People Are Getting Nicer. Really.
In recent days, we’ve seen the eruption of protests in response to the choking death of Eric Garner, the fatal shooting of Michael Brown and other episodes of police violence. We’ve also learned of the true brutality and extent of the CIA’s torture program. Meanwhile, on the international stage, we’ve watched the depredations of ISIS, whose savagery recalls the Middle Ages, and the return of war to Europe in the form of Vladimir Putin’s campaign to turn Ukraine into a failed state. It's as if the old adage, that violence and war will always be with us, is being proven right.
Except the old adage is not right. The wars and violence we see on the news are real, but their immediacy makes us miss the big picture. To get a broader view, go pick up a copy of Steven Pinker’s "The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined."
Pinker is a psychologist at Harvard, but in making the case against violence, he calls on much more than psychology. Two-thirds of this 800-plus page book is devoted to an exhaustive history of violence, from war to murder to judicial punishment. Pinker doesn’t build an intricate case -- instead, he assaults you with an avalanche of data, like some kind of ancient Greek god hurling mountains.
Reading "The Better Angels" takes a strong stomach -- be prepared to learn the intricate details of quite a few medieval torture methods. But in every case, the numbers agree -- human society has become much less violent than at any time in our past.
War is way down, despite the eruption of the World Wars in the 20th century. In the past, most people experienced war in the form of pitched battles, deadly massacres or raids. Nowadays, only a few unlucky countries know the scourge of war, and far fewer people are killed.
Violence by individuals and governments is down as well. The second half of the 20th century saw a rise in violent crime, both in the U.S. and in other rich countries. But since about 1990, violent crime has declined and is back down to where it was more some four decades ago.
Governments have become less violent in most ways as well. The cruel and unusual punishments and arbitrary mass killings that dominated most of humanity’s past are gone, along with slavery. As with war and crime, there are a few notable exceptions to this trend, such as the U.S. war on drugs and the imprisonment boom that has only recently started to reverse itself.
The thing about Pinker’s fact avalanche is that even if you question parts of it, there are so many parts that you can’t beat them all. Critics who bitterly attack Pinker’s thesis simply end up looking like ideologues engaging in motivated reasoning. If it’s at all possible to make a decisive empirical case for a huge overarching historical trend, Pinker has made it.
The one irremovable fly in Pinker’s soup, of course, is the possibility of nuclear war. Even though the Cold War ended peaceably and nuclear stockpiles have declined, the possibility can’t be ruled out, and it never will be. Historical trends are not laws of nature. Pinker proves that violence has receded, but we can never be certain that it won’t surge back someday.
As for explanations for why violence has gone down, Pinker uses the same approach, tossing out so many theories -- Democratic Peace theory, Liberal Peace theory and about a billion more -- that they can’t all be true at once. We will almost certainly never know which of the theories are right, since it takes much more evidence to prove a historical theory than to simply observe a trend. The key truth remains -- even if none of the theories Pinker offers hold water, the incredible overwhelming fact of declining violence remains.
But there is one of Pinker’s ideas that I really hope is true. Pinker modifies the ideas of German sociologist Norbert Elias to suggest that big reductions in violence often follow “civilizing offensives,” broad social movements intended to combat violent outbreaks and to set new, less tolerant standards for the amount of violence that society is willing to accept.
Seen through the lens of this idea, recent events in the U.S. may be cause for optimism. The incarceration boom and the militarization of the police can be seen as a natural response to the crime wave of the 20th century. But now that the crime wave is over, Americans are no longer willing to accept the state violence that they used to tolerate. Naturally, police are unwilling to give up their power and privilege, but if the historical pattern holds true, the American citizenry will slowly force them to become less violent.
The movement to force police to wear body cameras is an encouraging example. Already, the civilizing offensive is leading to progress.
The outcry over CIA torture is similar. Most Americans will not stand for our government engaging in “forced rectal feeding,” making prisoners stand on broken legs or maintaining a medieval dungeon called the “salt pit.”
Violence has gone down, but it didn’t happen automatically. It happened because of the constant effort of normal people who dream of a better world. And we’ve been winning. There’s a lot left to be done, so let’s continue the fight. The evidence of our past victories should encourage us.
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