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The most peaceful time in history
April 14, 2007 9:02 PM   Subscribe

In sixteenth-century Paris, a popular form of entertainment was cat-burning, in which a cat was hoisted in a sling on a stage and slowly lowered into a fire. According to historian Norman Davies, "[T]he spectators, including kings and queens, shrieked with laughter as the animals, howling with pain, were singed, roasted, and finally carbonized." Today, such sadism would be unthinkable in most of the world. This change in sensibilities is just one example of perhaps the most important and most underappreciated trend in the human saga: Violence has been in decline over long stretches of history, and today we are probably living in the most peaceful moment of our species' time on earth. [pdf] via NPR
posted by bigmusic (145 comments total) 17 users marked this as a favorite

 
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posted by L. Fitzgerald Sjoberg at 9:06 PM on April 14, 2007 [2 favorites]


im in ur firez bein killed by ur doodz
posted by roll truck roll at 9:07 PM on April 14, 2007


Wow, I could have done without knowing about that charming story.
posted by puke & cry at 9:11 PM on April 14, 2007 [1 favorite]


Probably. We have a long way to go, though.
posted by delmoi at 9:13 PM on April 14, 2007


well, public displays of cat carbonization notwithstanding, people are getting killed by the thousands by human hands every day.
posted by Burhanistan at 9:13 PM on April 14, 2007


What, cat burning is no longer acceptable?

So, any of y'all have any interesting hobbies?
posted by spiderwire at 9:14 PM on April 14, 2007


well, public displays of cat carbonization notwithstanding, people are getting killed by the thousands by human hands every day.
posted by Burhanistan at 9:13 PM on April 14


You might actually want to read the article.
posted by vacapinta at 9:18 PM on April 14, 2007 [1 favorite]


You might actually want to read the article.

I did. But it doesn't mention all the killing people do outside the context of formal war.
posted by Burhanistan at 9:20 PM on April 14, 2007


The point is, Burhanistan, that people once thought nothing of burning cats for entertainment. The fact that a good majority of us now consider that wrong is progress. There's also progress on the human vs human front - it's all just very slow going.
posted by Zinger at 9:22 PM on April 14, 2007


Point taken. I can only hope the trend continues.
posted by Burhanistan at 9:23 PM on April 14, 2007 [2 favorites]


Burhanistan: "I did. But it doesn't mention all the killing people do outside the context of formal war."

"In every country he analyzed, murder rates declined steeply--for example, from 24 homicides per 100,000 Englishmen in the fourteenth century to 0.6 per 100,000 by the early 1960s."
posted by martinrebas at 9:24 PM on April 14, 2007


Ah, yes...some stats were thrown about.
posted by Burhanistan at 9:29 PM on April 14, 2007


"Let's not bicker and argue about who killed who!"
posted by danb at 9:33 PM on April 14, 2007 [4 favorites]


My "SO" warned me not look at this FPP thinking it might upset my delicate sensibility, but I've long been aware of humanity's taste for cruelty. Like, d00dz, they burned cats when they weren't burning "witches"; do you think they'd've burned so many of the latter if nobody got a kick out of that?
That's what "gorno" is for, to satisfy those desires vicariously.

As for today's Peaceble Kindgom, why do you think they call 'em blood diamonds?

Now I'll go perform RTFA. I doubt it'll tell me any bad news I'd never had an inkling of.
posted by davy at 9:33 PM on April 14, 2007


Wait, what? You mean people don't do that anymore? Geez. I'm going to have to start buying Duraflames for the fireplace now.
posted by miss lynnster at 9:34 PM on April 14, 2007


davy: is your "SO" some kind of gray alien or transdimensional non-human entity?
posted by Burhanistan at 9:35 PM on April 14, 2007


I'm going to have to hug my cat extra hard now.
posted by puke & cry at 9:36 PM on April 14, 2007 [1 favorite]


I wish there was a bibliography, some way to verify the data being asserted. For that matter, the wartime death figures are wrong ("[T]he number of battle deaths in interstate wars has declined from more than 65,000 per year in the 1950s to less than 2,000 per year in this decade") and/or appear to ignore civilian deaths, both directly from the conflict and indirectly from long-term pollution, economic and infrastructure damage, starvation, etc.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 9:38 PM on April 14, 2007


The point is, Burhanistan, that people once thought nothing of burning cats for entertainment.

And yet there's cock-fighting, dog-fighting, and a fair number of animal competitive events which are pursued to the detriment of the animals (the Greyhound industry used to be (is still?) infamous in this regard).
posted by five fresh fish at 9:39 PM on April 14, 2007 [1 favorite]


In the fourteenth century, another game was to nail a cat to a tree with its legs in front of it, and somehow (I'm forgetting the details here) put something like an apple right in front of the cat - maybe actually nail that to the cat, too. And then someone would have to try to take bites of the apple without having his eyes scratched out.

People also enjoyed a game of having a pig run a gauntlet of people who would swing at it with clubs, slowly beating the animal to death. People loved this stuff. I'm (mis-)remembering these examples from Barabara Tuchman's book A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous 14th Century.

More recently, of course, there have been sports like bear-baiting. Measured by our propensity to inflict wanton cruelty on animals for pleasure, we've civilized immensely.

Yeah, we can be facile and point out that there's still plenty of violence in the world, but anyone who doesn't recognize that our world is less violent by orders of magnitude compared to what it was only a few hundred years ago doesn't appreciate how truly violent life used to be everywhere in the world.
posted by Dasein at 9:40 PM on April 14, 2007 [5 favorites]


Thinking about it, it'd be really cool if we lived in a peaceful world at some point in my lifetime.
posted by five fresh fish at 9:41 PM on April 14, 2007 [1 favorite]


And yet there's cock-fighting, dog-fighting, and a fair number of animal competitive events which are pursued to the detriment of the animals

Dressage, for example...
posted by Arch_Stanton at 9:41 PM on April 14, 2007 [3 favorites]


Yeah, we can be facile and point out that there's still plenty of violence in the world...

Yes, it's easy to be facile. But what's the point of congratulating a straw man humanity for some sort of perceived lessening in cruelty?
posted by Burhanistan at 9:43 PM on April 14, 2007


'davy: is your "SO" some kind of gray alien or transdimensional non-human entity?'

No, she's a real live Homo Sapien. Like your Mom. Why do you ask?
posted by davy at 9:44 PM on April 14, 2007 [2 favorites]


The greyhound industry isn't overtly cruel. They do euthanize a lot of dogs that don't make it but it's not for fun or anything. And they will give them away to anyone who will provide a good home. My personal eperience with animal rescues is that quite often the animal would have been better off euthanized but that's another thread.....

Topic? I say a world with less cats would be a better world but we don't have to be barbaric about it. I'd settle for shooting my neighbours cats with a .22 when they deposit their toxoplasmosis infected feces in my herb garden or kill all the birds at my bird feeder or yowl outside my window at 3am every goddam night.
posted by fshgrl at 9:45 PM on April 14, 2007


forget I asked. Forget I'm a gray alien myself.
posted by Burhanistan at 9:46 PM on April 14, 2007


More recently, of course, there have been sports like bear-baiting.

Not to mention face-shooting Whittington. That wasn't a sporting moment, nosiree.

How on earth is dressage detrimental? The horses obviously love it, and it's obvious one must take a lot of excellent care of the horse to have it in such superb physical fitness. Happy and healthy? What's not to like?
posted by five fresh fish at 9:46 PM on April 14, 2007


For more horror stories that were probably done at some point by some people, see The Painted Bird.
posted by davy at 9:47 PM on April 14, 2007


I think that kind of thing varies enormously by place and culture. Cock fighting is still really big in many places, not to mention bull fighting. This claim seems to be rather Euro-centric.
posted by Steven C. Den Beste at 9:48 PM on April 14, 2007


Dressage, for example...

lol, dressage isn't cruel to the horses. To the riders and the grooms maybe, but the horses live in the lap of luxury, have chiropractors and custom saddles and custom blankets and $100 shoes every month and lush irrigated pastures and are generally spoiled rotten. All for the low, low price of going slowly around in circles for 35 minutes 5 days a week. 99% of the riders in the US never get past the lowest levels so they barely break a sweat.
posted by fshgrl at 9:49 PM on April 14, 2007


Wait, what? You mean people don't do that anymore? Geez. I'm going to have to start buying Duraflames for the fireplace now.

The article doesn't say anything about puppies.
posted by spiderwire at 9:49 PM on April 14, 2007


I've read that outdoor cats are responsible for collosal killing of small mammals and birds, and especially ie. the outright decimation of native songbirds. Bird species driven to near extinction because of household cats that are free to roam.

Add in the probability that they'll develop worms and parasites, and be physically harmed in territorial and predatory fights, and it's just commonsense to keep your pussy inside.
posted by five fresh fish at 9:50 PM on April 14, 2007


I'm pretty sure the dressage thing was a joke.
posted by puke & cry at 9:55 PM on April 14, 2007 [2 favorites]


Thinking about it, it'd be really cool if we lived in a peaceful world at some point in my lifetime.

or at least in my child's lifetime...or their children's. >sigh<
posted by winston smith at 9:56 PM on April 14, 2007


It's often crossed my mind that I was born in a golden age - a time of unprecedented peace in Europe, post-war austerity surpassed, welfare state still in full force, free education, effects of community breakdown not yet fully visible, a childhood of peace and plenty despite being from a very ordinary working class family. I did a fair bit of reading growing up, but it was really later travels to other parts of the world that really drove home what a lucky fucker I am.
posted by Abiezer at 9:57 PM on April 14, 2007 [4 favorites]


i dunno, we had a bunch of PETA people show up at a show once and start setting animals loose. We were like wtf? SET THE GROOMS FREE!! COME BACK PETA!! HELP US!

People worry about the weirdest shit.
posted by fshgrl at 9:57 PM on April 14, 2007 [2 favorites]


"A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous 14th Century."

After looking that up I just put in a reserve at the library for it. Gracias.
posted by davy at 9:58 PM on April 14, 2007


Okay, so here's the thing. I still have one 3-hour cat left in the fireplace. It's just sitting there behind the fireplace screen staring at me, making this annoying mewing noise. But dammit, now you guys have made me feel all guilty. So I know I should just let it go outside, but it's raining out there. And I really don't feel like making a run to Walgreens to go get Duraflames in the rain...

