Steven Pinker: sex, violence, and failure of enlightenment

Brezhnev in the Era of Stagnation

Harvard professor Steven Pinker is a superstar scholar and a champion of science and truth-seeking. His book, The Better Angels of our Nature: Why Violence has Declined, is an international best-seller. Mark Zuckerberg and Bill Gates, who each are probably more influential world-wide than any politician, lauded Pinker’s book.[1] Pinker’s book explains that prior to the eighteenth century, or perhaps prior to the past few decades, women had no rights, men held women as property, and men could rape and beat women with impunity. But much more work remains for men to do to protect women:

At the top, a consensus has formed within the international {elite} community that violence against women is the most pressing human rights problem remaining in the world. [2]

Elite discourse tends to describe males throughout history, except for a few enlightened fellows speaking today, as brutally demonic in relation to women. Primate behavior in general doesn’t support that peculiar view of humans. Neither does the broad historical mass of data on human behavior. Enlightenment values of reason and truth-seeking, at least among elites, are astonishingly absent in addressing sex and violence.

Recognizing enlightenment’s failure with respect to sex and violence doesn’t require special gifts of intellect or laborious scholarship. High-quality data freely available online makes clear that, in the U.S., four times more men than women die from violence. Much higher levels of violence in medieval Europe were even more disproportionately directed against men. Loss of men’s lives through suicides, workplace fatalities, and battlefield casualties vastly outnumber the corresponding loss of women’s lives. These gender inequalities in lives lost attract remarkably little public attention even in our time of intense concern about gender equality. Evolutionary psychologists might explain that, because of sex differences in reproductive potential, men’s lives are socially less valued than women’s lives. But Steven Pinker and most elite thinkers declare that women’s lives have been socially devalued throughout most of history. To ordinary persons not thoroughly indoctrinated, that elite view is obviously, egregiously false.

Public discourse about sex and domestic violence is an appalling spectacle of bad reason. Pinker dismisses evidence of women and men perpetuating domestic violence in roughly equal measure against each other by directing attention to severe violence. That’s misleading with respect to criminal punishment. Domestic violence laws now encompass acts that cause only minor or no physical injury. With respect to injuries severe enough to send a person to a hospital emergency department, men suffer about 40% of the incidence of such injuries. Nonetheless, domestic violence against men has largely been ignored. Men victims of domestic violence receive much inferior services to those available to women. In medieval Europe, domestic violence against women generated punishment of men, and domestic violence against men generated ridicule of men. In The Better Angels of Our Nature, Pinker wrote:

The argument that women should not be assaulted by the men in their lives is irrefutable, and as Victor Hugo noted, “There is nothing more powerful than an idea whose time has come.” [3]

That’s hollow rhetoric. The argument that men shouldn’t assault women largely hasn’t been necessary to make. The corresponding argument that women shouldn’t assault men mainly generates laughter and derision. Pinker’s tagged-on quote from Victor Hugo adds only pretentious puffery to the intellectual debacle.

Rhetorical posing about domestic violence has probably increased violence. In the U.S. over the past three decades, new laws and policies targeting domestic violence against women have created a frequently invoke regime of emergency law. Those laws have been central to the rise of U.S. mass incarceration. In the U.S., an extraordinary number of persons per capita now live in highly violent places: jails and prisons.

Generating emotions from deep within, a woman claiming to be raped is a potent means for inciting violence against men. Being accused of raping a woman is enough to get a man lynched by a large mob. Leading newspaper now headline sensational statistics such as the claim that nearly a quarter of Asian-Pacific men admit to being rapists. Pinker describes rape as “one of the prime atrocities in the human repertoire.”[4] Should nearly a quarter of Asian-Pacific men be executed or least incarcerated for many years? Or are those elite claims about rape incredible and hateful? Rape throughout history has generally been treated seriously and sanctioned more severely than other forms of interpersonal violence. Given the seriousness of rape claims, false accusations of rape have also, not surprisingly, been a matter of serious concern, except in recent years. Historically, men seducing women has been broadly criminalized. Today U.S. college campuses are experiencing a reign of terror about sexual assault. That reign of terror is teaching students contempt for truth and justice.

