Harvard professor Steven Pinker has drawn a great deal of attention with his latest book, primarily because – in stark contrast to so much of what we’re used to reading – he argues for optimism about the state of the world.
In The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined Pinker makes a convincing case that, despite the atrocities of past centuries, we now live in relatively peaceful times.
Given the relentless barrage of horrifying images and terrifying messages that inundate us from mainstream media, Pinker’s thesis seems a difficult pill to swallow. But he backs up his argument with exhaustive research, pointing out that in medieval times people were far more likely to die at the hands of other people than we are today. He also marvels at the sheer volume and diversity of medieval torture devices that were actually used.
But queer readers may be especially intrigued by the pages Pinker devotes to advances in the rights of gay and lesbian people around the world. Rather than associating the gay liberation movement with depravity and the decline of civilization – like the modern religious right so often does – Pinker writes that the advances made by gay people and the overall decline in violence toward us is a sign of humanity’s advancement as a species.
In one key chapter, "The Rights Revolution," the straight-but-not-narrow Montreal native goes into detail about advances in understanding homosexuality. He begins with the story of Alan Turing, the British mathematician who broke the German Enigma Code during the Second World War, enabling Allied command to listen in on enemy communications and ultimately to prevail in the battle for the North Atlantic and perhaps even end the war in Europe. Turing’s work also helped lay the groundwork for the creation of the modern digital computer. But a few years after the war, Turing told a police officer about his homosexuality.
Pinker poses the question: “How did Western civilization thank one of the greatest geniuses it ever produced? In 1952 the British government arrested him, withdrew his security clearance, threatened him with prison, and chemically castrated him, driving him to suicide at the age of 42.”
Pinker goes on to ponder the mystery of homophobic violence. “There is nothing in it for the aggressor,” he writes. He describes the huge successes of the gay liberation movement, including how the coming out of a huge number of public figures led Western cultures to a much greater degree of acceptance of people formerly thought of as criminal deviants.
In another hopeful sign, Pinker points out that younger people are far less prone to homophobia than older ones. He notes that many young people don’t even care whether homosexuality is a matter of choice. They see it as perfectly normal, morally neutral and acceptable. “Young people, of course, tend to be more liberal than their elders, and it’s possible that as they creep up the demographic totem pole they will lose their acceptance of homosexuality. But I doubt it. The acceptance strikes me as a true generational difference, one that his cohort will take with them as they become geriatric.”
But Pinker is not in denial about hate crimes against gay people, noting that in some parts of the world homosexuality is still a crime punishable by the death penalty. He argues that while gay Americans still face violence, “We do know that they are safer from intimidation, safer from discrimination and moral condemnation, and perhaps most importantly, completely safe from violence from their own government. For the first time in millennia, the citizens of more than half the countries of the world can enjoy that safety – not enough of them, but a measure of progress from a time in which not even helping to save one’s country from defeat in war was enough to keep the government goons away.”
The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined
By Steven Pinker