Decisions decisions.
posted by miss lynnster at 10:01 PM on April 14, 2007 [3 favorites]


I love it magazine writers say things like "contra leftist anthropologists who celebrate the noble savage" with a straight face. This ax-grinder, it vibrates?
posted by davy at 10:02 PM on April 14, 2007


The article doesn't say anything about puppies.

Don't be silly. If I burn my well-trained puppy then who will mix my martinis for me?
posted by miss lynnster at 10:02 PM on April 14, 2007 [1 favorite]


I wish there was a bibliography, some way to verify the data being asserted. For that matter, the wartime death figures are wrong ("[T]he number of battle deaths in interstate wars has declined from more than 65,000 per year in the 1950s to less than 2,000 per year in this decade")

Well, TNR is a neocon rag.
posted by delmoi at 10:03 PM on April 14, 2007


I will grant that my "SO" has an unenviable life. Sometimes she gets tendonitis from beating me so often.

*ducks*
posted by davy at 10:05 PM on April 14, 2007


Dasein writes "In the fourteenth century, another game was to nail a cat to a tree with its legs in front of it, and somehow (I'm forgetting the details here) put something like an apple right in front of the cat - maybe actually nail that to the cat, too. And then someone would have to try to take bites of the apple without having his eyes scratched out."

Nah, no apple. Yes, the cat was nailed to a tree or door. The competitors then tried to bash the cat to death with their heads, while avoiding its scratches and bites.
posted by orthogonality at 10:06 PM on April 14, 2007


Well, TNR is a neocon rag.

Exactly. This is feel good tripe. While it's good that people aren't burning cats or whatever in mainstream accepted events (though that was probably decried by a fair amount of people back in its time) there's no real basis for this kind of broad assertion and statistically weak styling.
posted by Burhanistan at 10:07 PM on April 14, 2007


Of course this guy does get some things right (is he THIS Steven Pinker?):

"Political correctness from the other end of the ideological spectrum has also distorted many people's conception of violence in early civilizations--namely, those featured in the Bible. This supposed source of moral values contains many celebrations of genocide, in which the Hebrews, egged on by God, slaughter every last resident of an invaded city. The Bible also prescribes death by stoning as the penalty for a long list of nonviolent infractions, including idolatry, blasphemy, homosexuality, adultery, disrespecting one's parents, and picking up sticks on the Sabbath."

To quote Sam Harris:

"The notion that the Bible is a perfect guide to morality is really quite amazing, given the contents of the book. Human sacrifice, genocide, slaveholding, and misogyny are consistently celebrated. Of course, God’s counsel to parents is refreshingly straightforward: whenever children get out of line, we should beat them with a rod (Proverbs 13:24, 20:30, and 23:13–14). If they are shameless enough to talk back to us, we should kill them (Exodus 21:15, Leviticus 20:9, Deuteronomy 21:18–21, Mark 7:9–13, and Matthew 15:4–7). We must also stone people to death for heresy, adultery, homosexuality, working on the Sabbath, worshiping graven images, practicing sorcery, and a wide variety of other imaginary crimes."

In general though, I'm halfway through the article (pausing to look stuff up and comment here, etc.) and so far I must agree with Burhanistan: "feel good tripe." (Now I wonder what Noam Chomsky would say about it.)
posted by davy at 10:23 PM on April 14, 2007 [2 favorites]


Another quote from this Pinker piece:

"Life in a state of nature is nasty, brutish, and short, not because of a primal thirst for blood but because of the inescapable logic of anarchy. Any beings with a modicum of self-interest may be tempted to invade their neighbors to steal their resources. The resulting fear of attack will tempt the neighbors to strike first in preemptive self-defense, which will in turn tempt the first group to strike against them preemptively, and so on. "

It's a paean to Western Civilization as furthered by Big Government: "Big Brother Keeps Us SAFE!" And of course the biggest Western government is the U.S.A., the most peaceful kingdom of all. To modify my agreement with Burhanistan's assessment: it's tripe but it doesn't make ME feel good.
posted by davy at 10:36 PM on April 14, 2007


Okay, to be fair, in THAT quote Pinker's listing Hobbes' idea as one of four possible explanations. Still, in several ways in 6 short pages, Pinker makes clear that he loves Big Brother.
posted by davy at 10:43 PM on April 14, 2007


Burhanistan,
What exactly are you objecting to? You seem upset about something, but I can't really tell what. Neither the article nor anyone here is claiming that humanity has solved the problem of violence totally. All that's being claimed is that, compared to the past, we've made progress. What's so objectionable about that? What exactly are you disagreeing with here?

You mentioned violence outside of the context of formal war. Are you referring to violent crime? Religious violence? Domestic abuse? Are incidents of these areas really higher than during historical periods? Blazecock Pileon brought up a question about the numbers he uses, and whether he's considering non-direct casualties, but I'm not sure if that's a useful objection. War has always entailed harm to civilian population, starvation, etc. What the author should have tried to show is that the percentages of people killed are going down, not absolute numbers, since our population is much greater than it used to be.

But numbers aside, it does seem like the cultural view of violence has changed, for the better. We strongly disapprove of outright violent acts like the one in the FPP. five fresh fish brought up the fact that cruel animal sports still happen, but failed to note that many of those sports are outright banned in many places, and even when allowed are viewed as seedy activities that most people look down on. The town gentry don't plan on the after-dinner cockfight. There's been progress, but obviously more can and needs to be done. Similarly, things like dueling and bloody human sports like combat to the death are gone, replaced by relatively harmless stand-ins like football. Again, this is not a universal truth, but the tide does seem to be turning against violence culturally, everywhere in the world. On the personal and group, and domestic and international scales, violence is more and more de-emphasized and fought against as a legitimate activity or means of solving problems.

So, we're nowhere near perfect yet, but at least we're taking steps towards a better future, and have been for a while.
posted by Sangermaine at 10:45 PM on April 14, 2007 [1 favorite]


It is so friggin' obvious that we are in a golden age in the history of humanity. And yet here in the west people freak out is you suggest such a thing.

I went through grad school in American history about ten years ago. A really terrific program. Yet every book we read focused on some place and region and showed how things had gotten worse for the people studied. "Mandatory declension" I came to call it. So I would spend the morning in the library reading exactly how things had gotten worse for the X people who lived in Y in the period under study. Then I would take a break and walk outside into the freest and most prosperous country the world has known. And I would be hit with the sad realization that my profession was failing in its most basic duty--to explain how er got where we are.

Cynicism is mistaken for wisdom in our culture.
posted by LarryC at 10:48 PM on April 14, 2007 [5 favorites]


"... the functions that today's cognitive neuroscientists attribute to the prefrontal cortex."

And here I thought he was just a mod -- but hey, if it means less violence on the 'filter as well, I'm happy.
posted by AwkwardPause at 10:52 PM on April 14, 2007


Hmmm, a muslim and an atheist go after the Jews. How refreshing.
posted by vronsky at 11:02 PM on April 14, 2007


nice. good news. i think it might even be true. now let's keep it the fuck up, as we've got utter shit else to prove our progress.
posted by es_de_bah at 11:03 PM on April 14, 2007


Feel good tripe.

OK, most people don't burn cats for fun anymore, that's great, but according to official statistics nearly 34 million cattle were slaughtered in the US alone last year; I doubt that most of those animals were living in the lap of luxury up until their death. It's not cruelty for entertainment, it's institutionalized cruelty that forms a key component of our economy. And OK, great, we don't torture and maim people for minor crimes. Instead, we lock more and more people up every year.

I would love to believe that the human race is getting more "civilized" but that's such a dangerous and nebulous term. The whole idea of "progress" is so vexed because more often than not its a matter of perspective and definitions rather than any objectively verifiable standard (which is also to say the notion of "regression" is just as problematic). It's very easy to say, "look how civilized we are compared to our ancestors!" by pointing out obvious things like a sharp-decline in char-broiled kittens, but that doesn't really prove anything except that our violence may not be as obvious as it was in the past.

nb. Just so no one thinks I'm being all holier-than-thou, I eat beef and can't imagine living in another era. I'm sure that makes me a hypocrite in many ways, but hey, I'm human.

On preview:
Sangermaine "We strongly disapprove of outright violent acts like the one in the FPP. "

But do we tacitly approve of institutionalized and hidden violence? Do we even notice it or care?

LarryC "It is so friggin' obvious that we are in a golden age in the history of humanity."

Something that's probably been said by someone in every era of human history. Did you ever stop to think about the costs to make (some of) the people in this country so prosperous and free? Your profile says that you are a professor of American Indian History. I find it hard to believe that you can be a responsible scholar and hold the beliefs in your comment, unless there is some serious cognitive dissonance going on.
posted by papakwanz at 11:03 PM on April 14, 2007 [4 favorites]


Blindness is mistaken for wisdom in our culture.
posted by kuujjuarapik at 11:07 PM on April 14, 2007


Blazecock Pileon brought up a question about the numbers he uses, and whether he's considering non-direct casualties, but I'm not sure if that's a useful objection.

I think it is worth objecting to the murder of 665,000 civilians in the most recent war on Iraq, for starters. That's a significant percentage of the country that's not around to enjoy the peace or help rebuild.

Omission of any consideration of data points of this kind, replaced with handwaved numbers, make me suspicious of the author's methodology, his conclusions, and of TNR's editorial agenda.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 11:12 PM on April 14, 2007


I am not a statistician, but I wonder if looking at raw numbers of people killed or even people killed as a percentage of the population is the right way to go about it. I have absolutely no way to back this up, but my sense would be that even if there were, for example, less people killed per 100k of the world's population, there's the issue of temporal concentration. As BP brings up, (if his #'s are correct) 665k in barely over 4 years is a huge death toll. Outside of the black death, it would be pretty impossible to rack up those kinds of stats 500 years ago. In other words, the point I'm getting is that even if in the aggregate there's a lesser percentage of killings across the population, the intensity is probably higher in that those killings will occur over a far shorter period of time, and the possibilities of massive, instantaneous killing events (Dresden, Hiroshima, Nagasaki) are far greater than they have ever been in history.
posted by papakwanz at 11:19 PM on April 14, 2007


Hey vronsky, who went after the Jews in this thread? Is this where you bandy about your delusions of persecution? If you're digging at me for quoting a couple of people talking about the horrors of the Hebrew Bible, I've never nown an actual Jewish person (whether s/he practiced Judaism or not) who acted like that, regardless of whether YHWH commanded them to in the Torah. In any case, according to something a guy named Cohen said on Metafilter a while back, real Jews don't accept the Pentateuch as definitive, only heretics like the Karaites (and of course Samaritans).

