13 November 2011
Tough-minded people are from Missouri. You have to show them what you say is true. They are empiricists. Like Joe Friday on Dragnet, they demand “just the facts, Ma’am.” They have no time for wishful thinking in any shape or form.
Given the state of the world, tough-minded folks tend to be pessimists.(1) Whoever is responsible—God or Man or Nature—they botched it. There’s not much to be done about it at this late date, though. Best give it up as a bad job.
Tender-minded people, in contrast, are from California. They are convinced that everything is bound to come out all right, in the end. If something should be true, that, for them, is evidence that it is true.
In spite of the state of the world, tender-minded folks tend to be optimistists. If it looks like God or Man or Nature has done less than a bang-up job, that is only on the level of appearance (or, as they like to say on the left coast, maya). Underneath it all, or at least in the long run, everything will turn out for best. Where there’s life, there’s hope.
Now, what’s interesting about these caricatures is that they do not divide cleanly along the standard demarcation lines of the culture wars.
Secular devotees of science like to think of themselves as tough-minded, above all—willing to face the harsh facts from which others avert their gaze. But at the same time, bleeding-heart and tree-hugging liberals are the very essence of tender-mindedness.
Similarly, our science-worshipping atheists like to portray Christians as tender-minded, and maybe some of them are, but the Synoptic Gospels depict a fellow who was about as tough-minded as they come.
As for the neo-cons who prided themselves on their post-9/11 tough-mindedness in Afghanistan and Iraq, only time will tell whether they were not in fact among the most tender-minded—naively optimistic—of us all.
To try to sort out these contradictions a bit, let’s look at some data. As it happens, there are a couple of books that have just been published, which address the question of the shape of human history and whether, all things considered, it gives us more cause for hope or despair.(2)
Steven Pinker’s The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined (Viking, 2011); and
Matthew White’s The Great Big Book of Horrible Things: The Definitive Chronicle of History’s 100 Worst Atrocities (W.W. Norton, 2011).
Pinker’s widely reviewed tome amasses reams of statistics, drawn from archaeology and anthropology, as well as conventional history, which support the conclusion that an individual’s chances of dying a violent death have been steadily declining over the course of the past several centuries, and are now at the lowest point in all of human history.
In other words, although the absolute number of violent deaths per annum has been growing over the course of history, as one would expect, the violent-death rate as a proportion of the population has been steadily falling.
The main reason this stunning claim seems so hard to creidt, according to Pinker, is that we have an erroneous, Rousseau-inspired view of the edenic existence of primitive peoples. In fact, anthropological data seem to show that both the homocide rate within hunter-gatherer bands, and the fatality rate due to inter-tribal warfare, exceed the figures for modern urban homicide rates and warfare fatality rates, by a wide margin.
Some of the methods behind some of Pinker’s data have been called into question by critics. But apparently the main trend cannot really be disputed. A number of careful studies have all converged on the conclusion that, at least since the Middle Ages, the homicide rate in the West has been steadily declining.
As for wars, as terrible as it was, the 20th century cannot compete with the 13th, when Genghis Khan’s hordes swept over a vast expanse of the territory of Asia, putting to death an estimated 40 million people. This represented a far larger proportion of the population at that time than did the estimated 130 million who perished in armed conflicts during the course of the 20th century.
Mr. White’s carefully researched volume comes to broadly similar conclusions. It has received some criticism because White is not a professional historian. But in the main, his numbers do seem to hold up to scrutiny.
A fascinating chart entitled Population Control, Marauder Style has been compiled by The New York Times and posted on the Internet, which summarizes much of the material in White’s book.
Still, these terrifying figures remind us of just how bloody human history has been all along. And that might not seem like much consolation for the tender-minded optimist, or much support for his hopeful view of humanity, overall.
But, then, one has to take into account many other factors, as well, in order to arrive at a just assessment of the question whether, all things considered, the human condition gives us more grounds for hope or for despair.
For instance, we must look not just at the rate of violent death, but also at such things as the decline in torture and other forms of cruelty, the abolition of slavery, the widespread education of women, and the steady increase in average life expectancy throughout the world.
Above all, we must consider the fact that violence and cruelty, where they undoubtedly still exist, are no longer accepted as the normal, unremarkable state of humanity, but rather are now universally condemned and fought against, in however quixotic a fashion.
All of which leads me to feel that an intermediate view—leavening pessimism with optimism, tough-mindedness with tender-mindedness—is the most balanced way of looking at human history.
This sort of hopeful despair (or despairing hopefulness) was once memorably expressed by Samuel Beckett, of all people. Speaking of the events at the Place of the Skull 2000 years ago, the great Irishman is said to have remarked that the lesson we should all take to heart is this:
Do not despair; one of the thieves was saved. Do not presume; one of the thieves was damned.
(1) The illustration above depicts the siege, leading to the sacking, of Baghdad in 1258 AD, by Hulagu Khan, grandson of Genghis Khan. For the pessimist, it ever was and will be thus.
(2) A third new book that is also relevant is Niall Ferguson’s Civilization: The West and the Rest (Penguin Press, 2011). I intend to make this book the focus of a future post.