Angels and demons

Lionel Terry self-portrait (click for image credit)

Lionel Terry self-portrait (click for image credit)

Scientist Steven Pinker (in The Better Angels of Our Nature, 2011) argues that there has been a long-term, worldwide decline in violence, thanks especially to:

the rise of nation-states and judicial systems with a monopoly on the use of force;

the increased monetary value of individuals as economies have become more sophisticated;

increasing respect for ‘the interests and values of women’;

cosmopolitan forces such as literacy which help us empathise with people unlike ourselves;

the increasing application of knowledge and rationality in human affairs.

This recasting of the centuries-old concept of human progress has a common-sense appeal. For example, historian Miles Fairburn’s argument that nineteenth-century New Zealand was an ‘atomised society’ with weak social bonds was supported by the colony’s high rate of violent crime – which then fell steadily during the twentieth century as society urbanised and rural roughnecks ‘settled down’. Yet rates of conviction and the lengths of sentences for violent crime then rose steadily in the late twentieth century. Was social order in New Zealand now declining – or was one consequence of the ‘feminisation’ of society noted by Pinker an increasing willingness to report domestic and sexual assault? Was there more crime, more openness about it, or more willingness to punish it?

Last week’s atrocities in France are the latest of many recent correctives to any complacency about ‘progress’. New Zealanders have a self-image as easy-going pragmatists – we’d never come to blows over ideas, surely? Yet In the early years of the colony, ‘gentlemen’ fought duels to defend their ‘honour’, sometimes with fatal consequences. And Pākehā land-grabbing during the New Zealand Wars of the mid-nineteenth century was justified by theories of racial superiority. In hindsight, it seems miraculous that the social convulsions of 1912/13, 1951 and 1981 – all clashes of ideology as much as of economic and political forces – resulted in only one death.

Nor have New Zealanders been immune to justifying racial violence on religious grounds. The enthusiasm with which Te Ua Haumēne, Tītokowaru and Te Kooti were pursued during the New Zealand Wars owed much to their espousal of non-Christian religions as well as to the threat they posed to colonisation. And in 1905 Lionel Terry killed Joe Kum Yung in cold blood in Wellington to draw New Zealanders’ attention to the necessity for racial and religious ‘purity’. Violence often broke out at meetings of the early twentieth century Protestant Political Association, which was virulently anti-Catholic – and anti-Irish.

As Pinker puts it, our ‘better angels’ are often at war with our ‘inner demons’, which include ideologies that justify violence in the pursuit of utopia. From this perspective, Kiwi pragmatism has quite a lot going for it.

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