Oracle, Optimist, Ostrich, or Obfuscator? Part 5. The slippery slope to moral disengagement

Lethal injection room at San Quentin, built in 2010

Lethal injection room at San Quentin, built in 2010
Image is in the public domain.

Moral disengagement, as discussed frequently on this blog, allows individuals to participate in or at least tolerate inhuman behaviors such as homicide and torture. Major forms of moral disengagement include misrepresenting, minimizing, or denying the consequences of one’s violence; making advantageous comparisons between one’s own violence and other forms of violence that are made to seem more frightening or odious; and displacing or diffusing responsibility for inhumane behavior—e.g., by “blaming the victim.”

Unlike members of that notorious group, the military-industrial complex, Steven Pinker does not explicitly endorse violence and other forms of inhumane behavior; as far as I know he is not encouraging the United States corporate power structure to become involved in yet another war. However, he appears to relish the details he provides on the horrors of human violence in the past and to be wearing extremely effective blinders relating to the often deadly exploitation of poorer nations by the West. Moreover, in lauding the peacefulness he attributes to the West, he uses processes identified by Albert Bandura as forms of moral disengagement.

Consider, for example, his assertion that “daily existence is very different if you always have to worry about being abducted, raped or killed”—a state of anxiety that he views as gone from today’s enlightened democratic societies. Is he right or is he minimizing the dangers facing many immigrants and people of color in the nation in which he has become a highly paid celebrity?

And how about his claim that “by standards of the mass atrocities in human history, the lethal injection of a murderer in Texas, or an occasional hate crime in which a member of an ethnic minority group is intimidated by hooligans is pretty mild stuff”? Does that assertion smack of both minimization and advantageous comparison?

Also, in discussing the aberrant period of increased violence in the 1960s and 1970s, which he views as hitting the African American community particularly hard, Pinker suggests, “widespread fatherlessness can lead to violence” because “all those young men who aren’t bringing up their children are hanging out with one another competing for dominance instead.” Can we see an element of displacement of responsibility here?

What do you think?

Kathie Malley-Morrison, Professor of Psychology

This entry was posted in culture of violence, Human rights, Moral disengagement, police violence, racism and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

12 Responses to Oracle, Optimist, Ostrich, or Obfuscator? Part 5. The slippery slope to moral disengagement

  1. Gold Dust Twin says:

    Regarding Steven Pinker’s assertion that assertion that “daily existence is very different if you always have to worry about being abducted, raped or killed,” rape seems to be an ongoing problem in many so-called Western democracies. Moreover, there seems to be a lot of moral disengagement connected with rape, including blaming the victim. Here are some statistics from a study in the United Kingdom that must surely be applicable to rape cases in the United States:
    A third of subjects believe a woman who acts flirtatiously is partially or completely to blame for being raped . More than a quarter also believe a woman is at least partly responsible for being raped if she wears sexy or revealing clothing, or is drunk.
    One in five think a woman is partly to blame if it is known she has many sexual partners, while more than a third believe she is responsible to some degree if she has clearly failed to say “no” to the man.
    In each of these scenarios a slightly greater proportion of men than women held these views – except when it came to being drunk, when it was equal. In fact more women (5%) than men (3%) thought a woman was “totally responsible” for being raped if she was intoxicated.
    Ruth Hall, from the support group Women Against Rape, criticised “prejudices” in the court system, saying: “They still put the woman on trial, including her sexual history with other men, which is supposed to be banned and blame the woman for what happened to her and hold her accountable.
    “If that is the standard set by the people who are supposed to be prosecuting rapists and protecting us it is not surprising if members of the public say the same thing.”
    She added: “Rather than another Government awareness campaign, the Government’s responsibility is to get the criminal justice authorities to prosecute violent men. “We are determined to close the gap between the increasing number of rape cases reported and the low number of convictions.”

  2. Allie Kulak says:

    I believe that the statements that Steven Pinker is making are not correct, and play into the ideas of moral disengagement and advantageous comparisons. Although he does not appear to be an extremely violent person, the remarks he has made can be taken offensively and may cause controversy. When he discusses not having anxieties about being abducted or raped, he is completely disregarding those helpless individuals who do live in fear of these vicious acts. Take for example the stories and articles talked about in your post “Warning: this disease is contagious, deadly, and right in your own backyard” The innocent victims who are being attacked by these police, are living in fear of these crimes happening to them. There is hatred geared towards them and it is horrible to think that they have to live scared of being attacked for no reason.

