Democracy, education diminish our cruelty

Democracy, education diminish our cruelty

Fresno Bee, January 28, 2012

People are becoming less cruel and more humane.  This is the thesis of Steven Pinker’s optimistic new book, The Better Angels of Our Nature.  Pinker, a Harvard Psychologist, provides extensive data to support his conclusion, citing a variety of developments from low homicide rates to the demise of dueling and the abolition of slavery and torture.

He attributes some of our improvement to the fact that people are getting smarter.  He notes that rising IQ scores during the past century bode well for a more peaceful world, since smarter people are less violent.  He notes, for example, that smarter people tend to commit fewer violent crimes. He concludes, “people with more sophisticated reasoning abilities are more cooperative, have larger moral circles, and are less sympathetic to violence.”

There are reasons to be skeptical of any straightforward attempt to link intelligence with virtue.  Individuals with low IQ’s can be compassionate and kind; and some psychopaths are exceedingly clever.  But Pinker does provide some reasons to think that better education produces gentler people.

One causal mechanism for this sort of progress is literature.  Pinker thinks that representations of cruelty can change our attitudes toward violence.  And he argues that reading is a useful tool for developing empathy.  Reading demands that we imagine our way into another person’s point of view.  Widespread literacy—made possible by printing technologies and mandatory schooling—may well be a major cause of moral progress.

One sign of this progress is that fact that warfare has become less cruel.  Pinker thinks it is significant that despite the horrors that are still occasionally unleashed in war, we have self-consciously refrained from using our worst and most deadly weapons.  He suggests that nuclear warfare has become “too dangerous to contemplate, and leaders are scared straight.”

This conclusion hinges on the intelligence of our leaders.  Indeed, Pinker claims that there is a correlation between Presidential IQ and deaths in war.  According to Pinker, smarter presidents wage fewer wars and produce fewer wartime casualties.

Such a blithe conclusion should be taken with a grain of salt, since it assumes that presidents wage war in a vacuum without the input of the military or the cooperation of foreign allies.  And such a conclusion ignores the fact that our representatives in the Congress have some control over how wars are fought.

This points toward a central question: do wise and virtuous leaders cause moral improvement?  The Greek philosopher Plato thought so.  Plato rejected democracy as rule of the uneducated and unvirtuous masses.  He thought we would do better under the watchful eye of a wise and benevolent ruler who would protect us from our own vicious and ignorant ways.

We are no longer sympathetic to this idea.  Instead, we tend to believe that we are smart enough and good enough to govern ourselves. Pinker’s analysis gives us reason to trust this democratic impulse.  It is our modern democratic state and its educational system that has made us smarter and better.  Most of the moral progress that we’ve made during the past millennia has occurred under democratic government and has been facilitated by the expansion of literacy and education.

People are not born smart or good.  We are born with the capacity to learn and with a basic capacity for empathy.  But we must learn all of the specifics, including how to control our own violent impulses.  Education is essential for understanding the complex moral and political problems that confront us in our globalized world.  Intelligence and virtue develop as a result of the sustained effort of parents, teachers, and a supporting social environment.  And our moral and intellectual skills develop further, as we exercise our own capacities for self-government.

It is amazing how much moral progress we have made.  We no longer allow slavery or torturous punishments.  Women have been liberated. And we recognize that our most destructive weapons are immoral.  Good for us for figuring this out!

These moral developments were not imposed upon us by philosopher-kings.  Rather, they resulted from democratic procedures and were produced by our system of education.  The key to future progress is to trust ourselves and to continue to believe that democracy and education can make us both smarter and better.

Violence Can Move Bodies, But Not the Spirit

Violence Can Move Bodies, But Not the Spirit

Fresno Bee, November 18, 2011

Martin Luther King thought that nonviolent civil protest created a “tension in the mind.”  This tension is the result of seeing good people jailed and brutal power unleashed upon passive resisters.  King’s insights help explain reaction to recent police brutality against Occupy protesters.

Police have used rubber bullets, stun grenades, pepper spray, and clubs to break up Occupy encampments across the country.  An Iraq war veteran was injured in Oakland,  An 84-year old grandmother was pepper sprayed in Seattle.  And at UC Berkeley, cops in riot gear jabbed students with nightsticks.

In the Berkeley case, officials defended police action in public statements that do indicate a certain tension in the mind.  The UC Berkeley police captain explained (in an article in the San Francisco Chronicle), “the individuals who linked arms and actively resisted, that in itself is an act of violence.  I understand that many students may not think that, but linking arms in a human chain when ordered to step aside is not a nonviolent protest.”

Robert Birgeneau, The UC Berkeley Chancellor, explained this more fully in a letter to the campus.  “It is unfortunate that some protesters chose to obstruct the police by linking arms and forming a human chain to prevent the police from gaining access to the tents. This is not non-violent civil disobedience. By contrast, some of the protesters chose to be arrested peacefully… They did not resist arrest or try physically to obstruct the police officers’ efforts to remove the tents. These protesters were acting in the tradition of peaceful civil disobedience, and we honor them.”

Although the Chancellor invoked our tradition of civil disobedience, he appears to have forgotten the power of the images of police violence from the Civil Rights era.  Police who strike unarmed, nonviolent protestors are usually on the wrong side of history.

Violence is effective in the short term.  Police were able to clear protesters out in Oakland, Seattle, and Berkeley.  The philosopher Hannah Arendt explained, “Out of the barrel of a gun grows the most effective command, resulting in the most instant and perfect obedience.”  Violence does move bodies.  But it cannot move the spirit.

Violence does not prove anything about justice or truth.  King explained, “in the long run of history might does not make right and the power of the sword cannot conquer the power of the spirit.”  In fact, violence can provoke a spirit of rebellion in the hearts of those who are bullied.  And thus violence tends to escalate, as those who are harassed begin to push back.

Violence and nonviolence are slippery concepts.  We can use the term “violence” metaphorically to describe storms and emotions.  And some people speak of structural violence—which is the tendency of a system to harm people through racism or oppression.  But violence is usually understood as harmful physical force intentionally applied against the will of some victim.

It seems clear that on this definition, the police have been violent.  When cops strike students with clubs or pepper spray old women, it is obvious that there is intent to cause physical harm.  Protesters who link arms do resist police power.  But linking arms is nonviolent because it does not intend to cause physical harm.

Occupy protesters have invoked the idea of structural violence, claiming that the system is set up in a way that harms the majority.  When the police attack peaceful protesters with batons and pepper spray, one suspects that they may be right.

The protestors at Berkeley, for example, were trying to call attention to the problem of education in our state.  Tuition keeps increasing. Classes are cancelled or jammed to overflowing.  And students graduate with large debts and few opportunities.  Students are beginning to push back against a system that is failing them.  But linking arms in protest is not violence, despite what the Berkeley Chancellor said.

Some people may think that it is better to clear the tents and end the protests quickly, hoping that the structural problems will go away.  But attacking the protesters won’t solve our problems.  And it is wrong to suggest that the police are somehow justified in assaulting those who are directing our attention to these problems.