Day 9: A Book that Made Me Sick

Unlike the majority of the previous challenges, today’s selection was incredibly easy to come by: Steven Pinker’s The Better Angels of our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined. Pinker’s central thesis is that we are now living in an essentially peaceful time, where the chances of meeting a violent death are far lower than in past eras, and moreover, our era is less cruel and less violent (person to person as well as state-sponsored violence) than any other era in human history. He argues this thesis over the course of nearly 800 pages, with the assistance of an overabundance of graphs (mainly containing a single line declining from top right to lower left), and incredibly graphic descriptions of how violent we used to be (more on that later).

First, let me start by saying that I did not like this book. At all. I thought the argumentation was incredibly weak, the thesis dodgy, and that his attempt at history, albeit incredibly descriptive, lacked any real analysis. I know that I’m not in the majority here, and that most reviews were favorable and found his book convincing, but I have to politely disagree. Simply exhausting me with volume (be it of words, graphs, or graphic examples of violence) is not enough to convince me of any argument, not even one, such as this one, that I was predisposed to accept.

But that’s not what today’s challenge is about, and although I did feel “sick” having to read 800 pages of never-ending graphs and poor logic, the reason that I selected this book for today’s challenge is because of it’s incredibly graphic (maybe even gratuitously so) descriptions of the violence that we have, in times past, perpetrated against each other. I don’t like gratuitous violence, not in film nor in print, and although some descriptions presented in this book did effectively serve to further his argument, at times it felt as if he was trying to “gross us out” with these descriptions so that we could, in turn, pat ourselves on the back for having moved so far beyond it. Some of it is even too graphic to post here, but I will provide a couple of examples.

Breached with surprising ease by the cold bronze, the body’s contents pour forth in viscous torrents: portions of brains emerge at the ends of quivering spears, young men hold back their viscera with desperate hands, eyes are knocked or cut from skulls and glimmer sightlessly in the dust. Sharp points forge new entrances and exits in young bodies: in the center of foreheads, in temples, between eyes, at the base of the neck, clean through the mouth or cheek and out the other side, through flanks, crotches, buttocks, hands, navels, backs, stomachs, nipples, chests, noses, ears, and chins. . . . Spears, pikes arrows, swords, daggers, and rocks lust for the savor of flesh and blood. Blood sprays forth and mists the air. Bone fragments fly. Marrow boils from fresh stumps.

Right. Or this,

As the levers bent forward, the main force of my knees against the two planks burst asunder the sinews of my hams, and the lids of me knees were crushed. My eyes began to startle, my mouth to foam and froth, and my teeth to chatter like the doubling of a drummer’s stick. My lips were shivering, my groans were vehement, and blood sprang from my arms, broken sinews, and knees. Being loosed from these pinnacles of pain, I was hand-fast set on the floor, with this incessant implication: “Confess! Confess!”

I read this book relatively recently, and I started reading at the dance studio waiting for my daughter to get out of her ballet class. That turned out to be a poor decision. I had to stop once to step outside for some fresh air, a second time to get a drink of water, and I eventually had to stop reading the book altogether as the other moms were casting strange looks my way as a direct result of the look of sheer horror on my face. Like I said, I don’t do well with such vivid descriptions of violence, and graphic nature of the examples selected by Pinker, compounded by the sheer number of them, quite literally made me sick.


14 thoughts on “Day 9: A Book that Made Me Sick

  1. He was always a very aggressive researcher (not atypical of university professors) but it seems that he has appeared on the Charlie Rose show just one too many times — in his latest books he is really pandering to an audience. Instead of merely being condescending (a la his The Language Instinct) it seems he wants to jump in and become so sort of weird combination of Richard Dawkings and Michael Crichton.

    • I should add to this: unlike Pinker’s previous books (which either described work he did or at least work in his general field of interest) this work is almost completely as an outsider: it is neither Pinker’s specialization and for the most part does not report on Pinker’s work. In other words, it is a book of journalism (reporting on others) instead of a work popularizing science done by the man himself.

      For me, this is a night and day difference, and makes this book considerably less interesting to me.

      To use an analogy — what would you rather here — a poetry recital by the poet herself, or a poetry recital by an actress. In this case, Pinker is merely playing the role of the actress.

        • Yes, exactly. I echo all of your sentiments above. He is not an historian, and after reading as many works by proper historians as I tend to, I was frustrated by his lack of, well ability to “do” history. As you said, he was merely reporting on other’s work, providing a descriptive history but with no analysis of any value.

          Reading this book was both disappointing and frustrating.

      • I must add that reporting on other’s work is a common and effective approach. That IS “doing history”, wouldn’t you agree? As for Pinker “providing a descriptive history but with no analysis of any value”, I would like to channel Dawkins here and say that I have too much respect for you to believe that you really mean what you’re saying. The entire book is an analysis. If there’s an easy criticism of this work, it’s that there may be too much analysis and not enough prediction for some readers’ liking. As for your suggestion that his analysis lacks value, that itself is nothing more than an unsubstantiated, subjective value judgement. Quite literally, in fact. I believe that you can do better than to present such sweeping dismissals, completely unsupported by any evidence from you.

