The Better Angels of Our Nature
Good morning! As befits a new year, my sermon this morning emphasizes optimism, not doom and gloom. Even though as David Brooks says, [NYT 11/27/04] only pessimists are regarded as intellectually serious. I want to share with you from a dog trainer and Unitarian Unversalist perspective a wonderful new book, The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined by Steven Pinker, an evolutionary psychologist at Harvard. This book combines the enjoyment of a sudoku puzzle and a Grisham thriller: the fun of seeing patterns and finding out how the patterns work out. Pinker summarizes his 700 page opus in one sentence: "Violence has declined over long stretches of time, and today we may be living in the most peaceable era in our species' existence."
When I tell people the thesis of the book, most say no, that can’t be and give me one example of modern violence such as turmoil in the Middle East or Africa. However, one event, which could be an outlier, does not a trend make. Besides, we remember recent events, then since they’re easy to remember, we believe these events are more probable. Pinker looks at the long span of human history and counts acts of violence over time. Think of Brother Gregor Mendel who counted his peas and founded modern genetics. Instead of peas, Pinker counts acts of violence per capita of world population. He then graphs them and as you flip through the book the trends all approach zero.
Pinker corroborates Martin Luther King, Jr who used to say, “The arc of the moral universe is long but it bends towards justice.” King was paraphrasing 19th century abolitionist and Unitarian minister Theodore Parker. The original quote: "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."
Theodore Parker divined the bend toward justice by means of conscience; Pinker proves it with facts and stats. I’m going to emphasize what Pinker calls the humanitarian and rights revolutions; most people find these changes easier to accept than the diminution of violence from war and homicide. Here’s an example of how we can visualize the humanitarian revolution: let’s take a virtual journey to the Benton County courthouse. We’ll see a clock tower, a grand staircase and a green lawn. Is there a debtor’s prison in the basement? Will we see an adulteress stoned? Will we see a witch or heretic being burned at the stake? Will we see devices to publically hurt and kill people such as a whipping post or gallows? Will we see a slave market? An emphatic No! to all of the above. Rather we might see an art show or peaceful protestors. Those are examples we can all observe of the humanitarian and rights revolutions.
We’re going to travel through history following three bumper stickers Pinker cites: LOVE THY NEIGHBOR, SHIT HAPPENS, ALL PERSONS ARE CREATED EQUAL. All of these bumper stickers represent great moral advances, even SHIT HAPPENS. You will see why.
First bumper sticker aphorism: LOVE THY NEIGHBOR. At the Ware lecture during the 2011 Unitarian Universalist General Assembly Karen Armstrong spoke about the Golden Rule and compassion. I quote from her lecture: “Each one of the major faiths . . . has developed its own version of the Golden Rule, never to treat others as you would not like to be treated yourself.”
Armstrong continues, “My favorite Golden Rule story belongs to Hillel, the great Pharisee, who was an older contemporary of Jesus. 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. 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.’” Our own second Unitarian Universalist principle affirms and promotes justice, equity and compassion in human relations.
But think of what society was like during Biblical times. As Pinker says, “The Bible is one long celebration of violence.” Stoning was prescribed for offenses like adultery that are no longer criminal. Beating children was a virtue. Women were the spoils of war to be raped by the victors. Human sacrifice was on its way out, but slavery and genocide were taken for granted. How remarkable is it that the Golden Rule came out of the society depicted in the Bible!
So what has changed in 2,000 years to bring about a society where we see all as fellow beings, where we are safe from cruel and unusual punishments, and we all have rights?
First, what Pinker calls the Pacification Process took place. As you all know, I’m a dog owner and as a dog owner, there’s nothing in it for me when my dogs fight. So I insist on peace, not because I’m nice, but because I don’t want expensive emergency vet bills. I’m the Queen in charge of both dogs; they don’t get to settle their own disputes via violence. Similarly, when larger entities than clans and tribes developed, the larger entity became the peacekeeper. No more hunter-gatherer raids on neighboring settlements. No more Hatfield-McCoy type feuds. Pinker says as kings took over during medieval times, “Turf battles among knights were a nuisance to the increasingly powerful kings, because regardless of which side prevailed, peasants were killed and productive capacity was destroyed that from the kings’ point of view would be better off stoking their own revenues and armies.” Less violence.
