Nostalgia

“If the past is a foreign country, it is a shockingly violent one. It is easy to forget just how dangerous life used to be, how deeply brutality was once woven into the fabric of daily existence.” (Pinker 2012)

This opens Steven Pinker’s excellent book, The Better Angels of Our Nature. (I have minor gripes but surprising few given the ambitious sweep of the work). His history of violence concludes that life has got better and better. Years ago I studied Ancient History and I find Pinker’s conclusion indisputable. Stating the obvious, absolute monarchy, crucifixions, slavery, and gladiatorial shows were bad things. Pinker suggests that things have got better in many ways.

We still violate our ideals but in the not too distant past, racism, sexism, and the mass murder of native peoples didn’t seem to upset most people at all. In the West there has been a massive recent improvement in the rights of women, while only a couple of years before I was born homosexuality was still illegal in the UK. Beating children at school was commonplace in my parent’s generation becoming only sporadic in mine. Now harsh words would shock my daughters. We have made progress.

Of course there is a danger that people with comfortable lives — e.g. business school professors in Canada — might mistakenly think the world is great for everyone. It obviously isn’t. That any “comfortable lives” exist however represents progress compared to history’s short, disease-riddled lives. Historically even the privileged often endured miserable lives that ended violently. (The Spartans’ lives only seem pleasant in comparison to those of the Helots they oppressed.) Pinker however argues that improvement hasn’t just been for the lucky few, but across the board. If you don’t believe it plough through the extensive detail in his book.

If you can’t dispute Pinker’s logic the interesting question is: Why do people think so fondly of the past? Nostalgia often suggests that the past was wonderful when it usually wasn’t. Nostalgia is simply an error; an inability to see the past accurately. Our brains rarely operate as perfectly accurate recall devices but most of the time the inaccuracy doesn’t hurt too much. A little nostalgia is often harmless but be careful, even if poor recall doesn’t hurt you most of the time occasionally it’ll cause real problems.

Look at Trent Lott who resigned as US Senate Majority Leader in 2002. For the sake of argument lets give him the benefit of the doubt and assume he wasn’t deliberately advocating racism. He however mused nostalgically for the segregationist south. Perhaps the milkshakes tasted better, the summers were longer and young people were politer to (rich, white) people in the 1940s and 1950s. That said overlooking Jim Crow seems like, best case, simply failing to remember the problems of the past accurately. More prosacially, in business next time you curse your PC for being slow think of how much you’d be achieving with an abacus.

Nostalgia can derail decision making. When you think of the past try to remember it was more rampant smallpox, torture instruments and occasional massacres than swashbuckling hijinks, flattering tunics, and damsels’ favours.

Read: Steven Pinker, The Better Angels of Our Nature, Penguin Books, 2012