Sunday, January 01, 2012

Is There Any Manly Revolutionary Resentment in Pinker's World?

It is remarkable that while Steven Pinker says a lot in Better Angels about the "Humanitarian Revolution" and the "Rights Revolution," he never supports the right to revolution or the moral resentment against oppression that often motivates revolution.  This reflects his conviction that the decline in violence depends on the soft sentiments of a feminized culture rather than the hard sentiments of a male culture of honor.  But I am not convinced that the moral progress of liberal humanism can be sustained without the spirited sentiments of manly resentment against injustice.

Pinker recognizes the importance of the Declaration of Independence as a statement of the "Humanitarian Revolution" (134, 183, 185).  But he never acknowledges its affirmation of the right to revolution.  Nor does he reflect on the fact that this was a declaration of war signed by men pledging to one another "our Lives, our Fortunes, and our sacred Honor."

He also recognizes the importance of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948) as a statement of the "Rights Revolution" (134, 257-58).  But he never mentions the statements in the Preamble of the Universal Declaration about "barbarous acts which have outraged the conscience of mankind" and the justice of "rebellion against tyranny and oppression."

Pinker is troubled by the moral psychology of outrage, rebellion, and honor as rooted in the "inner demon" of revenge (529-47), which drives human beings into moralistic violence.  But while Pinker endorses Adam Smith's Theory of Moral Sentiments and Smith's idea of how the moral sentiments are expressed by the "impartial spectator" (669-70), he does not recognize Smith's distinction between revenge and resentment.  Revenge is the "excess of resentment," Smith explains, and as such it "appears to be the most detestable of all the passions, and is the object of the horror and indignation of every body."  But a proper resentment against inhuman oppression is rightly endorsed "when properly humbled and entirely brought down to the level of the sympathetic indignation of the spectator" (TMS, 76-77). 

Contrary to Pinker's reliance on the soft, feminine sentiments of nonviolence, I don't see how we can enforce respect for human rights and individual liberty if we don't feel a manly "sympathetic indignation" in response to oppression, and if we don't allow that moral indignation to justify revolutionary violence against tyrannical rule.

Pinker acknowledges the influence of Harriet Beecher Stowe's novel Uncle Tom's Cabin (1852) in promoting the abolition of slavery by eliciting sympathy for the suffering of slaves (155, 177).  But he says nothing about how some black abolitionists criticized Stowe for presenting Uncle Tom as a purely submissive character who cooperated with his slave masters, who thus implicitly confirmed the proslavery claim that blacks were naturally inclined to slavish obedience and lacking in the spiritedness of free men.

Nor does Pinker say anything about Stowe's other antislavery novel--Dred: A Tale of the Great Dismal Swamp (1856)--in which she presents some slaves as moved by moral indignation to revolutionary resistance to their enslavement.  Here she depicts slaves who manifest Smith's moral psychology of proper resentment.  She writes: "This sentiment of justice, this agony in view of cruelty and crime, is in men a strong attribute of the highest natures; for he who is destitute of the element of moral indignation is effeminate and tame" (Dred, Penguin Classics, 497).  (This point has been made clear to me by my reading of Chris Thuot's dissertation on the political theory of Stowe's novels.)

Beginning with John Locke and other early modern liberal theorists, liberal political theory has rested upon an ultimate appeal to revolutionary violence to vindicate the natural human right to liberty.  But in Chapter 8 ("Whatever Happened to Revolution?) of James Payne's History of Force, Payne argues that "owing to the evolution against force, the tendency toward revolution has been decreasing" (102).  The same thought is perhaps implied in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights: "Whereas it is essential, if man is not to be compelled to have recourse, as a last resort, to rebellion against tyranny and oppression, that human rights should be protected by the rule of law."  The suggestion seems to be that if human rights are protected by the rule of law, there is no need for revolutionary violence.  And apparently, Pinker believes that the historical trend toward protecting human rights has become so strong that there is no need for revolution and thus nonviolence can be the rule.

But even if the level of revolutionary violence has dropped in recent history, I cannot see how human rights and liberty can be enforced if there is not at least some threat of revolution to check the power of tyrants.  In fact, as Arnold Ludwig has shown in his book King of the Mountain, the 20th century shows a clear pattern in which despotic rulers are likely to be deposed by assassination or rebellion.  We should regret that some of the most brutal tyrants of the 20th century--such as Joseph Stalin, Mao Zedong, and Pol Pot--did not arouse enough manly resentment in their subjects to provoke revolutionary resistance.

Some posts on related topics can be found here, here, here, and here.

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