Saturday, March 24, 2007

Pinker on the Decline of Violence

Turn the evening news on any day of the week and one is bound to hear a report about violence or war somewhere in the world. And the repeated exposure to such stories, day in and day out, will no doubt lead one to form the perception that we are currently living in a truly dire episode in human history. But how accurate is this popular perception? What is the benchmark by which we should judge how bad things really are?

Like most things in life, it's often helpful to stand back from the immediacy of one’s situation and look at things from the “big picture” perspective. To do this we need to appreciate the realities of human history. Is the world really a worse place to be than it once was? Are we actually getting more violent?

The March 19th issue of The New Republic has an interesting piece by Steven Pinker entitled "A History of Violence". Here are some snippets from Pinker's article:

In sixteenth-century Paris, a popular form of entertainment was cat-burning, in which a cat was hoisted in a sling on a stage and slowly lowered into a fire. According to historian Norman Davies, "[T]he spectators, including kings and queens, shrieked with laughter as the animals, howling with pain, were singed, roasted, and finally carbonized." Today, such sadism would be unthinkable in most of the world. This change in sensibilities is just one example of perhaps the most important and most underappreciated trend in the human saga: Violence has been in decline over long stretches of history, and today we are probably living in the most peaceful moment of our species' time on earth.

In the decade of Darfur and Iraq, and shortly after the century of Stalin, Hitler, and Mao, the claim that violence has been diminishing may seem somewhere between hallucinatory and obscene. Yet recent studies that seek to quantify the historical ebb and flow of violence point to exactly that conclusion.

....The decline of killing and cruelty poses several challenges to our ability to make sense of the world. To begin with, how could so many people be so wrong about something so important? Partly, it's because of a cognitive illusion: We estimate the probability of an event from how easy it is to recall examples. Scenes of carnage are more likely to be relayed to our living rooms and burned into our memories than footage of people dying of old age. Partly, it's an intellectual culture that is loath to admit that there could be anything good about the institutions of civilization and Western society. Partly, it's the incentive structure of the activism and opinion markets: No one ever attracted followers and donations by announcing that things keep getting better. And part of the explanation lies in the phenomenon itself. The decline of violent behavior has been paralleled by a decline in attitudes that tolerate or glorify violence, and often the attitudes are in the lead. As deplorable as they are, the abuses at Abu Ghraib and the lethal injections of a few murderers in Texas are mild by the standards of atrocities in human history. But, from a contemporary vantage point, we see them as signs of how low our behavior can sink, not of how high our standards have risen.

....Whatever its causes, the decline of violence has profound implications. It is not a license for complacency: We enjoy the peace we find today because people in past generations were appalled by the violence in their time and worked to end it, and so we should work to end the appalling violence in our time. Nor is it necessarily grounds for optimism about the immediate future, since the world has never before had national leaders who combine pre-modern sensibilities with modern weapons.

But the phenomenon does force us to rethink our understanding of violence. Man's inhumanity to man has long been a subject for moralization. With the knowledge that something has driven it dramatically down, we can also treat it as a matter of cause and effect. Instead of asking, "Why is there war?" we might ask, "Why is there peace?" From the likelihood that states will commit genocide to the way that people treat cats, we must have been doing something right. And it would be nice to know what, exactly, it is.

Understanding human history can help us better appreciate the magnitude and complexities of the predicaments we face. And we will be better equipped to tackle our current and future challenges if we appreciate how far we have come as a species, and the amazing things our innovation and hard work have accomplished.

So while the “Age of Enlightenment” still has lots of work to do, steady progress has been made. And we must not become complacent in our struggle against oppression, ignorance, dogma, etc. The spirit of enlightenment, perhaps more than anything else, will help ensure that we leave a better world for our grandchildren than the world we ourselves inherited.