Better Angels of Our Nature
About a year ago I was invited by the New York Times Book Review to choose a book I liked or that was important to me and do a piece about it. I immediately had a couple of ideas, but there is really no book I would be more happy to place in front of the Times' mass readership than Steven Pinker's Better Angels of Our Nature. Everything I've read of Pinker's is brilliant and enlightening, but Better Angels is something apart. The book details the decline of violence in human affairs over the course of history. It does so on the macro level of millennia and on a micro scale of, say, my own lifetime. The idea that violence has declined as dramatically as it has is highly counter-intuitive for most people, myself included. If you pay much attention to the news and to politics around the world it may seem especially nonsensical – the news by its nature focuses attention on trouble. But the case he lays out is pretty convincing and profound. The simple fact is that some of the stuff we have come up with to decrease violence has actually has worked. The book is an argument in part that if we can understand why humans' great inhumanity has waned, we can use that understanding to further chip away at our worst instincts. It's an important book to me too because of how easy it can be to look at the world with a jaundiced eye. It's too easy to sit back smugly from a safe, privileged position and nod knowingly at predictions of human corruption and decay. It's too easy to imagine that things used to be better in some imagined more simple past era. As an artist and storyteller I try to avoid falling into predictable traps.
There was going to be no way to encompass the book's entire thesis, or present enough data to convince anyone in one page of comics. But there was one small part of the story that seemed to me especially relevant in a book-related forum – the role of literature in process.
As I said, I was originally asked to do the piece almost a year ago. As I was working on it Philando Castile was shot by a cop in Minneapolis, the city I grew up in and recently lived. Shortly after that a sniper shot several cops in Dallas during a demonstration against the repeated killings of black motorists like Castile by police. It can seem a little trivial to do a piece about the decline of violence in such an atmosphere. Violence may be in real decline, but for it's victims, especially at the hands of agents of the state, especially with such strong racial overtones the comfort of that fact will be quite cold, and the idea may even have the flavor of an insidious lie. I included those events in that original piece to try and emphasize that the process is far from complete, and to acknowledge the apparent strangeness of the idea.
As it happened the editors held on to my piece until a few weeks ago when they finally let me know it would run this month. As it happened the week before they wrote me there was an almost equally awful event in my new adopted city of Portland, Oregon. I decided to update the piece again.
The point of Pinker's book, and of my own strip by extension, is not that because things are getting better we can lie back and ignore the continuing atrocities we see in the world, it is not a cozy reassurance that all will be well. It is a humble assertion that we have both the responsibility and the capacity to separate the signal from the noise about what causes violence and what works to drive it back into decline.