And for the dogs living in my home, it’s in their best interest to curry favor with me with
Sit! Stay! Off the couch! because I dole out all the good stuff like food, walkies, and belly rubs when the dogs do what I want. Such a civilizing process happened during medieval times. Pinker says, “A man’s ticket to fortune no longer consisted of being the biggest baddest knight in the area, but making a pilgrimage to the king’s court and currying favor with him and his entourage. The nobles had to cultivate their manners so as not to offend the king’s minions, and their empathy to understand what they wanted. The manners appropriate for the court came to be called courtly manners or courtesy.” By refraining from gross behaviors like blowing their noses on the tablecloth, people developed self control. The homicide rate in England has declined to about one thirty-fifth of what it was in medieval times. Courtesy leads to less violence.
In an economic system based on land the only way to get richer was to steal someone else’s, but in an economy based on trading surpluses, your neighbor becomes more valuable to you alive than dead. As commerce grows, so does communication. About 3,000 years ago the Phoenicians invented the alphabet in order to trade between the Egyptians and the Babylonians.
As commerce has grown, so has violence declined. Robert Wright, author of NonZero about the expansion of cooperation through history, says, “Among the many reasons why I think we shouldn’t bomb the Japanese is that they made my minivan.” A thought: globalization leads to peace.
Pinker suggests that the Humanitarian Revolution, when the state became less brutal in enforcing its will, began in 1452 with the invention of the printing press. Literacy spread and by about 1700 the majority of Englishmen could read and write. During that century, the 1700s, philosophers such as Hobbes, Spinoza, Descartes, Locke, Hume, Madison, Jefferson, and Hamilton formulated the Enlightenment. Basically, the values of the Enlightenment were that reason, not faith or authority, was the supreme arbiter and the well being of all humans was the paramount value.
Sound familiar? Our Unitarian Universalist principles celebrate the well being of all humans when we remember our first principle, the inherent worth and dignity of every person, and our second principle, justice, equity, and compassion for all. Our fifth Unitarian Universalist Source states, “Humanist teachings which counsel us to heed the guidance of reason and the results of science, and warn us against idolatries of the mind and spirit.”
During the 1800s, circulating libraries became widespread, mostly featuring novels. When English majors read novels, they look for imagery, symbolism, metaphors, and verisimilitude. Note $10 word! When unsophisticated people like me read a novel, we identify with the characters and we want to see what happens to them. During the 19th century, Pinker suggests, as people identified with fictional characters, they gained empathy for people different from them. Slavery, judicial torture, cruel and unusual punishments, and debtor’s prisons were all outlawed during the 19th century Humanitarian Revolution. Less violence.
My next bumper sticker aphorism is SHIT HAPPENS. What’s implied in that bumper sticker is natural forces rather than witches or the devil cause bad things to happen. Even if the vet doesn’t know why my dog got sick, it wasn’t because Diana put a spell on him. Which saves Diana from being tortured until she confesses she’s a witch then brutally executed for being a witch. This is what used to happen. Now SHIT just HAPPENS and there’s no blame or punishment. Belief in spells and witches, along with some religious dogmas, are examples of ideologies, statements that can’t be proven with data accessible to all.
How can you tell if a belief is an ideology? The ideology is more important than the people involved. The glorious future justifies current suffering. Scientific statements can be established with data, but the only way to establish an ideological statement is by converting, by force if necessary, those who don’t believe in it.
