Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Pinker Raises the Hackles of Indignant Liberal Professor

 I was working on another posts, but I had to stop when the Globe published this questionable review of Pinker's latest book (which I have on hold at the Library).  Whitehead charges right at Pinker with his best shot.
Those theoretical claims are nothing new and have been extensively discredited by social scientists, although Pinker engages none of that literature.
Discredited by so called scientists are they?  Please don't be so 'flippant' about how you dismiss his theories. Don't keep us in the dark.  Please explain further. I believe they were pretty well laid out in The Blank Slate.

However, Pinker uses a very questionable definition of violence and, in dismissing our perception of violence as irrelevant, completely overlooks the fact that reporting and representations of violence are not just “about” violence but are actually part of it. He characterizes media coverage as: “If it bleeds, it leads,” but this fact actually tells us a lot about how important violence is to our society, not that it is illusory.
Perhaps violence not illusory, but the fact of the matter is, that violence is trending downward, while our perception is the opposite.  Perception is a part of violence?  So, you are arguing that I am actually assaulted when I read about an assault in the paper or see it on the news.  Interesting.

Not only are numbers notoriously difficult to establish accurately in periods before the 20th century, as Pinker quietly admits, but deaths in wars were only partly due to direct homicidal violence. In the past at least, as many died of disease and untreated wounds.

Maybe his statistics are problematic, but it's far closer to reality than the notion of the noble savage that he's combating. He merely paints a different picture than the idyllic societies championed by critics like you. Truth is, although 60-70 million people died in WWII, the ratio of deaths to the total number of people was lower than prior periods. Read the Iliad for a good idea of what ancient wars were like. Brutality is decreasing steadily.  Also, a states ability and willingness to heal wounded soldiers is yet another example of a nicer world.

Whitehead seems to think that since Pinker states that things are better than ever, that he's means that war is actually nice nowadays. He mentions PTSD as if ancient cultures didn't suffer some from post-traumatic stress after violent confrontations. The stats for deaths prior to the 20th century may be problematic but PTSD was not even invented yet.

The writer has completely made Pinker's case that the world is nicer with his explanation of torture.

Another significant example of this failure to think through what “violence” actually is becomes evident in the discussion of torture, paradoxically enjoying something of revival. While the Grand Guignol of medieval torture may no longer be with us, the use of torture has not abated. Pinker’s timeline for the abolition of judicial torture thus overlooks how extra-juridical “touchless” torture, enhanced interrogation and rendition are a persistent feature of the post-Second World Wart world. Similarly, although incarceration may have supplanted bodily mutilation and execution, it remains a violence nonetheless.
While it is true incarceration does fall in the category of violence, today's incarceration is nothing near as frightening as body mutilation, execution or the horrific forms of torture that have been used in days past. Whitehead wants to refute Pinker's assertion that the world is getting better, by saying that until it is absolutely perfect, we can't count that as progress.  Earlier he tries to call incarceration of blacks a mass atrocity.  Is it really on the scale of the holocaust or the enslavement of Jews by the Egyptians?  Can't we compare the past with the present with our judicial system, welfare and human rights and at least admit that we have it pretty good?

Now, I haven't read this book yet, but I have read and heard enough Pinker to doubt that he means that our world has no problems with violence. The Blank Slate argued that we can't change our basic natural instincts and denying our nature to try to hoist some idealistic perfect society on us will fail and leads to misery. Tackling the serious problems that Whitehead mentions, requires a real understanding of human nature which he can't seem to accept.


Anonymous said...

Excellent assessment of Whitehead's pitiful review.

Cul-De-Sac Hero said...

Thank you. I appreciate all feedback.