A History of Violence

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Despite the onslaught of violence in the news, we are living in the most peaceful era in our species’ existence. What has caused the this turn of events in the recent human past? Psychologist Steven Pinker of Harvard University provides remarkable insights into the history of violence, human nature, and their combined implications for our everyday lives. Pinker argues that the decline of human violence is perhaps the most significant and yet least appreciated development in the history of our species.

Written By: Anthony Onah & Omar Sultan Haque
continue to source article at vimeo.com

16 COMMENTS

  1. On the personal level, rather than the level of global conflict and wars, I think Stephen Pinker is right – a lot of anger and violence stems from people’s self righteous feeling of self importance. Add this to obstinacy and you have potential seeds for violence if the other person won’t agree. The stubborn adherence to one’s own view, being stuck in one’s own opinions (I could be writing here about somebody I know, oh wait, it could even be me, in a small way, on occasion…), being in that way non-negotiable and not open to discussion are the signs of a bully, and yet, often people with these characteristics are the first to describe themselves as ‘open minded’!

    Then think of religion and its adherents – they have been ‘stuck’ in their righteousness for thousands of years – that is not going to lead to peaceful relations with the rest of the world, especially if that world will suddenly say no to their unbending dogmas and practices. They will go to any lengths – consider the fate of apostates in Islam – to keep their mental imaginary status quo. If only they allowed themselves, and those others, to use some reason and truly open their minds!

    This is all self evident, I know, but Stephen Pinker reasons it all so well, it’s a joy to contemplate after him, although never as eloquently as he does.

  2. It is crucially important to recognise that the appearance of violence and the creation of that appearance is the very means by which the right wrests political control from the centre or left.

    The values of the right are somewhat tribal with an emphasis on conservation of social capital, respect for authority and the purity of culture. The image of threat is how they rally their supporters. Moral collapse is ever the cry and crucial to their survival. The US is very much maintained in this right wing survivalist mode. The indiscriminate tooling up of the US population is a right wing dream come true. It helps create a perfusion of fear through the population which is self maintaining.

    The left wing mode is much simpler. The concerns are more simply about harms and fairness and the non-conservative (progressive) mindset facilitates cultural evolution and change which, with unnatural selection, may net greater cultural problem solving.

    Both modes have values. The conservative mindset is the better one at times of real threat, the liberal better at creating new cultural wealth during times of peace. Both misrepresent reality in personally favourable ways and this is a pity.

    Pinker does us a huge favour in putting real numbers to one aspect of this, violence. Currently the US is out of kilter with the prevailing evidence. Sometime, it may cut the other way.

  3. Such a soothing voice and lovely curly hair on that man…

    Overall, I tend to agree and wonder if this has to do with our increasing prosperity of all social classes rather than anything evolutionary. Yes, what he reports is optimistic, but I am still seeing plenty of violence…. The level of violence that I recall from inner city students is high. Kids bully and pick on each other and its usually not reported to anyone outside the school or family. Most of these children are in stressed family situations in which lack of money, housing, etc. is a major issue. I have concerns for the future if the economy has an overall decline or unreported decline for long term unemployment. The most violence usually occurs in impoverished homes, and communities. With the middle class losing ground, will this mean an increase in violence?

    Consider this: A woman’s chance of being raped in the US: 1 in 5. Here are more statistics I found: http://www.domesticpeace.com/ed_nationalstats.html. It seems as if we still have a long way to go.

    a lot of anger and violence stems from people’s self righteous feeling of self importance. Add this to obstinacy and you have potential seeds for violence if the other person won’t agree.

    Add in frustration and the need to control.

  4. Not to disagree with the the thought-provoking premise here, but there is one statistic I could dispute. As far as homicide numbers are concerned, homicide means death. That is, it doesn’t count as homicide unless the victim actually dies. As the years go on, police and ambulances are more efficient, and medical-surgical treatment is better and better, saving the lives of more and more victims of violence than before. An analogy would be that the number of deaths from heart attacks has gone down not due to fewer heart attacks, just due to better handling of the victim, which saves his life. The lower number of homicides might well be caused by this same change in care of the victim , not due to an actual lessening of violence. The real statistic to measure would be the total number of violent acts.

  5. I can agree with that premise on the whole, as far as societies are concerned, however the 20th century has seen its fair share of warfare. first world war, second world war, communist purges, famines, genocides, sectarian violence, though we managed somehow to avoid nuclear war.

    Everyone will argue statistics, and this and that, but who here would like to re-live the middle ages, in China, Japan, South America, the Middle East, Africa, or even Europe, as a common man (or even worse, woman), and how far removed from violence do you think you’d be compared to now.

