Sunday, December 27, 2015

'We are living in an extraordinary age'

It's impossible not to be stirred by this conclusion after 578 pages of argument:

'[The chapters so far] have documented the historical decline of violence.  In them we have seen graph after graph that locates the first decade of the new millennium at the bottom of a slope representing the use of force over time. For all the violence that remains in the world, we are living in an extraordinary age. Perhaps it is a snapshot in a progression to an even greater peace. Perhaps it is a bottoming out to a new normal, with the easy reductions all plucked and additional ones harder and harder to reach.Perhaps it is a lucky confluence of good fortune that will soon unravel. But regardless of how the trends extrapolate into the future, something remarkable has brought us into the present.' (P 579)

His best explanation for all this is the spread of information.This is obvious in terms of boosting technological progress; he speculates it may foster 'moral progress' as well.  'Individuals or civilisations that are situated in a vast informational catchment area can compile a moral know-how that is more sustainable and expandable than even the most righteous prophet could devise in isolation' (p577).  (His emphasis)

He cites Martin Luther King as an example:

'King's historic speech to the March on Washington in 1963 was an ingenious recombination of the the intellectual components he had collected during his peripatetic pilgrimage: imagery and language from the Hebrew prophets, the valorisation of suffering from Christianity, the ideal of individual rights from the European Enlightenment, cadences and rhetorical tropes from the African American church, and a strategic plan from an Indian who had been steeped in Jain, Hindu, and British culture.'

This is so helpful. Not much to argue with here, once you forgive Pinker's usual belittling of Christianity (note that prophets provide imagery, not actual revolutionary teaching; King's African American church provides 'rhetorical tropes' rather than, say, an informed passion for justice to flow through the earth, and the life changing effect of Jesus Christ on Gandhi, well documented elsewhere, for example in the books of E Stanley Jones,  is papered over.  Elsewhere Pinker claims that Jesus' teaching was just a wimpy, sloppy 'moralistic affirmation of love'  that needed to be re-shaped into something actually useful by the good ol' pragmatic, can-do, all-American competence of King. Pinker's Jesus is a perennial underachiever.)

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