Wednesday, April 04, 2007

Violence is still in a bear market...

In a refreshingly encouraging and wonderfully reasoned essay, Steven Pinker points out that violence is, and has been, decreasing.
At the widest-angle view, one can see a whopping difference across the millennia that separate us from our pre-state ancestors. Contra leftist anthropologists who celebrate the noble savage, quantitative body-counts—such as the proportion of prehistoric skeletons with axemarks and embedded arrowheads or the proportion of men in a contemporary foraging tribe who die at the hands of other men—suggest that pre-state societies were far more violent than our own. It is true that raids and battles killed a tiny percentage of the numbers that die in modern warfare. But, in tribal violence, the clashes are more frequent, the percentage of men in the population who fight is greater, and the rates of death per battle are higher. According to anthropologists like Lawrence Keeley, Stephen LeBlanc, Phillip Walker, and Bruce Knauft, these factors combine to yield population-wide rates of death in tribal warfare that dwarf those of modern times. If the wars of the twentieth century had killed the same proportion of the population that die in the wars of a typical tribal society, there would have been two billion deaths, not 100 million.
This seems counterintuitive, but that could be because we're looking at it backwards.
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. [More of a great essay]

The logic is compelling and the case well-made. Pinker clearly offers an alternative to the cries of outrage that too often are raised to spur us to agreement or action against dimly seen foes, for motives less than clear. The "violence epidemic" has been used like the "meth epidemic" to curtail our freedoms and shrivel our spirits. The pervasive belief that trends are headed the wrong way fosters bad decisions about what choices individuals should be allowed. Such fears also facilitate the conversion of America to a land where freedom was mistakenly exchanged for a false sense of security.

A few actual facts couldn't hurt this debate.


Anonymous said...

If this is truely the case, then isn't this whole "war of terror" a sham to inflame opinions and raise fears?

John Phipps said...

Sham may be s bit strong, but I do think the US has over-reacted. Nor am I convinced it was premeditated or well thought out.

We have:
1. Wrung all the pleasure out of air travel.
2. Isolated ourselves from much of the world.
3. Created a sense of impending disaster throughout our society
4. Not materially affected our chances of living or dying.
5. Seriously imperiled the right of habeas corpus.
6. Amazingly, come to embrace torture.

As tragic as 9-11 was, our response was disproportionate and aimed at the wrong target. The result is a populace that withdraws from current events as much as possible, and lives more in fear than evidence would seem to justify.

This too will pass, I believe, simply because the truth will endure.

I shared this essay in the spirit of Easter - a time of hope and redemption, and surcease from vengeance.

We'll be OK. Really.