  6. In reply to #8 by Jasper Adams:

    In reply to #7 by papa lazaru:

    I can agree with that premise on the whole, as far as societies are concerned, however the 20th century has seen its fair share of warfare. first world war, second world war, communist purges, famines, genocides, sectarian violence, though we managed somehow to avoid nuclear war.

    I’m afraid we won’t avoid nuclear warfare forever. The weapons are here and sooner or later they will be put to use. Sooner or later some rogue state will get the means and knowhow, and topped with an insane ideology it will spell nuclear disaster.

    Everyone will argue statistics, and this and that, but who here would like to re-live the middle ages, in China, Japan, South America, the Middle East, Africa, or even Europe, as a common man (or even worse, woman), and how far removed from violence do you think you’d be compared to now.

    None of us would like to re-live those dark ages.Period. Violence will always be waiting just around the corner, but that doesn’t mean that we should be afraid of ourselves. The present is, after all, better than the past.

    Here’s a question for you: Do you think atheists didn’t exist before the enlightenment? ( apart from babys of course)

    MAD ensured no major conflict occurred, in the same way that no sane person picks a fight with a 7th Dan black belt; he will be the recipient of extreme violence. So though I am tempted to agree I do doubt that even N Korea or Iran would be unlikely to guarantee its own destruction. Hamas- maybe, if they really DO believe this life is the inconvenient precursor to Paradise (and Allah knows best) but it would bring annihilation on Gaza or wherever else they reign.

  7. In reply to #2 by paulmcuk:

    Nice to see something that makes me feel that, just maybe, the world isn’t going to hell afterall.

    Nice sentiment but…
    Far more difficult existential problems abound- you know, overpopulation, global warming, Islam, etc

  8. I think that as a population, we are better informed than ever before, and this gives the illusion of increased violence. When you couple that with the evolution of the news (they are more worried about being first than they are being correct, they thrive on the fear of their audience…. they even try to make the weather scary), you have heightened awareness and hyperactive reporting. This is the mixture that we live in.

    So, even though we may be living in a statistically less violent world, it seems like we are in jeopardy.

  9. QuestioningKat,

    Pinker discusses inner city crime in his book, The Better Angels of Our Nature, and points out that it doesn’t follow the usual patterns due to certain factors. Here are a couple paragraphs from pages 84-85 that explain in his own words:

    “In an article inspired by Black called “The Decline of Elite Homicide, ” the criminologist Mark Cooney shows that many lower-status people – the poor, the uneducated, the unmarried, and members of minority groups-are effectively stateless. Some make a living from illegal activities like drug dealing, gambling, selling stolen goods, and prostitution, so they cannot file lawsuits or call the police to enforce their interests in business disputes. In that regard they share their need for recourse to violence with certain high-status people, namely dealers in contraband such as Mafiosi, drug kingpins and Prohibition rumrunners.

    But another reason for their statelessness is that lower-status people and the legal system often live in a condition of mutual hostility. Black and Cooney report that in dealing with low-income African Americans, police ‘seem to vacillate between indifference and hostility,…reluctant to become involved in their affairs but heavy-handed when they do so.’ Judges and prosecutors too ‘tend to be…uninterested in the disputes of low-status people, typically disposing of them quickly and, to the parties involved, with an unsatisfactory penal emphasis.’

    Not surprisingly, lower-status people tend not to avail themselves of the law and may be antagonistic to it, preferring the age-old alternative of self-help justice and a code of honor.”

    On the subject of rape, Pinker devotes 21 pages of the book exclusively to the discussion of it, pages 394 through 414. Obviously, too much for me to retype here but if you want me to look up any aspect of his discussion I’ll be happy to do so. I have the book next to me here. The numbers that are quoted by Pinker on page 402 are as follows:

    “Figure 7-10 plots the surveyed annual rate of rape over the past our decades. It shows that in thirty-five years the rate has fallen by an astonishing 80% from 250 per 100,000 people over the age of twelve in 1973 to 50 per 100,000 in 2008. In fact, the decline may be even greater than that because women have almost certainly been more willing to report being raped in recent years, when rape has been recognized as a serious crime, than they were in earlier years, when rape was often hidden and trivialized.”

  10. I hope this video is shared on everyone’s social sites. It’s a wonderful bit of counter-intuitiveness. Pinker is a formidable intellectual and we are lucky to have him on the side of reason.

    And lest we forget, three cheers for Onah & Haque who produced a wonderful montage.

    Mike

  11. In reply to #7 by papa lazaru:

    I can agree with that premise on the whole, as far as societies are concerned, however the 20th century has seen its fair share of warfare. first world war, second world war, communist purges, famines, genocides, sectarian violence, though we managed somehow to avoid nuclear war.

