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19 of 28 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Jolly good tidings!, December 3, 2011
This review is from: The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined (Hardcover)
How does this sound for entertainment: Your date asks you out to the theater to watch a live cat slowly lowered into a fire and burned to death, howling with pain as it is singed, roasted, and finally carbonized?

If that isn't your idea of entertainment, don't hop into the next time machine heading back to medieval Europe.

In 16th-century Paris, throngs - including kings and queens -- flocked to watch such gruesome spectacles, shrieking with laughter as cats and other animals were tortured to death on stage.

Torture and violence were woven into the fabric of life, from the sexualized sadism of London, where elaborately designed and decorated torture devices were the pinnacle of artistic creativity, to the widespread practice of hacking off the nose of anyone who spited you (the source of the strange idiom, "to cut off your nose to spite your face").

In contrast, whether we know it or not, we are now enjoying the most peaceful period in all of human history. Indeed, the precipitous decline in violence of all types may be "the most significant and least appreciated development in the history of our species," argues Steven Pinker, a renowned professor of psychology at Harvard University, in an epic tome, The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined.

Given the tenor of the daily news headlines, Pinker knows his claim sounds far-fetched. But in 800 pages of research and analysis, augmented by hundreds of charts and tables, he convincingly establishes that violence is indeed heading in one direction: down.

The decline is drastic across-the-board, in both state-sanctioned and individual violence: International wars, civil wars, terrorism (an obsession far out of proportion to its prevalence), slavery, sexual violence, child abuse, infanticide.

Key to the decline, Pinker argues, is the diminishing currency of both tribalism and faith-based dogma, with its belief that suffering will be rewarded in the after-life and its press to defend unverifiable tenets with violence.

Our ancestors were a "morally retarded" bunch, he argues, who couldn't see past their own noses - that is, if they still had them - to consider the perspectives of others.

A combination of scientific rationality, literacy, mobility, urbanization, and technology has enabled humankind to become more self-reflective and to feel sympathy for others - from racial and ethnic minorities to women to homosexuals to children and even to animals.

In his zeal to share his glad tidings, Pinker has an annoying habit of glossing over current problems. He pays scant attention to the United States's current practice of endless war, or the escalating costs of military engagement. He claims that the political disenfranchisement of African Americans has been remedied, ignoring the fact that millions of Black men in America are systematically denied the right to vote due to felony convictions. Similarly, he trivializes antigay violence, relying on FBI data that drastically underestimates its prevalence. It's hard to be too thrilled when inner-city children are still sleeping in bathtubs to avoid being killed by stray bullets. At times, he seems overly enamored of his own brilliance, rambling on and becoming repetitious.

Still, the central theme is crucially important. Despite all of the world's problems, the dramatic decline of violence, notes Pinker, "is an accomplishment we can savor, and an impetus to cherish the forces of civilization and enlightenment that made it possible."
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Tracked by 2 customers

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Showing 1-10 of 10 posts in this discussion
Initial post: Dec 5, 2011 3:14:33 AM PST
S. Prewitt says:
Re: "He claims that the political disenfranchisement of African Americans has been remedied, ignoring the fact that millions of Black men in America are systematically denied the right to vote due to felony convictions."

Your statement is ridiculous no matter how I read it. Still, for my own amusement, I have a question: Do you want ALL felons to be allowed to vote--and thereby help determine society's laws--or just BLACK felons?

Posted on Dec 5, 2011 9:20:32 AM PST
Last edited by the author on Dec 5, 2011 9:22:40 AM PST
A. Romanello says:
[Customers don't think this post adds to the discussion. Show post anyway. Show all unhelpful posts.]

In reply to an earlier post on Dec 5, 2011 1:24:49 PM PST
Hi S. Prewitt,
I wasn't advocating for anything. I was just noting an inaccuracy. But certainly from the standpoint of a fuller democracy (which is what Pinker advocates), there is no reason to deny felons the right to vote, and there is a movement underfoot to repeal these prohibitions.

Posted on Dec 5, 2011 4:06:21 PM PST
Paul Wilson says:
Great review and Pinker's thesis is based on some good data. But as Franklin correctly points out the horrible wars in Iraq and Afghanistan that have caused so many civilian deaths are even more appalling than torturing cats as entertainment centuries ago. Pinker apparently glosses over this stark fact. When are we in the West going to realize that it us, and not only others, that continue to promote death and destruction?

Posted on Dec 5, 2011 5:53:39 PM PST
S. Prewitt says:
Karen Franklin,

You didn't note an inaccuracy, you introduced one of your own. Saying that "millions of Black men in America are systematically denied the right to vote due to felony convictions" is racist, sexist, dumbocratic spin: the kind of thing that gives Democrats a bad name. In fact, millions of SOCIOPATHS in America--males and females, all races--are systematically denied the right to vote due to felony convictions. Thank goodness.

Pinker is absolutely correct when he claims that the political disenfranchisement of African Americans has been remedied.

In reply to an earlier post on Dec 6, 2011 7:37:40 AM PST
Thanks, Paul. One criticism of Pinker is that he defines violence very narrowly, counting mainly direct kills and not the myriad collateral consequences. His argument is that collateral consequences are too hard to quantify. So, for example, the degree to which the dire public health conditions in Iraq are a direct consequence of the war is open to debate.

In reply to an earlier post on Jan 24, 2012 8:10:51 AM PST
Have you evidence to suggest that permitting felons to vote would be bad for society? It's not like you guys in the US actually get a whole lot of choice in your state and national elections. A or B.

In reply to an earlier post on Jan 24, 2012 11:54:12 AM PST
For those interested in the issue of voter disenfranchisement and race, I highly recommend Michelle Alexander's book, The New Jim Crow.

In reply to an earlier post on Apr 4, 2012 2:46:07 PM PDT
SK says:
If they don't get to vote, they shouldn't have to pay taxes then eh? Taxation without representation.

In reply to an earlier post on Feb 28, 2013 5:33:14 PM PST
K. Southall says:
A. Romanello; This belief lacks solid evidence, but lack of evidence need not always invalidate an argument or belief. However here you provide no argument, so we are left with a dubious assertion that you do not even substantiate with evidence, or inferences, or a chain of reasoning and argumentation.

One could just as easily assert that the alleged decline in violence that Pinker argues for (which you treat as fact, it is not, it is an opinion he makes and attempts to substantiate) can and is tracked (as you put it) by a very large cosmic scale rubber duck in the 5th dimension tasked with shepherding humanity into our new age. It's an assertion, a claim.

Your expression of a belief would be more serious if you substantiated why you feel this belief is valid. Even if you don't have proper evidence for it, at least indicating the basis from which this belief derives and why you find it compelling would be something, rather than the air squeezed out of the hole at the bottom of a rubber duck.
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