Are We Less Violent Than in the Past?

Fingers_crossedSteven Pinker is a major modern thinker and atheist, so when I got a paperback copy of his new book, The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined, I read it seriously. All 700 pages of it (add another 100 for notes, references, and index).

Could it really be true that human societies are less, rather than more, violent than at previous times in recorded history? Even considering how modern media pummel us with outrageous incidents of brutality, war, and crime?

The key to the truth of Pinker’s claims may lie in that simple single word: outrageous. That fact that extremely violent events outrage us, that they’re not ordinary, may show that we’ve indeed come a long way toward conquering violence.

Pinker offers graphs and charts and an extraordinarly amount of historical evidence and psychological insight in an attempt to prove his thesis. There was no way I could absorb all of it from a single reading, but I did learn a  few things.  Allow me to share the following:

6 Snippets about Violence & Human Nature:

1. Lives began to be more valued than souls somewhere in the second half of the 17th century, thus lessening the likelihood that one would be killed “for the wrong supernatural beliefs.” This positive development came along with the rise of skepticism and reason.

2. A crime surge in the 1960s reversed a long trend of decline. Pinker suggests this was most likely related to baby boomers having a new sense of solidarity due to TV and those newfangled transistor radios, as well as the civil rights movement and a general mistrust of every social institution.

3. Novels may increase empathy. “The explosion of reading may have contributed to the Humanitarian Revolution,” wrote Pinker, “by getting people into the habit of straying from their parochial vantage points.”

4. World War I has been called the first “literary war.”  Indeed, in my own experience, some of the war stories and poems from that era are incredibly moving. One wonders how anyone can still feel the same about the viability of war after reading them.

5. Potential for peace in the Middle East? Possibly, if diplomacy treated the disputants as what Pinker calls moralistic actors and framed a peace agreement in a different way, one that could more readily be accepted by those with a “mindset of sacredness and taboo.” (Good luck with that.)

6. Optimism is called for, according to Pinker. To boil down the point of his book, it’s to offer hope to the doomsayers, regarding violence, nuclear devastation, even climate change. If optimism is necessary for action, then he may have a viable point.

P.S. The image above, of crossed fingers, relates to early Christian superstitious belief. I use it here with tongue-in-cheek irony.

Copyright (2013 by Susan K. Perry, Ph.D.

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