Monday, October 17, 2011

Better Angels, Part 3

    Looking at the decline of violence on a more recent time scale, Rebecca Solnit says in Hope in the Dark that when she was born in 1961 there weren’t even words for things like domestic violence, hate crimes, homophobia, or sexual harassment.   I was a young adult then and that stuff was just called  life.
    Back in the 40s and 50s, gays and lesbians were considered sick and wrong so it was OK to persecute them.  People with brown or black skin were considered subhuman so it was OK to punish them for being uppity.  My mother’s pediatrician told her to throw cold water on me when I cried, child abuse today.  When I got my first dog in the mid eighties, collar jerk “corrections” was how you trained  dogs.  In the 90s and 00s, Karen Pryor brought no-punishment clicker training to dog training and Temple Grandin advocated for humane slaughter of livestock animals.
    Why the change to less violence?  Pinker says there are four reasons: 1.  With the rise of modern states, police forces keep the peace.   The state has a monopoly on violence, vastly reducing violence between individuals.   2. Life used to be cheap.   People led short and painful lives, so it was no big deal to inflict pain and death on someone.  3.  It benefits both parties to trade with neighbors instead of fighting them.  Robert Wright says in Non Zero we now have developed “expanding networks of reciprocity.”   4.  More empathy for people who are not like us because we can identify with them through journalism, memoir, film, and realistic fiction.  By now, because of the previous three factors we can actually practice the compassion inherent in all faiths, which include some form of the Golden Rule.  
    In conclusion, I am proud to have contributed in a small way to the diminution of violence.  I’ve published a couple of short memoirs, generating empathy for people who’ve had experiences like mine.  I’m a clicker trainer for dogs, a system that uses only rewards to modify animals’ behavior. 
       King's often repeated statement, "The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice" was his summation of 19th century Unitarian minister Theodore Parker, who, in "Of Justice and the Conscience" (1853) asserted: "I do not pretend to understand the moral universe; the arc is a long one, my eye reaches but little ways; I cannot calculate the curve and complete the figure by the experience of sight; I can divine it by conscience. And from what I see I am sure it bends towards justice."
    Parker divined the bend towards justice by conscience; Pinker proved it with statistics.  We humans still have a ways to go; our standards rise faster than our actions, but I have hope by the next millennium, violence will have become what people used to do to each other.

Friday, October 14, 2011

Better Angels, Part 2

    I’ve noticed this decline in violence in my reading.    Jared Diamond says in Guns, Germs, and Steel,  “In traditional [hunter-gatherer] New Guinea society, if a New Guinean happened to encounter an unfamiliar New Guinean while both were away from their respective villages, the two engaged in a long discussion of their relatives, in an attempt to establish some relationship and hence some reason why the two should not attempt to kill each other.”  Now, if civility doesn’t arbitrate a dispute the  police will.   
    The Hebrew Bible, a book recounting the history of a nomadic tribe transitioning to agriculture, features human sacrifice, slavery, and execution by stoning to death.  The New Testament pastoral society still had stonings, with the Romans having added crucifixion.    As Pinker says, The Bible is one long celebration of violence.”  Given this violent society, how remarkable is it that the Bible tells us to practice compassion to all.  The Prophet Micah said what is required is to “do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with your God.”  The Rabbi Jesus showed a despised Samaritan as an example of how to be a neighbor.  Jesus told us to practice the Golden Rule, to do unto others as you would have them do unto you. 
     Karen Armstrong spoke about the Golden Rule and compassion during the Ware lecture at the 2011 General Assembly of the Unitarian Universalist Association.  I quote from her lecture:   “Each one of the major faiths, I discovered, has at its core the ethic of compassion. Every single one of them has developed its own version of the Golden Rule, never to treat others as you would not like to be treated yourself, and has said that this is the test of spirituality; that it is this which takes us beyond the prism of ego and selfishness and greed, that enables us to enter into our best selves and into the presence of what some have called God, others Nirvana, Brahmin or Dao.
    “The first person, as far as I know, to enunciate the golden rule was Confucius some 500 years before Christ. Never treat others, says Confucius, as you would not like to be treated yourself.
    “My favorite Golden Rule story belongs to Hillel, the great Pharisee, who was an older contemporary of Jesus. And it said that a pagan came to Hillel one day and promised to convert to Judaism on condition that Hillel could recite the whole of Jewish teaching while he stood on one leg. And Hillel stood on one leg and said that which is hateful to you do not to your fellow man. That is the Torah, and everything else is only commentary. Go and study it.”
    Armstrong says we see formulations of the Golden Rule in all three Abrahamic faiths: Judaism, Christianity and Islam.  “Love the stranger, love the foreign, says Leviticus. Love your enemies, said Jesus. Reach out to all tribes and nations, says the prophet Muhammad.” Our own second Unitarian Universalist principle affirms and promotes justice, equity and compassion in human relations. 

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

The Better Angels of Our Nature

    “The arc of the moral universe is long but it bends towards justice.”  Fuzzy idealism?  Steven Pinker in his new book The Better Angels of Our Nature has stats and graphs to prove Martin Luther King’s statement is true.  Pinker’s key points: first, our perception that we live in extremely violent times, second, the actual fact that there is less violence between individuals than ever before in human history, and finally the reasons why violence has declined.  I rejoice; there is hope for us humans.
    Most people, living in an age of terrorism, would say we live in extremely violent times.  Why do we have this perception of living in violent times?  First, because we remember events that happened more recently, such as the slaughter of 76 people in Norway in July 2011.  But only historians recall much about the Hundred Years War from 1337-1453, when the population of France shrank by about one-half. 
    Second, we have better reporting that extends world wide.  Associated Press staff are better reporters than medieval monks.   Third, our standards rise faster than our accomplishments. We get upset over executing tens of murderers in Texas by lethal injection, forgetting the millions who were burned at the stake.  Fourth, it’s fashionable to romanticize non western European cultures;  we don’t want to denigrate aboriginal peoples by calling them barbaric savages. (Note that the words “barbaric” and “savage” connote cruelty which we will see is a property of pre-state societies.)  However, it’s not the people, it’s how they treat each other we’re opposing.   Finally, no activist ever recruited volunteers or collected money by saying things are getting better. 
    But the facts say we have become less violent.  Homicide used to be how we settled differences.  The murder rate was forty times greater in medieval Europe than present day.  Torture was routine to get confessions and you always got a confession even if you didn’t get the truth.  Mutilation, as well as corporal punishments like flogging, stocks, and the pillory were standard punishments for infractions that today would only warrant a fine. Many more crimes were punishable by gruesome means of execution.   Slavery with its concomitant violence was a labor saving device.  Cruelty to animals and children was how you taught them something.  Yes, 100 million people died in the two world wars of the 20th century, but if the same proportion died as die in hunter gatherer wars, we would have lost two billion people, twenty times as many.