    While some people are lucky enough to not have to worry about having these crimes happening to them, others are constantly fearful. Just because someone does not have these anxieties does not mean they should ignore that they do in fact occur. Instead, these individuals should try and help stop them, and make those fearful able to live happy lives like they deserve. Pinker is being somewhat morally disengaged here, just like Bandura discusses. He is aware that these crimes go on, but because he is not experiencing them first hand, he is willing to let them occur. By making other statements about the African American community and fatherlessness, Pinker is furthering racism and singling out a group of people. Instead of coming off in an attacking way, redirecting his comments in a positive light can be much more beneficial. In conclusion, becoming more morally engaged and getting rid of advantageous comparison will allow for less hate, and a society that can live free from fear.

  3. Barrett K. says:

    I definitely agree with Allie, but feel that she may have even gone too easy on him – it is honestly hard to even believe that Pinker is serious in his statements, and seems to be abiding by the exact definitions of moral justification, moral disengagement, and advantageous comparison. I almost get the feeling that Pinker says these things to attain the simple goal of creating controversy, gaining an audience, and making money. Using definitions described by Aquino in “A Grotesque and Dark Beauty,” it is pretty clear that Pinker is extremely morally disengaged.
    Pinker’s belief that the anxieties of a daily existence of possibly being raped, abducted, or killed are over in “enlightened” democratic societies seems to question if he is even in touch with reality at all. In this case, Pinker appears to be displaying his moral justification (defined as “making a harmful behavior personally and socially acceptable by depicting it as serving a valued /righteous social purpose”), and even taking it a step beyond that. A simple google search will demonstrate that these fears and anxieties are certainly not over, and are even most present in people immigrating to these democratic societies and domestic non-whites as well (not to minimize the fact that whites are also subject & fearful of some of these atrocities as well). In this case, Pinker is either ignoring the fact that this is a reality, or is simply stating ridiculous statements such as these to gain his own “value” such as his fame.
    Additionally, calling occasional death penalties and hate crimes “mild stuff” demonstrates, as Allie mentioned above, the use of advantageous comparison (defined as a “way to convince oneself that harmful behavior is relatively minor in comparison to other, worse atrocities”). This is potentially even more harmful to the public; even though the death penalty is being used less and there are still hate crimes occurring on a near-daily basis, it does not mean that we can shrug them off as “mild.” In this way, “mild” becomes “unimportant.” To treat these extremely important cultural failures as something that can be purely shrugged off as “not as bad” completely harms the potential for important social change within our culture. Of course it is easy for someone like Steven Pinker – a wealthy white male – to shrug off lethal injection and hate crimes, because it is something that he does not have to deal with personally, ever. But to call these issues “vanished” or “mild” clearly demonstrates some heavy moral disengagement from Pinker.

  4. Celeste Hamre says:

    It appears that Steven Pinker’s privilege has successfully clouded his concern or even acknowledgment of the abundant violence and the numerous people it impacts. Pinker cites progress as the lack of anxiety of being raped, killed or kidnapped, but these anxieties exist for many individuals within developed societies, but typically not for dominant groups. Furthermore, these violent acts are also frequently inflicted on the people of other countries by more developed countries that may not experience it themselves. It is easy as Pinker, a white male from a high socioeconomic status and high education background, to dismiss violence targeting the African American community as due to lack of present fathers, but he fails to discuss the systematic incarceration and police brutality towards African American males specifically in the United States. Pinker, from his place of privilege has directly or indirectly benefited from the oppression of African Americans and other minority groups and his failure to address the violence facing this communities or even seriously acknowledge demonstrates his moral disengagement.

    In addition, the past century has witnessed the development of some of the most lethal weapons that can be used to be killed large groups of people at a time. If violence has truly decreased than why the development of drones, more automated weapons and nuclear warfare by these supposed “sophisticated societies”. The United States’ military industrial complex has pushed involvement and production of numerous violent conflicts that do not support Pinker’s attempts to minimize the role of violence in our daily lives. I find it ironic that as Pinker enjoys the celebrity and pats on the back for identifying how wonderful and rosy our new “violence free society” is, the United States continues to be the largest arms producer and dealer in the world.

  5. Amy Biggart says:

    Steven Pinker’s argument, that today’s society is less violent than ever before, is misguided. Though he acknowledges certain times and places in the past when violence was more visible, for example African American communities in the 1960’s and ‘70’s, I think he has buried his head in the sand and refuses to acknowledge the new strain of violence in America today. America has seen violence transform from blatant racism, to internment camps, to torture and beyond, however violence in this country is always changing. It is unfair for Pinker to claim that because there is less violence that he can see, that there is less there. It also is arrogant for him to believe that he is aware of the violence in our society and our world. I also think it is ridiculous for him to declare “lethal injection of a murderer in Texas, or an occasional hate crime” as the kind of violence in our society today. He is absolutely minimizing the problems we have with violence today.

