Call for Book Reviewers and Bloggers


Making a Demon Move

Bookmark and Share

Many nation states spend huge sums on the presumed principle that it’s better to be safe than sorry, and will actively try to deter others from being in a similarly powerful position. And yet it’s this mutual desire for safety that simultaneously puts billions of people at risk and creates potential conflict situations. The possibility of their possession and/or use merely becomes another pretext for war (see the invasion of Iraq, the current tensions between Israel and Iran, India and Pakistan, etc ) and illicit trading practices in the form of a nuclear black market.

The advance of reason, then, brings with it two contradictions: the long peace remains contingent upon the threat of nuclear war and/or a nuclear exchange (however unlikely) threatens to return civilization to the dark age within a flash of light.

Another contradiction concerns the moral status of the civilizing process, or the way the concept of civilization reflects existing balances of power. Peace is not just a relative state of equilibrium: it may also be a measure of disproportionate threats and/or uses of violence, giving rise to questions of legitimacy (via civil disobedience or acts of terrorism). The fact that there has been many years of (relative) peace therefore never legitimates ‘peace’ in an absolute sense. Pinker’s celebrated state of affairs doesn’t so much confirm that democratic nations are more peaceful (humane, cooperative)  than their counterparts — it’s more a measure of their monopoly on power and spheres of influence. It’s for this reason that Charles Tily draws an analogy between organized crime and nation states: they similarly provide protection by creating threats and offering security at a price.

And while Pinker is obviously aware of colonialism, he seems unperturbed by the role the ‘civilizing process’ has played in the destruction of relatively primitive civilizations — the colonization of America, Australia, Africa and Asia (amongst others) remain disturbances of (relative) peace in the name of progress. The civilizing process has historically been the reason for the domination and subjugation of less ‘civilized’ people. Such a process therefore contradictorily affirms the values (goals) of peace and rationality through violence.

Another instance of this dialectic is a phenomenon that Pinker is not really interested in addressing: the contradiction between a (relatively) peaceful civilization and civilizations appetite for destruction. It’s important to stress that Pinker measures the content of our characters in terms of its capacity for violence and/or attitudes towards violent acts. What are we to make, then, of public celebrations of violence in the form of (say) the Call of Duty and Saw franchises?  Millions of people across the world go online to perfect their kill/death ratios, and gather together in cinemas just so they can witness graphic tortures and dismemberments. We’re all aware that these franchises are not committing real acts of violence — they merely provide a relatively safe environment in which to engage our violent impulses . Nonetheless, the widespread desire for ‘violence as entertainment’ (and ‘gentle commerce’s’ ability to capitalize on it) continues to speak to the contradictory nature of our moral character.

Relatively safe entertainments are not the only environments that morally implicate us in violence; real war can be turned into a form of entertainment or spectator sport ,too. Witness the way an embedded media encouraged us to cheer on the Iraqi liberation. Particularly concerning is the way the media engaged our sense of empathy in order to offer moral support: we could be seen to liberate repressed women and children! And then, of course, no one was to be seen when reality reared its ugly head.

The revolutionary ‘60s poses a particular difficulty for Pinker’s ideological filter. The widespread rebellions against social authority and institutions skew his account of the civilizing process, bringing into focus the contradictory picture that emerges within such a framework.

Specifically, an era trans/forming the social environment also hosted an unprecedented rise in crime rates —  and these statistics didn’t decline until many years later. As Pinker observes, the civilizing process —  in the form of the human rights movements — coincided with a “decivilization process” (p.106), or the rise of the counterculture (rock ‘n’ roll, urban riots, free love,  etc). On the one hand, this decivilization process confirms his thesis. During such a tumultuous period, there was a moratorium on inhibitions. The “inner governor of civilized behavior, self control” gave way to individuality, “spontaneity (and) self expression”( p 110).

Further, the “ideal that individuals should be embedded in webs of dependency that obligate them to other people in stable economies and institutions” (p.111) came under fire. On the other hand, decivilization simultaneously disconfirms Pinker’s version of the ‘civilizing process’, or the relation between our inner and outer ‘governments’. Specifically, what is the connection between the one process and the other? They appear to be entangled or spun from the same webs of social dependency and obligation.

It was only by challenging social institutions that governments lost their claim to legitimacy, and subsequently became obligated to institute more civilized behavior (an increase in human rights). This positive social change came from within those ‘governors’ willing to lose their inhibitions and/or self control, simultaneously giving rise to negative social changes (such as an increase in rape and murder). It should be remembered that this was the time that the ‘legitimate’ agents of the civilizing process were unleashing violence in Vietnam and against a populace crying for more freedom. The legitimacy of such a monopoly appears to have been challenged through anti social behavior (a seeming free for all that produced urban riots and human rights violations).

