Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Mitzen on Pinker

Although I've probably mentioned Steven Pinker's The Better Angels of Our Nature here before, I haven't previously discussed it at any length, for the excellent reason that I haven't read it. However, Jennifer Mitzen's review of the book in the current Perspectives on Politics is worth a post [the link is to a gated version; I haven't searched for an ungated version but there probably isn't one].

As many will know (including those who haven't read the 800-page book), Pinker argues that all forms of violence have declined since the Middle Ages and have declined especially sharply in contemporary times, with 'the West' being the center of this trend. Mitzen basically grants this, but argues that Pinker's approach induces a sense of complacency about the violence that remains, even though that is not his intent. In her words, while "absolv[ing] modernity and moderns" of responsibility for the violence of the past, Pinker "dull[s] our sense that it is important to care about, much less feel a sense of responsibility toward, the distant others still mired in violence."

It is tricky, of course, to argue about a book's (or any text's) effect on readers' sensibilities and feelings since, in these respects, no two readers will be affected in exactly the same way. Shaw's Heartbreak House, to take one example that comes to mind, might have caused some readers (or viewers) of the play to crusade against the pre-1914 arms race in Europe while at the same time inducing others to consider the prospect of starting their own munitions company. Good art is ambiguous (even when it appears to be preachy, as Shaw often does), and scholarship is also often ambiguous, at least in terms of its effects on the sensibilities of its consumers.

With that said: how, in Mitzen's view, does Pinker's approach induce complacency and a dulling of the sense that "it is important to care about...distant others...."?

Pinker's account of liberalism and modernity is, she writes, "airbrushed and uncomplicated." Thus, according to him, the French Revolution took a wrong turn not because of any tensions or contradictions in the Enlightenment but because, in Pinker's words, "many of the French philosophes from whom the revolutionaries drew their inspiration were intellectual lightweights" (hmm).

Mitzen criticizes Pinker's accounts of the Holocaust and the Rwandan genocide, which he depicts as having nothing to do with modernity, reason or science. I'm not sure exactly where I come down on that particular question. I do tend to think, however, that the legacy of the Enlightenment, although mostly positive, is, to use Mitzen's word, "mixed."

Her key point is that "[t]he mechanisms of Pinker's causal argument suggest that there is not a whole lot we as individual agents can or ought to do about the violence that remains, especially violence outside of the liberal West." Societies, in Pinker's view, will adopt 'reason' and reduce violence when they "are ready" (Mitzen's words) and until then we basically just have to wait. 

This makes Mitzen uncomfortable, and I understand why. On the other hand, I don't think she would be more comfortable with an approach that attempts to spread 'reason' by force. What we are left with is a sort of middle ground, in which societies are mostly left to chart their own paths but with 'the West' offering financial and/or other support to 'liberal,' 'modern' voices within them, while at the same time trying to temper global economic forces that may hinder political liberalization. As a general matter, I suspect that Pinker and Mitzen would both endorse that approach.


Anonymous said...

Unfortunately, I suspect Pinker is mostly right about the slowness of cultural change, particularly amongst people who aren't permanently set on fast-forward in the world of consumer capitalism.

Not that I think he is right about much else ....

LFC said...

So I take it you aren't buying the all-forms-of-violence-have-declined-because-we-have-Reason argument?

Actually, Mitzen notes that Pinker gives "five historical forces...particular causal power: the modern state, commerce, feminism, cosmopolitanism, and the escalator of reason."

'The modern state' strikes me as questionable on this list -- or should I say, the most questionable.