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