    If anything, with the onset of new gun violence in our country today, individuals have become more violent and aggressive than ever before. This type of violence, specifically, is also scarier than much of the past violence that Pinker talks about because it stems largely from a lack of mental health services for people in our country. This is only one example of the violence we face today, and I believe that much of the violence happening in our society happens behind closed doors and under the radar. Pinker would not even know about this violence because, whether it is domestic violence and abuse in a household or police brutality and abuse, it is vastly underreported.

    Pinker reaches way too far in trying to declare this time in history to be the least violent. Simultaneously, in his example about African American communities in the ‘60’s and ‘70’s, Pinker is displacing responsibility from the individual to the parenting styles of this community of people or lack there of. What he fails to acknowledge in this example is that much of the violence in African American communities in the ‘60’s and ‘70’s stems from the turbulent social movements of the time and the desperate plight of the African American and minority communities to gain equal and fair standing in our society, a plight which continues today.

  6. Bridget O'Connor says:

    Upon reading Steven Pinker’s statement, “daily existence is very different if you always have to worry about being abducted, raped or killed”, it was obvious to me that he is morally disengaged. He is completely disregarding the fact that people in our country ARE raped, abducted, and killed every day. Pinker does not appear to acknowledge that horrible atrocities such as these do still occur in our society, and also does not seem to acknowledge the reality of the fears of people who have anxieties of these things occurring to them. His statement is completely false in my eyes, and also extremely ignorant. As a white man in our democratic country, Pinker does not experience some of the horrible fears and inequalities that others do, such as women and people of color. Though I found this statement by Steven Pinker to be surprising, I was even more shocked by this statement by him, “by standards of the mass atrocities in human history, the lethal injection of a murderer in Texas, or an occasional hate crime in which a member of an ethnic minority group is intimidated by hooligans is pretty mild stuff”. We cannot justify horrible actions by comparing them to even MORE horrible events in history. Pinker is yet again making a statement that proves his moral disengagement. Even though these statements do not directly encourage violence or support inhumane behavior, it is morally disengaged thoughts like these that allow those horrible things to continue to occur.

  7. Emma says:

    While it is true that Pinker does not advocate violence, he absolutely falls to moral disengagement. It would be unfair to say that someone who considers any hate crime “mild stuff” is advocating nonviolence. Pinker’s argument sounds like he finds violence as a means to an end and because he is not personally involved in the acts he discusses, his arguments are virtually irrelevant to the issue.

    Ignoring the harm that our country does to others and vice versa is extremely dangerous; it will allow us to forget about the daily trauma and anxiety that many people in the US and people internationally endure. This is an excellent example of the minimization of the issue at hand and of how it disappears from our daily conscious when the issues do not surround us. The presence of moral disengagement is important to understand as individuals, as political parties, and as the media.

    While I do not agree with Pinker’s statements at all and believe mass atrocities, lethal injections, and hate crimes to be completely abhorrent, I think we need to look at outlets in our culture that could be taking a stance and making a difference. I often question the media and wonder why stories of atrocity are discussed for a week and are then left in the dust until another one comes along. While I would like to expect more from an individual like Pinker, I think it is important to look at who he gets his information from and what impact that has on his forming of ideas.

  8. Alex M. says:

    Mr. Pinker’s argument that the West is “enlightened” and more peaceful than the rest of the world is not just hypocritical, but outright false on a number of levels. First, studies have shown that Americans are far more likely to endorse violent acts such as torture and invasion of other countries, not just compared to Europe, but to the Middle East. Pinker further implies that people in Western countries do not have to deal with the constant anxiety of possibly being killed. Yet, the intentional homicide rate in the United States is over four times greater than in Kuwait, Bahrain, Indonesia, and Saudi Arabia. Moreover, it can be argued that the vast majority of modern conflicts have roots in the West. The War in Iraq, which have claimed hundreds of thousands of lives, was driven mostly by the West. The Syrian Civil War features various sects of competing ideologies and religions. While the West did not create these ideologies, they did draw the borders of Syria during World War I, paying no attention to the diversity of the region (they were more interest in oil). And perhaps the greatest humanitarian disaster of our era, the Genocide in Rwanda, was based on ethnic/social class differences that were greatly (if not entirely) cemented into a once more open culture (it was once possible for Hutu to become Tutsi) by Belgium during the colonial era.

    With regard to his other claims, it certainly seems as though Mr. Pinker has morally disengaged. For instance, what does he mean to imply when he says by the standard of mass atrocities prior in human history, current domestic events such as lethal injection are tame? While it is good that he would group together great atrocities with lethal injection, his words imply a sense of complacentness with the status quo. This seems to me like what Bandura would call advantageous comparison. Perhaps even worse, Mr. Pinker overlooks the possibility of these “mild” issues growing into something more severe. It has been claimed by many social psychologists that the path to extremism is gradual. If putting a guilty serial killer to death is a mild issue, then what happens when capital punishment laws are applied more broadly, such as to children under the age of 18 or the mentally ill. Further, what about those put to death that were later found to be innocent? To minimize issues like capital punishment, and to falsely idealize itself as the enlightened states of non-violence, could lead the West on a long, slippery slope.

