Monday, November 7, 2011

Dear Bob, Dare I Love? A book review

The following is my review of the book, "The Better Angels Of Our Nature", by Steven Pinker. It is cast in the form of a lonely-hearts column, featuring "Bob" talking sense to a friend of yours and mine.


Dear “Bob”:

I write you for guidance, for my heart is rent in twain. I yearn, yet I fear; I believe, but I doubt. Please advise!

The object of my affection is Humanity. I think I am falling in love again, but I wonder if that is wise. Humankind has broken my heart before, you see.

We have a long history together, Humanity and I, some of it good, and some of it not good at all. When it was good between us, it was very, very good! The times we’ve had together, the places we’ve been! And such a good provider! So thoughtful and sweet!  But on the other hand… there have been lies, and broken promises. And bullying. And screaming quarrels. And brutal abuse. The things that Humanity has done to me...

Not long ago I told myself that enough was enough. I vowed to never love Humanity again. It was a matter of self-respect. That way I was safe, but miserable.

But lately things have gotten better between us. Much better, in fact. I hadn’t noticed, but Steven Pinker - a mutual friend - wrote a book, called “The Better Angels Of Our Nature”, and he showed it to me. His book was full of facts and figures and dozens of bar charts; and they all proved that Humanity is growing less violent.

And this has been going on for decades. And centuries. And millennia. Pinker’s statistics say that right now is the most peaceful era in all of human history - and prehistory! He says that we must be doing something right.

How thrilled I was to hear such good news about my sweetheart! It’s as if all of my prayers are coming true! Yet at the same time, my heart is reluctant. I want to believe, I do, and yet I do not. Does that make sense?

This’ll sound silly, “Bob”, but I’m scared of jinxing it. Humanity has promised me perfect peace before, you see... and Utopia and Heaven-on-Earth too; and every time I’ve fallen for it, right away I get war and Dystopia and Hell!

So my question to you, “Bob”, is:
Dare I love Humanity again?


Dear Humanity:

Ah, the agony and ecstacy of self-love! The crazy dreams, the lies and illusions, defeat, shame and self-doubt; all leading up to... what? Mere self-trust? Plain old inner harmony? All that trouble, just for peace? Yes, and it’s worth it.

First things first. Listen up, Humanity; self-love is inevitable, but in vain. You’re going to love yourself whether you ought to or not; so you might as well love yourself openly. It’s easier on everybody that way. Deserving your self-love is an add-on; something worth striving for, but not strictly necessary. You see, people don’t need reasons as much as they need excuses.

In your case, flattery is superfluous. You are as smart, strong, and all-around nice a species as you think you are; or you can be, if you allow it! I’m telling you, you’re a fine and vigorous race of organisms, with a long and brilliant evolutionary future ahead of you, well meriting Humanity’s reciprocated adoration!

I have reviewed Pinker’s figures, and they are correct. Your friend Humanity is in fact growing up. It’s becoming the species it was meant to be all along.

Pinker’s diagnoses are also sound, though anodyne. Good government works, liberal democracy works, fair trade works, political and property rights work, communication and literacy work, sympathy works, and reason works. This is all well-known, though it’s good to have statistical confirmation.

Of course you can read his good news as saying that the old ways stank. You have to go to the 20th century’s world wars to get a homicide rate near to what most tribal societies call peacetime! We’re worried about cruelty to animals; but we used to burn cats for public entertainment. We agonize over genocide because we gave it a name; before the 20th century we didn’t even bother to notice it! We complain more about ourselves, but that’s mostly because our standards are higher!

And it’s good that our standards have improved. It’s good that we whinge more. Basically it’s a matter of self-respect. If you’re going to live with yourself, Humanity, then you’re going to have to stand up to yourself. Make it clear to you that you are you. That’s what you’ve done, Humanity, and it’s working.

But you’re right about the jinx. Peace is tricky in that respect. It’s conditional, statistical, never a sure thing. Peace is doubt-based, not faith-based; it isn’t supposed to be certain. You have to build peace, not just proclaim it. Peace requires work, forgiveness, and courage; and it’s always flawed.

Do not attempt perfection; it’s an illusion. Blow off utopia; it’s a trap!  And to Hell with Heaven-on-Earth! Settle for life, liberty and property instead.

Let’s face it; Humanity will keep its evil streak; so you’re just going to have to be patient with yourself, for the long haul. Trust, but verify. Do not, repeat, do not lower your mental defenses!

But aside from the occasional incident, the statistically infrequent  moments of stark terror, horror, and insanity... aside from such rare setbacks, I am certain that you will be very happy with Humanity. You’re made for each other, you deserve each other.

You ain’t perfect, Humanity, nor will you ever be; but you’re a damn good bet. I say you’re worth it.

So, to answer your question:
“Dare I love Humanity again?”
I say yes, YES!


No comments:

Post a Comment