After the 19th century of advances in toleration and humanitarianism, we had a bad half century, 1900-1950, a half century ruled by romantic counter-enlightenment ideologies that weren’t religious, but secular. Non religious ideologies such as nationalism, honor, and the glorious nature of war fueled World War I. That war, the war to end all wars, put an end to the ideology of the glorious nature of war, but new secular ideologies arose: communism, fascism, and the belief the Jews, rather than witches, did it. World War II was fueled by fascism and communism. Communism fueled famines in Russia and China.
Although in 1950, the eminent historian Arnold Toynbee saw World War II as the penultimate step toward disaster, an obscure physicist named Lewis Fry Richardson “chose statistics over impressions to defy the common impression that global nuclear war was a certainty. More than half a century later we know the eminent historian was wrong and the obscure physicist was right,” says Pinker.
Now to my third bumper sticker aphorism: ALL PERSONS ARE CREATED EQUAL which applies to the Rights Revolution between 1950 - 2012, within the lifetime of many in this room.
The rights of racial and ethnic minorities. In the 1950s, racial segregation was enforced by law and custom, whereas now even mentioning something as mild as that segregation avoided conflict gets a person in trouble. Segregation took much violence to maintain. Remember the deaths of our Unitarian martyrs James Reeb and Viola Liuzzo.
The rights of women. Societies moving away from cultures of manly honor and where women get a better deal tend to be less violent. Males have an incentive to compete for females, whereas females have an incentive to stay away from risks that would orphan their children. Women on the average are the less violent sex; as they gain influence, the societies they live in become less violent. Married men are less violent because they’re invested in their children rather than competing with other males. Then as girl fetuses and infants are allowed to live, unbalanced sex ratios don’t develop.
Societies with a scarcity of women have an excess of poor men [the rich ones get the available women] with nothing to lose who may become thugs, mercenaries and disturb the peace. Although as parents know, two year olds are the most violent age, most violence is committed by fifteen to thirty year old men.
The rights of children. Violence toward children used to be how you taught them; now you can’t hit kids even if they’re driving you crazy.
The rights of gays. Gays are no longer demonized as sick and wrong. Hillary Clinton said in December 2011: “Like being a woman, like being a racial, religious, tribal or ethnic minority, being LGBT does not make you less human. And that is why gay rights are human rights, and human rights are gay rights.” Later that month the United Nations endorsed the rights of gay and transgender persons.
The rights of animals. As well as people, animals are also considered to have rights. In my humble opinion, times weren’t ripe until the mid 90s for Karen Pryor’s technique of no punishment clicker training for dogs. The method had been around since the 1950s, but in an era when children were still being spanked, who cared about “correcting” dogs? Temple Grandin advocates humane slaughter. Even Michael Vicks’ fighting pit bulls aroused sympathy.
I’ll close with one more reason why the world is becoming less violent. Despite what you see on television, people are getting smarter. In 1984 James Flynn discovered that IQ test companies were renorming the scores. Later generations given the same questions as earlier generations got more of them correct. The eponymous Flynn Effect has been found in 30 countries for over 100 years. The biggest gains weren’t in math or vocabulary, but in the items that tap abstract reasoning, the ability to think in “what if?” terms. This ability is similar to being able to put oneself in someone else’s shoes that is, expand the circle of moral consideration and live the Golden Rule. Smart people understand that a world without violence is better for all and can figure out how to get there.
In conclusion, I quote again from Pinker’s book. “[The nostalgic] claim our ancestors did not have to worry about muggings, school shootings, terrorist attacks, holocausts, world wars, killing fields, napalm, gulags, and nuclear annihilation. Surely no Boeing 747, no antibiotic, no iPod is worth the suffering that modern societies and their technologies can wreak. . .[But] unsentimental history and statistical literacy can change our view of modernity. For they show that nostalgia for a peaceable past is the biggest delusion of all. . .On top of all the benefits modernity has brought us in health, experience, and knowledge, we can add its role in the reduction of violence. . .Today we may be living in the most peaceable era in our species' existence." The arc of the moral universe is long but it bends towards justice. May it be so.