And hey, from what I read in the papers even the Israeli Zionist practicioners of Orthodox Judaism are a bit less barbarous in some ways I consider important than some folks in some of their neighboring countries. Maybe my Mom was right was right when she said I should learn from my Jewish schoolmates how to act. (What happened to YOU?)
posted by davy at 11:22 PM on April 14, 2007


Looking at my first comment, I realized that it was a bit more snarky to LarryC than I had intended. Not trying to insult your qualifications as a scholar. I just think its rather odd that you can say what you said when your field of study is a culture/people for which today is certainly not a "golden age."
posted by papakwanz at 11:22 PM on April 14, 2007


"Western European
localities that kept records at some point between 1200 and the mid-1990s. In every country he analyzed, murder rates declined steeply--for example, from 24 homicides per 100,000 Englishmen in the fourteenth century to 0.6 per 100,000 by the early
1960s."

In 1991, the homicide rate of Washington DC was about 81 per 100,000. Maybe the author needs to look at some more records.
posted by eye of newt at 11:23 PM on April 14, 2007


Forward with Big Brother to a Brave New World of Peace, Love and Understanding!

(And with that, it's time for this curmudgen to go "be-boes." One "shutdown -h now" coming up.)
posted by davy at 11:25 PM on April 14, 2007


Father: You will not believe what you are about to see; that human beings could have sunk so low that they can take pleasure to do this to another of God's creatures. I hope you have a strong stomach senor.

Navin: Roll the ugliness.

Good Lord - I've heard about this - cat juggling! Stop! Stop! Stop it! Stop it! Stop it! Good. Father, could there be a god that would let this happen? How much do you want?
posted by edverb at 11:35 PM on April 14, 2007 [2 favorites]


Ironically, this doesn't appear to be turning into one of the most peaceful threads in MetaFilter history. *sigh*

Cat burning or not, we've still got a long way to go towards being actually peaceful as opposed to simply "not nearly as violent as those fuckers."

On another note: you don't even have to look IN to the Bible to see the great hypocrisy in using that particular tome as a guide to peace. The Crusades, anyone? Yeah, that was a really peaceful idea. Turning the other cheek, blessed are the freaking meek and all of that. Sheesh.
posted by grapefruitmoon at 12:15 AM on April 15, 2007


It's hard to believe that people are disputing the basic idea of this piece. I was mightily annoyed by Pinker's axe-grinding when I was reading the article, thinking that his strawmen were absurd. Some comments in this thread cause me to rethink that evaluation.

delmoi, TNR isn't “neocon”. It's a lot of things, many of them infuriating and far too far to the right, but it's not neoconservative.
posted by Ethereal Bligh at 12:23 AM on April 15, 2007


Okay, so I figured out a compromise! Yay! In the end I did decide to let the cat go. And upon reflection I realized that I didn't have to go to Walgreens in the rain for a Duraflame, since there are like a zillion pesky little squirrels in my neighborhood! Takes more of them to warm up a room, but whatever. While it's a little extra effort, at least I know I'm not upsetting people this way. Woo hoo!

::Warms hands on nice, raging, squirrel fire::
posted by miss lynnster at 12:23 AM on April 15, 2007 [2 favorites]


What are you talking about, EB? You've decided that you agree with the piece because you're annoyed by those of us who disagree? Huh? How does that make Pinker's logic any more sound?
posted by papakwanz at 12:24 AM on April 15, 2007


miss lynnster: I wouldn't advise giving up your trained martini-puppy. I'm sure there's a local animal shelter you could avail yourself of.

Ethereal Bligh: The New Republic is neoconservative like Joe Lieberman is neoconservative.
posted by spiderwire at 12:29 AM on April 15, 2007


Oh don't be silly... I could never give up the martini-puppy. Who do you think catches the squirrels I'm using for the fire now?
posted by miss lynnster at 12:31 AM on April 15, 2007


Yes, it is that Stephen Pinker, which makes it all the funnier that this piece is being called out as "feel-good tripe" and people are implying that it's neocon propaganda.

He basically makes this same argument in The Blank Slate when he takes apart the noble savage philosophy.

Pinker is a part of a group of evolutionary biologists who are actually quite liberal politically, but don't feel that it's ethical -- or productive, especially -- to distort reality for some agenda. Yes, we all want to end the violence that's happening right now, but we don't have to pretend that we're worse off than we were in the past. In fact, if we do, we're robbing ourselves of the chance to understand exactly what has helped us to reduce violence over the course of human history.

The more we can understand why we've moved from the brutality of the past to the (relative) civility of the present, the more we can influence policy and action in areas that are lagging behind. If we pretend that the world is worse off than it was, even if it's in the name of keeping everyone's attention on the things that still need fixing, we risk undoing policies and social trends that have helped us to get where we are.

I totally understand the reluctance to accept that things are better now than they've ever been: Could this mean we're at an apex of peace, doomed to see things trend back down? Does it mean people will throw up their hands and say that we're done and that everything's fine now?

Well, our ability to treat disease is unquestionably better than it has ever been, but no rational person would think we're in any danger of answering yes to either of those questions when posed about medicine.
posted by hutta at 12:34 AM on April 15, 2007 [5 favorites]


Ahem, Steven Pinker. Sort of undermines my point that he's the same guy if I spell is name wrong, huh?
posted by hutta at 12:40 AM on April 15, 2007


"What are you talking about, EB? You've decided that you agree with the piece because you're annoyed by those of us who disagree? Huh? How does that make Pinker's logic any more sound?"

I agreed with the piece when I read it. It's in accordance with my understanding of history and he provides a modest amount of data. What I disagreed with and what annoyed me was his slyly implicit argument bashing leftists with his occasional mentions of strawmen in passing. It was gratuitous and dishonest. For example, the idea of the “noble savage” is discredited in anthropology yet Pinker talk about it as if it were some cornerstone of leftist scholarship.

There is no monolithic left that sees the past as ideal and the present as hell. Good grief, that's far more a conservative trope than a progressive one. Progressive, for cryin' out loud.

And yet. And yet in this thread there are people at least partially validating what I thought were entirely strawmen. Which shouldn't surprise me because if there's anything the partisans of the left and the right both agree upon, it's that right now is an awful, awful time due to the horrible influence of their opposite number. People across the political spectrum have an emotional investment in the antithesis of this article.

There's all sorts of good objections that can be made to this article. But the basic premise is true. And, in my opinion, of the arguments he presents that attempt to explain what he's describing, Peter Singer's is closest to the mark: a combination of factors has led to generally increasing spheres of empathy worldwide.
posted by Ethereal Bligh at 12:40 AM on April 15, 2007 [2 favorites]


Who is saying that things are worse off? Who is praising the noble savage? I'm certainly not. Saying, "your claims of progress may be specious and grossly overstated" =! "things were better in the good old days." Also, saying, "things are not necessarily better than they were in the past" =! "things are exactly the same as they were in the past."
posted by papakwanz at 12:45 AM on April 15, 2007


EB, I'm right there with you. When I hear Pinker go on and on about the noble savage, I can't help but get annoyed and feel like he's beating a decades-dead horse.

...then discussions like this one come up, and I realize why he can't get away from it.

"People across the political spectrum have an emotional investment in the antithesis of this article."

You nailed it. The real conflict we see in this thread is that people have trouble seeing the difference between scientific conclusions and political assertions. The relative violence or peacefulness of the present is really a question for historians and scientists to answer, but we've had politicians answering it for so many centuries that it's hard to let it fall into the objective world of fact.
posted by hutta at 12:53 AM on April 15, 2007


"People across the political spectrum have an emotional investment in the antithesis of this article."
posted by papakwanz at 12:56 AM on April 15, 2007


Whoops, there was supposed to be more to that.

Anyway, if you're going to use "emotional investment" as a disqualifying factor, then look to yourselves. What kinds of emotions are tied up in the insistence that "things are getting better"? What emotional effect will it have on Pinker et. al. if we admit that "historians and scientists" are not objective, and that their fields (especially history) are as wrapped up in politics as anything else? Pinker's thesis is just as much based on emotion and wishful thinking (if not more so) than the opposite.

And Ethereal Bligh and hutta: for claiming that you thought Pinker was being obnoxious about the "noble savage" strawman, you seem to be making the exact same rhetorical move. I haven't seen anyone in this thread (unless I skipped over some comments, which is entirely possible) say anything resembling a "noble savage" type argument.
posted by papakwanz at 1:17 AM on April 15, 2007


Oh don't be silly... I could never give up the martini-puppy. Who do you think catches the squirrels I'm using for the fire now?

You misunderstand me -- I'm just pointing out that there are many available resources that wouldn't require you to lose your martini-puppy. Avail yourself of the market!
posted by spiderwire at 1:20 AM on April 15, 2007


“People across the political spectrum have an emotional investment in the antithesis of this article.”

Sure, but not many. I can't think of very many people I've known in my life that don't think that things are going downhill. Someone said upthread that all ages probably think it's the golden age. But that's not been my experience or my observation of history. All ages, including this one, usually think that some recent age was the golden age but that during the current one everything is going to shit.

And on the specific matter of violence, I'd bet money that doing a random poll of people on the street would find that the overwhelming majority of people on both the right and the left would claim that there's more violence in the world today and in (relatively) recent history. They'll be thinking of the two world wars. Murder in the inner cities, and the like.

“Anyway, if you're going to use ‘emotional investment’ as a disqualifying factor, then look to yourselves.”

I don't have an emotional investment in this one way or the other. Pinker's thesis doesn't gratify me. Neither does the idea that things are bad. That's why, as a matter of ideology, I'm neither conservative nor progressive. The label progressive describes my politics quite well (with just a few exceptions). But it's not my ideology or temperament. I'm not utopian—I don't look to a utopia either in the past or in the future. I'm not an idealist. Insofar as it's useful or something can be learned from it, I find the idea of looking at an historical trend like this interesting. But there's almost nothing within me that feels the need to make a political argument on that basis. To my mind, there's something both naive and really boring about the very common human tendency to do so.

I mentioned Pinker's “noble savage” to criticize him, not anyone here.
posted by Ethereal Bligh at 1:31 AM on April 15, 2007 [3 favorites]


Personally I find topic subject very interesting, and somewhat surprisingly (to me, anyway) I tend to draw optimistic conclusions.

Although I would like to read a real research paper on the subject, as the linked article had about as much content as a Peanuts comic.