While Pinker tries to deny a connection between urban crime and the civil rights movement, his ideological filter fails to see the bigger picture: equality before the law doesn’t equal human freedom in capitalist societies. The one nation was still moving toward two societies, one black, one white—separate and unequal. This required a destructive environment (unequal distributions of wealth and power)  to be similarly addressed and remedied, (otherwise) the country faced a system of apartheid in its major cities and a never ending spiral of violence.

At the heart of Pinker’s account lies another contradiction he can’t resolve: breaching the limits of his own reasoning. By his own reckoning, “statistical thinking… suggests that we are apt to exaggerate the narrative coherence of history” (p.208). This doesn’t prevent him, however, from going on to ask “the money question: has the probability that a war will break out increased, decreased or stayed the course of time”? (p.209). Unfortunately, it’s a loaded question, and presupposes the very thing at issue: the extent to which the past can be a measure of (divine) the future. Perhaps the more valuable question is: what gives events their probative value?

Prediction might be part of statistical inference, but divination lies outside reason’s domain and borders on superstition. The problem is that historical trends and patterns are encountered retrospectively, while the future is yet to happen and approaches from varying distances. The occurrence of events resist a logical and orderly progression while ‘history’ remains subject to narrative conventions and conflicting interpretations. The randomness of events — unexpected occurrences and consequences — remain an integral part of the flux of experience, making it difficult to get a full measure of their import or meaning at any given time. Indeed, this is nowhere more evident than with the occurrence of the black swan event that casts a dark shadow over Pinker’s own history of violence.

Specifically, an unexpected occurrence had unlikely ramifications: it literally triggered two world wars and played an indirect role in genocide half a century later. As Pinker himself notes — quoting the narration of Matthew White — a relative nobody is arguably the most important person in the twentieth century. Gavrilo Princip unleashed unlikely violence (in absolute terms) when unexpectedly assassinating the Archduke Ferdinand of Austria in Bosnia.

“Here’s a man who single-handedly sets off a chain reaction which ultimately leads to the deaths of 80 million people. With just a couple of bullets, this terrorist starts the First World War, which destroys four monarchies, leading to a power vacuum filled by the Communists in Russia and the Nazis in Germany who then fight it out in a Second World War.”

Setting aside the tenability of such a straightforward narrative, the Bosnian genocide may nonetheless be retrospectively linked to this chain of events, too (the 1995 atrocity has its roots the post war carve ups and the Serbian attempt to regain control of Bosnia — Princip’s motive for assassinating Ferdinand in the first place.) Pinker naturally attempts to minimize the significance of such black swan events, and calls the confluence of forces that “put the world at risk in the first half of the twentieth century” a “run of extremely bad luck” (p.209). The concept of luck, however, is not exactly measurable in scientific terms — it remains an “unknown and unpredictable phenomenon” by definition, and runs counter to reason by appealing to superstition (the fear that significant events lie outside human knowledge or control).

Pinker nonetheless remains confident about reason’s ability to follow discernible patterns in the tracks left behind in ‘history’. Relative declines in violence have permitted him to paint a pretty statistical picture — even if his ‘long peace’ remains a relatively short time within history and his statistics conceal more nebulous tread marks.

While Pinker tells us that he’s averse to making predictions — it is to venture into “territory where angels fear to tread” (p.671) — he’s being disingenuous. The whole point of The Better Angels of Our Nature is to try and convince us that the past remains a reliable moral guide to the future.  And it was only by tracking reason’s trail that has brought him to this contradiction in the first place: he has being chasing his own adaptive tale the whole time.

This maladaptation is perhaps most evident when following reason to one of its most unacceptable conclusions. Following the Nazi’s lead, let’s call this the Final Solution. Even the “ultimate euphemism” (p.567) is enlightening: it suggests a problem to be solved with reasoning. Unlike Pinker, we shouldn’t discount the significance of this ‘solution’ and its relationship to the ‘civilizing process’. The Final Solution highlights the nature of the entanglement between moral thinking and immoral behavior (or the dialectic of reason). 

Pinker refuses to follow reason to this ‘logical’ conclusion because he wants to convince us that moral arguments naturally lead us elsewhere:  to the inescapable logic of reciprocal behavior (a mutual concern for the well being of others). Unfortunately, he’s mythologizing reason’s ability to escape the environment of its own logic.

“The idea that the Holocaust was the product of the Enlightenment is ludicrous, if not obscene…The technological and bureaucratic trappings of the Holocaust are a sideshow in the reckoning of its human costs and are unnecessary to the perpetration of mass murder, as the bloody machetes of the Rwandan genocide remind us. Nazi ideology… was a fruit of the 19th century counter Enlightenment… (and)... the scientific pretensions of Nazism were risible pseudoscience…” (p.643).

