Bitter Pills and Stone Soup


In his bestselling book The Blank Slate, psycholinguist Steven Pinker recalls how sixteen hours of lawless mayhem during a police strike in Montreal shook his faith in the perfectability of human nature and set his idealistic former self on the high road of science. Here is the passage:

As a young teenager in proudly peaceable Canada during the romantic 1960's, I was a true believer in Bakunin's anarchism. I laughed off my parents' argument that if the government ever laid down its arms all hell would break loose. Our competing predictions were put to the test at 8:00 am on October [7], 1969, when the Montreal police went on strike. By 11:20 A.M. the first bank was robbed. By noon most downtown stores had closed because of looting. Within a few more hours, taxi drivers burned down the garage of a limousine service that had competed with them for airport customers, a rooftop sniper killed a provincial police officer, rioters broke into several hotels and restaurants, and a doctor slew a burglar in his suburban home. By the end of the day, six banks had been robbed, a hundred shops had been looted, twelve fires had been set, forty carloads of storefront glass had been broken, and three million dollars in property damage had been inflicted, before city authorities had to call in the army and, of course, the Mounties to restore order.

"Montreal is in a state of shock," the CBC reported on Oct. 8, 1969--and so was young Pinker, barely fifteen years of age. "Shattered shop windows and a trail of broken glass are evidence of looting that erupted in the downtown core when 3700 members of the Montreal Policemen's Brotherhood walked off the job over a pay dispute. With no one to stop them, students and separatists joined the rampage." By the time the trucks had hauled away the shattered glass, a police officer lay dead, 108 people had been arrested; thirty citizens had been injured, and a certain Russian anarchist had lost a teenage fan. In the minds of some Canadians, moreover, their country had lost its special exemption from the large-scale urban violence that had seemed to be the special province of its southern neighbor. Since Harlem 1964, more than one hundred "riots" south of the border had claimed more than one hundred fatalities. But Canadians wanted to believe that their country was different. A year after the Police Strike, a Canadian rock band produced a hit song that proclaimed, perhaps too self-righteously, "I don't need your war machines, I don't need your ghetto scenes." But by that time Canada's pacific self-image bore a battle scar or two.

The police strike had put to the test Pinker's assumption that humans, left to their own devices, "all just get along," as Rodney King put it, in the form of a request, two decades later. " Montreal's Night of Terror" had tested those assumptions and falsified them. As soon as Pinker's fabulously peaceable fellow citizens had noticed that the thin blue line had faded for a day, they reverted to conduct unbecoming of Canadians. "L'anarchie frappe Montréal," announced a Radio Canada report of October 7, and this anarchie did not look pretty. "When law enforcement vanishes," Pinker concluded, "all manner of violence breaks out: looting, settling old scores, ethnic cleansing and petty warfare among gangs, warlords, and mafias." One can imagine the wagging finger and the eyebrows raised for emphasis.

The Montreal Police Strike came about as close to a crucial experiment in history or sociology as one could expect. And the verdict was clear to all who even for a moment dropped their ideological blinders: thanks to intractable human nature, utopia is indeed a nowhere destination. "This decisive empirical test left my politics in tatters," Pinker reported, and then added parenthetically: "and offered a foretaste of life as a scientist." Disabused of his Bakunin-stoked illusions, the young Pinker learned to accept the verdict of evidence, even when it confuted his most cherished assumptions. And this, as the historically inaccurate cliché would have it, is what science is all about. The foretaste of life as a scientist was the taste of a bitter pill, and in the fall of 1969 Steven Pinker swallowed an adult dose.

The bank robbers, the looters, and the armed shopowners who tried to fend them off are all exemplary embodiments of human nature. Presumably, the in-group solidarity of unionized taxi drivers, or of undergraduates and Québécois separatists was another instantiation of out-group bias in Montreal. In this respect they did not differ much from gangs and mafias. Even the solidarity of 2400 metropolitan firefighters who joined the strike in support of the Policemen's Brotherhood could easily be explained as an instance of reciprocal altruism at best, or as an extended and ramified instance of kin selection. Or to a xenophobic closing of ranks against mutual outsiders. Or perhaps it was just radical-chic street theater. If humans were angels, of course, rulers would be unnecessary. But humans are incapable of pure altruism; the compass of communal sharing is narrow, and so we require "government"--which notably includes the repressive power of the police--to keep a lid on the violence that boils up otherwise.

Pinker has presented us with a dramatic story of lost innocence, and to his credit he kept the story short. In the end, young Pinker swallowed the bitter pill, accepted the facts of life and human nature, and followed the trail of shattered glass to the high road of science. Reluctantly, sadly but stalwartly, he embraced the Tragic View of Life, the realization that life is not fair.

The author of The Blank Slate, of course, would acknowledge that the Wretched of the Earth do not need a Harvard professor to teach them that life is not fair. Sweatshop workers, refugees, targets of tyrants and death squads, mothers of a billion children who go to bed hungry every night--these people can figure out on their own that life is not fair. But Pinker's more likely audience, including overeducated Up-Towners and graduates of Comp Lit programs, need a little reminder every now and then.

The high road of science, we have heard, is paved with objectivity. Objectivity, presumably, involves taking the facts as they are, without embellishment or spin. To be objective, one must acquire a taste for bitter pills.

But here and there in The Blank Slate one encounters less-than-optimal modeling of the prescribed behavior. Here, for instance, is Pinker's version of an old French tale, recounted in Marcia Brown's Caldecott Honor book, Stone Soup, first published in 1947:

In the children's story called "Stone Soup," a hobo borrows the use of a woman's kitchen ostensibly to make soup from a stone. But he gradually asks for more and more ingredients to balance the flavor until he has prepared a rich and hearty stew at her expense.

We return once again to the hard facts of life: there is no such thing as pure altruism; people are out for themselves and their nearest of kin. The woman was a fool; the hobo was a knave, and as long as knaves conceal their knavery, they come out on top.

But compare this to the familiar story as Brown tells it: not a hobo in the famous children's tale nor in the older tale, either; rather, three hungry soldiers returning from a war. (In the older version of the story, it was a Napoleonic war.) Not one woman, but the entire village. Not a private kitchen, either, but a public space. And "at her expense" in what way? The soldiers set up a borrowed pot in a conspicuous spot, light a fire, fill the pot with water and plop stones into it. At first the villagers are unwilling to share any of their food stores with the hungry soldiers, but one by one, reluctantly, they add ingredients to the pot, and in the end the soldiers and the villagers eat their fill, dance, and laugh together into the night. The clever soldiers tricked villagers out of their greed and xenophobia, and as a result of sharing and working together, advantages accrued to each and all. That, one can pretty confidently conclude, is the moral of the unreconstructed story. As Pinker has spinned it, though, the story has a very different moral, a moral more in keeping with the tragic view of life that "the new sciences of human nature" are said to certify.

Here and throughout The Blank Slate, Pinker has done us the favor of supplying the morals to the stories that objectivity and human nature require. Those famous ideological blinders, it seems, are a funny sort of accessory: only former selves and other people ever wear them.


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