Saturday, August 20, 2016

Until We Are Free: My Fight for Human Rights in Iran by Shirin Ebadi

I decided to read Until We Are Free: My Fight for Human Rights in Iran by Shirin Ebadi for three reasons. One, I'm always looking to better understand cultures from around the world. Two, I think human rights are worth fighting for. Three, I admire people who are willing to put their whole lives on the line to fight for the rights of not only themselves but others. I started to read Ebadi's story unsure what to expect. The story was filled with moments of hope and moments of utter despair that took me on an emotional roller coaster. I laughed at times and fought back tears at others. I felt outrage and fear and joy. Ebadi tells her life story through the lens of her fight for human rights without denying what her fight for the rights of not only herself but others cost her, personally and professionally. At times, she downplayed her losses in comparison to other people's, but even then her story made me think. Sometimes, we use words so carelessly, but for people living under a truly dictatorial regime, careless words are death sentences, sometimes even careful words are death sentences. Yet, it is important that words that shine light on atrocities are spoken and written and shared with the world. Ebadi tells the story of how she worked her whole life to speak for those who aren't in a position to speak for themselves. Ebadi's story of dealing with the Iranian government are enough to give anyone chills but remind us that there are real people living under oppressive rule everyday and there are real people living under those regimes fighting for the rights of themselves and others. Until We Are Free is a well written and engaging book that is at once thought provoking, heartbreaking and inspiring.

Thursday, August 4, 2016

The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined by Steven Pinker

I've struggled a bit to write this review because I have mixed feelings about The Better Angels of our Nature by Steven Pinker.

I started reading The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined with the attitude that Pinker needed to first convince me violence had declined before getting into explaining why. To be perfectly honest, given the world we currently live in, it's hard to imagine that violence has declined.

While I finished the book convinced that violence has declined, I felt like the explanations for why seemed more hypothetical than proven. Pinker explored violence quite thoroughly beginning his book at the beginning of human existence and moving to modern times in the almost 700 pages of The Better Angels of Our Nature. He explored historical myths as well as historical documents to arrive at his conclusions. He used archaeological finds to disprove mythical battles. He described how the development of etiquette and the creation of government helped quell violence and change our norms about violence. He used a combination of statistics, anecdotal evidence, and archaeological studies to present his case.

Yet, the more I read, the more my college corrections statistics professor's words haunted me. He always warned our class to be careful when writing papers not to allow our biases and our desires to prove our points to affect the weight we gave the studies we used as evidence. 

Pinker seems less objective in some areas of The Better Angels of Our Nature than in other sections. He seemed to excuse violence against some people while unequivocally condemning it against others. This bias felt incredibly out of place in a book on why violence has declined. 

For example, when talking about things like the FBI's crime report and other such studies on crime, Pinker never mentions the effect of police discretion and biased court results on crime rates or how the statistics for individual areas are sometimes skewed by reporting or not reporting data. My assumption is he believes the numbers wouldn't be enough to skew the overall results, and a simple paragraph could have addressed that issue. Maybe even just a few sentences; however, if those sentences existed I couldn't find them.

His inconsistent handling of anecdotal evidence and research surveys deemed certain groups of people more credible than others without giving a clear reason why.

As I read The Better Angels of Our Nature, I found myself wanting it to be better than it was yet I still think it's a book worth reading. Pinker obviously studied violence in great depth. He explains the statistics in an easy to understand, straightforward method, and he tells the story of violence quite well. He makes violence the main character, for better or worse, in a story that is ongoing and relevant and important. In fact, Pinker tells the story so well and brings up such important points, facts, and conclusions, that I am tempted to dismiss the things that bothered me about the book. Yet, I can't do that in good conscience. Pinker drives home the fact that violence is much less acceptable than it used to be for a variety of reasons and that unacceptability has come about as humans have developed civilization and sought out ways to live together more peacefully. The Better Angels of Our Nature left me hopeful that we can continue to rise above violence and find nonviolent solutions in spite of my skepticism about certain sections of the book.