Friday, June 19, 2015

Some Things to Consider (about violence, South Carolina, and pluralism)

A friend despaired on Facebook today about the South Carolina church attack, pointing us toward Jon Stewart's serious, impassioned speech (here's a transcription) on last night's Daily Show ("We’re bringing it on ourselves. And that’s the thing; al Qaeda, ISIS, they’re not shit compared to the damage we can do to ourselves on a regular basis.”)

"Jon tells the truth, but nobody listens," lamented my friend.

But things are actually nowhere near that dark. Some things to consider:

1. Loads of people are listening. 1.5 million most nights. And if it seems fresh to see a TV show break format not for a national catastrophe but for the latest in a long line of the sort of mini-tragedies we've come to sadly expect, that's not just a sign of how terrific Jon Stewart is. It's a sign of change. The fact that the sadness is increasing for us at the point where we'd expect people to be growing desensitized to it is a very good sign. Stewart did this because he, correctly, feels that it's in the tea leaves for the overwhelming majority of his audience to accept his doing this. Things are changing.

2. The change isn't just beginning. Steven Pinker argues persuasively that violence has been in sharp decline for quite some time now. And as I've argued here (and also here and here), the decline seems to have seriously accelerated of late.

3. In my view, racism and hatred aren't the problem. People should be free to hold, and even express, whatever opinions they wish; it's silly to push for toleration while failing to tolerate intolerance. The problem is violence. Remove violence from the equation, and you can scream your head off about how much you despise people like me (it's not nice for me to hear, but pluralistic societies aren't always nice, and enforcing a society where every last person is soothed creates a dystopia). Thoughts and words aren't the problem. Deeds - violent deeds - are. But, again, violent deeds are on the sharp decline.

4. There's a happy delusion at work. As violence declines, the violence that remains - even though there's less of it - affects us all more sharply, giving the impression things are getting worse. This is explained by my Law of Green M&Ms.

It's also explained by a familiar story. The coddled princess in the fairy tale requires greater and greater comfort to fall asleep, to the point where one single pea under her thick, luxurious mattress keeps her up all night, and feels like torture to her. This is how human perception works. And in the case of violence, it's a virtuous circle. As there's less of it, it bugs us more when it does appear. And that's good (though a little sad).

5. Pacifism, until very lately, was a fringe philosophy adopted mostly by hippies and Quakers. But we no longer assign a name to those who prefer peace and non-violence! Today, it seems crazy to even imagine such a term. Who, after all, prefers war and violence???

That's how much society has changed in just 20-30 years. We no longer see reason to assign a name to pacifism (which is why you hardly hear the word anymore). It's just how any reasonable person thinks.

6. None of the above will bring back the dead nice folks in that church. Or the dead nice folks in the next church or school, the next time some idiot goes nuts. But don't fail to notice that each go-round seems to hit us harder. We're not getting used to it (and getting "used to" bad stuff is one of humanity's bedrock faculties). So even when, eventually, there's much, much less violence (instead of merely much less), there will still always be an outlier willing to inflict it, and technology to enable him, and (hopefully) freedom of action to be subverted for the purpose. And, sadly, we may continue to feel worse and worse about it each time. Things may continue to improve, in other words, yet we may always fail to bask in the improvement. Violence will always exist (to some degree), and it will always hurt. Which is as it should be.

I suggested, above, that there will always be an outlier willing to inflict violence. But have you noticed that, these days, inflictors seem to always be lone perpetrators, despised by the rest of us, deludedly feeling part of a group which inevitably fails to applaud them? I'm just 52, and I can remember a time when nearly every instance of violence was roundly applauded by at least some kindred-feeling portion of society. Racists may not be sobbing today, but I'd imagine that only the fringiest of the fringe are celebrating. This is another sign of violence's decline. Yes, there's still organized violence in the world, so there are still gangs to applaud along ever-narrowing lines. But that's no longer the norm. Do you realize how huge that is; that it's no longer the norm?

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