Sunday, 11 November 2012

Sabbatical 4

Hello Everything. Thank you for the days, weeks and years we have to abide in and discover you. Dance with us Every that our own will may joyfully coalesce with your own, in wisdom and in love. Amen.
Today is Remembrance Day. Even when the world is at peace, when we have through efforts of compassion, consociation and culture all but stopped killing one another, we must never forget the millions who have died by such violence. When we defeat institutional violence in world culture, and I honestly believe we will, we will not have defeated our natures. We will not have defeated our implicit capacity for such violence. If for no other reason, that is why we must never forget the casualties of our nature.

If you feel that the proposition that violence is decreasing is crazy, or even believe as many do that our world is getting more violent and unstable even now, I highly recommend Steven Pinker's book, The Better Angels of Our Nature: The Decline of Violence in History and its Causes, 2011. There is no guarantee of course that horrific world wide violence will never occur again, but there are real long-term signs that it is slowly disappearing, and this should be a source of hope and inspiration. Let's not let the chance go by.

Anyway, here's to all the victims of our own violent tribal natures. May we never forget the child-soldier cannon fodder, the holocaust victims and the innocents starved, displaced and broken, as well as the uniformed soldiers, of every country and tribe. If nothing else their sacrifice throughout history (and ongoing) is witness to our natures; natures which every one of us for all time most own and understand precisely that we may overcome them by our better angels of empathy, understanding and mutualism. We are all killers as much as every cat and dog, unless and until, by the grace of unfolding reality (Everything) as well as our own determination, we are not. May Everything help us get there.

Everything bless the words of your preacher that I may usefully instruct and encourage, and never deceive. And bless your people that if and when I do speak shit they are wise to it and are not deceived anyway. Oh and thanks for the time off. So be it.


  1. Hello Hamish,

    The suggestion that violence is inherent in human nature and must be somehow overcome by better angels is the philosophical basis for both religious guilt and fascist ideology.

    To an extent, violence is a product of human nature but only as a consequence or reaction to something else, in the same way that vomit or scabbing is also part of human nature. To understand the vomit or the scab we must look beyond it to the toxin or wound that caused the symptoms in the first place.

    It is human nature to become dysfunctional (and violence is just one of many dysfunctions) as a response to a dysfunctional environment. We are vulnerable and sometimes break, this is human nature.

    It seems to me that humans are inherently non-violent, we have a natural aversion to violence. Violence must be trained into us, either as a deliberate process such as soldiers and abattoir workers must go through or as an informal acceptance/promotion of the values of violence through the media, family and social peers.

    War has never been a product of underlying innate violence bubbling to the surface. Populations must be softened up and anesthetized by propaganda to support political violence that - in all cases - is motivated by economic greed and the colonisation of economic resources, not human nature. The violence of colonised people resisting imperialism is not caused by their own innate violence being triggered, this too must be learnt - the innate sociability and non-violence of normal life must be transcended somehow to raise a resistance army.

    Where the dysfunction of greed comes from is a bit more complex and there needs to be a distinction between personal greed and inherent structural motivations of depersonalised state bureaucracies or corporate machines. But, like violence, the greed is a learned dysfunction and not an innate natural phenomenon.

    The big problem of blaming war on human nature is that it causes us all to feel guilt for the war as if it were our fault rather than identifying the true nature and cause of war, which is expansive capitalism that benefits only a very small elite. The other side of this coin is a cultural assumption that if only we could embrace the better angels in our personal life then wars would come to an end - a delusion that denies and distracts from the true cause of war and therefore any real path to ending it.

    As for personal violence, this cannot be overcome by embracing better angels, only by formal or informal process of pscho-therapy. Perhaps better angels have a part in the reconstructive therapy but of themselves only represent a hypothetical antithetical archetype and not a technique of healing. (note - I say all “normal” people in a dysfunctional society are in need of psycho-therapy).


  2. Thanks Hamish. Given the constant focus in the media on war, crime and violence it is reassuring to think that statistics support a decreasing trend in violence overall. John I appreciate that violence can be a response to dysfuntion but I question the claim that we are all inherently non-violent. Most children I've known have had to be taught not to hit others. Hitting out seems to be a response to feeling as though one's boundaries have been crossed (my observation only). I also think it is too neat to blame all war on expansive capitalism. I don't think we are being trained into violence by our culture, families and peers, but rather being trained out of it. Hamish is suggesting that there is statistical evidence to support this. I do take courage and hope from this. I see that we are coming to better understand ourselves and our natures. Violence often erupts out of anger that has been suppressed until the lid blows off. The more we can accept our anger as a natural emotion (often signaling a transgression of boundaries), and learn to express it creatively rather than destructively, the better we can function as a community. I should add that I work in the arts and come from a position of valuing creative conflict. Cheers, Dawn

  3. Hello Dawn,

    What war is not about economic resources?