Possibly less.
posted by Alex404 at 1:39 AM on April 15, 2007


my take on this is that world war 2 wasn't so long ago that we can be complacent about something like that happening again ... especially when nuclear weapons may be used

all it takes is one nuclear war to thoroughly change the statistics to horrifying levels

i suppose pushing a button is less cruel from the perspective of the weapon wielder than using a sword or a gun ... it is also one hell of a lot more efficient

i also think he's underestimated the current number of war dead greatly
posted by pyramid termite at 2:06 AM on April 15, 2007


lolcats!
posted by bam at 2:06 AM on April 15, 2007


CHECK OUT THE NEW STRINGS ON MY VIOLIN!

You know they get the best tone before their eyes open. Just ask Pearlman or Paganini.
posted by sourwookie at 2:10 AM on April 15, 2007


I think one key argument that needs to be made is that it seems to me that the world has become more empathic despite -- not because of -- the actions of its governments.

I do think that economics and the emergence of the market plays a role, in two distinct forms.

First, on the kindness-towards-animals front, most people no longer kill their own food. I personally will happily eat chicken but can't imagine ever killing one, and I imagine many people are the same. We have come to disassociate animal suffering with the food we eat, whereas in the past we would wring the neck of the animals we ate ourselves. I imagine that would change our attitude towards other members of animal kingdom. I'm not saying that any of you out there who do raise and kill your own food are savages, I'm just saying that separation from animals, idealization of them, and their current primary role as companions rather than livestock is probably a key reason why most people don't stomach animal torture. In countries where dogs aren't kept as pets but roam the streets like pests, the attitude towards them is very different.

Secondly, on the kindness-towards-humans front: the current economic system has completely abolished violence as a means to acquire wealth. Indeed, all of the constructions of the current economy -- including a very powerful legal system that enforces and restricts certain behaviors -- makes it virtually impossible for someone to achieve gain through attempting to seize or control the wealth of others. This does not mean that other humans do not suffer as a result of this system -- but, again, like the chickens in the distance issue, most people who are oppressed by this system are separated from the population. So, for example, although most people subconsciously understand that their cheap clothing is a result of inhuman labor practices, they still go out and buy the clothing. Similarly, all of us heartily enjoy the strawberries and other fruit which is picked by migrant workers in grueling conditions; many of these workers are literally poisoned by the pesticides sprayed on the fields.

And, of course, there are always the situations far overseas when violence is used to further certain economic or geopolitical goals. I think if the Iraq war had been "successful", lasted 1-2 years, and killed off, say, 100,000 Iraqi soliders, 20k Iraqi civilians, and 25k "insurgents" (making numbers up) and resulting in only 100-500 American deaths, the American people might have viewed the war with approval. I think it was only the long drawn out nature of the war and its unacceptable American casualties that led to its general unpopularity.

Oh, and back in the day there was no television. Now, if you want to see violence you can just turn on the TV and see loads of it -- apparently the average kid sees thousands of murders on TV during their childhood.

Okay, so what about my original thesis -- that it's despite the action of governments? I think one of the newer developments since the 18th century is the notion that governments should respond to the needs and desires of the people rather than the other way around. Discussions of the relative freedoms of people aside, there's no question that in democratic societies (and even somewhat non-democratic societies which nonetheless feel economic pressure from the West) the ability to demonstrate and air grievances is much greater now (i.e. the past 50 years or so) than ever before. The surge of movements during the 50s, 60s, and 70s has led to a participative mindset where from time to time people attempt to take their futures into their own hands rather than leaving them to the whims of either governments or the market system alone. These movements, because they are grounded in solidarity and are focused specifically on raising the level of human existence, inevitably lead to an increase in empathy and a feeling of oneness with other humans in general. Unlike wars and economic conquests which rely on pitting one group of people against another, many of these movements (although somewhat divisive) were nonetheless focused on humans coming together rather than falling apart.

So, in my opinion, if we want to see an increase in empathy over the next century, we should continue to oppose our governments when they do wrong, force them to respond to the general needs of humanity, recognize the humanity of everyone on the planet, and nurture respect for all loving things. Now that's feel good tripe, but at least it's true.
posted by Deathalicious at 2:50 AM on April 15, 2007 [2 favorites]


You can make fun of the "gayz" (as you refer to them) all you want papakwanz, it is a free country, but I will not be dragged down to your level.

lolzcognitivedissonance
posted by Deathalicious at 2:54 AM on April 15, 2007


and nurture respect for all loving living things.

...got a little too hippy there, sorry.
posted by Deathalicious at 2:56 AM on April 15, 2007


It is true that the apparent human taste for cruelty to others as a means of amusement seems to have declined astonishingly in recent centuries, although it still certainly exists, but at the same time technology has created weapons of warfare, murder, and indirect death on a scale that would astonish any of our ancestors living prior to the twentieth century.

He has fudged his figures to make them appear the way he wants them to appear, frankly. I'm willing to believe there's been a reduction in person-to-person murders, but if there's been any percentagewise reduction in mass deaths from warfare (which I rather doubt, considering civilian populations), it's likely more a result of improved medical technology than anything else. People live now who would have died of sepsis from their wounds a surprisingly short time ago. If you look at casualties, rather than deaths, the numbers paint a different picture (by about a factor of ten on the American side in Iraq, for example.)

That's not an increase in peace, but an increase in ability to preserve life - a good thing, but not the same. People may torture cats less often, but genocide, poison gas, death camps, cluster bombs, and nuclear weapons are all fairly new to the language ... as well as the casual, indirect killing caused by, say, industrial pollution.

On the other hand, it is true that wars for the last few decades have tended to be relatively local matters again. If that turns out to be a trend, and not just a pause in the statistics before World War III, maybe I'll let myself believe this. I'd love to be wrong.
posted by kyrademon at 3:15 AM on April 15, 2007


Whig biology?
posted by stammer at 5:12 AM on April 15, 2007 [1 favorite]


EB, I'm right there with you. When I hear Pinker go on and on about the noble savage, I can't help but get annoyed and feel like he's beating a decades-dead horse.

Did you read this thread last week? That horse isn't dead yet.
posted by octothorpe at 5:15 AM on April 15, 2007


Yeah, we can be facile and point out that there's still plenty of violence in the world,

You could, but you'd be wrong.

Violence hasn't declined, it's merely been abstracted. So yeah, less fights break out at the local tavern. And less animal cruelty as sport. But more smart bombs, tactical missiles, cluster bombs, etc. More efficiency.

We've merely extended the sword's length so we don't have to see the guy's face when it goes through him. That doesn't mean we still don't revel in jabbing him with it.
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 5:17 AM on April 15, 2007


And by "wrong" I mean the illusion that we're living in a more civilized society. If anything, it's less civilized because it's less human and more mechanized, which makes it both easier to accomplish and easier to deal with.
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 5:19 AM on April 15, 2007


The really bothersome thing about this thesis is that none of it is new. It' s a very old line (18th century), and serious, empirical work has been done on it decades. SP and the TNR seem to have just gotten this particular (old) religion. For that matter, the Blank Slate? Out since Kant. And Noble Savages? Out since Smith (Adam, that is). Or maybe I'm just a pinhead who reads and remembers too much.
posted by MarshallPoe at 5:38 AM on April 15, 2007


"CHECK OUT THE NEW STRINGS ON MY VIOLIN!"

Without regard for the article, which I did read but am not competent to assess. I want to point out that:

a) traditional strings are made from sheep gut, not cats; "catgut" is derived from something having nothing to do with cats

b) sheep are being killed to more or less the same extent as they always were

c) although I have always favoured gut strings, these days silver-wound nylon core strings have all the advantages of gut (slacker tension, greater diameter, sweeter tone) without the disadvantages (temperature and humidity sensitivity) and there is just no reason to buy gut strings any more. Progress.
posted by i_am_joe's_spleen at 6:31 AM on April 15, 2007


This article is unscientific flimflam. Like the leftists he despises, Pinker (a linguistic psychologist!) is importing his ideology into science and calling it fact. His argument depends on the premise that "it is worse for 50 percent of a population of 100 to be killed or 1 percent in a population of one billion."

This is a common trope in economics, when we adjust for 'inflation,' but PEOPLE ARE NOT MONEY.
posted by anotherpanacea at 7:09 AM on April 15, 2007 [2 favorites]


Ah, now I understand. Thanks, spleen. And I thought string theory was s'posed to be all complex.
posted by hal9k at 7:14 AM on April 15, 2007


No, but PEOPLE HAVE MONEY.
posted by hal9k at 7:15 AM on April 15, 2007


Citations for the cat-burning 'fact' seem rather circular; every one I've found seems to cite Norman Davies or Sam Harris... who also cites Norman Davies as his source!

If you expect me to accept such inhumane entertainment as a historical fact, two or three accounts from the same time period as the alleged cat-burning would be appreciated.
posted by The Confessor at 7:26 AM on April 15, 2007


So, when they ran out of inconvenient people to burn, they turned to cats to fill the void.
posted by Brian B. at 7:47 AM on April 15, 2007


Has anyone ever done a history of cruelty, an account of how cat-burning and public hangings and similar spectacles became unpalatable?

Just curious.
posted by jason's_planet at 7:53 AM on April 15, 2007


Cats were actually quite valuable animals to have around, as they controlled the rodent population. Perhaps they didn't worry about that in cities.

I know (but cannot at the moment cite a source of it) that at one point they were worth the amount of grain which, when piled up, reached from the tip of their nose to the end of their tail (which was the fine for killing one).

Also he seems to be using the very specific definition of The Earth (viz, "Europe and places Europeans went to live in the last thousand years or so"). For example, the Buddha's notion that one shouldn't kill animals at all, let alone for fun, predates 1650 by about two thousand years.
posted by Grangousier at 8:06 AM on April 15, 2007 [3 favorites]


Aren't we just coming out of one of the most--if not the most--deadly centuries in history?

We've also industrialized and privatized the killing of animals for the most part (people too, if you count state executions). And while it's not entertainment for most anymore, we kill millions if not billions of animals daily to feed the 6 billion people alive.
posted by amberglow at 8:40 AM on April 15, 2007


although I have always favoured gut strings, these days silver-wound nylon core strings have all the advantages of gut (slacker tension, greater diameter, sweeter tone) without the disadvantages (temperature and humidity sensitivity) and there is just no reason to buy gut strings any more. Progress.

Progress? Going from killing a bio-friendly sheep and using every part of its body, including its guts for enough violin strings to equip an army orchestra, to strip-mining vast tracts of jungle forest for silver and manufacturing everlasting nylon for strings...

