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An Optimistic Message

As I said in a previous blog post, I have been challenged to try to be more positive and comment on something good instead of constantly whining about the poor state of the world! OK, here goes….

In his book “The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined”, Canadian experimental psychologist, cognitive scientist, linguist, and popular science author (according to his Wikipedia profile) Steven Pinker claims that the world is getting less violent and fairer, although he concedes there is no guarantee this will continue in future.

So that’s got to be good news, hasn’t it? Before I go any further I must admit I haven’t read the book, although I have read quite a bit about it. At 800 pages it is a rather weighty tome and I just haven’t found the time so far, but minor considerations like not having read the book I am commenting on have never stopped be in the past so I will continue regardless!

The facts, figures, and statistics Pinker presents seem convincing and I find the arguments of his critics equally unconvincing so I think I agree: the world is becoming less violent.

You might think that looking at the situation in places like Afghanistan, Sudan, and Ukraine that violence is still a problem, and it is, but compared with the past I think things have improved. There has been no direct conflict between major powers since World War 2 and the number of casualties of war as a percentage of the total world population has definitely declined.

So the trend seems real. A more interesting question might be not what but why. Pinker lists the following reasons: modern states and judicial systems, technological and commercial progress, greater equality for women, greater literacy and global communications, and an increased emphasis on knowledge and rationality.

Again it’s hard to disagree – but you would have to be fairly courageous to disagree with someone as intelligent and knowledgeable as Pinker of course!

Few people would suggest that our government and legal systems are perfect because they clearly aren’t, but they are fairly good in most cases (even governments whose policies I disagree with) and work well enough in most cases. Of course there is a danger that increasing inequality will overcome whatever benefits reasonable governance has given us, but that issue hasn’t reached a tipping point yet.

I would say that technology is the major contributor towards better, more peaceful societies. And whatever criticisms I have of capitalism there is no doubt that in most cases it delivers the benefits of science and technology to the majority of the population. Technology has given everyone (even the majority in the third world, at least most of the time) more reliable food supplies, greater health, and better education. All of those must contribute to greater peace.

While I am suspicious of many arguments advanced by feminists I think the evidence is clear that when women have a greater role in society that it leads to substantial benefits. Of course there are many cases where women are just as violent, unfair, and ignorant as any man, but on balance feminisation has been a positive force.

Global communications, such as TV, cell phones, and the internet seem to have made the world more like one big community. When different countries and cultures can share their experiences through these media it must make conflict between them less likely.

There is still plenty of irrationality in the world (the two most obvious examples being Islamic extremism and conservative ignorance) but the trend does seem to be a slow but sure one towards greater rationality. Religion is gradually losing its hold on power and other forms of superstition are also slowly declining. I know there are plenty of examples where ignorance remains but at least the trend seems to be in the right direction.

So there is reason to be optimistic. Despite the numerous examples of stupidity we see every day the world is getting better. What an optimistic message!

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