Steven Pinker of Harvard a few years ago published a book on violence and why it has declined (The Better Angels of our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined).
He contended that violence has decreased over the centuries largely because the world has become more civilized (laws, institutions, governance, civil rights). Both nations, regions, and communities become less violent as they increasingly subscribe to these pacifying principles. He cites statistics that show that the Southern states of the United States are much more violent than their New England cousins because individuals and communities are still more tribal (i.e. more prone to extra-societal and violent means to settle scores). Once these outlying groups become more civilized, violence will decrease.
The Omnivore collected ten reviews of the book, including those from The Economist, The Financial Times, The Guardian, The New York Times, etc.; and provide critical and varied insights about the book.
Most reviewers agree with the conclusion that violence has declined if the period of history studied is long enough. Pinker has started his historical analysis back in the bloody 8th Century; and those depredations and the mass slaughters of that century at the later marauding of the Mongol Genghis Khan and his cohorts make today’s regional conflicts look petty.
Most reviewers, however, are puzzled by Pinker’s conclusion that the 20th Century horrors (Mao, Stalin, Hitler, Pol Pot) were aberrations. Writing in the Guardian, David Runciman writes:
Pinker argues that the violence of the 20th century is best understood as a series of random spasms rather than part of a trend. The two world wars were essentially freak events, driven by contingency and in some cases lunacy: a bit like the killings on Utøya [recent killings in Norway] magnified a millionfold. They do not reflect the default condition of mankind. The evidence for this is the third part of Pinker's case: look at what has happened since 1945, as the world has become immeasurably more peaceful on almost every count. Of course, there have been horrors (Mao, Pol Pot) but no one can doubt that the arrow has been pointing away from the violence of the first half of the 20th century, not back towards more of it.Other reviewers have noted Pinker’s conclusion that the deaths in World War II, when calculated on the basis of population, were really not that bad – the slaughter of the Mongol hordes, for example, were far worse, and WW II ranks only ninth on the list. There is a new type of history, dubbed ‘atrocitology’, reported in the New York Times (2011) which gave exhaustive lists of wars, genocides, and mass slaughters.
The Economist reviewer says that there is nothing new in Pinker’s conclusion about the decline of , and cites Kant who wrote in the 18th Century:
But what is the lesson of this generally benign assessment? Immanuel Kant’s famous “triangle” of factors—open economies, democracy and engagement with the outside world—are still the prerequisites for reliable peace. Professor Pinker (unfashionably) praises United Nations peacekeeping. It makes it harder for the bellicose to start wars and helps nip some resurgent conflicts in the bud before they can spark off yet more carnage. Aspiring to bourgeois prosperity and free trade is also important; people are less inclined to kill those with whom they can do business.Not mentioned in the reviews is the Pax Romana in the 1st and 2nd Centuries A.D. which lasted 100 years during which there were no major wars. This was largely because of the establishment of a disciplined colonial law – or, a progressive civil and state society imposed by the conqueror.
In short, no one doubts that Kant’s principles still hold; and if one takes a long enough view of history, and uses certain indicators (like population-based data), violence has declined.
However, there are a number of things to consider when assessing these conclusions:
1. Human nature has not changed. As Shakespeare has written perhaps more eloquently than anyone else, human history has predictable cycles, all of which are kept in motion because of a persistent and irrepressible desire for power, territory, resources, and status; and this desire has always been effected through aggression – not always through violence (political and economic manipulation have been good blood-surrogates). As much as Pinker can describe brain plasticity – the so-called ability of the human brain to adapt to positive social developments – even the casual observer can see this aggressiveness and self-promoting behavior from children to families to interest groups to politicians to nations.
2. Even small conflicts can have global consequences. An Israeli-Iranian war or worse, an American-Iranian war, for example, would destabilize the entire world. The number of casualties might be low on the atrocity scale, but the increase in the potential number of consequent conflicts would be significant.
3. There has been no decline in small-scale conflicts. Within the past 20 years the United States alone has engaged in two wars with Iraq and one with Afghanistan (Taliban). The potential for escalation and future violence caused by these conflicts is significant. The war in Afghanistan might well lead to a failed state of Pakistan, a nuclear power.
4. There has been a proliferation of nuclear states. The potential for small-scale conflicts to escalate into serious slaughter is significant.
3. Ethnic and religious conflict is proliferating. While it is true that the likelihood of major world conflict – i.e. a US-China war – is for the time being remote, the world is becoming a more fractured and instable place. There may be fewer genocides on the scale of Rwanda (again, not given too much visibility because of Pinker’s 20th Century ‘anomaly’ theory), but ethnic and religious rivalries will only increase and create incremental violence.
4. A world financial meltdown is likely to generate violence. While the rise in state and civil institutions has contributed to the decline of violence, it has also created an unstable world. If there were to be a global financial meltdown, it would be hard to predict the outcome. Given my first premise – that human nature is aggressive and acquisitive, and that that tendency is only augmented in times of scarcity; and given the assumption that state and civil society would likely be destroyed if the very economic and financial system that underpins it were to itself be destroyed, the potential for violence if anything has increased.
5. An Economic Depression and an erosion or destruction of civil institutions would provoke a return to ‘tribalism’. In an instable world where trust in institutions declines, a return to extra-societal and extra-judicial measures of self preservation are a likely outcome.
6. A population-based analysis of violence is incomplete. The number of deaths in a conflict has nothing to do with the impact or implications of violence. Eight-hundred thousand Rwandans died in the genocide, but it was contained between Hutus and Tutsis; and the spillover was only to neighboring Burundi. Smaller conflicts resulting in fewer deaths – such as Middle Eastern religious and tribal wars – can have a much greater impact on the region and the world, drawing in larger powers and escalating the threat of increased violence.In conclusion, there is no evidence that violence – or the proclivity for it – has decreased. In fact, the 21st Century seems a far more dangerous and potentially violent place than the one that preceded it, one of the most violent in history. Using body counts to make a point on violence reminds one of Vietnam – they were of no use whatsoever in assessing the outcome of the war. The reasons for war and violence could not be quantified, nor could the will and determination of the North Vietnamese or the lack of it on the part of the Americans.
Pinker’s vision of coming world peace is fancy. Opinion is divided – very divided – on views of human nature and history. There are many who still put great faith in the civilizing nature of Man, his ultimate goodness, and his ability – through the State – to accomplish civilized ends. There are just as many others – like me – who believe that we are still (until truly radical changes in our DNA are made) like Shakespeare’s kings – aggressive, acquisitive, self-interested, and capable of anything to achieve our ends. Society and its institutions have provided us with an architecture within which we are reasonably and temporarily safe; but that architecture is only as strong as those human beings who built it…..And that is why it seems that it will fall and rise again in recurring cycles of violence.