Book Summaries History Politics

Ch 1: A Foreign Country (The Better Angels of Our Nature)

Pinker starts with pointing a hypocrisy that exists across all religions, but in particular, Christianity. Modern day Christians pay lip service to the Bible as their moral guide, but their morality really comes from other sources.

The saints that are celebrated in Christianity all died in gruesome ways. They went through extreme forms of torture that would be unimaginable today. and yet these forms of torture were not looked at by the Christians of previous times as morally reprehensible. The despicable forms of torture were okay – the problem was that they targeted our heroes (people we now know as saints.)

Modern Christians don’t burn heretics alive. But it is not clear why they would not, since it would make society better off, according to them. The reason they refrain from these actions is that they compartmentalize their beliefs.

“When they affirm their beliefs in houses of worship, they profess beliefs that have barely changed in 2000 years. But when it comes to their actions, they respect modern norms of non-violence – a benevolent hypocrisy.”

Steven Pinker, The Better Angels of Our Nature

Dueling was an act that was done merely for the sake of honor. It was put to an end when the younger generation laughed at the older one for partaking in it.

Perception of war and nuclear weapons has changed. They used to be associated with sexiness and national pride, today, they are generally viewed as abhorrent and disgusting.

Even advertisements have become less violent. The iconic Charles Atlas bodybuilding ads featured a story, usually of an ectomorph who was bullied by someone who was bigger and stronger. The skinny boy would then work out and buff up, to get revenge on his bully. This call to aggression was typical in the 1980’s, but not today. Ads these days feature homoerotic close-ups of muscular bodies. The focus is on beauty, not violence.

If you turn on the news (in 2011), it would seem that the world is a dangerous place. There is a constant dread of terrorism, a clash of civilizations, and the use of weapons of mass destruction. But compared to 50 years ago, these dangers are not as serious. More extreme threats have thankfully fizzled out.

The world of 2011 will still be a  dangerous place. During the next thirty-five years there will be wars, as there are today, and there will be genocides, as there are today, some of them in places no one would have predicted. Nuclear weapons will still be a threat. Some of the violent regions of the world will continue to be violent.

Steven Pinker, The Better Angels of Our Nature

Pinker then addresses his readers who experienced the political shifts over the past 50 years.

The nightmare that has darkened your lives since your early memories of cowering in fallout shelters, a nuclear doomsday in a third world war, will come to an end. In a decade the Soviet Union will declare peace with the West, and the Cold War will be over without a shot being fired. China will also fall off the radar as a military threat; indeed, it will become our major trading partner. During the next thirty-five years no nuclear weapon will be used against an enemy. In fact, there will be no wars between major nations at all. The peace in Western Europe will continue indefinitely, and within five years the incessant warring in East Asia will give way to a long peace there as well.

Steven Pinker, The Better Angels of Our Nature

There is more good news. Germany will no longer be separated by a wall. The Iron curtain will disappear, the nations of Europe will become liberal democracies, free of Soviet domination. The Soviet Union will abandon totalitarian communism choose to go out of existence. Most of this will happen without a drop of blood. Fascism will vanish from the world. Portugal, Spain, Greece, Taiwan will become liberal democracies. So will South and Central America.

The generalissimos, the colonels, the juntas, the banana republics, and the annual military coups will depart the stage in most of the developed world.The Middle East also has surprises in store. You have just lived through the fifth war between Israel and Arab states in twenty-five years. These wars have killed fifty thousand people and recently threatened to drag the superpowers into a nuclear confrontation. But within three years the president of Egypt will hug the prime minister of Israel in the Knesset, and they will sign a peace treaty that will last into the indefinite future. Jordan too will make a lasting peace with Israel. Syria will engage in sporadic peace talks with Israel, and the two countries will not go to war.

Steven Pinker, The Better Angels of Our Nature

Despite all this progress, one might argye that torture still exists, and the 20th century was the bloodiest in history. Old forms of war have simply been replaced with new forms. We live in the age of terror and war was also claimed to be “obsolete” in 1910. Today, there are factory farms and at any moment, nuclear terrorists could start a catastrophic war. Pinker will try to answer these objections in the rest of his book. But for now…

Readers of this book (and as we shall see, people in most of the rest of the world) no longer have to worry about abduction into sexual slavery, divinely commanded genocide, lethal circuses and tournaments, punishment on the cross, rack, wheel, stake, or strappado for holding unpopular beliefs, decapitation for not bearing a son, disembowelment for having dated a royal. pistol duels to defend their honor, beachside fisticuffs to impress their girlfriends, and the prospect of a nuclear world war that would put an end to civilization or to human life itself.

Steven Pinker, The Better Angels of Our Nature

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"Silence is the best expression of scorn" - G.B. Shaw

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