Mindre vold på grund af Oplysningen?

Lingvisten Steven Pinker har haft stor succes med at minde os om, hvor heldige vi er i forhold til generationerne før os. Trods indtrykket man kunne få fra nyhedsstrømmen bevæger historien sig stadigt længere væk fra vold. I 2012 kunne man læse et interview med Pinker i Reason

Just a couple of centuries ago, violence was pervasive. Slavery was widespread, wife and child beating were acceptable practices, heretics and witches were burned at the stake, pogroms and race riots were common, and warfare was nearly constant. Public hangings, bearbaiting, and even cat burning were popular forms of entertainment. By examining collections of ancient skeletons and scrutinizing contemporary tribal societies, anthropologists have found that people were nine times as likely to die violent deaths in the prehistoric period than in modern times, even allowing for the world wars and genocides of the 20th century. Europe’s murder rate was 30 times higher in the Middle Ages than it is today.

What happened? Human nature did not change, but our institutions did, encouraging people to restrain their natural tendencies toward violence. In more than 800 pages of data and analysis, Pinker identifies a series of institutional changes that have led to decreasing levels of life-threatening violence. The rise of states 5,000 years ago dramatically reduced tribal conflict. In recent centuries, the spread of courtly manners, literacy, commerce, and democracy have reduced violence even more. Polite behavior requires self-restraint, literacy encourages empathy, commerce changes zero-sum encounters into mutually beneficial exchanges, and democracy restrains the excesses of government.

Nogen mener endda at kunne bekræfte Pinkers teorier matematisk. John Gray er ikke sikker i på at det forholder sig så ligefremt med volden, som Pinker hævder. I Guardian peger han på flere forskellige faktorer, der også har indflydelse på nedgangen af vold, som eksempelvis kernevåben. De holder stormagterne i skak, mener han, og reducerer deres konfrontationer til proxy-krige. Derudover sætter han også spørgsmålstegn ved opgørelsen af ofre for konflikt kun skal tælles på slagmarken. Der var flere civile ofre under 2 Verdenkrig end Napoleonskrigene eksempelvis. Og hvor mange år af sit liv skal man miste førend man tæller med som offer (cancertilfælde efter Hiroshima osv).

Og så er der spørgsmålet om, hvad vold er. Korporlighed er helt klart trængt i baggrunden, men volden kan tage andre former. Var 1700 tallets gabestok værre end nutidens isolationsfængsel? Krige har ændret væsen og vi har ændret vores syn på vold. Men det betyder ikke nødvendigvis at vi er stoppet med at udøve vold, vi konfronteres blot sjældnere vores ofre. Modus operandi til side, så er Obamas droner og Kalifatets halshugninger krigsførelse, men blodet på hænderne er kun konkret i det sidste tilfælde. Alt sammen interessante akademiske indvendinger og nuanceringer, som jeg kun kan anbefale at man læser.

Men jeg vil hæfte mig ved den åndelige side af Pinkers teori, ideen om Oplysningens saliggørende effekter, thi disse antager løgnagtige former. Gray forklarer at arven fra Oplysningstiden ikke er et tag-selv bord af gode intentioner humanistiske idealer. Oplysningstiden satte mennesket i centrum, med alle dets implikationer til følge

Among the causes of the outbreak of altruism, Pinker and Singer attach particular importance to the ascendancy of Enlightenment thinking. Reviewing Pinker, Singer writes: “During the Enlightenment, in 17th- and 18th-century Europe and countries under European influence, an important change occurred. People began to look askance at forms of violence that had previously been taken for granted: slavery, torture, despotism, duelling and extreme forms of punishment … Pinker refers to this as ‘the humanitarian revolution’.” Here too Pinker and Singer belong in a contemporary orthodoxy. With other beliefs crumbling, many seek to return to what they piously describe as “Enlightenment values”. But these values were not as unambiguously benign as is nowadays commonly supposed. John Locke denied America’s indigenous peoples any legal claim to the country’s “wild woods and uncultivated wastes”; Voltaire promoted the “pre-Adamite” theory of human development according to which Jews were remnants of an earlier and inferior humanoid species; Kant maintained that Africans were innately inclined to the practice of slavery; the utilitarian Jeremy Bentham developed the project of an ideal penitentiary, the Panopticon, where inmates would be kept in solitary confinement under constant surveillance. None of these views is discussed by Singer or Pinker. More generally, there is no mention of the powerful illiberal current in Enlightenment thinking, expressed in the Jacobins and the Bolsheviks, which advocated and practised methodical violence as a means of improving society.

