Saturday, September 1, 2012

Better Angels

  This post will also be found in Tehachapi's The Loop Newspaper

I've just recently finished Steven Pinker's new book The Better Angels of Our Nature. This is a large book covering what many people may feel to be a mythological topic. The subtitle is “Why Violence Has Declined”. Yes, violence has indeed declined. 

I know. It can be hard to believe when we have news of shootings, wars, people getting beaten, but the fact is the world is a less violent place than it was in the past. In our prehistory, almost every “war” was a war of genocide, they didn't let that other tribe live. But as states grew up out of tribes, the gains from war declined, and now rather than any gains, wars are just costs.

And as states grew, so grew the rule of law, which protects us from each other. Again, the costs of violence have increased to the point that most of us don't resort to violence when things don't go our way, for we know the state will inflict a punishment on us. And even the mere act of bigotry has become an embarrassment to most of us.

There are many causes discussed in Better Angels, including things like commerce, for the decrease in violence over the centuries. But I'd like to spend a little time on one of the more recent ones. Literacy.

One of the big trends in human social interactions has been the expanding circle of empathy. The people we care about have grown from ourselves and our immediate family, to a tribe, a community, a state, and now we've begun to expand to concepts like humanity and animals. And one of the ways our circle of empathy has expanded is that we've been exposed to people in books.

The books of Charles Dickens that showed the poverty of Victorian England showed people that never would have met any of those poor, that people did live that way. And Upton Sinclair's The Jungle, did much the same for the United States. Books have taken fictional people and created a sense of empathy for them.

Fine you might say, I did feel for the young boy, Oliver Twist, while I was reading the book, but how does that affect my views of others. Well, our brains love to generalize. So other people, that may actually exist, can pick up our sense of empathy for a fictional character.

And it's not just reading. By being exposed to different kinds of people on TV and in movies, we're provided opportunities to visualize ourselves in those situations. We might only walk in their shoes for a half hour sit com, but we do learn that they are people too. And when that happens, our circle of empathy expands, and we're much less likely to resort to violence when we know that the other person is really a person too.

So go ahead and read a book, or watch a movie. Put yourself in somebody else's shoes for a while. Just be aware that you make be taking a step on the road to making the world a better place.

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