Friday, April 10, 2015

Cruelty, Conquerers, Greatness, Psychopathy, and Yesterday's Lunch

I often ponder Steven Pinker's theory that world violence has been in sharp, perhaps permanent, long-term decline. I've previously written about it here and here.

This dovetails with one of my favorite psychological "flips". When I feel dismayed by the callousness and cruelty of our species, I remember: we hardly ever punch each other any more. And we only very rarely mash each other over the head and steal stuff. As I go about my day, I may experience errant bits of malevolence, but I'm very likely going to get home safe, come what may.

That might sound like scant comfort, but it's actually quite a lot. We fail to love enough or care enough, yes, but we've come an awfully long way since we left the caves. In fact, we've come a long way in my own lifetime. I remember when there was a lot more punching and mashing. My father could remember when going to police to complain about getting socked in the mouth could get you socked in the mouth - even by those same police.

And the macro view has transformed enormously. I remember when "pacifists" were a small minority (you'd visualize Quakers and flower children). While there are still plenty of hawks, that's no longer the dominant attitude. You don't hear terms like "dove" or "pacifist" these days, and that's because it's become the prevailing sentiment (though our leaders, as usual, have yet to catch up). Think about it: we no longer need a name to describe those who are philosophically opposed to war!

Anachronistic vestiges remain. We still describe guys like Genghis Khan, Napolean, Julius Caesar, and, obviously, Alexander the Great as great men. If any of them were working today, they'd be as despised as Hitler - who, even Holocaust aside*, would have been deemed a 20th century villain. I'm not denying these figures have been viewed ambivalently over history. I'm not saying their brutality's been overlooked. But, recently, Putin - (thought by some to harbor an Alexander the Great complex) - invaded a mere Ukrainian peninsula - and did so as "politely" as any invasion has ever been perpetrated - yet he's being loathed and isolated by a horrified international community as a power-crazed madman. We seem to have lost our ambivalence.

Conquerers are now clearly seen as unbridled psychopaths - very bad, self-centered little boys who must be stiffly punished and prevented from doing harm to others. And while I wish the counter servers at Boloud Sud had treated me more kindly yesterday, our evolution - even our very recent evolution - has been huge.

* - Not that Hitler's genocide was unusual; plenty of great conquerers have enjoyed ethnic population decimation as side projects.

No comments:

Blog Archive