Q&A: Steven Pinker’s Case for Why the World Is Heading Toward Peace

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Why did people start developing manners in the first place?

According to Elias, it was a part of a more general political and economic transformation in Europe. The political transformation was that the patchwork of local barons and knights constantly fighting each other for turf, like mafiosi or drug lords, [was] replaced by a centralized government in which the king would exert control over a territory and the nobility would have to visit the court and kiss up to the king to get their privileges. Therefore, they had to develop behavior that was appropriate to kissing up to the king’s entourage, which is why [they had to learn to restrain themselves].

It’s also why we have words like courtly and courtesy, which come from the word court — namely, appropriate behavior for the king’s court.

So sucking up saved the world?

Sucking up saved the world, exactly — at least more so than splitting heads as a means of getting ahead. The other change was a growing infrastructure of commerce. There were both financial and technological changes that made commerce increasingly tempting.

Roads, better harnesses for horses, time-keeping devices, financial instruments like a currency that was recognized everywhere in the kingdom, enforceable contracts — all of this made commerce more appealing than plunder. Commerce in turn, selects for a different set of mental talents. That is, instead of being the baddest knight in the kingdom, you have to keep the customer satisfied.

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So capitalism also saved the world?

Capitalism saved the world, and there is even a heretical theory now, moving up from the level of individuals to countries: countries that trade more and have more open economies are less likely to fight wars and less likely to have genocides. It’s a heretical idea called the capitalist peace, which comes as quite a shock to a child of the ’60s like me, for whom capitalists were merchants of death and masters of war and all that stuff.

This also sort of suggests that those who opposed rock and the 1960s’ casual hippie culture may have had a point.

As an aging baby boomer, it’s very painful to consider the possibility that there might be some truth in that. But I don’t think it’s completely farfetched — as painful as it is to admit. The explosion of violent crime in the 1960s cannot be explained by demographics alone. It wasn’t just that there were more young people and young people commit more violence.

Even the number crunchers often say that there was some sort of cultural change. What was the cultural change? It can’t be a complete coincidence that if you were to describe cultural changes of the ’60s, it would be a perfect description of Norbert Elias’ civilizing process run backward.

Although on the other hand you do have these movements like the Civil Rights Movement, Women’s Rights and the anti-war movement, gay rights…

Yes. [And that furthers the civilizing process.] [But those are] cases in which you’re talking about intellectualized policies that apply to groups.  When it comes to the one on one interaction that drive homicide rates, mainly whether you have a fight in a bar that ends up with a bunch of dead bodies, [that may be affected by things like disinhibition that could be linked with a reduced emphasis on manners].

What about the role of literacy in taming our violent side?

I think it may not be a coincidence that the rise of printing and book publication and literacy and the phenomenon of best sellers all preceded the humanitarian reforms of the Enlightenment. Other plausible variables like affluence didn’t take off until the 19th century with the industrial revolution. So, people got literate before they got rich. They eliminated breaking on the wheel and slavery after they got literate and before they got rich.

What’s the connection? One connection is that as Voltaire said, those who can make you believe absurdities can make you commit atrocities. When you have a better appreciation of how the world works, you’re less likely to blame crop failures on witches or diseases on Jews poisoning wells.

So there’s the debunking of malarkey that could lead to atrocities. There is also the possibility that getting into the habit of seeing the world through the eyes of another person, which is what you do when you read, can develop theory of mind and hence empathy. There is some experimental evidence that is true. There is also just the ability to learn lessons of history.

There are studies showing that literate populations are more likely to become democratic 10 years down the line, even holding everything else like wealth and age constant.

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Compared with Europe, the U.S. has high murder rate and high levels of inequality. Some people have argued that inequality promotes violence and other negative health outcomes like infant mortality and reduced lifespan. What do you think about that?

There is a correlation between economic inequality and personal violence. The explanation for the correlation isn’t completely clear; there are a number of possibilities. One of them is that societies with a lot of inequality deprive their poor people of police protection and so there are huge parts of the country that are effectively in a state of anarchy because policing is a luxury that is claimed by the rich.

A second possibility, not mutually exclusive with the first, is that people, especially young men who live in an unequal society, sense that there is more status competition — almost as if the world is telling them this is a place where the winners get everything and the losers get nothing. That makes them more status conscious, hence more liable to retaliate against insults with violence.

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