    Everyone will argue statistics, and this and that, but who here would like to re-live the middle ages, in China, Japan, South America, the Middle East, Africa, or even Europe, as a common man (or even worse, woman), and how far removed from violence do you think you’d be compared to now.

    Secularism has been the “saviour” (“savior” in USA) of many Western countries. Violence under secularism is becoming less. Crime under secularism is becoming less. Violence under Islam is increasing.

    Religions are repulsive. Period. Belief in some type of supernatural being can be acceptable, I guess, because some humans need that reassurance that their life is worth something. Their afterlife is worth something if they believe in a religion that offers paradise/heaven after death then they have achieved what Christianity (something invented by sub-intellectual humans 1700 years ago) promised them. Islam join the queue and suffer ignorance.

    I vote for 21st century scientists rather than ancient Bronze-Aged goat herders!

  12. Very good video.

    Choice of Vimeo is not a good one, because the download is slow and/or interruption. There is no need to upload this kind of video to Vimeo, because the intent is not to show photos or high quality videos. The objective is to inform. I suggest that you guys upload your vidoes to YouTube instead.

    Thanks a lot for the video!!

  13. In reply to #9 by Nodhimmi:

    In reply to #8 by Jasper Adams:

    In reply to #7 by papa lazaru:

    I can agree with that premise on the whole, as far as societies are concerned, however the 20th century has seen its fair share of warfare. first world war, second world war, communist purges, famines, genocides, sectarian violence, though we managed somehow to avoid nuclear war.

    I’m afraid we won’t avoid nuclear warfare forever. The weapons are here and sooner or later they will be put to use. Sooner or later some rogue state will get the means and knowhow, and topped with an insane ideology it will spell nuclear disaster.

    Everyone will argue statistics, and this and that, but who here would like to re-live the middle ages, in China, Japan, South America, the Middle East, Africa, or even Europe, as a common man (or even worse, woman), and how far removed from violence do you think you’d be compared to now.

    None of us would like to re-live those dark ages.Period. Violence will always be waiting just around the corner, but that doesn’t mean that we should be afraid of ourselves. The present is, after all, better than the past.

    Here’s a question for you: Do you think atheists didn’t exist before the enlightenment? ( apart from babys of course)

    MAD ensured no major conflict occurred, in the same way that no sane person picks a fight with a 7th Dan black belt; he will be the recipient of extreme violence. So though I am tempted to agree I do doubt that even N Korea or Iran would be unlikely to guarantee its own destruction. Hamas- maybe, if they really DO believe this life is the inconvenient precursor to Paradise (and Allah knows best) but it would bring annihilation on Gaza or wherever else they reign.

    So what your basically saying is that the nuclear arms race worked…..

    More nukes, more nukes.

    What do we want?

    More nukes!

    When do we want them?

    Now!!!

    In reply to #12 by crookedshoes:

    I think that as a population, we are better informed than ever before, and this gives the illusion of increased violence. When you couple that with the evolution of the news (they are more worried about being first than they are being correct, they thrive on the fear of their audience…. they even try to make the weather scary), you have heightened awareness and hyperactive reporting. This is the mixture that we live in.

    So, even though we may be living in a statistically less violent world, it seems like we are in jeopardy.

    It doesn’t necessarily seem like we are in more jeopardy were just more aware of the dangers we face.

    It’s like child abduction and abuse. I don’t believe its more prevalent now then in the past.
    It’s just that were more aware of it and perpetrators are more likely to get caught. (sadly after the fact)

    But if you look at the horror stories around a lot of them date back to the 60′s, 70′s and 80′s and so forth. Be that priests or care homes and such.

  14. In reply to #5 by QuestioningKat:

    In reply to #13 by LaurieB:

    Part of the problem is that people confuse “reduced violence” with “absence of violence”, so any existing violence today is hauled out as a counterexample to what is, in fact, the wrong argument. For example, if you pulled out the World Wars to counter the notion that violence is decreasing, that tells us nothing because A) you haven’t provided evidence from before the World Wars, B) you haven’t provided evidence from after the World Wars, C) you’re cherry picking because the number of victims of violent incidents has to be put against the number of people who didn’t suffer them, at least if you don’t want the figures to be misleading, and D) the very exceptional nature of the wars could just as easily indicate that they are exceptions to the norm, which is why we recall them so vividly. Think about it: we recall with vivid ease a murder that happens to be reported on the news, but not the tens of millions of non-murders that go unreported.

    The other problem is that people naively romanticize the wrong things, be it the middle ages, wars, conquerors, and/or some mythical golden age in the past, but this makes them incredibly ungrateful to civilization for many of the benefits it gives them.

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