Less Violent than Ever Before?

Most of us weigh the present more heavily than the past when thinking about change over time, and this distorts our view to a certain extent. As we are currently experiencing the present, and rely on evidence for the past, the former seems to have more depth and texture, as if what was in the past was all just a prelude to now. Societal measurements based on this linear narrative of history—common to the monotheistic religious traditions—tend to place the present at either the zenith or nadir of humanity. This presents multiple problems when looking at the past. Scholars have often been guilty of presentism, judging the past based on the norms and values of the present, because they appear so obvious that they must have been apparent to past generations as well. Criticism of pre-modern societies based upon their acceptance of slavery is but one example.

Violence is an important subject often placed in this historical narrative. Are we becoming less or more violent as a people? In light of our access to information about violence around the world in almost real time, it may seem that violence is increasing. A recent book by Harvard Professor of Psychology Stephen Pinker, The Better Angels of Our Nature, argues that violence has actually decreased over time at several periods, and that we are at a comparatively low point for violence in human history.

I have not read Pinker’s book yet. To be honest, I might have dismissed it entirely had I not watched an interview with Pinker about the book. It seemed to me that any thesis claiming less violence in the present would be primarily opportunistic to sell some books. For example, one could claim that rates of violence had gone down based just upon the dramatic population increase in the past century, but that would have little functional value, and might even justify a more passive stance toward instances of violence in the present. Hearing his discussion of the book changed my view a bit.

In the wake of the recent Newtown massacre, Pinker’s thesis appears even more controversial than before, and the Center for Human Inquiry conducted a podcast with him to ask questions about the book. It’s worth a watch. Pinker said several things worthy of note in the conversation. The primary one, of course, is his thesis that we are living in a less violent time than is suggested by the media or common belief. He noted, as many have, that rates of violence are much higher in the United States than in other first-world countries, and that even if all instances of gun violence were removed, the US would still have a higher violence rate. Guns aside, we would still beat and club each other to death more than most first-world countries. In other words, gun control isn’t the only answer to the problem of violence. He went further and suggested that violence is more problematic in the southern and western portions of the US, and connects that to their relatively recent frontier history. (This was following up on a comment that I think deserves further exploration; namely, that we are really two countries: the old Northeast, and the “new” south and west.)

Pinker also suggested that social media may help contribute to a decrease in violence, just as the popularization of the printing press and the decreased cost in printing led to a greater dissemination of information, which increased knowledge, expanded social spheres, and may have helped decrease acts of violence. He also made some interesting comments about violence against women that I may discuss in a future post.

What I liked most in the interview, though, was Pinker’s insistence on the media’s preference of particular types of violence, namely mass shootings. When looked at from a disinterested scholarly viewpoint (which only someone unconnected to the events can do), the number killed in the Newtown shooting was quite small, and one and a half times that amount are killed in the US every day. Those isolated cases are not treated with the same importance. Pinker noted that even the largest single terrorist attack in history, 9/11, killed around 2,800, and 16,000 are killed each year in the US.

The point is not just raw numbers, but a realization of our skewed criteria for recognizing and privileging violence, which is not just a media problem. What the book may suggest, then, is a change in the way we prioritize types of violence, zooming in on some instances with hyper-focus and virtually ignoring others. The interview didn’t talk much about solutions, but alluded briefly to the idea that media coverage could be more closely aligned with a broader take on violence. The problem is not easy to solve, but it may be that intense focus on cases of mass violence may do more to entrench our beliefs about violence than push us to make change. It is not that these are not important, but that this particular type of violence should be placed in its position within the much broader range of violence that takes place daily in our country and others.

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