Steven Pinker’s Lessons on History and Human Rights
Note: The views expressed in this blog post are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the U.S. Department of State or the U.S. Government.
On May 15, Bill Gates issued a series of tweets directed to the newly-minted college graduates among his 35 million followers on Twitter. The ninth tweet caught my attention. It said, “If I could give each of you a graduation present, it would be this—the most inspiring book I've ever read.” Below was a picture of the book I had started reading just days prior, The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined by Steven Pinker.
I have finished the book since then and can attest to its ability to inspire. Pinker, a cognitive scientist and professor at Harvard, offers a counterintuitive finding: on every measure for which we have data, violence has declined over the course of history. He spends a sizable portion of the 700-page book convincing readers of this trajectory, listing statistics that show a downward trend in the rates of homicide, torture, and wartime casualties. In recounting history, Pinker notes that people in contemporary times do not have to worry about entire categories of violence that were predominant in earlier eras, such as being killed in raids that commonly afflicted stateless societies, becoming the victim of a human sacrifice ritual, or witnessing the breakout of a war between major European powers.
What spurred this remarkable turn of events? Pinker gives several theories, including the pacifying role played by governments, commerce, and international organizations. Yet one theory stood out to me, particularly in how it intersects with the work I do at the State Department: the significance of the “Rights Revolutions,” Pinker’s label for the series of campaigns that ascended in the second half of the twentieth century, which fought for the rights of historically marginalized groups such as African Americans, women, the LGBT community, and people with disabilities.
Pinker notes that the Rights Revolutions drew inspiration from one another’s tactics and successes, measurably advancing their causes in the process. Activists led demonstrations that helped convince politicians to change laws and people to rethink their views. Artists wrote books and made films that pushed the wider public to expand their points of view and to extend their sympathies. This process was aided by the technology of the time—television, airlines, telephones, and eventually the internet—which enabled the transmission of ideas and perspectives. Pinker ties these trends to the data showing a decline in hate crimes recorded in government data and prejudicial views captured in polls.
In addition to these developments, the Rights Revolutions had a tangible impact on my fellowship experience. It was not a coincidence that in 1977, in the midst of these movements, Congress created the State Department’s Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor, where I now work.
Today, one of the tendentious questions the Bureau receives has to do with the utility of our role: what specific objective can be achieved by offering statements on human rights violations? Pinker offers a response, writing in his book that “the history of denunciations of slavery, whaling, piracy, privateering, chemical weaponry, apartheid, and atmospheric nuclear testing shows that international shaming campaigns can make a difference over the long run.”
Though Pinker notes that it is not possible to link these denunciations directly to the decline of violence and human rights abuses, it would be illogical to assume that these events were randomly associated or minimally correlated. Instead, we ought to give credit to the thousands of activists who were behind these movements, which often had the goal of denouncing government practices with which they disagreed. Many of these people risked or gave their lives for such causes, with little hope of gaining acknowledgement or accolades for their sacrifice. Their collective actions changed hearts and minds, changing history in the process.
DRL works to maintain the U.S. government’s commitment to the ongoing Rights Revolutions and to the activists behind them. We know that no statement of denunciation can itself bring about major political reforms. Yet we also know the level of encouragement the United States can give to those who fight for such changes, as well as the level of discouragement that comes when we are silent.
It would be a grave moral failing if the United States were to abandon its commitment to human rights. It would also be a jarring strategic blunder. The United States is incalculably better off because of the progress that has been made so far in advancing human rights. The world is more stable and prosperous as a result, which consequently benefits our economy and security. Taking note of this progress does not give us license to become complacent or to disregard the many issues that remain; as Pinker argues, it does the opposite by affirming that we can change for the better. But such change does not emerge from the ether. It comes from people who are willing to speak out. We should never forget that lesson.