    I do not think it is helpful to equate a baby hitting out or any person reaching violence via frustration with what happens in war. For example, Obama’s drone strikes in Afghanistan and Pakistan are calculated on the basis of protecting American interests in the region. A cold calculated order is sent down the chain of command to a soldier sitting at a computer terminal who launches the bombings in the same fashion he/she has done previously in thousands of hours of simulated training exercises - and people die. Where is the anger and frustration in this? It is a very different dynamic to a baby hitting out.

    I do not know what Hamish’s statistics are but I assume they are in relation to attitudes to war rather than the manifestation of war, for that is increasing (see this video “World battleground” ). Social attitudes to violence have little influence on the incidence of violence in war, consider again the Obama drone example.

  4. Good morning John,

    Yes of course there is quite a difference between a baby hitting out and a soldier following an order! My comment about children was in response to your claim that we are all inherently non-violent. I think we are socialised into non-violence. As the human community has developed over time our capacities for empathy and cooperation have become increasingly beneficial for our survival. I think we all have the capacity for violence and we all have the capacity for empathy and cooperation. I'm thankful to live in a time when the latter has weight. This does not make me feel at all complacent about the violence that continues to be perpetrated, but gives me hope that there is a point to fighting it.

    As for your political point that all wars are fought over economic resources, well...there are people and organisations who grow very rich on the back of war. But aren't wars also fought over cilvil liberties and ideas of the best ways to live and govern? As a woman I am very glad to live in a country where I have the right to education, to vote and to express my opinions freely.

    Anyway, I'll watch your link and I'll read the book Hamish is referencing and I'll see how they both influence my thinking. Cheers for engaging.


  5. Dawn, do you think your rights as a woman were won in war? Which war was that?

    Please allow the children their innocence and do not condemn them to a philosophical expectation of innate violence.

    A newborn baby does not engage in any violence. The first event of violence comes at teething when they bite their mum’s tit. If the baby is smacked or yelled at the biting is reinforced and becomes a habit, the baby even laughs in the process. If the child is calmly (minimal response) removed from the tit every time they bite, they quickly lose the habit. What does this tell us about innate violence?

    After a while, babies hit others because they do not understand the consequences of it, it is just an experiment in cause and effect. Babies also hurt themselves, such as touching hot and sharp things. We do not say that children are inherently self destructive because they want to touch hot and sharp things so why would we say they are inherently violent if they hit others? Furthermore, babies lack verbal skills which leads to frustration. Somewhere between 2 and 5 years the child learns about empathy and acquires complex verbal skill, those that continue hitting after this point do so because of some dysfunction in dealing with baby violence (such as being smacked for smacking or having no or inappropriate response to their causal frustrations)

    Anonymous, I did not say we were inherently non-violent. I don’t think we can be inherently “non” anything. Non-violence is an idea, not a trait. I said we have an inherent aversion to violence. This inherent aversion comes with the confluence of emerging empathy and understanding the consequences of action (somewhere between 2 - 5).

    I strongly agree with your comment....“Violence often erupts out of anger that has been suppressed until the lid blows off. The more we can accept our anger as a natural emotion (often signaling a transgression of boundaries), and learn to express it creatively rather than destructively, the better we can function as a community.” However inherent in your statement is the assumption that anger (not violence) is natural and there are ways other than violence to deal with anger. This of itself seems to contradict Hamish and Dawns assertion that the violence itself is innate and not learned.

    But all this stuff about personal violence has little to do with the dynamic of war.

  6. John, I think you're wrong, but straight up I must say that not only did I agree with you not many years ago but surveys show that people overwhelmingly agree with you that society has become more violent.

    Pinker provides a very large book full of evidence that they are wrong and that violence has been decreasing per capita since pre-state societies onward. Many people agree with him and his main critics (Edward Herman and some Christian are the ones I've looked at) *depend* on the view that civilisation and modernity is corrupting for their entire ideological agenda.

    Australian philosopher Peter Singer said about the book, "(It) is a supremely important book. To have command of so much research, spread across so many different fields, is a masterly achievement. Pinker convincingly demonstrates that there has been a dramatic decline in violence, and he is persuasive about the causes of that decline." He is a rigorous and careful philosopher himself, as is Pinker, who has a barage of ready critics and is peer reviewed in a very competitive field. Have a look at the evidence if you dare. It surprised me. It may surprise you.

