Self-improvement For A Civilization
By Jim Taylor
11 December, 2012
You may remember a self-help mantra from the past: “Every day, in every way, we’re getting better and better.”
Canadian-born author, psychologist, and linguist Steven Pinker says it’s true. His 2011 bestseller, The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined, claims that violence has been decreasing in our society for thousands of years.
That may be hard to believe, if you’ve just seen a newscast consisting mainly of murder, rape, arson, and war video from Syria or Gaza. But Pinker backs up his claim with more than 100 graphs and charts, and enough facts and figures to overwhelm a sceptic.
Basically, Pinker argues that each transition in civilization has made violence less necessary.
The first came when anarchic hunter-gatherer societies gave way to more settled, more organized, agricultural society. The next big shift came in the Middle Ages, followed by The Enlightenment, when reason began to replace brutality.
The fourth major transition, Pinker wrote in the Wall Street Journal, “was the respite from major interstate wars that we have seen since the end of World War II… Centuries ago, the great powers were almost always at war, and until quite recently, Western European countries tended to initiate two or three new wars every year.”
The fifth transition deals with the kinds of wars people wage. “The bad news,” Pinker says, “is that the decline of interstate wars was accompanied by a bulge of civil wars…. The less bad news is that civil wars tend to kill far fewer people than wars between nation states.”
Two factors influence the most recent reductions in violence. One is “the growth of democracy, trade, and international organizations—all of which, the statistical evidence shows, reduce the likelihood of conflict.”
And the other is “the rising valuation of human life over national grandeur—a hard-won lesson of two world wars.”
A major factor in that “rising valuation of human life” was the signing, 64 years ago tomorrow, of the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
Wikipedia calls it “the first global expression of rights to which all human beings are inherently entitled.”
The Declaration’s prohibits slavery, torture, and arbitrary arrest, detention, exile, or confiscation of property. It presumes innocence until proven guilty. It guarantees rights to marriage, ownership of property, freedom of speech, democratic representation, work, and education.
And it prescribes responsibilities – cultural, social, and governmental.
Islamic and Asian countries objected that these “universal rights” were not universal at all. They reflected a western bias. The emphasis on private property, for example, ran counter to collective ownership by a tribe or clan; the emphasis on individual freedom to seek work, to marry, to move, all violated caste and family norms.
Honoured in the breach
Nevertheless, the UN Declaration has served as a model for over 70 national charters of human rights, including Canada’s. Which seems appropriate, since the original document was drafted by a Canadian, John Peters Humphrey.
John Diefenbaker’s Bill of Human Rights, in 1960, which Pierre Trudeau then absorbed into the new Canadian Constitution in 1982, mirrors most of the Declaration’s 30 points.
Even those countries that largely ignore human rights in practice – China being one – still pay lip service to principles of the UN Declaration.
Indeed, a critic of U.S. policy might note that the U.S., one of the original 48 signatories, and a vocal supporter of human rights worldwide, has itself practiced waterboarding, detention without trial, and execution of suspected terrorists by drone strikes – all direct contraventions of the Declaration.
But the mere fact that it is there requires nations to treat it as an ideal to be emulated.
It is rather like the Apostles Creed in Christianity.
A congregation I belonged repeated the Apostle’s Creed every Sunday. One day, I confided to my minister that I was having difficulty with its opening statement: “I believe in God the Father Almighty…”
I saw little evidence of an Almighty Anything in a nuclear-standoff world.
“There are days,” my minister sighed, “when I have trouble getting past ‘I believe’….”
Yet he could repeat the Creed as a standard of what the Christian Church as a whole, past and present, believed.
In the same way the Universal Declaration of Human Rights serves as an ideal, a goal that all nations can endorse, even if their individual practices fall short of that ideal.
Signs of progress
Not long ago, as history goes, we in the western world burned heretics at the stake, tortured suspected traitors, stoned adulterers, disembowel criminals or cut them in half, and tore offenders apart with teams of horses. We don’t, any more.
In that sense, we are indeed getting “better and better” – a phrase devised by French psychotherapist Émile Coué a century ago for encouraging personal self-improvement. From that perspective, the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights marks a milestone in our collective self-improvement.
Copyright © 2012 by Jim Taylor. Non-profit use in congregations and study groups encouraged; all other rights reserved.
Jim Taylor is a Canadian author and freelance journalist, with over 50 years experience in radio, television, magazines, and newspapers. He is the author of 17 books, and continues to write two newspaper columns a week.
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