The Need for Empathy in Steven Pinker's Enlightenment Now

The Need for Empathy in Steven Pinker’s Enlightenment Now

A man, to be greatly good, must imagine intensely and comprehensively; he must put himself in the place of another and many others; the pains and pleasures of his species must become his own. The great instrument of moral good is the imagination.”

~Percy Bysshe Shelley,Β A Defence of Poetry and Other Essays

Steven Pinker’s new book, Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress, was released last week and I just finished it. Steven Pinker is a cognitive psychologist and linguist and author of some really interesting works that deal with language and the brain. I appreciate some of Pinker’s work because he writes about subject matter like language and the brain, and the stuff of thought, which I find wildly interesting. I suspect this is part of why he resonates with others.

In his new book, he uses the same logic as his argument on the surprising decline of violence that he spoke about at a TED conference about a decade ago and which he elaborates in his book, The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined.

In that TED presentation on violence, “Steven Pinker charts the decline of violence from Biblical times to the present, and argues that, though it may seem illogical and even obscene, given Iraq and Darfur, we are living in the most peaceful time in our species’ existence.” If you’re interested, you can watch it HERE.

In his new book, he reiterates this sentiment. He points out how the poor population is actually much richer than poor people of the past, people are also living longer, healthier lives than they ever have before, all of which is thanks to reason, science, and humanism.Β 

He argues,

“Our greatest enemies are ultimately not our political adversaries but entropy, evolution (in the form of pestilence and the flaws in human nature), and most of all ignoranceβ€”a shortfall of knowledge of how best to solve our problems.”

About a month ago, Bill Gates and Steven Pinker discussed about how much Gates appreciates Pinker’s new book, and as a result, pre-sales for Enlightenment Now skyrocketed and the publishers pushed up the release. Like many others, this endorsement intrigued me, especially the way in which Bill Gates identifies the significance of the book as “positive thinking,” which is something that has helped him in business.

Regarding the negative disposition most people have, Pinker discusses the ways in which information is disseminated and why this leads most of us to hold a “woe is me/us” attitude about the state of our nation and world. The news reports what happens, including mass shootings, police violence, riots, hurricanes, fires, war, and more, not what doesn’t happen, like nations at peace, or sunny days, so his argument goes. In broad areas like longevity, health, peace, knowledge, happiness, and more, he shows how each of these areas is improving, despite popular beliefs that the world as we know it in relation to each feels like it is falling apart.

While I typically appreciate Pinker’s subject matter, and remain intrigued about how he makes his argument from a rhetorical perspective, this time around, I had a hard time willingly suspending my disbelief. As I read this book last week about how good we’ve got it in our contemporary moment, another mass shooting occurs in Florida.

It’s unreal.

An argument like Pinker’s is steeped in the ethos and logos of Aristotle’s rhetorical triad, but what about pathos? I tell my students how crucial it is to show empathy to your reader when composing their argument and I think that is missing here. Ironically, Pinker argues for the importance of empathy in his 2014 book, The Sense of Style. In this new book, he acknowledges mass shootings and police brutalities but explains them away with charts and statistics, none of which are very convincing rhetorical devices. Unlike Bill Gates, I didn’t feel empowered after reading this work.

Despite how important Pinker’s new work is, and how I think his argument challenges our thinking in the best ways, he delivers his argument to an utterly vulnerable society. The trauma that we’re experiencing as a nation cannot be explained away. No matter how convincingly he arranges his charts and statistics, I wonder if it will even matter if he doesn’t address the pain points of our generation. This dissonance of this work in our contemporary moment reminds writers how necessary it is to tap into the zeitgeist if we want our words to resonate with our audiences. As writers, thinkers, and teachers, we have a deep level of responsibility to imagine intensely and comprehensively the pains and pleasures of our readers and our students.

Without empathy, our words will not matter.Β 

2 thoughts on “The Need for Empathy in Steven Pinker’s Enlightenment Now”

  1. I have yet to read his newest book but I suspect that I would likewise be skeptical. I was disappointed with Better Angels because his argument for the reduction (so called) in violence was based entirely on violence as a percentage of the population. In other words, there are more people (to say nothing of non humans) suffering today than at any time in history and yet by Pinker’s logic we ought to be cheered. It all seems steeped in privilege.

    The premise for Enlightenment Now seems flawed as well. The Trump campaign should be proof to anyone that we are not just bags of bones walking around carrying brains. We are not rational beings, at least not primarily. We are story tellers, a species inspired by narratives. It’s how we evolved, and I think Yuval Harari in his book Sapiens makes a better attempt at getting at what makes us tick. I mean, I’m sure Pinker acknowledges that we are not primarily rational beings – he’s a smart dude – but I’d be skeptical going in, and not just because I want to fixate on the negative but because he seems to have a good deal of unacknowledged bias in his other works.

  2. You hit the nail on the head. Some of which he acknowledges but presses on to draw his conclusions no matter what. Bill Gates called Enlightenment Now “my new favorite book of all time,” and I admit that endorsement intrigued me. Even Gates was wanting more from the book, so why he calls it his new favorite book is beyond me.

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