Birching appeals for barbarians

21:19, Jan 11 2013

The one non-fiction book you should read before you die is The Better Angels of our Nature by Steven Pinker.

In this very readable, intelligent and exhaustively researched tome Pinker argues that the species is getting less violent and destructive as time goes on. The book is the best explanation I have come across of why our world is the way it is.

He starts with the species' origins as small territorial groups operating in much the same way as our cousins, the chimpanzees, and goes on to current times when, at least in most modern societies, we function with self-restraint, discipline, respect for the law and consideration for others.

The book is life affirming and explains that despite the terrible atrocities and massacres of the past century - Stalin's Soviet Union, Mao's China, the Holocaust, Cambodia, Rwanda, Darfur etc - the trend is indisputably towards a better world.

Pinker gives several reasons for the gradual triumph of the better angels of our nature. One of the most important, he argues, is the civilising process.

He looks, for instance, at the gross manners of the Middle Ages and shows how table manners, language and codes of conduct changed with the adoption of civilised behaviour by first the upper classes and then the lower.


Etiquette manuals written for our medieval ancestors counselled against the standard practices of picking your teeth with your knife, having sex in public and not undoing clothes in front of other people before defecating.

The more important changes were in the reduction in violence to settle scores or to redress perceived insults. One effect was a significant decrease in homicide rates.

This link between manners, discipline and self-restraint and homicide is reinforced by research about the 1960s when many of the keystones of civilised society were undermined by the flower power generation who set more store by youth values, non-conformism and "tune in, turn on, drop out" notions than marriage and family life. Pinker argues the change in social norms led to a three-decade crime wave in America.

"How people dial their capacity for self control up or down is an interesting topic in psychology. One possibility is that self control is like a muscle, so that if you exercise it with table manners it will be stronger across the board and more effective when you need to stop yourself killing the person who has just insulted you," he writes.

You might wonder why I am banging away on this theme. The reason is possibly that I am an angry white man- there must be angry brown men too - who is appalled by some of the pervasive and deliberate lack of consideration and respect which seems to be increasingly infecting our communities.

I am exposed to more than my fair share of these behaviours because I use the bus service. The other day, for instance, I reluctantly engaged with a fellow traveller, a young man, who spent the journey with his feet on the vacant seat next to him.

I pointed out this was inconsiderate because someone would have to sit on a seat he had possibly soiled with his dirty shoes.

The altercation changed nothing because he was not going to back down but at least it did not descend into a slanging match.

In the back part of the bus you regularly get a barrage of expletives and are exposed to a young rabble who generously share their execrable taste in music with the rest of the bus. I have also heard the most explicit descriptions of sexual antics and, as previously recounted in this column, I recently helped another gentleman restrain a young man who had ruined a bus window with a mindless etching.

I am also infuriated by the constant vandalism around my home village of Diamond Harbour. A lot of public money has been spent on our wharf area and a path leading up to the local domain. It looks great but the pretty windows in the wharf waiting area are regularly smashed as are the lights lighting up the path.

I want to know what drives these destructive idiots. I doubt that, unlike a lot of murderers, they have any moral standpoint which directs their behaviour. It seems much more to be a big "f ... you" to society and the community of which they are unfortunately a part. Pinker likes the theory that society is perennially invaded by a new set of barbarians who must somehow be civilised and turned into contributors to ensure societal survival.

Of course, most young people are good citizens but we seem to have a growing number who need serious remedial work. I am not sure what we do with these low level criminals whose actions can blight a community and create a climate for more crime and disruption.

I would like to see them get a good birching and be made to take their destructive instincts out on some good hard rock in a hot quarry somewhere for a few months. Pinker would say I am giving in to my baser instincts for revenge and he is right.

For a longer-term solution I suspect the answer lies in hammering home a respect for the values of consideration for others and self restraint as inviolable social norms. And for many families it might start at the dinner table. That's if they have a dinner table in the first place.

The Press