by Gregory Saville
By popular accounts, South-Central Los Angeles is a chaotic place – a place where the community has collapsed and people live in fear. A quarter-million people suffer poverty rates over 30%. Half of the city’s murders and hundreds of gang shootings emerge from South-Central. Popular films, like South-Central and Colors paint a bleak picture.
This year alone LAPD reports 100 homicides in South-Central, a homicide rate of 40 per 100,000, eight times higher than the national average and more than any other country in the world, except El Salvador.
The fact that there is gang violence and racial conflict is not news. The more interesting questions are: If neighborhood culture has collapsed, why isn’t it so much worse? How does a family even survive in such a place? Why has it been getting better over the past few decades (notwithstanding increases in homicide this past year)?
Do conditions in South-Central simply reflect basic human behavior in our natural state? When the chips are down, do we just become beasts? If so, how does South-Central still survive?
Thomas Hobbes wrote that our natural state was self-serving and violent. At the moment of collapse, for example following a catastrophe, people revert to their natural “solitary, poor, nasty brutish and short” lives.
Jean-Jacques Rousseau, on the other hand, argued the opposite – humans are basically good and, following a cultural collapse, we will end up finding ways to cohabitate. “Nothing is so gentle as man in his primitive state,” he wrote in 1754.
What does history suggest?
COLLAPSE IS NORMAL
The Golden Age of Ancient Greece lasted for centuries. That remarkable, but fatally flawed, Hellenistic society never managed to eliminate slavery or internecine conflict and they eventually gave way to the Romans. Of course, Greek city-states did not vanish and their citizens did not perish. They continued on under Roman rule until, eventually, the Roman empire collapsed.
The Romans absorbed Greek culture, technology, and engineering, advancements we still use today. In fact, we base our contemporary democracy, science, mathematics, medicine, and philosophy on some of those early Greco-Roman discoveries.
People imagine the fall of the Roman empire as some cataclysmic war or conquering marauders burning Rome as Emperor Nero watched. In fact, after the Western Roman Empire faded, the Eastern Roman Empire transformed into the Byzantine Empire in Constantinople (modern-day Istanbul). And the ancestors of the Byzantine Empire became the Ottoman Empire. Today 80 million people, the progeny of those empires, live comfortably as citizens of the modern nation of Turkey.
It’s the same all over the world. Societies emerge, thrive, and collapse, but their demise does not signal a return to permanent chaos under a violent short life. Human nature is not permanently brutish.
THE PROGRESSION OF HISTORY
Life may be brutish for a while, but history suggests Rousseau was onto something. Life doesn’t remain brutish – actually the opposite. People find a way forward.
Consider the treatise of Harvard’s Pulitzer-winning author Steven Pinker, arguably the leading American scholar today on matters of mind and culture. His widely heralded book, Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined studies the history of violence and civilization from one era to another. In each subsequent era, he discovers the persistent decline of violence through history and the emerging civilizing effect of rational thought.
Even today, when rational thought seems a distant dream, collapse from social chaos rarely lasts. Human nature, he says, is both brutish and beneficent at the same time. Rousseau and Hobbes were both right and wrong.
That brings us back to South-Central and a marvelous book by Cid Martinez, The Neighborhood Has Its Own Rules: Latinos and African-Americans in South Los Angeles. Martinez studied the social disorganization (and ultimately, re-organization) of cultural life in South-Central ten years following the infamous Rodney King riots.
FLASHBACK: If you don’t recall the 1992 LA Riots, they followed video coverage of a police beating of motorist Rodney King, and the subsequent acquittal of the officers responsible. It led to days of rioting, 63 deaths, and 2,000 injuries. Hundreds of stores burned and over 12,000 people were arrested. By all accounts, society collapsed in South Central.
Matinez spent a year living in South Central studying the culture and his conclusions echoed both our findings during our SafeGrowth programming and the conclusions of Pinker in Better Angels.
He found order within the disorder. People discovered a way to be civilized when some of those around them could not. Says one reviewer:
“Despite the many divisions that South Los Angeles residents have from each other…Martinez finds unexpected commonalities among Latin American and African-American residents. Because residents do not perceive state actors as legitimate, they turn to each other to provide social organization.”
Martinez calls this special ordering “alternative governance” and, while it is certainly not an ideal way to run a society, as elsewhere when enough people cultivate the beneficient side to human nature they can make their community function.
We retain this Rousseau-style lesson as a central philosophy of SafeGrowth programming. We call it the To/For/With principle and time and time again, we see people turn their own community back from the brink of crime.
Life isn’t always, or even mostly, brutish and short. As they always have, people find a way forward.