Well, I'm not entirely convinced that's actual progress.
posted by five fresh fish at 8:44 AM on April 15, 2007


This part was good: Then there is the scenario sketched by philosopher Peter Singer. Evolution, he suggests, bequeathed people a small kernel of empathy, which by default they apply only within a narrow circle of friends and relations. Over the millennia, people's moral circles have expanded to encompass larger and larger polities: the clan, the tribe, the nation, both sexes, other races, and even animals. The circle may have been pushed outward by expanding networks of reciprocity, à la Wright, but it might also be inflated by the inexorable logic of the golden rule: The more one knows and thinks about other living things, the harder it is to privilege one's own interests over theirs.

But we've swung back to a cold war mentality with fear, and enemies out to get us, and endless wars, and us v. them again, so i still don't see progress that we're less violent.
posted by amberglow at 8:47 AM on April 15, 2007 [2 favorites]


also, as long as there are people outside our circles, some will see it as ok to invade and kill them (and that's not even mentioning the fight for resources like oil and water).
posted by amberglow at 8:58 AM on April 15, 2007


Funny: I linked to this same article in Askme 5mn before bigmusic.

Deathalicious, about the dynamics of empathy: two big factors are knowledge and proximity. McLuhan had predicted that electricity would do that to us. Protest against the Vietnam war came in part form seeing what was happening over there. Now that 1 billion people are connected to the Web, we are getting nearer everybody else every single day.

The day is not far when micro payments and direct linking will allow us to witness the difference that 1 buck can make for a starving kid 5000 miles (or one mile) away from us.
posted by bru at 8:58 AM on April 15, 2007


... we are getting nearer everybody else every single day.

The day is not far when micro payments and direct linking will allow us to witness the difference that 1 buck can make for a starving kid 5000 miles (or one mile) away from us.


But we're not the ones that make the decisions about violence or war or killing. It's usually either local conflict between groups (Kosovo, Sunni/Shia, Darfur, Rwanda, etc) , or western govts installing dictators or invading or both when their usefulness is outlived.
posted by amberglow at 9:05 AM on April 15, 2007


I think that's kinda an important point--killing and violence were all much more local in the past, and therefore limited in its scope.

Now it's worldwide, and can be decided from 5000 miles away.
posted by amberglow at 9:06 AM on April 15, 2007


And now we're far more aware of killing as it happens, but are still powerless to stop it for the most part. We know more of the world, but don't have any tools to stop terrible things, which renders moot (and frustrating) any empathy we might feel for strangers elsewhere.
posted by amberglow at 9:09 AM on April 15, 2007


There's a ton of indirect violence too, that's not mentioned--for instance, the decimation of Iraq's professional class has greatly reduced their life expectancy and health, so will lead to far more deaths than are ever reported.
posted by amberglow at 9:11 AM on April 15, 2007


“But we've swung back to a cold war mentality with fear, and enemies out to get us, and endless wars, and us v. them again, so i still don't see progress that we're less violent.”

By nature, we're no less tribal or violent than we've ever been. But as our circle of empathy has expanded beyond very localized clans, the opportunity for violence between circles of empathy decrease and the portion of population involved in violent conflict decrease. To sustain these conflicts for those who benefit from them, a complicated social apparatus becomes necessary to recruit and organize the fighting of “wars”.

The numbers of soldiers and civilians killed in WWI and WWII are huge, but as percentages of the total populations of the nations involved, they're still less than that of the tribal conflicts that have dominated human history which probably culled 50% or more of young males and a not insignificant portion of the non-warrior population. Look at what we know of the history of Native Americans in the period just prior to the coming of the Europeans, for example.

Furthermore, when the scale of conflict was mostly small-group tribal, both the distribution of involvement in the conflict was much more even and in a much higher ratio. Children witnessed deadly conflict, it was a regular part of life.

Probably the single biggest source of disagreement in this thread is that many of you simple don't realize that you are taking for granted the universalist notion of humanity which is utterly alien to almost all human beings who have ever lived. There is a real mistake in this article and its presentation when it presents the idea that people are less cruel than they used to be. It's not that those cat torturers were more cruel, it's that we have more inclusive empathy. You can't be cruel unless you have some empathy—“cruelty” just didn't apply for most of the audience watching the cat burning display mentioned in this article. You can find lots of examples today of the same sort of thing: most people don't think that it's “cruel” to gut a live fish after catching it, for example. Or even removing the foreskin of an infant without anasthesia. Animal experimentation.

And there's more examples of contemporary blindness that, I don't doubt, some people in the future will react to with incredulousness and suspect the accounts to be propoganda. For example, women are effectively the property of their husbands in most of the world. Even in “advanced” countries violence by husbands against wives is taken much less seriously than other violence. In many cultures, it's not even recognized at all. We don't tolerate these things because we're walking around and indulging ourselves in our lust for violence and degradation. We simply don't see it and so we don't feel it.

People rebel against unflattering depictions of cultures distant in space and time because they rightly perceive that many such depictions are self-congratulatory and are caricatures of the “other”. But in doing so they are coming to the wrong conclusions about one's own culture and other cultures. When we visualize that audience enjoying the cat burning, we project onto that audience our own empathic boundaries and come to conclusions about their experience that are false. We then react to that conclusion. For some, a revulsion at the “cruelty” of the audience is gratifying because it reinforces their sense of their own culture's moral superiority. For others, suspicious of their own culture's supposed virtues, the description sounds like propoganda that can't possibly be true. Both reactions are wrong because they are projecting onto that audience a worldview it doesn't possess. Those people are no more cruel than we are.
posted by Ethereal Bligh at 9:49 AM on April 15, 2007 [2 favorites]


Neal Stephenson made a passing reference to this practice in one of his Baroque Cycle books.

Didn't know it was real.
posted by sourwookie at 10:02 AM on April 15, 2007


During my sleep, many people have made points that I was going to make, especially amberglow & Civil_Disobedient.

But my overall thought is this: As people, that is as individuals, we are probably nicer than people in past eras. We're far more likely to encounter the following sentiments today than we were 50, 100, 200, or 500 years ago:

"Hey, please don't burn that cat, you sick fuck."
"Hey, a black guy and a white chick, that's cool."
"I don't think you should rip out that guy's intenstine in the market square because he doesn't say the same prayers."
"Oh look, two dudes kissing. I'm fine with that."
"I don't think it's nice to own another human being."

However, as A people, as a society, it is much harder to say that we have "progressed. As Civil_Disobedient and amberglow have pointed out, all of these problems still exist, they have just been abstracted. Deathalicious brings up the fact that most people don't kill their own food as a reason why we don't find animal cruelty entertaining anymore, and (s)he posits this as a good thing. But is it? We no longer pay money to watch bears being ripped apart in theaters, but the very fact that we are so abstracted from the process that supplies us our food means that we accept without questioning the slaughter of tens of millions of animals a year, far above what we need to actually sustain ourselves. We don't think about the suffering most of those animals go through. We haven't, as a people, said, "the suffering of animals is unconscionable. Our society will no longer tolerate any cruelty toward animals." Instead, we've said, "we don't want to see the suffering of animals, so we will institutionalize it and make it invisibile." Now all of a sudden, it becomes "natural," part of the system, something we don't question because that's just how it works. Or to take another example: we don't tolerate slavery anymore, but we institutionalize certain aspects of oppression into the economic system. Instead of slaves, we have sweatshop workers overseas, illegal immigrants working for pennies here, or wage slaves stuck at 6 bucks an hour for their entire lives. Again, it's "natural" because it's what the market says. In the arena of punishment Foucault's Discipline and Punish does a really excellent job of demonstrating how punishment isn't necessarily any better under the system of mass centralized prisons than it was under the system of drawing and quartering; it's a different form of punishment that takes a different aspect of the individual as its object. And, as I noticed before, the prison population, in the US at least, is soaring, so it can easily be argued we're a far more punitive society in many ways than we were 400 years ago. But again, it's just "the way things are" so we accept these abstractions of violence as natural, and these are exactly the types of things that Pinker, in his need to demonstrate that things are progressing, completely ignores. Now, of course, there are always those people out there saying, "look at the injustice in our economy! look at the inhumanity of our food industry! etc" and those people are wonderful, but without them, most people don't give a shit about the institutionalized violence. Even with those whistleblowers, most people don't care.

And EtherealBligh, I think you misunderstood me. I was not implying that in every era of history all or even most people think "these are the salad days!" Every era, our own included, contains a multitude of opinions on the ideas of progress/regress. Often the same person will hold many conflicting views, which include positive and negative views of their era relative to the past and future. You say that your "observation" of history tells you that most people think things are getting worse; probably so, but ask those same people, "So, would you rather live now, or 50 years ago?" and they'll most likely pick today. There's not a logic to such feelings, and it is very difficult to figure out what is the dominant idea at the moment, because there are always conflicting discourses. So to say, "not many" people have an emotional investment in the idea of progress, well I think that's completely disingenuous and something that you can't back up with facts in any way. And as for your claim that you weren't calling anyone in this thread a proponent of the "noble savage" ideology, well in your initial statement you said that you were rethinking your objections to Pinker's "leftist anthropologist" strawman based on comments in this thread (hutta said something similar), which lead me to believe that you were saying, "maybe it's not a strawman, because it seems like people in this thread are propounding the 'noble savage' philosophy." If I misinterpreted, sorry, but I don't think I did.

On preview: EB, just because there may be a more universal "notion" of humanity doesn't mean that there are more universal practices based on that notion, as I've tried to demonstrate.
posted by papakwanz at 10:19 AM on April 15, 2007 [2 favorites]


Actually, my reading of the article is close to Bligh's: it was Pinker's liberal erection of allegedly leftist strawpeople, at least one per page if not one per paragraph, that irritated me. As to his thesis, due to my own gentle nature I want to believe he's correct, but I'll need more than his handwaving assertions to reach that conclusion.

I also agree that American Mefites (and Americans in general) often oversimplify things by reducing even choice of pizza topping to Democratic vs. Republican squabbling, which frequently reduces the conversation to nonsense and its participants to self-parody. It happened in this thread because TNR was referred to as "neocon" and Pinker said "leftists are goofy" a few too many times; such factors render partisan squabbling the default around here (though I don't see how the U.S. Democratic Party or the majority of its devotees can be regarded as leftist in any meaningful sense). Imagine that if, in an essay on how evil Corporations are, I made cracks like "People who wear Nikes ought to catch the next comet!"