Like many others today, Pinker’s response when confronted with such evidence is to define the dark side of the Enlightenment out of existence. How could a philosophy of reason and toleration be implicated in mass murder? The cause can only be the sinister influence of counter-Enlightenment ideas. Discussing the “Hemoclysm” – the tide of 20th-century mass murder in which he includes the Holocaust – Pinker writes: “There was a common denominator of counter-Enlightenment utopianism behind the ideologies of nazism and communism.” You would never know, from reading Pinker, that Nazi “scientific racism” was based in theories whose intellectual pedigree goes back to Enlightenment thinkers such as the prominent Victorian psychologist and eugenicist Francis Galton. Such links between Enlightenment thinking and 20th-century barbarism are, for Pinker, merely aberrations, distortions of a pristine teaching that is innocent of any crime: the atrocities that have been carried out in its name come from misinterpreting the true gospel, or its corruption by alien influences. The childish simplicity of this way of thinking is reminiscent of Christians who ask how a religion of love could possibly be involved in the Inquisition. In each case it is pointless to argue the point, since what is at stake is an article of faith.

There is nothing new in the suggestion that war is disappearing along with the “civilising process”. The notion that the human capacity for empathy is expanding alongside an increase of rationality owes its wide influence to Auguste Comte, an almost forgotten early-19th-century French Enlightenment thinker. Comte founded the “religion of humanity”, a secular creed based on the most advanced “science” of the day – phrenology. While Pinker and Singer don’t discuss Comte, his ideas shape their way of thinking. For one thing, Comte coined the term “altruism”. Like Pinker and Singer, he believed that humankind – or at any rate its most highly developed portions – was becoming more selfless and beneficent. But he was also a sharp critic of liberalism who believed the process would end in an “organic” way of life – a “scientific” version of the medieval social order that, despite his hostility to traditional religion, he much admired. It was Comte’s virulent anti-liberalism that worried John Stuart Mill, another Enlightenment thinker who was in many other ways Comte’s disciple. Mill went so far as to suggest that the propagation of the species would in future become a duty to humanity rather than a selfish pleasure; but he feared that a world in which this was the case would be one without liberty or individuality. Mill need not have worried. Human beings continue to be capable of empathy, but there is no reason for thinking they are becoming any more altruistic or more peaceful.

It may be true that the modern state’s monopoly of force has led, in some contexts, to declining rates of violent death. But it is also true that the power of the modern state has been used for purposes of mass killing, and one should not pass too quickly over victims of state terror. With increasing historical knowledge it has become clear that the “Holocaust-by-bullets” – the mass shootings of Jews, mostly in the Soviet Union, during the second world war – was perpetrated on an even larger scale than previously realised. Soviet agricultural collectivisation incurred millions of foreseeable deaths, mainly as a result of starvation, with deportation to uninhabitable regions, life-threatening conditions in the Gulag and military-style operations against recalcitrant villages also playing an important role. Peacetime deaths due to internal repression under the Mao regime have been estimated to be around 70 million. Along with fatalities caused by state terror were unnumbered millions whose lives were irreparably broken and shortened. How these casualties fit into the scheme of declining violence is unclear. Pinker goes so far as to suggest that the 20th-century Hemoclysm might have been a gigantic statistical fluke, and cautions that any history of the last century that represents it as having been especially violent may be “apt to exaggerate the narrative coherence of this history” (the italics are Pinker’s). However, there is an equal or greater risk in abandoning a coherent and truthful narrative of the violence of the last century for the sake of a spurious quantitative precision.

I The Week tilslutter Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry sig stort set John Grays indvendinger og mener at det egentlige skifte er at vi er blevet mere sarte eller sippede når vi konfronteres med vold og andres ubehag. Og at vi derfor her fjernet os fra realiteternes verden (også ifølge Sean Penn). Vi konfronteres nødigt med processen bag vores vacuum pakkede kød for at tage et dagligt eksempel. Hitlers og Stalins grusomheder blev begået i fjerntliggende lejre og endda benægtet osv. Men Gobrys pointe er at hvis der overhovedet er tale om en nedgang i vold “it is due to Christianity”

By now, mainstream historians are slowly waking up to the realization that almost everything we like about the Enlightenment, from the rule of law to the scientific method to capitalism, had its roots in the extraordinary civilization of the Middle Ages.

Why is it that we modern persons are so much more squeamish, so much more likely to be stirred by the idea of harm?

One answer might be that our civilization had, for a millennium, at the center of its moral imagination, the battered and broken figure of a slave hanging from a gibbet, condemned to die by all rightful authorities and abandoned by his friends.

And it is worth noting that the increase in squeamishness in the West dates back from the takeover of the Roman Empire by Christianity.

