Can reading make us less violent? Steven Pinker thinks that it can. Specifically, Pinker thinks that reading can expand our circle of empathy, getting us to think about more than just our own thoughts. Reading has a power to open new perspectives and invites us into the mind of another person for a long amount of time. We see what they think, we consider their thoughts and emotions, we imagine what we would do if we were in their situation and weigh our response against the response of the author or the characters they employ.
Pinker writes, “reading is a technology for perspective-taking. When someone else’s thoughts are in your head, you are observing the world from that person’s vantage point.” Reading, whether we notice it or not, shifts our perspective and takes us out of our own narrow thoughts and self-interest. It gets us to consider that other people have different thoughts, but that they still think and feel the way that we do. This allows us to start building greater empathy. Pinker continues, “empathy in the sense of adopting someone’s viewpoint is not the same as empathy in the sense of feeling compassion toward the person, but the first can lead to the second by a natural route.”
I don’t know how much I agree that increasing literacy expanded people’s empathy and reduced violence, but I think it is an interesting argument. I think reading does have the ability to shift ones perspective and get people to consider more than their own self-interest. I’m sure there is a correlation between literacy and violence, but I’m sure it is a messy correlation with many conflicting variables. I would expect that there are other variables and factors that both make people less violent and make people more inclined to learn to read and read frequently.
Regardless of my doubts, I think greater literacy is a valuable thing. I think that encouraging people to see the world beyond their own lens and to take the perspectives of others is a good thing. The causal mechanism for how those two factors reduce people’s levels of violence toward others makes sense, even if I am still hesitant to say that is what explains the correlation. If there is a chance that increased literacy makes us less violent, then we should pursue that chance and study the impacts of our efforts to expand literacy so that we can better understand Pinker’s argument and hopefully have a less violent world.