Violence is on the decline. John Menadue

Jan 16, 2014

If you watch the tabloid television and the Murdoch press, you would certainly believe that violence is increasing. It seems counter-intuitive to suggest that we are moving away from violence.

Over the holidays I have been reading ‘The Better Angels of our Nature – the Decline of Violence in History and its Causes’. It focuses particularly on the West. The book was written by Steven Pinker (Penguin 2011). Pinker is an experimental psychologist and cognitive scientist. He is a Harvard College professor

It is a long read, but I found it encouraging.

He examines violence in its worst manifestations in war, murder, rape and domestic violence, racism and hate speech. He argues that we are more aware of violence because of modern communications. That is why we aren’t so aware of the global decline in violence.

In his preface, Pinker states his thesis

This book is about what may be the most important thing that has ever happened in human history. Believe it or not – and I know that most people do not – violence has declined over long stretches of time and today we may be living in the most peaceable era in our species’ existence. The decline, to be sure, has not been smooth; it has not brought violence down to zero; and it is not guaranteed to continue. But it is an unmistakeable development, visible on scales from millennia to years, from the waging of wars to the spanking of children.

The book’s essential message is that over thousands of years, despite the setbacks of  eg WWI, WWII, Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan, tribalism has given way to expanded and inclusive relationships and that we have developed more appropriate and effective institutions to contain violence, despite their shortcomings.

Pinker gives us a glimpse into the viciousness of the cultures and customs from 8000 BCE to the 1970s.

In human pre-history we find graves and prehistoric remains that reveal people ‘strangled, bludgeoned, stabbed or tortured’. In this period he says that a person had a high chance of coming to bodily harm.

In Homeric Greece, war was waged against the entire population. For the heroes of the Illiad, female flesh was a legitimate spoil of war. Achilles ‘spent many sleepless nights and bloody days in battle, fighting men for their women’.

Pinker describes the Hebrew Bible as ‘one long elaboration of violence’. Cain slew Abel. Noah’s ark saved only a select few. The Israelites were enslaved in Egypt and the Egyptian army was drowned in the Red Sea. Samson became a hero in slaughtering 1,000 Philistines and killed over 1,000 with the jawbone of an ass. Captured, his eyes were burnt out and in revenge he crushes a building and kills 3,000 men and women. The warrior Saul’s Court sings that ‘Saul has killed by the thousands, but David by the tens of thousands’. Fortunately a lot of this never happened, but it offers a window into the lives and values of the civilisation in the first millennium BCE.

An architectural symbol of the Roman Empire was the Colosseum. Gladiators fought others to death for public amusement. Animals tore flesh from humans. The most frequent means of Roman execution was crucifixion. It was an orgy of sadism. Saints were put to death by barbaric means.

Infidels were put to death in the Spanish inquisition by burning at the stake and drawing and quartering.

The medieval Christian knights may have treated the ladies well, but their intervention in the Crusades resulted in probably 1.5 million deaths, particularly of the Saracens. Jerusalem was allegedly left “knee deep in blood.”

In early modern Europe Henry VIII had two wives beheaded. Bloody Mary had 300 religious dissenters burnt at the stake. Elizabeth I had 123 priests drawn and quartered.

Despite the awful events in recent centuries, Pinker commented that the declines in violence unfolded over vastly different scales of time.

The taming of chronic raiding and feuding, the reduction of vicious interpersonal violence, such as cutting off noses, the elimination of cruel practices like human sacrifice, torture-executions and flogging, the abolition of institutions such as slavery and debt-bondage, the falling out of fashion of blood sports and duelling, the eroding of political murder and despotism, the recent decline of wars, pogroms and genocides, the reduction of violence against women… the protection of children …’  all point to a reduction in endemic violence.

Pinker describes the factors that have not helped the decline in violence. These include technology and weaponry, the quest for power and resources, affluence and religion.

In a chapter entitled ‘On Angels’ Wings’, Pinker describes the pacifying process. He says ‘Declines of violence are a product of social, cultural and material conditions’. He describes certain broad forces that have pushed violence down. These include the civilising process with the consolidation of law enforcement; the humanitarian revolution with improved literacy, urbanisation and access to mass media; the ‘rights revolution’ away from tribalism to national authority and freedom of speech; the benefits of international commerce and feminisation.

Pinker concludes:

Yet while this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, the [human] species has also found ways to bring the numbers and incidence of violence] down and allow a greater and greater proportion of humanity to live in peace and die of natural causes. For all the tribulations in our lives, for all the troubles that remain in the world, the decline of violence is an accomplishment we can savour and an impetus to cherish the forces of civilisation and enlightenment that made it possible’.

I found the book encouraging- to think that our struggle against violence, war and denial of human dignity is worth the effort, despite the doomsayers and what our 24/7 media keep telling us.

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