Anyway. This thread itself is too long for me to have digested it fully; maybe I'll weigh in with something Deeply Profound after breakfast.
posted by davy at 10:21 AM on April 15, 2007


very very related thing: “Looking from the side” or maybe not at all. --... So are Americans also “looking from the side” as Mr. Pilger suggests. I would suggest that average Americans are not looking at all. ...

It takes this Pilger article from New Statesman as its starting point-- ...In my experience, most people do not indulge the absurdity and cruelty of the "rules" of rampant power. They do not contort their morality and intellect to comply with double standards and the notion of approved evil, of worthy and unworthy victims. ...
posted by amberglow at 10:29 AM on April 15, 2007


I'm thinking that always bringing up "reason" and the Enlightenment and stuff as positives and as driving forces for present Western societies is a giant crock of shit. We have rarely acted according to those principles truly, and especially never when it comes to land, resources, or even simply inconvenience or some false belief in our innate superiority. We have almost no respect for human rights or people in general.
posted by amberglow at 10:43 AM on April 15, 2007 [1 favorite]


Previously on MeFi: Edison electrocutes an elephant. And, of course, hanging an elephant. It's both fun and educational!
posted by SPrintF at 10:44 AM on April 15, 2007


I think I'm running out of neighborhood squirrels now. What about birds? Do birds make good firewood?

Must. Not. Burn. Martini. Puppy.
posted by miss lynnster at 11:35 AM on April 15, 2007


As people, that is as individuals, we are probably nicer than people in past eras....However, as A people, as a society, it is much harder to say that we have "progressed.

I agree with this absolutely. However, I do think we can view the change you describe as progress (though it's a notoriously ill-defined concept in this context) for the following reason. Though we are in many ways removed from the systematic processes you mentioned, such as the slaughter of livestock in food production, those processes are at least theoretically subordinate to the government, which is at least theoretically subordinate to We, the people. So when we find out about some miscarriage of justice, say when we hear about the intolerable conditions for animals on factory farms, we (again, theoretically) have an avenue for lobbying to change things. Because we have systematically boxed in these processes, we can work to change them through the system. This may not work all the time--I'm sure some would contend it never works but partially--though I think it is certainly not as bad as it could be.

In any case, papakwanz, I found your comment insightful.
posted by voltairemodern at 12:05 PM on April 15, 2007


The magazine n+1 once had a couple of articles concerning the New Republic.
posted by davy at 12:26 PM on April 15, 2007


EB makes excellent points (as usual), and I'm content to leave the large-scale discussion to him. On the narrower issue of cats, I'll recommend Robert Darnton's The Great Cat Massacre, whose eponymous essay begins (WARNING: CONTAINS LENGTHY DESCRIPTION OF CAT ABUSE):
The funniest thing that ever happened in the printing shop of Jacques Vincent, according to a worker who witnessed it, was a riotous massacre of cats. The worker, Nicolas Contat, told the story in an account of his apprenticeship in the shop, rue Saint- Séverin, Paris, during the late 1730s. Life as an apprentice was hard, he explained. There were two of them: Jerome, the somewhat fictionalized version of Contat himself, and Léveillé. They slept in a filthy, freezing room, rose before dawn, ran errands all day while dodging insults from the journeymen and abuse from the master, and received nothing but slops to eat. They found the food especially galling. Instead of dining at the master's table, they had to eat scraps from his plate in the kitchen. Worse still, the cook secretly sold the leftovers and gave the boys cat food—old, rotten bits of meat that they could not stomach and so passed on to the cats, who refused it.

This last injustice brought Contat to the theme of cats. They occupied a special place in his narrative and in the household of the rue Saint-Séverin. The master's wife adored them, especially la grise (the gray), her favorite. A passion for cats seemed to have swept through the printing trade, at least at the level of the masters, or bourgeois as the workers called them. One bourgeois kept teenier cats. He had their portraits painted and fed them on roast fowl. Meanwhile, the apprentices were trying to cope with a profusion of alley cats who also thrived in the printing district and made the boys' lives miserable. The cats howled all night on the roof over the apprentices' dingy bedroom, making it impossible to get a full night's sleep. As Jerome and Léveillé had to stagger out of bed at four or five in the morning to open the gate for the earliest arrivals among the journeymen, they began the day in a state of exhaustion while the bourgeois slept late. The master did not even work with the men, just as he did not eat with them. He let the foreman run the shop and rarely appeared in it, except to vent his violent temper, usually at the expense of the apprentices.

One night the boys resolved to right this inequitable state of affairs. Léveillé, who had an extraordinary talent for mimicry, crawled along the roof until he reached a section near the master's bedroom, and then he took to howling and meowing so horribly that the bourgeois and his wife did not sleep a wink. After several nights of this treatment, they decided they were being bewitched. But instead of calling the curé—the master was exceptionally devout and the mistress exceptionally attached to her confessor—they commanded the apprentices to get rid of the cats. The mistress gave the order, enjoining the boys above all to avoid frightening her grise.

Gleefully Jerome and Léveillé set to work, aided by the journeymen. Armed with broom handles, bars of the press, and other tools of their trade, they went after every cat they could find, beginning with la grise. Léveillé smashed its spine with an iron bar and Jerome finished it off. Then they stashed it in a gutter while the journeymen drove the other cats across the rooftops, bludgeoning every one within reach and trapping those who tried to escape in strategically placed sacks. They dumped sackloads of half-dead cats in the courtyard. Then the entire workshop gathered round and staged a mock trial, complete with guards, a confessor, and a public executioner. After pronouncing the animals guilty and administering last rites, they strung them up on an improvised gallows. Roused by gales of laughter, the mistress arrived. She let out a shriek as soon as she saw a bloody cat dangling from a noose. Then she realized it might be la grise. Certainly not, the men assured her: they had too much respect for the house to do such a thing. At this point the master appeared. He flew into a rage at the general stoppage of work, though his wife tried to explain that they were threatened by a more serious kind of insubordination. Then master and mistress withdrew, leaving the men delirious with "joy," "disorder," and "laughter"...

The whole episode... stood out as the most hilarious experience in Jerome's entire career.

Yet it strikes the modern reader as unfunny, if not downright repulsive... Our own inability to get the joke is an indication of the distance that separates us from the workers of pre-industrial Europe. The perception of that distance may serve as the starting point of an investigation, for anthropologists have found that the best points of entry in an attempt to penetrate an alien culture can be those where it seems to be most opaque. When you realize that you are not getting something—a joke, a proverb, a ceremony—that is particularly meaningful to the natives, you can see where to grasp a foreign system of meaning in order to unravel it. By getting the joke of the great cat massacre, it may be possible to "get" a basic ingredient of artisan culture under the Old Regime.
(Note: Darnton does not ignore the cruelty involved, even though his main purpose is explicating what the workers' use of it meant culturally; he says, "Keeping pets was as alien to the workers as torturing animals was to the bourgeois. Trapped between incompatible sensitivities, the cats had the worst of both worlds." The full text of the chapter is here.)
posted by languagehat at 12:33 PM on April 15, 2007 [4 favorites]


"So, when they ran out of inconvenient people to burn, they turned to cats to fill the void."

Small animals are also good for practice, and don't have many relatives with money or political power.
posted by davy at 12:54 PM on April 15, 2007


Our own inability to get the joke is an indication of the distance that separates us from the workers of pre-industrial Europe.

And an indication that we are not overrun with feral cats. Substitute "rats" or "cockroaches" for "cats" and suddenly it seems a reasonable solution even today.
posted by five fresh fish at 1:26 PM on April 15, 2007


I don't think industrial food production and over-the-horizon warfare really undermine the argument here. The point, I think, is that there is much less desire to inflict violence. Sure, we have found institutional methods that allow us to inflict terrible violence despite this drop in bloodthirst, but the glaring hypocrisy of these phenomena is exactly why I expect them to eventually disappear.

Ignoring for the moment the mental state of those who initiated the current military conflicts, it seems undeniable that it is being carried out with an effort to minimize the death toll. (For the purposes of this discussion, I do think it is relevant that most of the killing is only indirectly caused by our actions.)

As for the meat industry, the fact that vegetarianism is accepted as a reasonable lifestyle choice at all would seem to represent enormous progress over earlier times. And I doubt there would be much interest in meat-in-a-vat technology if there were not substantial moral discomfort among even committed meat eaters about the current state of things.
posted by bjrubble at 1:50 PM on April 15, 2007


Yeah, burning cats is no longer an acceptable public event, even though some people here find it funny to joke about. Perhaps they've never seen animal cruelty. Anyway, I note that torturing animals is accepted even for quasi-research, and the phd and tenure bearing researchers have often been caught on video laughing about the cruelty they are inflicting. I'm sure people will analyze that away, but it's truly sickening. I saw the same behaviour by the profs/TAs in psych classes at uni. Again, sickening.

I've seen that Davies quote before. In the previous context, which I can't put my finger on right now, it convinced me. But there's still sickening cruelty and violence all over the place, especially to animals.

By the way, I understand introduced species more than cats are responsible for the decimation of native songbirds. The regional district here has a program now of addling Canada goose eggs, because there are too many geese. If only we could addle some human eggs. If I knew how, I'd get right on it.
posted by Listener at 2:10 PM on April 15, 2007


Mmmm... addled human eggs...

*drools*
posted by papakwanz at 2:14 PM on April 15, 2007


the catburning story i heard long ago: during the protestant reformation in england, kids would while away their friday nights by constructing a hollow effigy of the pope, filling it with several stray cats and roasting it over a fire. the yowls of the doomed cats emanating from the pope's mouth must have sounded like the christian devil himself was burning.
posted by bruce at 3:34 PM on April 15, 2007


"By the way, I understand introduced species more than cats are responsible for the decimation of native songbirds."

The research about cats pertained only to urban ecologies. There, they are by far the chief predators.
posted by Ethereal Bligh at 3:36 PM on April 15, 2007


jasons_planet: yes, Foucault spends the entire first part of Discipline and Punish looking at that question.
posted by adamgreenfield at 4:25 PM on April 15, 2007


Yeah, burning cats is no longer an acceptable public event, even though some people here find it funny to joke about. Perhaps they've never seen animal cruelty.

