Are we becoming less violent?

We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained, it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory will swell when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature. Abraham Lincoln

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This quote by Abraham Lincoln is the origin of the title of the latest book by Steven Pinker, The Better Angels of Our Nature. I have recently been immersing myself in violence. Apart from Pinker’s book I have also read Atrocitology: Mankind’s 100 Deadliest Achievements by Matthew White, which documents the worst cases of atrocities throughout history to produce a ranking of the top 100. Pinker’s book is undoubtedly a tour de force, encompassing research, spread across so many different fields. The central thesis is that our era is less violent, less cruel and more peaceful than any previous period of human existence. This counterintuitive observation is true for violence in the family, in neighbourhoods, between tribes and between states. This is not the message that the mass media wants to portray. They have a different agenda; “If it bleeds, it leads” is their philosophy. Look at the news and you get a diet of one violent story after another.

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How does Pinker seek to substantiate his shocking claim? He breaks down his study into a number of historical themes which include:

The Pacification Process

Jean Jacques Rousseau argued that man was intrinsically good and that civilisation was what made humans bad. John Lennon imagined a world without countries where we’d all be living in harmony. This is however sentimental drivel. Thomas Hobbes was right. This kind of life was nasty, brutish and short. Hunter gatherer societies have always had very high murder rates. The rise and expansion of states drove death rates down. Let’s be clear about what was motivating the leaders of these states. They did not have a philanthropic interest in the welfare of their subjects. Here we are talking about the logic of political survival. Tribal raiding and feuding is a nuisance to imperial overlords. They do not benefit from this and any dead subjects would no longer pay taxes to them.

The Civilizing Process

The term civilised is a loaded one. The historian Felipe Fernandez-Armesto took a cynical view:

All definitions of civilization … belong to a conjugation which goes: ‘I am civilized, you belong to a culture, he is a barbarian.’

Pinker has borrowed this concept from the book The Civilizing Process, which was written by Norbert Elias, a German sociologist. It deals with European history from around 800 AD to 1900 AD. There was a consolidation of feudal economies into larger kingdoms and empires with central authority, trade and greater economic specialization. Criminal justice became “the king’s justice.” And at the same time commercial society led to a shift in incentives from zero-sum plunder to positive-sum trade.

The Humanitarian Revolution

This period in the 17th and 18th century includes both the Age of Reason and the European Enlightenment. The early states had been successful in bringing down rates of homicide, but they were rather brutal. A lot has been made of Abu Ghraib, but listening to Barney the Purple Dinosaur or waterboarding do not really compare to burning at the stake, being hanged drawn and quartered, breaking on the wheel, the rack and many more devices so beloved in the Middle Ages. It was during the Humanitarian Revolution, especially in the 18th century, that such practices as witch hunts, duelling, and of course slavery were abolished.

The Rights Revolutions

The final historical development mentioned by Pinker is the Rights Revolutions, the reduction of systemic violence at smaller scales against vulnerable populations such as racial minorities, women, children, homosexuals and animals. There has been an 80% reduction in rape since the early ’70s, when it became a feminist issue. There has also been a 66% decline in wife beating, and a 50% decline in husband beating. There’s been a decline both in the number of wives that are murdered by their husbands and the number of husbands that have been murdered by their wives. Indeed the fall has been much more dramatic for husbands. Feminism has actually been very good to men. More men survive matrimony, as women are no longer trapped in marriage and they don’t feel the need to resort to killing their spouses. This decline is not what we see reflected in the media. It really annoys me when news programmes fail to put violence into any kind of historical context.

Pinker then goes on to look at what makes us violent. He lists four factors:

Exploitation

This is the utilization of another person or group for selfish purposes. Examples include rape, plunder, conquest, and the elimination of rivals.

The drive toward dominance

This refers both to the competition among individuals to be the alpha male, and the competition among groups for ethnic, racial, national or religious ascendancy.

The lust for revenge

This is the type of moralistic violence that that can trigger vendettas, vigilante justice, and cruel and unusual punishments.