Therefore, if the Nazi’s were really being reasonable (or completely rational), then they wouldn’t have been led to the Final Solution. Now, there’s no denying that Pinker is on the side of the angels here: the Holocaust would ideally have been beyond the conceivable. The only problem is that the Nazi’s also thought they were on the side of the angels, and they were able to manoeuvre themselves into this position by making the ultimate demon move. 

The Holocaust involved demonizing (and then murdering ) millions of people by utilizing our practical reason (the general human capacity for resolving problems and determining norms of conduct). This is why the Final Solution has come to represent evil incarnate; like all ideologies, “the end is idealistic” and directed towards a “conception of the greater good” (p.556). The Final Solution was conceived by humans with a narrative about their place in history, and it involved telling a story about heroes (Nazis), victims (Germans) and villains (Jews).  The Nazi’s were thereby able to conceive the inconceivable and methodologically implement industrialized mass murder.

It’s important to stress that Pinker is acutely aware that people do bad things for supposedly good reasons, and they are able to do this by falsely believing in “the myth of pure evil” (p.496). He says this myth is the consequence of “the moralization gap”, or “self serving biases” (p.490) that play up one side’s innate goodness and another sides’s inherent badness. And he purports to be able to close this gap by moving up the escalator of reason and following the logic of reciprocal behavior (otherwise known as the golden rule within ethics).

If, for example, “it’s bad for you to hurt me”, that person is rationally committed to accepting “it’s bad for me to hurt you” (p. 647), too. The only problem is that Pinker has inadvertently provided a moral justification for violence during war — the logic of reciprocal behavior (or ‘do unto others as you would have them do to you’) is also the way people can justify killing each other. If ‘it’s good for me to hurt you’, it’s also ‘good for you to hurt me’ essentially describes the rules of engagement.

Equally problematic is Pinker’s belief that if a Nazi would put himself in the shoes of a Jew, he would be rationally committed to refraining from killing them. If the shoe was on the other foot, however, it does not follow that Nazi’s are morally obliged to stop killing Jews —if they were to be consistent they should (would)  be forced to consider the unthinkable and volunteer to be killed.

Pinker’s attempt to remove reason from the moral equation is equally questionable. He, too, conveniently displaces Nazism’s systematic brutality on a world inexplicably gone mad (and bad). Such an emphasis prevents him from looking at reason’s own shadow. Technology and bureaucracy weren’t a sideshow — they were the pivot on which the dialectic of enlightenment turned.

Indeed, we only have to look at the Nazi appropriation of the swastika to see the nature of the entanglement between good and evil. Although this equilateral cross has come to symbolize evil (unprecedented death and destruction) in the West, its rotating movement is an ancient symbol of the circle of life (the human desire for peace and prosperity). The swastika has been found within civilizations dating back to antiquity, and continues to persevere in modernity in Eastern cultures.

Symbolically speaking, it signifies the attempt to square the circle into an ordered or auspicious whole. Derived from Sanskrit, swastika literally means “that which is associated with well-being”. It thereby conveys the logic of reciprocal behavior (moral relation between living things) and acts as a reminder that the source of evil remains our own conceptions of ‘good’ .

Steven Aoun was the film and television critic for Australia's leading film journal Metro magazine. He has also written music criticism for Melbourne's daily newspaper Herald Sun and been an editorial assistant for CLCWeb: Comparative Literature and Culture, the peer-reviewed quarterly of scholarship in the humanities and social sciences. He is currently writing a PHD on the nature of critical theory and may even finish it within this lifetime. Steven regularly contributes to PopMatters as a feature writer and previously wrote the column Through the Looking Glass and the Flashpoints series. Steven can be contacted at when he is not also writing the novel "On Caroline Jane's Happiness".

Through the Looking Glass
19 Apr 2012
Is it worst to be killed by a crazed mob wielding machetes or to die via conveyor belt and filing system? The Better Angels of Our Nature keeps falling victim to the halo effect, creating an aura around reason itself.
5 Jan 2012
Welcome to the 2011 Through the Looking Glass awards, the Anger Is An Energy edition. This was the year the whole earth shook, sending shock waves in all directions. We don't mean to imply that the seismic shifts were of equal magnitude: not every violent disturbance registered the same on our Richter scale.
22 Sep 2011
Freedom is just another word for contemplating our own reflections. Indeed, the way internet users process information predates the advent of computers, and merely reflects the way we want to see (filter) the world in the first place.
Related Articles
23 Feb 2012
What’s so funny about peace, love, and understanding? Working against conventional wisdom, Steven Pinker argues that we have reached a historical low point with regards to violence.
Now on PopMatters
PM Picks
Win a 15-CD Pack of Brazilian Music CDs from Six Degrees Records! in PopMatters Contests on LockerDome

© 1999-2014 All rights reserved.™ and PopMatters™ are trademarks
of PopMatters Media, Inc.

PopMatters is wholly independently owned and operated.