Is the world really getting worse?
I participate in two study groups. One is comprised of five friends, and our weekly discussions on ethics and spiritual identity are punctuated by personal stories of life’s lessons. We are inspired by the writings from Reflections on the Life of the Spirit, and our togetherness is rich. This past week we were encouraged to reflect upon the statement:
The second study group I attend has progressed to the second book in the series entitled Arising to Serve. We are a group of about six who have been
together for some time. Our numbers and membership have varied over the years, but whoever is present at any given sessions shares his/her understandings after reading the material in English, Chinese, and Farsi, and our cultural diversity helps to ensure that we are learning from each other. Last night we talked about peace and saw how even our intimate little gatherings are personally transformative and how they are also instrumental to our community-building efforts.
We cannot segregate the human heart from the environment outside us and say that once one of these is reformed everything will be improved. Man is organic with the world. His inner life moulds the environment and is itself also deeply affected by it. The one acts upon the other and every abiding change in the life of man is the result of these mutual reactions. ~Shoghi Effendi
While I have been familiar with the statement about the “thought of war,” the practice and mastery of the exhortation has been another one of those disciplines that from time to time has its moment in the sunlight of my otherwise cloudy attention. But this post isn’t about the regularity of discipline. Rather, I’d like to share a few recent insights about the statement—insights that beg the application of other disciplines.
I’ve taken up Steven Pinker’s book, The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined (Penguin Books, New York, 2011). It’s a surfeit of statistics and analyses, a compendium of reviews of modern research on the subject of war, and a personal narrative. Sounds dry doesn’t it? But Pinker is a talented, if at times irreverent, writer, and I find the book is a compelling read. For example, I appreciate how he begins the chapter on “The Civilizing Process” by relating how he, as a child, questioned his parents when they informed him that he should not push food onto his fork with a knife. “I lost the argument, as all children do, when faced with the rejoinder “Because I said so,” and for decades I silently grumbled about the unintelligibility of the rules of etiquette. Then one day, while doing research for this book, the scales fell from my eyes, the enigma evaporated, and I forever put aside my resentment of the no-knife rule.” What follows is a brief introduction to a book by Norbert Elias, graphs showing the decline in homicide rates in England from 1200-2000, an explanation of “cutting off your nose to spite your face”, a discussion of what was happening in Europe as thousands of feudal states gave way to a handful of monarchies and as “A culture of honor—the readiness to take revenge—gave way to a culture of dignity—the readiness to control one’s emotions,” and subsequently the reason why we do not push our peas onto our dinner knives. The next chapter, “The Long Peace” is where things really get interesting. I won’t give away the conclusion that is offered in the book’s title. That’s not my point. Pinker isn’t the only one who suggests that things are getting better. (More on that in a moment.) My concern is that “a thought of war comes” to me again and again and again on the hourly news, in coffee shop conversations, and whatever print media I set my eyes upon. It seems to pour in upon me, as I suspect it does upon you.
In his preface, Pinker writes:
This is a big book, but it has to be.[Indeed, 800 pages.] First I have to convince you that violence really has gone down over the course of history, knowing that the very idea invites skepticism, incredulity, and sometimes anger. Our cognitive faculties predispose us to believe that we live in violent times, especially when they are stoked by media that follow the watchword ‘If it bleeds, it leads.’ The human mind tends to estimate the probability of an event from the ease with which it can recall examples, and the scenes of carnage are more likely to be beamed into our homes and burned into our memories than footage of people dying of old age. No matter how small the percentage of violent deaths may be, in absolute numbers there will always be enough of them to fill the evening news, so people’s impressions of violence will be disconnected from the actual proportions.
Also distorting our sense of danger is our moral psychology. No one has ever recruited activists to a cause by announcing that things are getting better, and bearers of good news are often advised to keep their mouths shut lest they lull pe0ple into a complacency… (p. xxii)
So perhaps by reading Pinker’s book, I am opposing a thought of war with stronger thoughts of peace. Isn’t that what ‘Abdu’l-Bahá is telling us to do? Ah, but am I turning a blind eye to the truth? I realize that Pinker has his detractors, and that there are fact-based counterarguments to idea that violence is on the decline. Whatever the case may be, building peace is work, and the hardest work of all may be in my own mind. I take responsibility for my own reactions knowing that I can’t make presumptions about yours. (Although I am interested. Write your comments in the box below.) At any rate, this is where I am encouraged to begin–where we are encouraged to begin. Our thoughts have consequences, as do the changes we make in our thinking.