In end-of-the-year phone calls from friends near and far, many express despair at the state of the world. I fully understand why, but I don’t accept their despair. In fact I can make a strong argument against it. Because what has changed is not so much the world itself, but our awareness of it.
A single click on the screen you’re looking at right now will bring you to visceral images from thousands of miles away. A Syrian boy’s body washed up on the shore of a Greek island. A young woman beaten to death and set on fire in Afghanistan after a malicious rumor that she had burned a Quran (which leads me to ask “and even if she had…?”). Crazed Israeli settlers celebrating a wedding by cheering the arson murder of a Palestinian baby. A white cop shooting a fleeing black man in the back. We focus on such images, and ask what the world has come to.
We forget where it has come from.
When Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker’s book The Better Angels of Our Nature came out a few years ago, I bristled at the pseudo-religious sentimentality of the title. (Okay, I still do.) But the book has stayed with me, along with its subtitle: “why violence has declined.” Yes, you read that right.
Pinker is no cock-eyed optimist: he’s an empiricist, and he spends close to 700 pages proving his point with data . “We can see our world as a nightmare of crime, terrorism, genocide, and war,” he writes, “or as a period that, by the standards of history, is blessed by unprecedented levels of peaceful coexistence.”
Now, it’s true “the standards of history” are pretty low, and that as Pinker himself notes, to make such a case in a century that began with 9/11, Darfur, and Iraq could well be seen as hallucinatory, even obscene. But it’s also true that despite what we see on the news, more people live more safely than ever before.
The difference is that now we know about violence. News spreads almost instantaneously. Cellphones are everywhere. Images are captured in real time, and seen in real time. And it’s only human to focus on these images.
So how do we deal with so much knowledge? How do we go about our lives with this awareness?
Outrage, shock, and even despair all seem to me healthy reactions. Because they are reactions, and not so long ago, there were none. White cops once shot unarmed black men as a matter of routine. Refugees have drowned and starved in far greater numbers in the past. Women were once set on fire in Massachusetts as well as in Afghanistan. And massacres were by the thousands, even without the aid of guns. But all of this was hidden from immediate consciousness. Such events once passed for the most part unnoticed, unreported, unremarked upon until far later.
And more important, we didn’t see the violence. We didn’t have the evidence of our eyes. Now we do, and it encourages me that we are shocked. That we are outraged. That we do condemn. That we do care.
Evil can no longer take place under the cloak of silence. We hear it, and we see it. And we speak up against it. We are all witnesses now. And as witnesses, we will step forward.
And yes, despite the evidence of our eyes, this is progress.
Dear Lesley, you and I are in complete agreement, but no one was burned at the stake in the Salem witch trials. Lynchings around the country maybe, but not as capital punishment.
Just checked, and you’re right: they were hung. In Denmark, they were burned.
Lots of burning in England as well. Which is an interesting question to ask, burning at the stake did not happen in the United States as a public execution, why was that? Lynching is another matter.
I needed this reminder. I read articles about his book when it came out, and I hold to the anti-despair position, but sometimes my attention sags, and despair creeps in.
Various societies can allow the weight of knowledge, pertaining to worldwide human suffering, to crush the spirit of hope and resolve OR motivate all of us to collectively seek ways to relieve and prevent that which afflicts others.
Positioning ourselves like the 3 chimps with hands over eyes, ears and mouths is a common impulse but we CAN and must overcome this!
Maybe “evil can no longer take place under the cloak of silence”, but evil seems to be doing just fine in the light of day. As of a few days ago, it appears that sentences in Farkhunda’s murder are being commuted and it is uncertain what the disposition of the case will be.
Video of a “A white cop shooting a fleeing black man in the back” didn’t seem to deter the shooting of a white man (and the subsequent murder of his autistic 6 year old son, Jeremy Mardis), allegedly by black officers. All of the visibility and condemnation of the drug-related violence in Mexico hasn’t lessened the horror. It would seem that the determination of what is evil (or the degree of evil and whether to punish, or how severely to punish) is pretty much in the culture’s (those in power in the culture) eye.
We know evil, we see it within a few hours, we condemn it, but now what?
And it was not just “women” murdered in Salem, one was my great grandfather X6, Samuel Wardwell, hung on the gallows. He was an architect and builder of the House of Seven Gables (now the Salem museum.) His crime: a bachelor who scooped up the best looking widow in the area..
Thanks for your optimism. Progress has always been a messy, “three-steps-forward-two-steps-back” business. When you’re in the midst of it, it’s hard to tell how to measure a step (or to have any clear sense of where you are in the process). It gets hard to avoid drowning in the gloom sometimes, but as you say – onward and upward. Of course these days we also have the complication of whether or not the rate of degrading planetary habitability is compatible with our process/pace of improvement as a species (yikes).
Yes, measuring the size of steps is tricky business, as is figuring out which way you’re going on them. Do they go up or do they go down, or are we all in the middle of an Escher drawing? (or stuck on one of those weird gym machines). Plus, I wonder if there’s a link between the violence we do to the planet and the violence we do to each other…
As an anonymous would-be philosophe once said: “A bigger window always reveals more scenery…but not always the scene you want.”
(Ok, that was me who said that).
Our world is in a mess. I agree with you we must keep our hope and positive way for a better peaceful world
Hi Leslie, very insightful and yes something that has come to my mind too. Thanks for putting the right words together (wish they could come as easily to me). Which brings me to my next question; is war/violence/death an auto-immune response by God/nature/whatever-you-choose-to-call-that-power, to the burgeoning population of this planet?
Leslie thank you for this reminder that all the current atrocities are actual improvements to previous times. I certainly was not looking at it that way so your point of view, and Pinker’s. is an important reminder for us all.
As Fran says, you’ve opened some eyes on world perspective and the actual progression of human kindness Thanks for the reminder.
Your blog brings up a very good point. Going to read the book you mentioned.
I have wondered and debated the same question.
Awareness precedes action.