A key indicator of cultural squeamishness is how a society treats children. As the historian O.M. Bakke shows in the tellingly-named book How Children Became People: The Birth of Childhood in Early Christianity, Pagan society considered children as little more than objects, with consequences of — to us post-Christians — astonishing cruelty. The practice of abandoning newborns was widespread and not frowned upon. While most abandoned infants died, those who did not were typically “rescued” into child sex slavery, which was a legal and thriving industry. The sources report that sex with castrated boys, in particular, was considered very titillating, and there are reports of babies castrated to serve that purpose. These were all practices that Christians famously condemned, and Bakke nicely traces how phrases by Jesus holding children up as examples and insisting on care for the “least of these” caused emerging civilization, for the first time in the history of the West, to regard children as full human beings endowed with rights.

Another good indicator of squeamishness is the treatment of slaves. While only by the High Middle Ages was slavery over in the West — the first time in all of human history that a culture had abolished slavery — as soon as Christianity became the state religion of the Roman Empire rafts of unprecedented laws were passed to reform the institution of slavery, typically “squeamish” laws such as banning sexual relations between slaves and masters, making it illegal to break up slave families, banning the branding of slaves (first on the face, and later anywhere). The first condemnation of slavery as an institution in all of recorded history was made by the Catholic bishop and Church Father Gregory of Nyssa, in strikingly “squeamish” terms, exhorting his congregation to see in their slaves the same image of God that dwells in them, and to free them.

Because human hearts are so hard and crooked, this rise in squeamishness was infuriatingly slow and incomplete (and still is), but if there is one starting point one could name, it would be the rise of Christianity. If the Enlightenment did anything, it was only to accelerate a process that had been ongoing for centuries.

3. The modern age doesn’t look so hot when you count abortion.

Abortion is a typical “squeamish” issue, where mere squeamishness leads us astray. It’s harder to get squeamish about a “clump of cells” than a live baby, even though there is no conceptual difference between the two. When it comes to disabled children in the womb, we all too often get squeamish in exactly the wrong way: we get squeamish about the pain they will endure, instead of getting squeamish about the idea of snuffing out innocent life. “Care/harm” makes us empathize more with those we recognize as our alter egos, but make us empathize less about those we do not include in our circle of fellowship.

According to the U.S. Abortion Clock there have been 55 million abortions in the United States since abortion was legalized in the U.S., and more than one billion abortions worldwide since 1980. One billion. If abortions are counted as homicides then the modern age sure doesn’t look so hot.

4. The dark side of the Enlightenment.

The one true sleight-of-hand practiced by Steven Pinker in his account of the decline of violence (which, as I have said, has a lot of truth) is that he tries to erase the inherently modern phenomenon of totalitarianism from the legacy of the Enlightenment, so that they don’t get put on the Enlightenment’s balance sheet.

But totalitarianism is an inherently modern phenomenon that would have been impossible without the Enlightenment. Late 18th century French society got squeamish about the public torture of Jean-François Damiens — and just a few decades later, they used the hygienic innovation of the guillotine to murder people in the name of Enlightenment values on a scale that would have been unthinkable in the Ancien Régime. Communism was inherently a modern phenomenon: atheistic, pseudo-scientific, and pseudo-rationalistic, driven by a post-Christian and “squeamish” concern for the fates of the working poor, universal in scope and ambition. And while Nazism got mileage out of reactionary rhetoric, it is also inseparable from roots in the movements of “scientific racism” and eugenics which argued for treating human genetics as a kind of technology and fixing it (with the power of the state if need be).

I make this point because I am a person who believes the Enlightenment is a very good thing, but that it also has its dark side. The modern age included a laudable squeamishness against tyranny, but it also included a nice dose of utopian hubris, and the special horrors of the modern age are incomprehensible without this Enlightenment idea. The Enlightenment is a glorious thing, but it is also a dangerous thing — it must always be rescued from itself. The first way to do it is to refuse to whitewash its true legacy.

Som en lille eftertanke vil jeg også nævne Quodlibetas Humphreys kritik af Pinkers oppustning af middelalderlige mordstatistikker, for at hamre hans pointe hjem i Oplysningens navn (en god ven indskød at der qua gennemsnitslevetidens stigning er flere ældre mennesker i dag og altså gennemsnitligt færre unge brushoveder til at begå vold). Ikke så meget for at hakke på Pinkers arbejde, men på grund af følgende anekdote

In 1355 in what became known as the ‘St Scholastic’s Day riot’ an argument in a tavern became a pub brawl which went on for the next 3 days. It began when a group of students at an inn near Carfax disapproved of the wine they were served. The inn-keeper having given them ‘stubborn and saucy language’ the clerks ‘threw the wine and vessel at his head’. The townspeople then seized the opportunity to arm themselves with bows and arrows and attack scholars. Gangs of academics and citizens clashed in the streets and academic halls were burned. Six students and scholars were killed.


Dengang fandt folket sig ikke så let i elitens svigt.

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