An audience gathered at the Fleck Dance Theatre on Thursday, October 22 to witness the opening night of the International Festival of Authors (IFOA), the highlight of the evening was a conversation with Steven Pinker and Ken Dryden on the topic of contemporary violence and literature.
Apart from his literary career, Dryden acted as the Minister of Social Development in Canada and played for the Montreal Canadiens hockey team in the 1970s. Pinker, who has taught at prominent universities such as Harvard and MIT, dedicated his career to the study of language and the cognitive development of the human mind. Dryden’s hockey background combined with Pinker’s psychological studies gave the authors a shared familiarity with violence, explaining the reasoning behind the event, “Writing, Violence and the Human Brain.”
Pinker began the discussion by claiming that, “as much as we have the capacity of generating violence, its levels are going down.” He clarified that in the past forty years, levels of violence have decreased significantly as the new generation became less tolerant of forms of abuse. He recognizes contemporary access to weapons of mass destruction, but argues that “you, as a twenty year old, who is inherently optimistic about the future, have the right to be.” Pinker further justified his points by referring to “the illusion of the good old days,” suggesting that society would have been degenerating if every grandparent had been right in valuing the past over the present. Dryden supported Pinker’s argument with a reference to his former hockey career, suggesting that violent confrontations during hockey games have become more regulated with stricter punishments, and knowing these punishments, players have less incentive to fight. Audience members later debated the authors’ claims about the decrease of violence during the Q&A session, referring primarily to the crime rates in urban North America during the 1970s, the 1990s and nowadays. While the authors’ claims surprised some spectators in the auditorium, others were more aware of the growing pacifism in our society.
Later on in the conversation, Pinker and Dryden deviated from their original topic to talk about their experiences as academic writers. Pinker noted the difficulties he faced when transitioning from an academic writer to a literary author, since his primary goal was to “treat readers as intellectual peers” and not as intellectually inferior consumers. Dryden supported Pinker’s points by exemplifying his life in sports, which appeared to be less glamorous than many authors described it. Dryden noted that a successful writer “writes it assuming that many people have had these experiences,” meaning that even amateur athletes share the anxieties and exhilaration that a hockey star would. Dryden later transitioned into a brief examination of the socio-political atmosphere in Canada as he inverted the expression ‘where there’s a will, there’s a way,’ suggesting that older generations are responsible for foregrounding a favorable environment for the youth. Pinker and Dryden’s conversation culminated with a round of applause by an audience evidently pleased with the first day of an exciting week at IFOA.