Pinker and other elites treat women raping men as not real rape. Pinker forthrightly declared in The Better Angels of Our Nature that “rapists are men.”[5] Until 2013, the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation defined rape such that only women could be raped. That reflects lengthy historical lack of concern about men being raped. Official crime victimization surveys such as the U.S. National Crime Victimization Survey now obscure the definition of rape in complicated administrative judgments. Leading rape surveys have redefined rape to increase greatly the number of reported rapes. Yet men being made to penetrate another person sexually remains excluded by definition from rape. If that form of sexual violence is counted as rape, incidents of women raping men would outnumber incidents of men raping women in the leading U.S. survey of sexual victimization. U.S. judges have uniformly upheld men being forced to pay child support to women who have raped them and had children by their acts of rape. Those celebrating our enlightened times selectively close their eyes to narratively unpropitious facts about rape.

Enlightenment reason’s failures in addressing sex and violence undermine the broad social trust crucial to civilization. Ordinary person through experience and readily accessible facts can easily recognize elite lies about sex and violence. In discussing The Better Angels of Our Nature, Mark Zuckerberg wrote to Steven Pinker:

One question I have is whether there is any data that suggests the internet has led to or will lead to a decrease in violence? Are there any things we should consider while developing internet services that could help further decrease violence?

Pinker responded:

At a bird’s-eye view, one would certainly expect technologies that enhance cosmopolitanism to reduce violence. They can expand our circle of empathy, by seeing the world through the eyes of other people; they can enhance the spread of good ideas and expose bad ideas; and they can empower separated people to act together. In the past, the rise of printing and literacy, and then TV (“the global village”) seem to have led to greater tolerance, and forces against war and prejudice … But what none of us yet understands, I think, is how to prevent a new form of insularity – self-selected, mutually reinforcing ideologues finding each other on the Web and reinforcing their own conspiracy theories. I wish I was smarter and wiser on how to deal with this, and I hope that the geniuses at Facebook are thinking about this!

From the perspective of many ordinary persons considering women’s rights, men’s rights, rape, and domestic violence, Steven Pinker, Mark Zuckerberg, Bill Gates and other international elites are no better than mutually re-enforcing ideologues. Although commonly smeared as hate sites, marginal deliberative fora such as the Men’s Rights Reddit and A Voice for Men are more inspiring examples of concern for truth and justice. If enlightened civilization ultimately rests on reason, truth, and justice, rather than status, power, and money, a new revolution of minds is desperately needed.

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[1] Zuckerberg, multi-billionaire founder and CEO of Facebook, selected The Better Angels of Our Nature to discuss in his 2015 Year of Books on his personal Facebook page. Zuckerberg described Pinker’s book as a “timely book” that he “really enjoyed.” Zuckerberg further noted, “A few people I trust have told me this is the best book they’ve ever read.”

Bill Gates, multi-billionare founder and CEO of Microsoft and guiding mind of the influential Gates Foundation, in 2012 declared:

People often ask me what is the best book I’ve read in the last year. Steven Pinker’s The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined stands out as one of the most important books I’ve read – not just this year, but ever.

I’m a dogged advocate for innovations that have brought us longer life spans, better nutrition and more freedom. But I’m also concerned about the things innovation can’t always change, like how we look at justice and violence. Is there a positive trend there, and if so, what are the lessons? How can we make sure the trend continues? How can we broaden it – and maybe even speed it up?

The U.S. criminal justice system is widely regarded as being disastrously unjust. The Gates Foundation should address the grossly malfunctioning U.S. criminal justice system.

[2] Pinker (2011) p. 414. With respect to women’s rights, Pinker states:

it was also during that era, the age of Enlightenment {18th century}, that women’s rights began to be acknowledged, pretty much for the first time in history.

Id. p. 399. Women throughout recorded history have long held key rights: rights to property and rights to custody of children. Roman women held in their own right large estates. Under English common law, women, but not men, were recognized to have a natural right to custody of children born out of wedlock.

