The Better Angels Of Our Nature

People are wolves. I think this is the most under-appreciated fact about human nature. I find this obvious. I have no idea how anyone who has lived on earth long enough can deny this. How do I know this? Everyone I have worked until now was a cheapo who was willing to take what is for his grabbing before fleeing. This is true of almost everyone I have known otherwise too.

People often tell me that I live in the wrong bubble, or that I am generalizing too much. But, I have lived on the earth long enough to know better. I cannot be wrong. I never understood why people do many things that they do, even if they are bad people. It serves no purpose. Little people might say that there is no point in saying all this, even if this is true. But, if this is true, social scientists and intellectuals of all sorts are making a huge mistake, though not an innocent one. But, why are people convinced that this is wrong? If only people with a particular sensibility can appreciate the truth, they might as well be wrong.

If cruelty and violence does not outrage people, probably nothing will. Do people notice violence and cruelty? Now, it is very fashionable to support the cause of women. I think there is nothing unusual about the cruelty against women, but people have not always found the cause of women hip. This is a scene from an Indian city more than two decades ago:

“What is this world, exactly? Thoma wonders. A man slaps a girl’s arse, she walks on as if nothing has happened. Then the man gets hit by a coconut thrown by a weird woman, and he walks away without even turning back.”-Manu Joseph, The Illicit Happiness Of Other People

People did not always find this strange, and people do not find many things strange because they are so used to it. If people find this strange today, what changed are the perceptions, and not the reality. This is true of many such things.

Steven Pinker’s Better Angels Of Nature says that “In 1987 only half of Americans thought it was always wrong for a man to strike his wife with a belt or stick; a decade later 86 percent thought it was always wrong.”

I think even ordinary people in the US will find this surprising today. The truth is that many things people believe today, and many things that they do are not too different. They are just not very observant. They might think that there is nothing wrong with them, but they are like William Byrd II, the slave master mentioned in Murray Rothbard’s “Conceived in Liberty”. He “felt himself to be a kindly master and often inveighed against brutes who mistreat their slaves.” But, let me quote from his diary:

2-8-09: Jenny and Eugene were whipped.

5-13-09: Mrs. Byrd whips the nurse.

6-10-09: Eugene (a child) was whipped for running away and had the bit put on him.

11-30-09: Jenny and Eugene were whipped.

12-16-09: Eugene was whipped for doing nothing yesterday.

4-17-10: Byrd helped to investigate slaves tried for “High Treason”; two were hanged.

7-1-10: The Negro woman ran away again with the bit in her mouth.

7-15-10: My wife, against my will, caused little Jenny to be burned with a hot iron.

8-22-10: I had a severe quarrel with little Jenny and beat her too much for which I was sorry.

1-22-11: A slave “pretends to be sick.” I put a branding iron on the place he claimed of and put the bit on him.

After quoting from his diary, Murray Rothbard says, It is pointless to criticize such passages as only selected instances of cruel treatment, counterbalanced by acts of kindness by Byrd and other planters toward their slaves.”  Why did Murray Rothbard say this? Murray Rothbard was an unfoolable thinker. He knows that this is precisely how Byrd and the other people in those times would have responded to this. They might say that such accounts are very black-and-white, and, one-sided. And I think this is precisely how they respond to facts like this today, when there is not so much public sentiment against it. If you do not believe me, you are just not observant.

Routine abuse is more common than people think. Free and compulsory education is an obvious candidate. If you think that schooling is not violence, read this essay of Praveen Swami in The Hindu:

“For the overwhelming majority of Indian children, the education in violence begins in the family. The survey found 59 per cent of the 2,245 children who did not go to school located home as a source of violence. In institutions like orphanages, the survey recorded levels of violence very similar to homes. More than 65 per cent of the 3,163 school children surveyed said they received beatings along with classes in maths, science and languages. Employers of child labourers, interestingly, were significantly less cruel than teachers; 58.7 per cent of working children said they experienced beatings at home, at work, or both. In each of these categories, boys were overrepresented.”

Call me prejudiced, but most children from low income families end up doing menial jobs. Schooling itself is violence to their nature. But, if schoolteachers are more violent than employers of child laborers, why do people find it obvious that in a civilized society, every child will be schooled? But, this is not just about the poor folk. Robin Hanson observes:

Watching some young girls sitting for hours in front of a grocery store selling girl scout cookies recently, I wondered, “Why isn’t this child labor?” People often talk as they feel revulsion at the image of a miserable child, working at some hard tedious job, and so they are glad child labor laws prohibit such cruel scenarios. But in fact our society is full of kids working away at hard and/or tedious jobs. Kids work hard at school, housework, sports, practicing music, supporting clubs, etc. and none of this cruelty is prevented by “child labor” laws. Such laws only prevent getting paid to work; they don’t even stop kids interning for free. If child labor laws come from our revulsion at miserable kids, why are there no laws preventing tiger moms from making their kids practice music for hours straight without a bathroom break, or against parents who make their older kids work full time taking care of younger kids? While we claim to care so so much about kids forced to do hard and tedious tasks, we only actually prevent doing such tasks for money – many kids around us end up doing such tasks anyway, just not for money, and we hardly care. And yet somehow we’ve used all this to tell ourselves how morally superior we are to the cruel poor folk who might even consider having their kids “work.” Hypocrisy can be amazingly shallow.

Now, how was the relationship between children and their parents, in the past?

From Steven Pinker’s The Better Angels of Our Nature:

“Even at the turn of the 20th century, German children “were regularly placed on a red-hot iron stove if obstinate, tied to their bedposts for days, thrown into cold water or snow to ‘harden’ them, [and] forced to kneel for hours every day against the wall on a log while the parents ate and read.”

A century later, children had it much easier:

“By 1992, German parents had come a long way from their great-grandparents who had placed their grandparents on hot stoves and tied them to bedposts. But 81 percent still slapped their children on the face, 41 percent spanked them with a stick, and 31 percent beat them to the point of bruising.”

A decade later, the parents became better people:

“By 2002, 14 percent still slapped their children on the face, 5 percent spanked them with a stick, and 3 percent beat them to the point of bruising.”

Remember that Germany is a relatively civilized country, and that the Germany that elected Hitler was a very literate society. Remember that parents normally do not “hate” their children. If you read this carefully, what is surprising is not that people were very crazy. What I find surprising is how drastically violence came down in the past two decades. The concern with morality and fairness is a very recent phenomenon. But, if the concern with fairness is a very recent phenomenon, almost everyone is still a monster.

If almost everyone did it, this is a strong case to consider almost everyone evil. But, if someone had told the German parents at the turn of the twentieth century that there were all brutes, how would they have responded? Only the rare, sensitive men who were shocked by cruelty would have agreed. How would they respond today? Why should we believe them? If you are convinced that most people are not monsters today, isn’t it probable that you too are like the German parents at the turn of the 20th century? Perhaps, cruelty does not bother you much.Things are not always what they seem.

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