Uh huh. That's exactly it. Better stay on that moral high horse, 'cause it's getting chilly in here, and he's next.
posted by spiderwire at 4:39 PM on April 15, 2007


I can just imagine that the Romans really felt the same way. As they lounged around their country villas sipping wine and feasting they must've felt a very deep and abiding sense that they were really making the world a better place. You can just hear the conversations:

"Man, the world really is fantastically lucky that we Romans just happened to conquer it."

"Oh yes, yes, can you imagine it? Before us these savages did nothing but slaughter each other pausing only to engage in even more barbaric acts against cats."

"That's my point exactly! If we hadn't enslaved them these poor brutes would never have known the joys of civilization."

"Here's to Pax Romana! Pax Romana!"

And on review:


By nature, we're no less tribal or violent than we've ever been. But as our circle of empathy has expanded beyond very localized clans, the opportunity for violence between circles of empathy decrease and the portion of population involved in violent conflict decrease.


Who knows what this actually means but the only reason that the portion of population involved in the military goes down is because of technology. When you have nukes you just don't need to mobilize children. It's an efficiency gain and has nothing to do with the cultural environment.

The numbers of soldiers and civilians killed in WWI and WWII are huge, but as percentages of the total populations of the nations involved, they're still less than that of the tribal conflicts that have dominated human history which probably culled 50% or more of young males and a not insignificant portion of the non-warrior population.

Besides the fact that this is simply a made up "fact" that has no basis in reality and most premodern tribes tended to engage in highly ritualized endemic warfare the whole "percentage of the population" gist is just a racist crock that again misinterprets the efficiencies introduced by technology. That and there's a bit of strange thinking going on when large scale massacres of entire cities are taken as equivalent to killing a dozen or so people by playing with some numbers.

Probably the single biggest source of disagreement in this thread is that many of you simple don't realize that you are taking for granted the universalist notion of humanity which is utterly alien to almost all human beings who have ever lived.

This is also, of course, bullshit. The universalist notion of humanity goes back thousands and thousands of years. You find it in Zoroaster, Genesis, the Greeks, the Romans and of course in the Buddha. The notion that 'humanity' is a concept that the West invented "recently" has to be dumbest (and probably most racist) thing I've heard all week.

People rebel against unflattering depictions of cultures distant in space and time because they rightly perceive that many such depictions are self-congratulatory and are caricatures of the “other”.

Actually people tend to rebel against "unflattering depictions" because everybody has a soft spot for the underdog. When it's clear that the oh-so-peaceful modern world was built on the mass destruction and exploitation of non-white peoples by white peoples then the notion of "the most peaceful time ever" strikes one as a bit absurd. Of course these days violence and oppression is just another commodity that can be exported. And since we can all appreciate how expensive and inefficient after the economic fiasco that was the 20th century (really, trillions of dollars down the drain!) we understand that's it much better for business to simply inflict poverty on our victims than actual violence. Hungry people can't cause much trouble.

Ah, well, it's not even really worth it.
posted by nixerman at 4:43 PM on April 15, 2007 [2 favorites]


jasons_planet: yes, Foucault spends the entire first part of Discipline and Punish looking at that question.

Thank you, Adam!
posted by jason's_planet at 4:50 PM on April 15, 2007


It's a waste of time arguing with you, nixerman, but you are primarily responding to an argument you think I was making that I wasn't. For example, when I talked about expanding circles of empathy and the lessening of smaller tribal conflicts I had in mind the rise of large civilizations such as the Chinese and Egyptians and others. You are responding to my argument as if it were Pinker's implicit culturally chauvinistic argument, which mine isn't.

Similarly, I wasn't arguing for your strawman assertion of a unique, noble Western view of universalist humanity. I think that most of the world shares that notion these days at least to a limited extent, but not because it's culturally Western or the result of the spread of some enlightened philosophy. It's just a simple function of technologically-facilitated communication and interdepedence. And your counter-examples suck. Neither the Hebrews nor the Greeks, for example really had notions of universalist essential humanity. Of course people of all times recognize alien humans as being more similar to themselves than to, say, other animals. That's not saying much. There is abundant narrative evidence in both these cultures of an essential distinction between us and them that denies the sorts of empathically-driven similarities that most readers of this thread take for granted.

Your accusation of racism is reflexive and thoughtless and stupid. Again, the trends I'm describing that have led to increased empathy are cross-cultural and are found historically across the globe in many non-Western cultures. The small-circle empathy tribalistic behaviors are found in European cultures, historically and in the present. Yes, I do think that so-called western liberal values have some influence on this historical trend, but I think that's more an accident of history than anything else because those values aren't unique or exceptional as the chauvinists like to claim. I am not making a culturally chauvinist argument and have no political agenda in engaging in this topic. I don't think people are less bloodthirsty today, or are less prone to cruelty, or that the decrease in acts of cruelty and violence is some deep cultural trend related to values. I think it's mostly a function of greatly increased communication, interdependency, and the rise of nations.

On the other hand, you clearly hold to some version of an argument that is essentially a cultural critique. Where I'm not comparing specific cultures, much less making qualitative value judgments about them, you are. You're the one who has specifically in mind our culture. I didn't and don't, except as an example of a larger trend which is independent of the West and the "modern world" (which you mention and I do not). And because you are so certain this is necessarily a political topic about the clash of civilizations, you can't engage on the topic without assuming that everyone else is taking a position in that debate. God, I hate ideology, this need to understand every goddamn thing through some single lens. I detect it strongly in Pinker's article and I detect its opposite, though less strongly, in your comment.
posted by Ethereal Bligh at 6:31 PM on April 15, 2007


The execution of Balthezar Gerard:
In the first night of his imprisonment Balthasar Gérard was hung on a pole and lashed with a whip. After that his wounds were smeared with honey and a goat was brought to lick the honey off his bruised skin with his sharp tongue. The goat however refused to touch the body of the sentenced. After this and other tortures he was left the night with his hands and feet bound together, as a ball, so he couldn't sleep. During the following three days, he was repeatedly mocked and hung on the pole with his hands tied on his back. Then a weight of 300 pounds (136 kg) was attached to each of his big toes for half an hour.

After this half hour he was fitted with shoes made of well-oiled, raw dog's leather; the shoes were two fingers shorter than his feet. In this state he was put before a fire. When the shoes warmed up, they contracted crushing the feet inside them to stumps. When these shoes were removed, his half broiled skin was torn off. After his feet were damaged, his armpits were branded. After that he was dressed in a shirt soaked in alcohol. Then burning bacon fat was poured over him and sharp nails were stuck between the flesh and the nails of his hands and feet. Gérard is said to have remained calm during his torture.

Then, the magistrates sentenced that the right hand of Gérard should be burned off with a red-hot iron, that his flesh should be torn from his bones with pincers in six different places, that he should be drawn and quartered and disemboweled alive, that his heart should be torn from his bosom and flung in his face, and that, finally, his head should be cut off.
So, who still wants to tell me we were better off 500 years ago?
posted by myeviltwin at 8:02 PM on April 15, 2007


NOT EVEN DOOM MUSIC!
posted by sourwookie at 8:21 PM on April 15, 2007


So, who still wants to tell me we were better off 500 years ago?
posted by myeviltwin


Strawman award of the thread!

Absolutely no one in this thread has said "we were better off 500 years ago" or anything like it. Learn to read. But, since it's apparently cool to grab some examples and post them randomly, here are a few high points from Iraq:

"The UN report says detainees' bodies often show signs of beating using electrical cables, wounds in heads and genitals, broken legs and hands, electric and cigarette burns. Bodies found at the Baghdad mortuary "often bear signs of severe torture including acid-induced injuries and burns caused by chemical substances". Many bodies have missing skin, broken bones, back, hands and legs, missing eyes, missing teeth and wounds caused by power drills or nails, the UN report says. Victims come from prisons run by US-led multinational forces as well as by the ministries of interior and defence and private militias, the report said."

"· On 14 May, two US armed vehicles broke through the perimeter wall of the home of Sa’adi Suleiman Ibrahim al-‘Ubaydi in Ramadi. Soldiers beat him with rifle butts and then shot him dead as he tried to flee.

· US forces shot 12-year-old Mohammad al-Kubaisi as they carried out search operations around his house in the Hay al-Jihad area in Baghdad on 26 June. He was carrying the family bedding to the roof of his house when he was shot. Neighbours tried to rush him by car to the nearby hospital, but US soldiers stopped them. By the time they got back home, Mohammad al-Kubaisi was dead. CPA officials told AI delegates in July that Mohammad al-Kubaisi was carrying a gun when he was killed.

· On 17 September a 14-year-old boy was killed and six people were injured when US troops opened fire at a wedding party in Fallujah. The soldiers reportedly believed they were under attack when shots were fired in the air in celebration.

· On 23 September, three farmers, ‘Ali Khalaf, Sa’adi Faqri and Salem Khalil, were killed and three others injured when US troops opened a barrage of gunfire reportedly lasting for at least an hour in the village of al-Jisr near Fallujah. A US military official stated that the troops came under attack but this was vehemently denied by relatives of the dead. Later that day, US military officials reportedly went to the farmhouse, took photographs and apologized to the family.
AI has also documented numerous cases where British soldiers have resorted to lethal force and killed Iraqi civilians even though their lives and the lives of others did not appear to be in danger. In some of these cases, no investigation has been carried out. In others, the investigation appeared to be inadequate. Families of victims killed by the British Army are usually given no information or inadequate information about the mechanisms and procedures for investigations and compensation.

· Walid Fayay Mazban, a driver aged 42, was shot dead by British soldiers on 24 August at a junction near the Apache Military Camp in circumstances indicating that no lives were in danger. Soldiers had set up a temporary checkpoint at the junction, but street lights were not working so the whole area was dark. When Walid Fayay Mazban failed to stop at the checkpoint, he was shot several times in his back by a British soldier. Soldiers found nothing of suspicion in his car. In September the British Army paid around US$1,500 to his family on humanitarian grounds. The Royal Military Police launched an investigation into the killing, but Walid Fayay Mazban’s family have been provided with no information on the progress of the investigation."


"it's critical to recognize that this set of images from Abu Ghraib is only one snapshot of systematic tactics the United States has used in four-plus years of the global war on terror. There have been many allegations of abuse, torture and other practices that violate international law, from holding prisoners without charging them at Guantánamo Bay and other secretive U.S. military bases and prison facilities around the world to the practice of "rendition," or the transporting of detainees to foreign countries whose regimes use torture, to ongoing human rights violations inside detention facilities in Iraq. Abu Ghraib in fall 2003 may have been its own particular hell, but the variations of individual abuse perpetrated appear to be exceptional in only one way: They were photographed and filmed."
posted by papakwanz at 8:54 PM on April 15, 2007


Basically a new generation of young men and women are being crushed in psyche and spirit in yet another bungled war. It's going to be hell having them come home. WTF is a young man with the experiences of slaughtering villages going to do when he gets back to Kansas? Why on earth are our young adults being treated so shabbily? Surely war should be a last resort, not the first.
posted by five fresh fish at 9:30 PM on April 15, 2007


"[M]uch better for business to simply inflict poverty on our victims than actual violence. Hungry people can't cause much trouble."

