancing novels humanizing the brutish masses. This is, for those who accept the faintly self-congratulatory idea that the mere act of reading connotes greater intellectual or moral worth, an appealing theory. But to show that people knew how to sign their names doesn't mean they could read books, that they did read books, that they read the sort of "elevating" material Pinker has in mind, or that they took the "right" lessons from it if they did read it.

That last point provides a useful transition into alternate theories of the Humanitarian Revolution, if such a revolution exists. Books, through the forcefulness of point-of-view, may enable us to sympathize with those who are different. But by the same token they can also allow us to feel the disturbing pleasure of witnessing violence without any actual violence occurring. One often hears that violence in contemporary film and television is proof we live in a violent society, but might it really mean the opposite? Is the human appetite for cruelty so callous that it can be sated as easily by fiction as by reality? Did people stop going to beheadings because they could get them in books with less effort, and without the twinge of guilt genuine human death brings? Beyond all this there's the issue I've raised before with Pinker's blase dismissal of quality of life, which he reduces to economic status when he bothers with at all. Are people less accepting of or enthusiastic about public cruelty when their own lives seem less guided by a similar, natural capriciousness? I'm throwing out questions to which I can't provide answers, unless someone out there wants to pay me to do the research for a 700-page book on the topic, but unlike Steven Pinker, I've at least thought to ask them.

Brief Notes

-In discussing contemporary U. S. capital punishment, Pinker informs us that "a 'death sentence' is a bit of a fiction," a piece of news that will surely come as a surprise to the ghost of Troy Davis, and as a relief to the thousands of people currently on death row. Engaging in his usual simultaneous deflation of contemporary barbarity and inflation of sentiment against it, he emphasizes that the death penalty is used in relatively few cases and that the review process is lengthy. I don't know what the latter point has to do with anything; being executed after twenty years of appeals is still being executed. The former point has (I think unintentionally) an air of justification about it, as though "We only kill the people who really deserve it" wasn't the rationale of brutes throughout history. The decline in executions is commendable, but their continued existence also says something about our society's relationship with violence, and in casually dismissing present-day death row inmates, treating them as something equivalent to a rounding error, Pinker suggests one of the ways in which intellectual rationalism can diverge from humanism.

-Shakespeare is quoted twice, once for Falstaff's speech on honor and once for Shylock's "Hath not a Jew" eyes speech. In each case, Pinker manages to ignore the ambiguities of the text and misconstrue it as an uncomplicated example of Enlightenment humanist values. He fails to note that Falstaff, however valid his points about honor, is hardly a moral paragon, and that Shylock is, one rousing speech aside, a nasty caricature of greed who is roundly punished for his dastardly Jewishness. Neither of these errors really matters in a larger sense, but they do provide yet more evidence of Pinker's poor command of evidence outside his field. In the same vein, he mentions in passing “American accident victims who trip on a crack or spill hot coffee on themselves and sue everyone in sight.” Do you think Pinker has even a basic familiarity with the much-mocked Liebeck case? Or is he lazily repeating a popular misconception that helps shield corporations that put the trivialities of customer service above the safety of all employees and customers?

-As elsewhere, Pinker ignores historical contingency in favor of explanations that fit his imagined overall trends. We're actually asked to believe that the difference between the execution of Charles I in 1649 and the bloodlessness (exaggerated, by the way) of the overthrow of James II in 1688 is a meaningful data point, as though English values had undergone a sea change in 39 years. Trying to explain the bloodiness of the French Revolution, a tricky subject for an Enlightenment admirer, Pinker compares it to the American Revolution, announcing that while the French "drew their inspiration [from] intellectual lightweights" the Americans "stuck more closely to the Enlightenment script." Imagine the stage directions on that document. Exit pursued by a humanist. That the American Revolution was so profoundly different in material ways from the French as to render comparison ridiculous doesn't seem to occur to Pinker, who further suggests the American "Founders" did better because they had also experienced the English Civilizing Process. Apparently there was no French Civilizing Process, which I guess means they never learned to bathe or avoid moving food onto their forks with their knives. Poor bastards. Nice as it might be to imagine that our wars will go well if we wish upon the right philosophers, I don't think history works that way.

-I've largely ignored Pinker's treatment of slavery, which is relevant to his subject because“violence is inherent to the definition of slavery.” That's basically true, but a better description of what's inherent to the definition of slavery is coercion.  While almost nobody likes/admits to liking violence, most people don't have a problem with coercion, provided somebody they approve of (their preferred political party, say) is doing the coercing. But much coercion rests on the implicit threat of violence, or of treatment sufficiently harsh that people will avoid it as carefully as they do violence. One can therefore argue that the "triumph" of contemporary Western society is devising a control system that works as well as violence and lacks its potential for breeding resentment and revolution. That's an improvement, I suppose, but it sets the bar awfully low. 

At any rate, Pinker's failure to consider even cursorily the difference between violence and coercion and its implications for his argument is another example of his intellectual fuzziness. Elsewhere in the discussion of slavery he refers to its existence in "so-called democratic Athens." But slavery isn't incompatible with democracy, which means only the holding of power by citizens. In a society with slavery, slaves may be human beings, but they're not citizens. That's unfair, but not inherently undemocratic. In this book, though, "democracy" is like "Enlightenment humanism," less a meaningful term than one of the glowing labels to be applied to the pinnacle of human civilization that is the northern United States and western Europe in the 21st century. Adherence to the model of these states is what matters, and distance is from it is undemocratic, illiberal, and unenlightened, regardless of what those words might actually mean.

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