Taboos, Pinker says, certainly served (and serves) a purpose in human societies, in general by keeping one connected to the tribe through a shared sets of values and beliefs, but they can also be fundamental impediments to discovering the truth.
He admits that his latest book, The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined, which comes from the term coined by Benjamin Franklin, could be seen as a politically incorrect statement, a reductionistic claim that doesn’t see the big picture. He’s been surprised by how people have reacted to the book in anger and denial rather than celebration. He thinks it’s basically fear-based.
“If you say that things have gotten better then you’ll take the heat off, that maybe we’re living in a good society after all, and we can relax our efforts to drive violence down, which I think is exactly wrong. I think in fact if people become fatalistic they think well what’s the point of trying to make the world a better place? That’s the license for complacency.”
Steven Pinker is also the author of The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature and The Stuff of Thought: Language as a Window into Human Nature.
In the following 8-minute segment, Pinker discusses the crucial role dissent plays in keeping society sane, the special importance of free speech on campus, and the origins of political correctness.
Pinker’s discussion of the evolution of human morality is a part of an emerging sociological, scientific, and historiographical hotbed of discussion. His book is a compelling read in its entirety, with an engaging and readable prose style.