    I'm kind of ignoring your ideological assertions about fascism etc. I think they reveal themselves without any comment necessary. I'll have a go if you provide evidence for them yourself, or some assessable argument at least. A montage of anecdotes is not evidence.

    Finally I'll just make the point that I think humans are natural - fully natural. I do not believe in supernature, at all. So if they are violent I think that has natural causes and if they are loving and altruistic I thin that has natural causes. In this case once again Pinker, a neuropsychologist by specialty, is speaking of actually researched cerebral activity when he describes "five demons" and "four angels" which have evolutionary psychological theory behind them as well as ongoing neurological research. None of them have to happen. They are not hydraulic substances in our being but strategic responses to situations. As Dawn indicated, the progress which appears to be occurring is basically that the better parts of our natures - empathy, cooperation etc - have become increasingly better survival responses and the worse ones (take the male 'standing up for his honour' as a single example) become increasingly poor choices of behaviour for furtherment.

    Anyway John, if you want your assumption (that violence is worse now than in another time) to be challenged, check out the book, or even just google summaries of it. Cheers.

  7. Hamish,

    I have watched Pinkers TED talk on the subject -

    I have also briefly googled the work of Laurence Keely, who Pinker seems to use as an ideological foundation for his assertions.

    Pinker embraces some very standard stereotypes about tribal people including that they had no permanent domain and had no government. He also embraces an ignorant orthodox interpretation of the bible to make his point. There is no substance to his claims, only caricature.

    With regard to Keely, there is much to critique including Eurocentrism, cherry picking subjects that confirm his theory and presenting speculation and assumption as fact. One of his American examples is of a mass Indian grave of scalped people. Firstly, there would only be bones, if that, left from pre-colonial times and no way to determine scalping. Furthermore scalping was not practiced until French and English entrepreneurs began trading scalps for the European wig market. The fact that he can infuse his data with so much presumption does not inspire my confidence in his conclusion. Furthermore, furthermore, how can he possibly arrive at a per capita figure when he has absolutely no idea at all of the overall population? The statistics have just been used to weave an ideology around. Archaeology is a very speculative industry and Keely has just added to the speculation, he has not provided any facts.

    With regard to Pinker’s figures for the twentieth century, I note they are statistics for death in battle. In the first world war, the civilian to soldier death ratio was about 40%. By the second world war it was 200%. Some of the middle east wars have been around 1000%, although the deliniation between civilian and combatant is blurred more recently.

    Unlike the past, today most casualities of war are civilian and they are not just killed in crossfire but but die of starvation and disease. The development of aerial bombings, targeted missiles and drones further reduces the incidence of death in battle, but it does not reduce the overall death count.

    Statistics may well show a decrease in deaths in battle but this does not necessarily correlate to a reduction of deaths in war.

  8. Pinker makes that distinction between deaths in battle and in war (and much else, like homicide rate) and counts it all up. He also includes no 'shoulds' or 'woulds' - just evidence. It is challengable, but not by ideology.

  9. “Reality Denial : Steven Pinker's Apologetics for Western-Imperial Volence”

    According to this he has not counted the Korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan, Iraq, Congo, Rwanda, Lebanon, wars. Is this true?

    His critics quote him saying that there has been a long peace since the second world war, that...... “Among respectable countries conquest is no longer a thinkable option.  A politician in a democracy today who suggested conquering another country would be met not with counterarguments but with puzzlement, embarrassment, or laughter.”.... and..... ““no two countries with a McDonald’s have ever fought in a war.”

    Did he really say this and do you really believe it?

  10. Just started watching another Pinker talk. “Until 5000 years ago all humans lived in anarchy” this is just crap. He also explains that the prehistoric data (presumably borrowed from Keely) by saying that any prehistoric human remains that had signs of physical trauma were considered to be victims of human violence. He does not take into account the possibility of accident, voluntary ritual or funerary and post-humous practices causing the broken bones, he just assumes that this confirms Hobbe’s ideological assertion that life was nasty, brutish and short.

  11. A lot of that he says, but with much qualification, frankness (when things are left out) and explanation. It is highly discursive and even conclusions are limited and qualified.

    But just to take your final point, he does quote Hobbes and discusses him critically, as to whether his explanations fit apparent trends. And the evidence is very strong that life is much shorter and less secure in pre-state societies. So Hobbes can and should be criticised as much as you like, but the various research and data on lifespans and rates of violent death have to be challenged by other data or specialist critique of the research.

    Once again, your response is expected, from most people according to surveys. And I have spent good time reading criticism of the book - as is my practice when I read a book. None of them really challenge the data, and I remain convinced of the thesis.

