Why Violence Has Declined
Steven Pinker 2012
This was the opposite of light, summer reading. In fact, The Better Angels of our Nature felt more like summer school. I don’t mean that in a derogatory way. Although this heavily academic and thoroughly researched book weighed in at four pages shy of seven hundred, the depth presented in Steven Pinker’s thesis about the decline of violence through the ages was thought provoking, informative, and inspired optimism about humanity’s future.
Now, you’re probably all up in arms at the proposition that violence is in decline, especially in world with recent tragedies such as Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, the beheading of journalist James Foley by the Islamic State, the murder of Michael Brown in Ferguson and the subsequent militarized policing of the poor citizens of Ferguson. All of these recent events are admittedly distressing and discouraging. However, according to Pinker’s analysis of the trends of violence throughout history, these recent events are not actually signs of an unravelling world order but actually outliers in a downward trend of an overall reduction in worldwide violence.
Admittedly, I am just as much as pessimist about society’s misgivings as the next guy, but while reading Pinker’s book I allowed myself to swallow the kool-aid and accept his argument that violence has actually been in decline through the ages, despite our gut reaction to the contrary.
To acknowledge this trend, one must accept a big picture view when looking at current events. Pinker actually urges us to take a very, very big picture view that compares the global violence experienced today with a perspective that acknowledges that our ancestors were often brutal towards one another in ways that is unimaginable today. Yes, brutality does still exist today, Pinker is not arguing that violence has been erased from human nature, and no one can deny the relatively recent past of the first half of the 20th century as the father to the two most destructive wars in human history. However, through careful analysis of world population statistics, it becomes apparent that the proportion of people living today (or even during the time of the two world wars) untouched by the many faces of violence depicted through slavery, rape, genocide, murder, and war far outweighs the number and proportion of people living (and dying) than do feel the awful touch of violence’s brutal hand.
To consider the relative possibility of an ever present peace one must reflect on the brutal past. Genocides may occur this very day in under-developed and poor nations, but these occurrences are current outliers in the global scheme of historical reference. The record of history’s past, including both the biblical record, classical Greek poetry, and countless documents and artistic representations depict a world unlike ours that celebrated war and the total destruction, rape, and pillage of enemy tribes and nations that were frequently erased from human memory. Among countless examples to consider are gladiatorial fights to the death enjoyed as common entertainment that would be completely shunned by modern society. It was once common practice to watch executions for fun and now few modern countries permit executions at all (the US is the one exception in the western industrialized world). At one time gentlemen would settle matters via a duel to the death and now disputes are more often settled in court. Powerful nations thrived on extensive battles that lasted decades and exhausted the peasantry with little benefit to the common man and now the major focus of international relations is economic commerce that promotes shared prosperity. Even the total body count of wars of the current and recent past pale in comparison to the body count of years prior.
These are but a few examples of the many changes in human relations that are apparent as a downward trend in violence through the ages. In discussing these changes Pinker provides an in depth review of historical data to present the decline of the once common practice of violence through a step wise discussion of the process of pacification, civilization, and the enlightenment (otherwise called the humanitarian revolution) to demonstrate how cultural trends have reduced the frequency, magnitude, and length of global war and improved conditions for all mankind. His historical review is extensively reliant on graphical presentation of the trends. Although many readers may be distracted by the analytical data presentation, this reader accepted the graphic format as a persuasive tool to support the over arching thesis that violence has really decline through time. Over and over again through both textual and graphical discussion Pinker argues that the frequency and magnitude of inter-governmental war, civil war, torture, execution, murder, slavery, rape, the treatment of women, children and even animals has declined through the ages.
Despite the consistent presentation of the decline, Pinker could not get around the fact that the historical record clearly presents two recent blips of atrocity that could distract many readers from accepting Pinker’s argument: WW I and WW II. Pinker provides some good analysis of these blips by arguing that they were statistical anomalies that can distract historical review because “events that occur at random will seem to come in clusters, because it would take a nonrandom process to space them out” (203) and the overall impact of these world wars, though atrocious, are not the worst events to occur in human history. Through a review of the most horrible events that mankind has done to one another, Pinker clearly demonstrates that the two world wars of the early 20th century do not measure up to the global proportionality of destruction. Although those wars were the most brutal events that occurred with respect to total body count, when adjusted to compare the death toll to the proportion of human population at the time of their occurrence the second world war ranks as the 9th and the first world war ranks as the 16th as the most destructive wars in human history.
This presentation of the past may seem like clever historical revisionism, and in many ways it is, but one cannot argue with the realization that since the second world war a third has not come to destroy us despite the proliferation of nuclear weapons and despotic leaders in backwater nations capable to extend their power to exact such global destruction. Yes, since the second world war there have been many shocking and destructive events, but when looking at the most recent devastations such as 9/11 and the subsequent Afghanistan and Iraq wars, the total death toll is minuscule compared to atrocities of ages past.
So, what has changed? For one, you the reader are probably disgusted by the suggestion that 9/11 is a minimal event. That disgust is actually a good sign of changing human sentiment. Pinker argues that this human sentiment is a result of a progressive change in human awareness and rationality that is a result of several fortuitous historical events. Primarily, as human civilization moved from rural hunter gathering tribes towards agrarian and then towards urban metropolitan styles of living, the civilizing process had a pacifying element that curbed our violent nature through an increased sentimental appreciation for the value of human life. Every year in the US there are approximately 17,000 to 18,000 deaths resulting from murder, but these deaths are distributed across a nation of greater than 300,000,000 and therefore represent only a small percentage of actual death as a result of murder. The approximately 3,000 that died on 9/11 is only 1/6 the total that die year after year as a result of murder in this nation, yet the gut reaction to the 9/11 event is heightened by the media attention, national pride, and ideologies that surround the event. The atrocity may seem appalling, but the truth is that it is an outlier and we generally live in peace.
The reasons for that peace have a lot to do with our respect for the atrocity as a representation of a loss of human life that could easily be yours or mine. In times past that respect was lacking. What has caused that change in respect for life through time? Pinker presents several multi-factorial arguments that play together to change human nature for the better. First among many factors are the pacification and civilizing process necessarily inherent in the development of societies that moved from tribal to cosmopolitan nature. As more people lived together in tighter more dependent relationships, people grew to value commercial and social relationships. Secondly, the development of a state system with a monopoly on the jursidication of social order served to limit the violent behaviors of the social constituents for fear of the judicial consequences of social disorder. The increased availability of knowledge through print and literacy subsequently affected and expanded the possibilities for empathy and understanding that ignited the humanitarian revolutions that sought an end to slavery, promoted woman’s suffrage and feminization, racial rights, gay rights, children rights, animal rights and so on.
In short, as mankind has grown to accept reason and rationality while concurrently become reliant upon a system of social order, our moral perspective has expanded and has grown to expect rational and moral treatment towards each other. Of course we are far from perfect and many continue to struggle for safety and simple livelihood across this expansive globe, the fact that you or I can grow so inflamed towards a jaywalker or a car that has cut us off in the fast lane to only forget it minutes later is a sign of a greater good, for these inconsequential problems that ignite and later quench our emotions are but mere trivialities when compared to the greater perspective of mankind’s capacity for atrocity towards one another.
The real question through the ages is less so what is wrong with the world, but rather what is right?