The Saving Grace of Our Species

Want to improve the human condition in 2019? Seems like a lofty New Year’s resolution, I know. But it starts with a pretty simple two-step process. Here it is:

1. Read outside your comfort zone. Specifically, read a novel written from the point of view of a character utterly unlike yourself. Or read (or view) news reports about a nation or topic completely foreign to you.

2. At least temporarily, struggle to fit what you’ve read into your world view. If it doesn’t fit, imagine how the world must be different to the author, to make their perspective true.

There is a third—most crucial—step. But bear with me for a moment.

The premise (somewhat startling, I admit) of Steven Pinker’s scholarly tome, The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined, is that, well, violence among humans has declined from prehistory, to early history, to the present. When you look around at the horrific violence we hear about daily in the news, this is hard to believe. But after poring over some seven hundred closely written pages, I can see his point.

The first hundred pages of Better Angels is especially  hard to get through: it details the shocking punishments that, several hundred years ago, were routine in Europe and (even more recently) in the Americas. Not just public executions, but public torture: brandings, hangings/lynchings, drawing and quartering, burning at the stake, chopping off extremities, blinding, and a host of other things that to modern eyes are so disgusting as to beggar the imagination. Pinker then moves on to wars, and proves his point exhaustively, that while wars drag on and continue to blight humanity, they are limited in a number of ways, including not only the avoidance of nuclear war since 1945, but also the avoidance of direct wars between the great powers, avoidance of war among European nations or, indeed, any first world nations. The result is that casualties from war are greatly reduced as a proportion of the global population.

Pinker gives a number of explanations for the decline in violence, including the growth of cultural norms in nations with functioning justice systems, and of international norms. “Nations become stable democracies only when their political factions tire of murder as the means of assigning power,” he writes. “They engage in commerce only when they put a greater value on mutual prosperity than on unilateral glory. And they join intergovernmental organizations only when they are willing to cede a bit of sovereignty for a bit of mutual benefit.”

But the root of such norms in not, at least initially, on the level of nations. It begins with people.

When Ursula K. Le Guin accepted the National Book Foundation Medal in 2017, she prophetically said that “hard times are coming, when we’ll be wanting the voices of writers who can see alternatives to how we live now. … We’ll need writers who can remember freedom — poets, visionaries — realists of a larger reality.”

Turns out, Le Guin wasn’t only speaking poetically about that “larger reality.” What we read truly can enlarge our ability to perceive a more complete reality.

Among the many explanations Pinker gives for the reduction in violence was the spread of literacy, and especially, the rise of the novel.

“Reading,” he writes, “is a technology for perspective-taking. When someone else’s thoughts are in your head, you are observing the world from that person’s vantage point. . . . ‘Empathy’ in the sense of adopting someone’s viewpoint is not the same as ‘empathy’ in the sense of feeling compassion toward the person, but the first can lead to the second. . . . Slipping even for a moment into the perspective of someone who is turning black in the pillory or desperately pushing burning faggots away from her body or convulsing under the two hundredth stroke of the lash may give a person second thoughts as to whether these cruelties should ever be visited upon anyone.”

He continues: “Fiction, for its part, may expand readers’ circle of empathy by seducing them into thinking and feeling like people very different from themselves. Literature students are taught that the 18th century was a turning point in the history of the novel. It became a form of mass entertainment. … Novels brought to life the aspirations and losses of ordinary people.” This period in history, he notes, was—not coincidentally—the heyday of the Humanitarian Revolution.

Today, it is not just novels, not just print journalism, not just television, but the internet and ubiquitous video capability of cell phones that brings all of us into immediate contact with one another’s lives, all across the globe. The sickening violence that ended the life of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi would have been unremarkable in medieval Europe. But today, the worldwide Internet made it impossible not only for the brutality of his murder to go unrecognized—it also made it impossible to hush it up. The pain and fear of migrant children separated from their parents at the southern border of the United States, thanks to journalists and the internet, swept across the globe: it could not be contained or silenced.

Pinker’s argument is that, for all these reasons, the “Better Angels” of human nature are winning. But his book was written in 2011. In 2019, there are a host of what may appear to be reversals in the “Better Angels” trend.

Especially troubling today, is the flood of fake-yet-increasingly-convincing stories masquerading as truth. Even videos, these days, can be doctored so that we must question the evidence of our senses.

Facing this dilemma daily, as we all are, I was reminded of Ursula Le Guin’s classic science fiction novel, City of Illusions.  In it, humanity has been conquered by an alien race which maintains its rule with a ruthless violence, hidden behind a web of seemingly impenetrable lies. The protagonist, a man known as Falk, ultimately finds he has no choice but to go directly into the belly of the beast: to face the aliens on their own ground, having nothing to cling to but his own personal integrity.

“The game must be played, and played their way, though they made all the rules and had all the skill. His ineptitude did not matter. His honesty did. He was staked now totally on one belief . . . that truth, if the game be played through right to the end, will lead to truth. . . . Against them he could never prevail except, perhaps, through the one quality no liar can cope with, integrity.”

This brings us to the third step we must each take, if we want to promote the betterment of humanity, and perhaps find our way out of the trap our collective cleverness has led us into: We must be honest. We must focus all our curiosity on what IS. (Not what we wish, what we are invested in, or what is most comfortable for us to think, but the truth itself, however unpalatable.) And to that curiosity, we must add that empathy which is a quintessential part of being human, and yet, also can be enhanced with practice.

As Dascher Keltner wrote in Born to Be Good, “compassion can be cultivated. . . . the brain of a Tibetan monk, [was] off the charts in terms of its resting activation in the left frontal lobes. This region of the brain supports compassion-related action, feeling, and ideation. After years of devotion and discipline, his was a different brain, humming with compassion-related neural communication.”

The challenge for each of us, then, is to set aside our biases, to put ourselves in others’ places, and consider all the evidence available, to solve the problems that confront us as a species, as well as the unique, beautiful planet all our lives depend upon. Can we be curious, honest, and compassionate, all at once? I believe we can. And we must.

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