In “A president with a plan — that he can’t sell” (Dec. 13), D.J. Tice is the latest commentator knocking President Obama for his periodic use of the phrase “we are on the right side of history,” most recently in his Oval Office address after the massacre in San Bernardino, Calif. Tice belittles the phrase as a “dreamy benediction” that has been “fashionable among left-leaning intellectuals … for centuries.”
This subject is worth pursuing. Faith that society is evolving toward greater peace and order is fundamental to making calm and wise choices.
In his monumental work, “The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence has Declined,” Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker documents the steady decline of violence to a fraction of a percentage of what it was in prehistoric times. In 800 pages, Pinker methodically explains how society evolved through the stomach-wrenching barbarity of the Romans, the Inquisitors, the Conquistadors, the witch burners, etc., to the widespread condemnation of slavery, torture, superstitious killing, cruelty to animals, despotism, and dueling in the 17th and 18th centuries and to the growing recognition of civil rights, women’s rights, children’s rights, gay rights and animal rights in the 20th.
Pinker lays out the external explanations for this arrow of cultural evolution — the security provided by governments and police forces, the advantages of trade over war, the peaceable tendencies of democracies.
But the most interesting explanations are deeper. Human nature has evolved. With better health and nutrition, the rise of social conventions, and a future orientation, people have developed self-control. With widespread formal education, the capacity for abstract reasoning has increased so markedly that IQ tests have to be repeatedly recalibrated. It is abstract reasoning, of course, that leads to the realization that no group has a unique entitlement to life and happiness.
Empathy expanded to regularly include strangers only in the late 18th century. A likely explanation is the growth of literacy and the reading of fiction, which allows the reader to appreciate someone else’s interior experience.
Everywhere I look, I see people working to make the world a better, more humane place. In his book “Blessed Unrest,” Paul Hawken documents “the largest social movement in all of human history” — between 1 million and 2 million grass-roots organizations altruistically working toward ecological sustainability and social justice.
I can offer no particular foreign policy expertise, but the field of law and the justice system, where I have spent 40 years, is a reflection of society’s values. Here, history has marched forward fast with a distinct “side.” The less powerful in society — criminal defendants, racial minority groups, women, gays and lesbians, people with disabilities — have been afforded important protections. Even the vulnerable environment has, in effect, been given a voice.
Even more telling than the law itself is the way we treat people. At our latest bench retreat in Hennepin County we were trained in recognizing “implicit bias” to help us be more fair to different people. We have studied “procedural fairness” — the recognition that how people are respected and heard in court is as important as the outcome of the case. We have six “problem-solving courts,” in which a whole team of professionals closely supports certain high-risk offenders. All of our probation officers are trained in “motivational interviewing,” a process for “eliciting and exploring the person’s own reasons for change within an atmosphere of acceptance and compassion.” More and more cases are handled through “restorative justice” practices that respectfully confront offenders with the harm they have caused and help them understand how they might remedy it.
The horrors of ISIL-style barbarism are no deviation from humankind’s steady evolution. The slaughter of innocent civilians has occurred throughout history, just not on CNN. Pinker concludes that we are not living in a new age of terrorism but that we are experiencing a decline from decades when it was less featured in our collective consciousness. He also unequivocally reports that “most terrorist groups fail, and all of them die.” Campaigns that primarily targeted civilians always have failed.
Just because something is inevitable does not mean it is easy. But we can have faith that when we choose a path toward peace and self-control, we are on the side of history’s inexorable progress.
Bruce Peterson is a Hennepin County District Judge.