  12. I'm not going to argue this in detail John and answer all your points, because many of them are (quite normally and naturally) ignorant of the detail of the book. Just an example: "by saying that any prehistoric human remains that had signs of physical trauma were considered to be victims of human violence. He does not take into account the possibility of accident, voluntary ritual or funerary and post-humous practices causing the broken bones..." Yes he does discuss all of those possibilities, in great detail. Rigour is not Pinker's weak point.

    But the thing is, all of the sorts of cynicisms you are expressing are precisely the sorts of things I went into the book concerned about and that I would expect any critical reader to have in mind before engaging the book. So all f your notes are welcome. But note that you are poorly representing its content at this stage.

    This 'sabbatical' sermon was of course a throw-away, and I have intended to write a more extensive review of the book I brought up. If I fail to respond further John it is with this in mind, but add more notes if you wish and feel free to re-enter the fray when I come back to this. If and when I do write such a review, I may address some of your material here directly, as long as you don't object. Cheers.

  13. “rates of violent death have to be challenged by other data or specialist critique of the research”

    The data does not show rates of violent death. On the one hand it shows broken bones found in graves, of which the cause of death and broken bones is only speculative. On the other hand, as I mentioned before, any attempt to put a figure on overall populations, and therefore any per capita figure is simply guess and assumption - a figure pulled out of someone’s arse.

    In prehistoric archaeology, their is very little hard data, it is all about speculation, hypothesis and theory that can never be challenged with an antithesis (except ideologically and methodologically) because there is simply no evidence for either the thesis or antithesis.

    However when Pinker makes bullshit statements like all people lived in anarchy 5000 years ago, tribal people had no permanent settlements or government and prehistoric indians scalped themselves, he displays a total ignorance of contemporary anthropology and what is known through hard data about tribal non-state societies. Some of this data includes funerary practices and post-humous grave management, voluntary ritual wounding - all of which would be very relevant to any forensic archaeology but for some reason does not seem to be relevant to the Pinker/Keely thesis.,

  14. Gee whiz Hamish, Pinker says there has been a decline of war in the last 50 years but does not include data from the major world conflicts in that period. Surely you can see a flaw in this?

  15. Unfortunately John, it is not Pinker who shows ignorance of the things you claim he does (there are dozens of pages discussing some of the things you say he ignores). It is you showing ignorance of a book. I can't blame you for that as you haven't read it, and I do understand your prejudices.

    "Anarchy" to Pinker simply means no centralised government which in human society generally means cultural systems of honour and payback in the place of government (it does not men chaos). Even that is a simplification of his discussion, but in general you're misconstruing through misdefinition in this case. Anyway, with respect, I don't have more time for this John. Cheers.

  16. Do you also agree with Pinker’s ideas on race and intelligence?

  17. I'm not convinced that you know what Pinker's ideas are John, let alone exactly what you are referring to. But I'm inclined to any proposition that is well evidenced and peer-reviewed, pending further evidence and argument. Maybe leave Pinker out of it and present a proposition.

    But his books, *The Language Instinct*, *How the Mind Works* and *The Blank Slate* have all influenced me and I recommend them highly. I have criticisms of him but they are mostly about music and art (and Logos) which he doesn't explain as well as he thinks he does, in my view.

  18. I have read various commentaries on Pinker’s views but to deal with a primary source, I have read his lecture “The lessons of the Ashkenazim, Groups and genes”

    In it he offers various hypotheses as to why a particular group of jews is, on average, is more intelligent than other people.

    He is very scientific and indeed humbly cautious about the various hypotheses but what he does not address are the core assumptions behind the hypotheses, being 1/ the grouping of the Ashkenazim as a genetic group, 2/ Intelligence being genetically determined.

    He has interpreted the data of a specific genetic group through the lens of the assumptions of race. It is true that the Ashkenazim are genetically distinct from other europeans but this is because they carry genes common to the middle east, reflecting their origins. The one genetic trait in Europe, according to Pinker, determines the specificity of the Ashkenazim but in the Middle East it is simply a common factor in a plethora of different genetic groupings. (See wikipedia on Ashkenazim genetics).

    The arbitrary grouping of any two sets of random factors will produce a statistical difference between the two groups. Rearrange the grouping of the same random factors and two new differentiated statistical norms will emerge - and this will continue as often as you regroup the randoms.

    Concepts of race and genentic heritage based on the grouping of statistics will only reinforce the assumption of the existance of the group as an entity in its own right - but this is an illusiion created by the grouping itself.

    Ideological/presumptuous concepts of race underpin Pinker’s so-called facts.