Pinker reproduced claims from Wilson and Daly’s influential, fallacious, and misandristic article:

In their article, “The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Chattel,” Margo Wilson and Martin Daly have documented that traditional laws all over the world treat women as the property of their fathers and husbands. Property laws entitle owners to sell, exchange, and dispose of their property without encumbrance, and to expect the community to recognize their right to redress if the property is stolen or damaged by others.

Id. p. 197. On Wilson and Daly’s rhetoric, see note [4] and associated text in my post on primatology. See also the Roman-era story of Perpetua, the story of Aseneth (probably fourth-century Syria), and Boccaccio’s story of Madonna Filippa (fourteenth-century Italy). Consider as well bureaucratic management difficulties in a fourteenth-century French household.

Pinker quotes with approval the highly celebrated and deeply misandristic scholar Andrea Dworkin. She tendentiously declared, “a man wants what a woman has — sex.” Id. p. 395. Do men not have sex? Do women not want sex? Pinker declares:

The history of rape, then, is one in which the interests of women had been zeroed out in the implicit negotiations that shaped customs, moral codes, and laws.

Id. p. 398. Inconsistent with history reality, that ridiculous claim uncannily complements Pinker’s zeroing out of men as victims of rape. For further sensational History Channel history, Pinker declares, “The oppression of women used to include laws that allowed husbands to rape, beat, and confine their wives.” Id. p. 382. That seems to be a grotesquely distorted interpretation of laws of coverture.

[3] Id. p. 415. Pinker offers an ideological understanding of domestic violence:

Domestic violence is the backstop of a set of tactics by which men control the freedom, especially the sexual freedom, of their partners.

Id. p. 407. Such tactics, according to Pinker, have included “chastity belts.” Id. Maintaining belief in this domestic-violence ideology requires trivializing domestic violence against men and ignoring contemporary laws that deny men sexual freedom and impose on men forced financial fatherhood. To avoid any misunderstanding, Pinker explains that, with respect to domestic violence, “feminism has been very good for men.” Moreover, “we are all feminists now.” Id. pp. 404, 412.

[4] Id. p. 394. Apparently to emphasize that he is a good man, Pinker also declares that “rape is always an atrocity”; it is a “heinous crime against the woman.” Id. p. 398. Parroting dominant, mythic, women-were-men’s-property history, Pinker declares:

Rape was seen as an offense not against the woman but against a man — the woman’s father, her husband, or in the case of a slave, her owner. … Rape is the theft of a woman’s virginity from her father, or her fidelity from her husband. … When medieval European governments began to nationalize criminal justice, rape shifted from a tort against a husband or father to a crime against the state, which ostensibly represented the interests of women and society but in practice tilted the scales well toward the side of the accused.

Id. p. 395. For reality-based understanding of rape, see, e.g. historical literature about rape claims, the story of the nun of Watton, the Arabic poem ““If only al-Barrāq had an eye to see,”, and the criminalization of seduction.

[5] Id. p. 405. Pinker heads a section “Women’s Rights and the Decline of Rape and Battering.” That heading underscores Pinker’s unsubstantiated belief that enlightenment reduced men’s violence against women. That heading also underscores Pinker’s need to ignore men victims of rape and domestic violence. If men victims of rape and domestic violence (battering) actually exist in numbers similar to those of women victims, that would imply the urgency of further enlightenment and men’s rights. Celebration of current enlightenment and no concern for men’s rights characterize Pinker’s highly honored and best-selling book.

[image] Leonid Brezhnev, leader of the Soviet Union, at a Communist Party Congress in Berlin in 1967. Brezhnev presided over a period in Soviet history known at the Era of Stagnation (Zastoy). Detail from photo with source attribution: Bundesarchiv, Bild 183-F0418-0001-020 / Gahlbeck, Friedrich / CC-BY-SA.


Pinker, Steven. 2011. The better angels of our nature: why violence has declined. New York: Viking.

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