The New York Times today published a review (click here) of Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker’s new book, The Better Angels of Our Nature. The book presents evidence that our era is less violent, less cruel, and more peaceful than any previous period of human existence and tries to figure out why. What variables had to change for this to occur? I link to this review here (and the book) because it made me think about those variables in Turkey — what will it take for Turkey to become a less violent, more peaceful society? Some of the important changes are: the consolidation of the power of the state above feudal loyalties (and a state monopoly on the legitimate use of force); the spread of commerce that gives people an incentive to cooperate; a revulsion against violence inflicted on ethnic minorities, women, children, homosexuals, and animals that developed over the past half century.
What caused these beneficial trends? The empowerment of women exerts a pacifying force. The invention of printing helped spread humanitarian ideas and allowed people to put themselves in the position of someone very different from themselves, thereby expanding the sphere of their moral concern. Pinker mentions “Uncle Tom’s Cabin”, but I thought of the books about Martin Luther King and Ghandi that made the rounds in translation and apparently were influential in inspiring the nonviolent resistance of the Arab Spring and elsewhere. The spread of reason (as a way of interpreting the world) leads us to a commitment to treating others as we would like them to treat us.
Pinker argues that enhanced powers of reasoning give us the ability to detach ourselves from our immediate experience and from our personal or parochial perspective, and frame our ideas in more abstract, universal terms. This in turn leads to better moral commitments, including avoiding violence.
Reason also leads us away from forms of morality more likely to lead to violence, preferring to restrict violence to uses necessary to improve social welfare, rather than savage punishment. The spread of the scientific mode of reasoning and living in a more symbol-rich environment, rather than just improved education, may have played a role in the spread of reason — and the idea that our own interests are similar to — and in a universal sense don’t matter more than — the the interests of others.
There are some interesting parallels to be drawn between Pinker’s ideas and the present state of Turkey. For instance, Pinker provides evidence that homicide rates in the US’s South are higher than in the North.
Pinker argues that at least part of the reason for the regional differences in American homicide rates is that people in the South are less likely to accept the state’s monopoly on force. Instead, a tradition of self-help justice and a “culture of honor” sanctions retaliation when one is insulted or mistreated. Statistics bear this out — the higher homicide rate in the South is due to quarrels that turn lethal, not to more killings during armed robberies — and experiments show that even today Southerners respond more strongly to insults than Northerners.
A Turkish friend of mine once bragged that Turkey has no serial killers. I interpreted that to mean no strangers killing random strangers for no apparent reason. But perhaps the personal character of violence is nothing to crow about. Violence on the basis of honor, a community or family taking justice in their own hands on that basis, leads to “honor” killings and to pogroms against Roma and Kurdish neighbors, among other things. Pinker suggests that this is the sort of violence that must be made unacceptable for a society to move toward peace. The state should become the only legitimate source of the use of force. People should accept this and be able to rely on the state’s impartial, rational and benign use of force. Violence against women, minorities, and so on, should become socially unacceptable.
Of course, this assumes that the state itself can be trusted to use its monopoly over the legitimate use of force in a measured, rational and humane way in order to improve the welfare of society — not to punish opponents or protect special interests. States can be violent perpetrators as well, as we all know. Pinker’s analysis gives us some landmarks, though, for how individuals, societies and states can move toward the better angel of cooperation and peacefulness that, he argues, is as much part of our human nature as a propensity to violence.