There must be very few POOR people in the U.S.A. then, as from what I see most adults who don't look "well-to-do" are FAT. But they don't seem able to cause much trouble either; I'll chase a missed bus half a block and fall down gasping.
posted by davy at 10:12 PM on April 15, 2007


papakwanz, thank you! I couldn't have asked for a more perfect example of the ideological blindness shown by some people in this thread.

If the Iraq war were happening 500 years ago, they would have been flaying suspected insurgents alive in the town square. The civilian populations of entire cities would have been exterminated in cold blood. Infanticide, slavery, and rape would have been commonplace and unobjectionable.

Abu Ghraib (rightly!) provoked an international outcry. But those abuses are nothing compared to what people used to do to their enemies without thinking twice about it, and without worrying for an instant that anyone would care.

I think that this sea change in moral thinking is fascinating and important, and I think that this is totally compatible with my belief that the Iraq war is an immoral cluster-fuck. But if you'd prefer to keep beating that same old hobbyhorse, by all means, have at it.
posted by myeviltwin at 5:57 AM on April 16, 2007


Lynn Hunt's Inventing Human Rights: A History discusses how the modern concept of natural, equal, and universal human rights came into existence and spread. The NY Times review by Gordon Wood says:
Whatever the underlying causes may have been, and they were many and complicated, there is no doubt that people in the 18th century, as Hunt clearly demonstrates, developed a new aversion to all sorts of cruelties and barbarities that previous centuries had taken more or less for granted, including the persistence of slavery, torture and extremely harsh criminal punishments.

Hunt devotes a chapter to torture and cruel punishments because their abolition helps her better illustrate the complicated character of the changes that took place. Torture and cruel punishments ended, she says, not because judges gave up on them or because Enlightenment writers opposed them, but because “the traditional framework of pain and personhood fell apart, to be replaced, bit by bit, by a new framework, in which individuals ... recognized in other people the same passions, sentiments and sympathies as in themselves.”

The 18th-century American and French declarations unleashed “an implacable logic” that expanded rights to all sorts of individuals and groups, including Jews and other members of minority religions, slaves and women. In the 19th century, however, rights became attached to particular nations and ethnicities, and they lost much of their equal and universal character. “It took two devastating world wars,” Hunt writes, “to shatter this confidence in the nation.”

Only following the Universal Declaration of Human Rights of 1948, which “crystallized 150 years of struggle,” did rights once again come to dominate the conscience of much of the world. Human rights, Hunt concludes, have now become “our only commonly shared bulwark” against the brutalities and cruelties that still afflict much of humanity.
But of course, because brutalities and cruelties have not been entirely extirpated and terrible things are going on in Iraq, all this is meaningless, and Hunt and Wood are just ignorant dupes of Western imperialist hegemony.
/anticipating kneejerk reactions
posted by languagehat at 7:38 AM on April 16, 2007


If the Iraq war were happening 500 years ago, they would have been flaying suspected insurgents alive in the town square.

Somebody's been watching too much television. All past wars didn't involve wild flayings and massacres by hairy barbarians. Indeed such "total war" which explicitly targets civilian populations is a recent invention. And of course the notion that it's "less bad" to bomb a civilian population into oblivion than to go in and manually kill a bunch of people is dumb. I'm really just can't see at all how anybody can possibly believe that modern wars are less brutal and destructive than their historical counterparts.

Abu Ghraib (rightly!) provoked an international outcry.

Yeah and a lot of good that did. After Abu Ghraib the US promptly stopped all their ongoing torture programs. Right? And Congress promptly passed laws explicitly forbidding any and all torture?

Come on.

the modern concept of natural, equal, and universal human rights came into existence and spread.

The concept of 'human rights' isn't the same as a universalistic notion of humanity. And while the legal fiction of human rights is a tremendous technical victory it does nothing to support any notion of a moral superiority on behalf of modernity. Plenty of states have had all sorts of constitutions and declarations while still committing extraordinary acts of genocide and barbarism, acts that far surpass anything achieved by ancient conquerors but perceived as more "moral" because they were committed in an orderly fashion. When you compare the deeds and not the words on paper you see a very different picture. This isn't new of course. Many an ancient empire has dressed itself in universalist notions of good and right and justice only to then proceed to slaughter and oppress their enemies. The only real difference is that they didn't have television and so could never quite believe their own bullshit.
posted by nixerman at 8:06 AM on April 16, 2007 [1 favorite]


Indeed such "total war" which explicitly targets civilian populations is a recent invention.

Sorry, wrong:

"Thus saith the LORD of hosts, I remember that which Amalek did to Israel, how he laid wait for him in the way, when he came up from Egypt. Now go and smite Amalek, and utterly destroy all that they have, and spare them not; but slay both man and woman, infant and suckling, ox and sheep, camel and ass."

And of course the notion that it's "less bad" to bomb a civilian population into oblivion than to go in and manually kill a bunch of people is dumb.

If you really think that our intention in Iraq is to "bomb a civilian population into oblivion" you need to take a reality pill.
posted by myeviltwin at 8:26 AM on April 16, 2007


I keep forgetting that we had nothing but good intentions for Iraq. It's so easy to get confused. But yes, the whole 'freedom is on the march' thing. I just wonder if the Iraqis appreciate all of our good intentions.
posted by nixerman at 8:29 AM on April 16, 2007


If the Iraq war were happening 500 years ago, they would have been flaying suspected insurgents alive in the town square.

Do you think that if the Iraq War happened 500 years ago, an entire fucking country would have been bombed to shit with such efficiency, and hundreds of thousands of people would died in such a short span of time? Not bloody likely.

As I've said over and over again in this thread, it's not about what people consciously approve or disapprove of. It's what people have allowed to become a part of the natural order of things so that they don't have to think about it. It's a move from obvious violence to institutionalized violence.

And as to the Bible as a historical document recording the realities of war... well, let's just say that might be a little iffy. I'm no historian of the Old Testament Middle East, but how often did such mass slaughters actually occur? How often did people kill tens of thousands of people in a single day as happened at Hiroshima, Nagasaki, and Dresden?

languagehat: normally you're a little more rational in other threads. I'm surprised to see you busting out the strawmen.
posted by papakwanz at 9:16 AM on April 16, 2007 [1 favorite]


Well, at least people are talking about the war in this thread. I think the whole point of that fluffy article in the OP was to help nuture complacency with the status quo. The gist was something like: look, they did awful terrible things to kitties and I have some stats to show you, so don't worry about what's happening now.
posted by Burhanistan at 9:19 AM on April 16, 2007


papakwanz:
Do you think that if the Iraq War happened 500 years ago...hundreds of thousands of people would died in such a short span of time?

Well, you're only off by an order of magnitude: iraqbodycount.net estimates that between 60,000 and 70,000 civilians have died since the beginning of the war. Note that their definition of "civilian" includes what the U.S. government would call insurgents. This number also includes Iraqi-on-Iraqi violence.

Compare this to the sack of Jerusalem during the first Crusade, which resulted in anywhere from 40,000 to 100,000 casualties, including essentially the entire civilian population of the city.

Obligatory disclaimer: I think the war in Iraq is a horrible mistake, and one casualty is one too many. However, it helps no one to deny basic facts about human history on the basis of one's opposition to the Iraq war.
posted by myeviltwin at 9:51 AM on April 16, 2007


myeviltwin,

Well if all you wanted to do was compare body counts then you should have just said as much. The amount of mass killings in the 20th century far exceeds that of any other century.When you extend this back to cover 'modernity' you get what is undoubtedly the bloodiest era in the history of the planet. And since we love animals so much you can factor in the ecological destruction and this makes the picture a tad bit worse. This is of course just one reason why the the article is so absurd (ignoring the stupid parts about cat burnings): the authors deliberately pick and choose only those data points that support their stupid hypothesis. Yes, let's take murder rates from the 15th century and compare them to 20th century England but, wait, let's only compare interstate battle deaths from the 1950's -- we don't want those pesky centuries of European-driven warfare botching up the numbers.

And I'm not sure your comparison of the Iraq War to the sack of Jerusalem supports your point. For one the Iraq Body Count is not definitive since it's based on press reports. Do you honestly think that only 70,000 people have died in the war? But either way, in case you haven't noticed, the war is far from over. We've still got a good five to ten years left! I'm extremely confident that before the war ends we'll show those primitive Crusaders who's #1 when it comes to incidents mass killings and war-time deaths.
posted by nixerman at 10:31 AM on April 16, 2007 [1 favorite]


Nixerman, it wasn't at all my intention to "compare body counts." My only points with that example were that:

1. Papakwanz's claim that "hundreds of thousands" of people had died in Iraq was wrong.

2. His claim that high body counts are only possible with recent technology is also wrong.

3. In terms of sheer savagery and disregard for human life, the current situation in Iraq doesn't hold a candle to what people used to find perfectly acceptable wartime behavior.

I think it's actually a really interesting question whether it makes sense to talk about violence in absolute numbers or proportional to total population. Unfortunately I don't see any serious answers to that question here, just a lot of knees jerking and not much regard for the facts.
posted by myeviltwin at 12:40 PM on April 16, 2007


What nixerman said throughout this thread. It's unbelievable how out-of-sight, out-of-mind people are here, and how desperately people need to feel we've progressed. I'm sorry to say we haven't at all, and are backsliding even from the cold war days.

To talk about 500 years ago and what people used to do to each other (all locally, by the way, for the most part), when we've bombed 2 countries back that many years to the point where 4 years later they don't have consistent electricity nor sewage is astonishing. When we've caused up to 2 million Iraqis to become refugees elsewhere for no reason. When we now plan and execute wars from 5000 miles away and no one looks up from the tv once the "shock and awe" phase is over... Simply astonishing.

Some proof we're actually less violent would be nice to see in this thread. I don't see any, while we might as well drown in all the current blood we spill and caused to be spilled.
posted by amberglow at 5:49 PM on April 16, 2007


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