  9. Brian May says:

    It seems very apparent to me that Steven Pinker has a very deluded sense of himself and the world when I read these claims of his. I agree with Allie above in that his claims further the ideas of moral disengagement as a whole. I also agree with Celeste in the way that he has a certain amount of “privilege” when it comes to his status and his views. But isn’t “privilege” something that is intrinsically relative, especially when we compare people between countries. One could even say that a woman in the United States is thought of as “privileged” when compared to a woman in a country such as Saudi Arabia who cannot even drive a car. When we as a country still need to work on equal rights between men and women, what can we do or say for any other countries who’s equality compare in comparison to ours. This is my roundabout way of saying that when we compare ourselves to people in other countries, we may sometimes forget where we come from ourselves.

    So instead of attacking Steven Pinker for his deluded views even more, let’s begin to attack the problems that he wishes to brush aside. Perhaps, as Karl Aquino said, that these views of Steven Pinkers’ are solely for him to brush off the issues at home and just worry about other parts of the world. People in our country still live in fear of abduction, rape, and death. People in our country are still victims of hate crimes and lethal injections. Our country still lacks a sense of safety and equality that we must continue to strive towards.

  10. Aneesh Patel says:

    I do not agree with Pinker’s assertions that, in my opinion, do minimize the problems faced by many minorities in our society. In fact, I would go as far to say that he is doing nothing but flaunting his privilege and delegitimizing minorities in this country. Saying that atrocities committed against individuals is “‘pretty mild stuff’” is in no way appropriate or accurate and serves to brush off concerns of minority groups. Pinker’s statements come off as pretentious and follow a dangerous trend of blaming victims. Daniel Bar-Tal argues that doing so is a key part of forming a conflictive ethos against certain groups, making them more prone to violence. In addition, it also divides this nation and pits certain groups against each other; in doing so, we become more likely to promote inequality and violence. I find it surprising that Pinker seems to think that he has the authority to compare different types of violence and delegitimize them as he sees fit. Has he embraced Peggy McIntosh’s famous “white privilege” to such a degree that he feels it is appropriate to minimize the plights faced by racial minorities? In my opinion, making such blatantly incorrect statements is proof that he has failed to acknowledge structural violence in our society. As Schwebel argues, we must overcome structural violence and the imperialistic biases in our society. Minority groups affected by structural violence cannot simply overcome it on their own; as a society, it is our moral obligation to prevent structural violence. While this will be an extremely difficult task, it is one we must take if we want to achieve true equality in our society. So when Pinker blames the African American community for increased violence, he fails to realize that in fact, the structural violence against the African American community is what has lead to this increase. When we challenge views such as those of Pinker, we come one step closer to overcoming structural violence.

  11. Deryal Yuksel says:

    Moral disengagement is not only discussed frequently in the blog, but also was a main topic for discussion during out class time. As mentioned in the blog post, moral disengagement includes “misrepresenting, minimizing, or denying one’s violence…” Pinker may not openly support violence, however he is much of a hypocrite. He emphasizes on human violence in poorer countries. His quote, “daily existence is very different if you always have to worry about being abducted, raped, or killed” is not only very disturbing but also utterly inaccurate. Unfortunately, horrible things happen too in Western societies, in fact in every society. For example, the United States is considered to be a “developed” country and has good institutions for education. If the country is so “developed” and has these “superior” institutions for education, then why is the percentage of rape of college campuses very high? Also, Pinker is a white and privileged man in society, he is completely oblivious to all of the poverty and violence that different gender and racial groups face every day in these “beautifully developed countries”. Pinker is extremely morally disengaged. How can he even state that lethal injections are “pretty mild stuff”? He cannot compare violent things to each other and chose which one is less violent. Violence is scary, painful, immoral and wrong. Violence is violence. Pinker cannot choose what is violent or what is “pretty mild stuff”. In “Mechanisms of Moral Disengagement”, Bandura emphasizes on euphemistic labeling. He states that “language shapes thought patterns on which actions are based… Euphemizing is an injurious weapon.” For example, civilians killed are “collateral damage”, instead of human lives. Pinker may not be using such strong euphemistic labeling, but I believe that someone being killed by a lethal injection and calling this “pretty mild stuff” is downplaying the situation, which is similar to Bandura’s expression of euphemistic labeling.

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