April 7, 2008

We're better than the bad old days....

This is actually a comment by Mike Plaiss to this post, but he was unable to post the comment due to a bug in my version of MT that bites me now and then. So I'll just make it a blog-post. It's certainly interesting enough...

Mike writes:

As you can imagine, I’m no fan of leftist schemes to perfect human nature, but there is evidence that human nature has improved over time. I have posted this here before. It is a fascinating essay by a Harvard psychologist with a good sense of history. His basic point is contained in this quote:

...Some of the evidence has been under our nose all along. Conventional history has long shown that, in many ways, we have been getting kinder and gentler. Cruelty as entertainment, human sacrifice to indulge superstition, slavery as a labor-saving device, conquest as the mission statement of government, genocide as a means of acquiring real estate, torture and mutilation as routine punishment, the death penalty for misdemeanors and differences of opinion, assassination as the mechanism of political succession, rape as the spoils of war, pogroms as outlets for frustration, homicide as the major form of conflict resolution—all were unexceptionable features of life for most of human history. But, today, they are rare to nonexistent in the West, far less common elsewhere than they used to be, concealed when they do occur, and widely condemned when they are brought to light...
The reason, says the author, and it rings true to me, is that civilization has had, well, a civilizing affect on us. Or in the author’s words, “Far from causing us to become more violent, something in modernity and its cultural institutions has made us nobler.

The conundrum for most leftists is that the antidote for the litany of savagery detailed above is largely Western thought, philosophy, and culture.

Well, I don't think "human nature" has changed in the slightest. If it could change like that, it wouldn't be our "nature." What's being discussed is our culture. And that's certainly changed. But I'd guess that if you took any of our oh-so-civilized people, and let them be reborn in sixteenth-century Paris, they would enjoy the "cat burning" (see Pinker's article) as much as the next guy. Our "nature" is the same as it always has been.

And Pinker celebrates us getting getting "kinder and gentler." But I'm not sure that's all of what's going on. Let's just invent a crazy hypothetical. Let's suppose a million people are being killed in, oh, let's say, Rawanda. So, bodies are floatin' down the rivers like rafts of lumber, and the reaction of us kind 'n gentle superior Westerners is....... "But hey, we're peaceful. We're kinder and gentler. So we can't actually DO something. That would be, like, forceful. Pushy. Confrontational. Those things are part of the bad old days, like cat-burning." Phooey. Give me some hard-assed old cowboys who can solve problems with guns or a noose.

And "nobler?" I don't buy that at all. I'd characterize our world as "ignoble."

Posted by John Weidner at April 7, 2008 4:24 PM
Weblog by John Weidner