From pistols to podcasts
The challenge: demand satisfaction. If they apologize, no need for further action. So begins Lin-Manuel Miranda’s “Ten Duel Commandments,” a prescription for resolving disputes with honor in the age of America’s founding generation. In the centuries between Alexander Hamilton’s death by duel and his rebirth in Miranda’s musical, people have argued and debated and disagreed as much as ever. To disagree is human nature. To resolve disagreements peacefully, on the other hand, is a sign of human progress.
A recent public dispute reminds us of the growth of which human society is capable. It also serves as a useful metric for forward progress at a time when many seem nostalgic for a supposedly harmonious past.
Last month, Sam Harris, host of the “Waking Up” podcast, and Vox’s Ezra Klein engaged in a public debate about race and IQ. Rather than relitigate the debate, consider the nature of the litigation itself. It took place in the public eye. It featured two prominent personalities whose livelihoods depend on public commentary and intellect. It centered on a topic much bigger than the two of them (in part because, as Klein put it, they’re “two white guys talking about how growing up nonwhite in America affects your life and cognitive development”). It became very personal very quickly, at least from Harris’s perspective. He charged Klein and Vox with attempting the “total destruction” of his reputation and repeatedly redirected their exchange to that topic.
Only a couple of centuries ago, such a public spat between prominent people with honor at stake might’ve been considered, as Ron Chernow describes it in his biography of Hamilton, an “affair of honor” — the type of disagreement best settled with a violent duel. At the time of the American revolution, Chernow writes, “no politician could afford to have his honor impugned. Though fought in secrecy and seclusion, duels always turned into highly public events that were covered afterward with rapt attention by the press. They were designed to sway public opinion and shape the images of the adversaries.” Swap “intellectual” for “politician,” and replace “fought” with “exchanged heated emails,” and you have a pretty accurate description of the Ezra Klein-Sam Harris dispute.
These semantic substitutions make all the difference. Not only did Klein and Harris not shoot at each other, but they ended their exchange simply by going their separate ways. They didn’t solve their disagreement but rather set it aside, with each participant’s honor intact. And they did so with dueling blog posts and podcasts, not pistols.
What’s remarkable about this outcome is that it’s not remarkable at all. That’s one of the takeaways of Steven Pinker’s recent antidote to cynicism, Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress. On topics from wealth and war to equal rights and the environment, Pinker makes a convincing, data-driven case that “the world has made spectacular progress in every single measure of human well-being.” The catch, as Pinker writes, is that “almost no one knows about it.”
A decline in routine human violence is just one example. Take Pinker’s description of Europe during the Middle Ages, an era in which “lords massacred the serfs of their rivals, aristocrats and their retinues fought each other in duels… and ordinary people stabbed each other over insults at the dinner table.” This world was humanity’s status quo for generations. Yet over time society evolved, in part through institutions like politics, itself a means of peacefully resolving disagreements about the future.
While few people might describe American politics today as emblematic of human progress, it is. Even in our hyper-partisan, conflict-driven political environment, disagreements are settled almost exclusively with words. No one thought for a second that the presidential candidate who bragged that “I could stand in the middle of 5th Avenue and shoot somebody and I wouldn’t lose voters” would actually shoot anyone on 5th Avenue. Yet just over 200 years ago — a blink of an eye in human history — a sitting vice president shot and killed a former treasury secretary over personal disagreements. Could anyone really picture a similar scuffle between Mike Pence and Jack Lew?
Today, as instability and uncertainty pervade our predictions of the future and toxic political climates put entire populations on edge, it’s worth taking a moment to note progress where it exists. “When we fail to acknowledge our hard-won progress,” Pinker writes, “we may come to believe that perfect order and universal prosperity are the natural state of affairs.” Seeking that idyllic impossibility and inevitably coming up short makes us vulnerable to fatalistic convictions that the end of days — or at least a dystopian future of some sort— is just a crisis or lost election away.
We can find a middle ground that reflects both our progress and our works in progress. We can acknowledge, as President Obama wrote in 2016, that “if you had to choose any time in the course of human history to be alive, you’d choose this one,” and you’d choose the United States—while also acknowledging that our progress has been unequal. We can recognize the demise of America’s greatest injustice while also recognizing that our work to right historical wrongs remains unfinished.
Neither personal disputes nor political differences are entirely without violence today. White aristocratic men have stopped challenging each other to duels, but the legacy of that violent culture still resonates. Abortion providers still receive constant death threats. Black men and women are still being killed by police for no reason. Immigrants are still at risk of violence and heartless deportation.
But it’s also true that most of the time, two people can disagree vehemently and peacefully. Despite the animosity between political parties, they can compete aggressively and transfer power back-and-forth without violence. These aren’t laurels to rest on, but they are laurels worth recognizing.
If peaceful disagreements can go from unprecedented to unremarkable in such a short time, what else is possible? What other seemingly insurmountable challenges today — the gun violence epidemic, the racial wealth gap, inaction on climate change, unequal access to education — will go the way of the duel?
As Pinker shows, we should take heart in the progress we’ve made. That sense of possibility and strength of conviction is what sustains us and drives us forward in uncertain times. And all times are uncertain until they’re written (or rapped) into history.