Ideology

Ideology comprises both extreme political systems, – nationalisms, fascism, Nazism, and communism or militant religions which seek to create utopias on earth. This is perhaps the biggest contributor of all to the list of mankind’s atrocities.

Luckily we have the better angels that Pinker alludes to in the title of his book. There are five of them:

The Leviathan

This is the strong state which emerges from a Hobbesian social contract which grants to the state a full monopoly on the use of violence from within.

Gentle Commerce

This increases economic incentives for cooperation.

Feminization

The empowerment of women as intellectual equals has led to a decline of authoritarian/patriarchal based societies. Pinker argues that women are generally  more risk-averse and less violent.

The Expanding Circle

This idea, from the Australian philosopher Peter Singer, deals with how we have gradually extended sympathy to more and more groups, including animals. An activity like novel reading is an exercise in perspective-taking and helps to expand people’s circle of sympathy. In reality Pinker is arguing what has expanded is not so much a circle of empathy but a circle of rights. We may not love them but we now feel that fellow humans and now animals should not be harmed or exploited.

The Escalator of Reason

The “Escalator of Reason” is another concept created by Singer. As reason is used in human affairs, it takes us in unforeseeable directions but generally toward even more reasoning and the flourishing of humanity.

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Here then is my brief and incomplete summary of The Better Angels of Our Nature.

Now you may want to know what my opinion is. I think it is an impressive piece of work. It does make you see the world in a different way. However, I do have some reservations. It is rather Eurocentric, but that is probably because Europe is the area about which the best data is available.

I belong to a more pessimistic school of thought than Pinker, whose vision seems to be more like the Whig Interpretation of history, which sees an inevitable progression towards ever greater liberty and enlightenment. For Whig historians the rise of constitutional government, personal freedoms and scientific progress are central to these advances. I believe in all of those things, but there is nothing inevitable about them.

To be fair to Pinker, he doesn’t claim that what he calls the Long Peace will go on indefinitely. The sixty or so years since the end of WWII are just not long enough to draw any lasting conclusions. A few years ago economists were talking about the Great Moderation a period roughly between 1987–2007, which was characterised by predictable policy, low inflation, and modest business cycles. This new paradigm was believed to have been caused by institutional and structural changes in developed nations. Where is all that now? Francis Fukuyama talked about the end of history. Alas I fear in 300 historians will have plenty of material with which to analyse from this epoch. The Long Peace is contingent and could be reversed in the future.  I am worried about the sheer destructiveness of modern warfare. The Crusades lasted centuries World War Two was six years. Now we have even more destructive power. Moreover, we are living in a world of more than seven billion souls and increasingly scarce resources. This is one of the central insights of Thomas Hobbes that even without our thirst for power and glory, scarcity and uncertainty bring us into mutual conflict. Nor do we know what the effects of widespread climate change will be.

After reading Pinker I went to read a review by John Gray in Prospect. I wanted to get a  contrarian viewpoint:

Pinker’s attempt to ground the hope of peace in science is profoundly instructive, for it testifies to our enduring need for faith. We don’t need science to tell us that humans are violent animals. History and contemporary experience provide more than sufficient evidence. For liberal humanists, the role of science is, in effect, to explain away this evidence. They look to science to show that, over the long run, violence will decline—hence the panoply of statistics and graphs and the resolute avoidance of inconvenient facts. The result is no more credible than the efforts of Marxists to show the scientific necessity of socialism, or free-market economists to demonstrate the permanence of what was until quite recently hailed as the Long Boom. The Long Peace is another such delusion, and just as ephemeral.

I like reading Gray because his bracing pessimism challenges you to think about what you believe. However, ultimately I have to disagree with him. While I have no illusions that we are about to enter an era of Kumbaya, I do feel that he doesn’t give enough credit for the incredible changes we have seen. Reversible progress is surely better than no progress at all.

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One Response to Are we becoming less violent?

  1. Alberto says:

    I share your view. Let’s see how Western societies cope with a decline in their standards of living, because we never saw it before.

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