Lost causes

There are at least two interesting aspects of Naomi Alderman’s what-if novel The Power. One is that if women, somehow or other, miraculously gain the upper hand and get used to calling the shots, they will be no better, though possibly not much worse, than men are now.

The other is that this novel is generally referred to as a “speculative fiction dystopia”. But, as the author writes in a Guardian article  “Nothing happens to men in the novel – I explain carefully to interviewers – that is not happening to a woman in our world today. So is it dystopian? Well. Only if you’re a man.”

In other words: since it is currently happening to women, we are living in a dystopia.

True, it does not happen to all women, and obviously it does not happen to Stephen Pinker. But it does happen to many more women than we care to think of. Moreover, it happens to children. In fact, it happens to just about everyone who happens to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. If I want a certain tract of land, and you just happen to have been living there since you were born, but I am rich and/or powerful, whereas you are just somebody’s lost cause, you’d better scuttle away as fast as you can.

Lost causes are scattered over the landscape like the innumerable heaps of dead bodies we see on the news. Even if Stephen Pinker appears undeterred in his faith in humanity and progress, the number of displaced persons is the highest ever recorded and rising, according to the UN. Being displaced means, more often than not, living in a squalid desert refugee camp, courtesy of some recalcitrant donor. Mind you: Living there for years. No hope.

Personally, I suspect that Mr Pinker must have been suffering from attacks of temporary insanity when he wrote his feel-good nonsense. His line of thinking has annoyed me immensely over the years and has caused no end of harm, I believe. As a psychologist, he is of course entitled to try to help his clients feel better, but that is no excuse for telling the general public that there is no need to worry. Just sit back, relax, be happy.

Yes, I am very familiar with the statistics of the UNDP, according to which “absolute poverty” has declined dramatically, as has infant mortality. Please note, however, that the UNDP term “absolute poverty” is defined as roughly < 1 USD. I ask you: try to live on 10 USD a day or even 20 USD a day, and see what you think of it.

Back to the bag of lost causes, which Mr Pinker seems to have forgotten: In it, we find most of the population of Yemen, most of the population of Afghanistan, most of the population of Syria, the entire population of Palestine, both Sudans, most of the people still trying to eke out a living in Chad and Mali which are becoming increasingly uninhabitable, … I could go on, of course, interminably. But out of respect for the author of The Power, I wish to specifically mention the countless women in India and elsewhere who are subjected to acid attacks or gang rape.

The thought of such senseless cruelty to defenseless women lights up my very worst visceral instincts and reminds me that if I had power, the kind of power possessed by the women in Naomi Alderman’s novel, I would indeed use and abuse it.

That is what happens when you hand out weapons to a flock of tattered, dejected rebels. They will use and abuse them. Here, there or anywhere, inflamed and outraged by the injustice they and their people have been subjected to, they will suddenly feel, like a rush of adrenalin, like divine intervention, a surge of power in their veins. And they will kill without remorse. As would I, if I were where they are.

But I am not. I am safe and sound, far away from it all. But even people like me or like Stephen Pinker, sometimes cross the line: The leaders of ISIS (now defeated, or so they say) were once wealthy, educated and basically law-abiding men. What hit them was rage against the injustice of it all. With money and financial contacts, they could purchase arms and that, alone, gave them immense power.

In addition to those who abuse power because they have a just, lost cause to pursue, there are a lot of psychopaths, so, Mr Pinker, I see no reason to just relax and be happy.