  2. Better Angels Of Our Nature? Why violence has declined? With Russia, China, the U.S. and us toadies up here in Canada among a host of others arming ourselves to the teeth? Sometimes I get to wondering if our present age will be looked back upon as an idyllic, halcyon age, similar to that which preceded the two world wars (which were actually one–with intermission for refreshments).
    Better Angels Of Our Nature? Absolutely, in pockets here and there, at times clamouring to be heard, to have voice, in a heedless, head strengthening era.
    Bravo with the post, with the indignation, the outrage. The clown spices his ‘theses’ with gratuitously graphic description? Is it not symptomatic of what’s inside, lying in wait?
    Damn, waxing poetic again. Must be the Amadeus I’m watching in this blessed convalescence of mine (four to six weeks of forced inactivity!)

    • Keep in mind that Pinker’s not in any way arguing for an extrapolation to utopia. He’s simply looking at historical data in a new way and presenting it what he’s found. As for “what’s inside, lying in wait”, how do you feel when you see a stranger slap a child (not his own, as if that makes a difference) in the face for behaving inappropriately? Shocked? Outraged? I used the word “when” instead of “if” to make a point. It probably struck you as an inappropriate question because it simply wouldn’t happen today in our culture. But go back a mere 50 years in this country and not only would you find it to be a common occurrence, you would not find more than the rarest, faintest suggestion that this was just fine. Moral, in fact. That is an indicator that what is “inside, laying in wait” has changed. Outrage at violence visited on others not related to us or part of our tribe is a new development, and central to Pinker’s argument.

  3. Wow. I appreciate your take on this book as it has been on my to-read list for ages. Acquaintances of mine have spoken very highly of it and I’ve mentioned it on my blog. I’m not sure it will be a good choice for me after reading this.

  4. I’ve found Stephen Pinker obnoxious in other books (The Blank Slate, for example) but havent read this one. Top of my list: The Road to Serfdom by von Hayek.

  5. Pingback: Thirty Day Book Challenge #9: Book that makes you sick | amandatheatheist

  6. I think your reaction to the violence in the book supports his thesis. Though it’s true that he is reporting on the work of others rather than reporting on his own research, what’s wrong with that. A lot of historians do that and it is valid.

    Your own criticism of the book needs more support to be valid. All you really offer is that you don’t like it.

  7. I agree with Kevin on this one. “I don’t like gratuitous violence, not in film nor in print, and although some descriptions presented in this book did effectively serve to further his argument…” Two points: You don’t “like” reading descriptions of violence, so it’s no wonder that an 800 page book ABOUT 100,000 years of violence is unpleasant for you. Gratuitous is in the eye of the reader. Nonetheless you grudgingly allow that some of the detailed and graphic descriptions of violence did effectively serve to further his argument. So by definition, you can’t consider those passages gratuitous.

    My inference from your statement here is that the AMOUNT of descriptions are what you have trouble with. Well, of course you do. You don’t like reading about violence. But when does the number of descriptions slide from “effectively (serving) to further his argument” to gratuitous? Is there a magic number? 3 examples? 7? 25? This is an 800 page argument. I would suggest that too few of these disturbing descriptions would fail to serve his argument, as they could easily be dismissed as exceptional acts performed under exceptional people under exceptional circumstances during exceptional times. The shear numbers and variety of heinous, (and acceptable at the time) acts committed by “reasonable” men in the past across such a wide variety of societies, time periods and situations is what furthers his argument. An academic argument should be supported by facts, not hindered by the unpleasantness of those facts. Especially when the argument hinges, at least partially, on how unpleasant those acts are for a modern audience to consider.

    I further suggest that since this is a book to be read by adults in search any nuggets of “the truth” to be gleaned from history, and not as a summer read, you should consider viewing your reactions as a reader accordingly. Complaining that you were offended by the graphic descriptions in this book is, to me, like complaining that the descriptions of prisoner experiences in a book about the Holocaust are offensive. It’s the acts described that are offensive, not the sharing of our knowledge of them. I would further suggest that turning away is more offensive than making an honest attempt at understanding, although I’ll admit that turning away is easier.

    Finally, as mentioned above, the fact that a modern reader is sickened by these descriptions is an obvious element of Pinker’s argument, brilliantly presented. It is, in fact, his whole point. We have changed. Be happy that the contents of the message sickens you, not angry at the messenger. If there must be anger, direct it at the people, systems and morals that perpetrated or allowed these acts. Some of them are long gone, of course. But some are not. The Judeo/Christian religious texts, still hallowed by a sizeable portion of the “civilized” world, command these types of acts. To this day, the messages therein are fed to impressionable children, to be used as a source of “moral law”. If you haven’t read the Old Testament cover to cover, I invite you to do so. But be forewarned: I would be surprised if you didn’t also find that a sickening read.

    We have, for the most part, developed a humanitarian and sensible distaste for acts of violence. We have not, developed a similarly global distaste, it would appear, for the belief systems which encourage, allow, or in the worst cases, command these very acts. The toxic rain of the centuries has to a large part evaporated. The clouds from which they sprang still hang perilously, ominously, overhead. Direct some anger in that direction.

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