Books & Arts, From the Bookshelf — January 27, 2012 1:34 am

The Decline and Death of Violence


The crowd in 1660 London was having a great time, according to the diary of refined Parliament member Samuel Pepys. At the festivity’s center was Major-General Thomas Harrison, who was “looking as cheerful as any man could do in that condition.”

Harrison’s condition, much to the crowd’s glee, consisted of being “partly strangled, disemboweled, castrated, and shown his organs being burned before being decapitated.” Pepys wasn’t particularly offended by the proceedings, seeing that his next move was to take a few friends to the local tavern for some oysters. But to modern readers, the crowd’s giddy reaction would be universally condemned as inhumane and unimaginably cruel.

Such differences in reaction hint that we are less violent than our extreme torture-tolerant ancestors. But to those who dismiss such differences and point to the unparalleled carnage of the 20th century, Harvard psychologist and bestselling author Steven Pinker has a startling and controversial declaration: You have been deceived. Armed with statistics, studies, and – his greatest strength – stories, Pinker asserts in Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined that we currently enjoy the good fortune of living in the most peaceable era of our species’ existence.

Pinker’s painstaking quest to prove such a debatable thesis spans 800 pages, but such length is unavoidable. Pinker is well aware that the majority of the general public disagrees with him. Converting these nonbelievers is a Herculean task – but one in which he succeeds, crafting a monumental and successful work that intertwines both history and psychology to create a valuable message.

A Foreign Country Called the Past

Better Angels of Our Nature encapsulates so many developments in human history that it would have been overwhelming without Pinker’s meticulous categorization. He calls his book “a tale of six trends, five inner demons, four better angels, and five historical forces,” and it is these six trends that comprise the bulk of the book and are the most essential. They begin with the dramatic decline of violence associated with humanity’s early transition from anarchy to agricultural civilizations – dubbed the “Pacification Process” – and end with the present-day “Rights Revolutions” of civil and animal rights. The latter are so farther down on the totem pole of violence that it’s easy to see how far humanity has progressed. Where the world once had chronic carnage-filled raiding and a fivefold higher rate of violent death, we now have Switzerland’s 150 pages of regulation dictating how to be a proper dog owner.

Throughout these thousands of years of history, Pinker manages to include multipage synopses of every violence-related issue to fortify his thesis: homophobia, racism, religion, misogyny, human sacrifice, animal rights, terrorism, sadism, empathy, anarchy, torture, dueling, honor, and the Enlightenment, to name just a few of the many. And throughout all these topics, Pinker’s skillful storytelling is ultimately what keeps his audience engrossed – not only by succinctly describing harrowing anecdotes, but also by picking the right ones to describe in the first place.

He is especially successful in dispelling our ironic nostalgia for the good old times, the days of chivalry and biblical altruism. But Pinker’s stories, usually no longer than a paragraph or two, reveal a past in which people not only tolerated torture, but also reveled in it. The graphic descriptions infused throughout the book – especially those about torture devices, of which Christian Europeans were evidently very creative producers – exist for more than shock value. In what Pinker calls “the foreign country called the past,” it is all too easy and common to overlook the rampant violence. Pinker forces us to remember.

Pinker’s sense of humor isn’t quite dark enough to match Pepys’s, but it easily pulls readers through what is inarguably morbid and dense material. “‘Bloody Mary’ did not get her nickname by putting tomato juice in her vodka,’” he quips early on – then applauds the modern British monarchy for “not having a single relative decapitated, nor a single rival drawn and quartered.”

The Problem of Proportions

Pinker spends a disproportionate amount of time on the chapter “The Long Peace,” in which he successfully as possible negates the cliché espoused by just about everyone: That the 20th century, with its two world wars and the Holocaust, was the bloodiest one in human history.

Pinker doesn’t quite kill that cliché, but that’s only because it is impossible to do so. His argument hinges on the fact that although the sheer number of people killed in warfare in the 20th century is higher than any other century, the proportion of people killed compared to the human population is not. Whether or not absolute numbers matter more than proportions is an issue of opinion, and Pinker himself admits it.

The numbers supporting Pinker’s conclusions are still ultimately supported by his storytelling. Certain subsections like “The Statistics of Deadly Quarrels” are less riveting in comparison, and Pinker even throws in some mathematical probability for good measure. The mathematically and scientifically illiterate have nothing to fear. Pinker never delves deep enough into these areas to be too confusing or aloof, and readers who are convinced that violence has indeed declined can skim through what Pinker affectionately calls “the statistics of war” and still understand a majority of the more valuable points.

The Western World at Center Stage

For all Pinker’s storytelling prowess, one might easily decry Better Angels of Our Nature for its lingering sense of Eurocentrism. The vast majority of the anecdotes and figures are indeed devoted to medieval Europe and the Western world.

For this flaw, however, the book can be forgiven. Pinker spends more time sifting through the Anglosphere than he does anywhere else because this is where the downward trek of violence is most pronounced. That is where he has the most to prove, and that is where most of his attention is accordingly directed. After all, the overarching question of the book is not why there is still violence, but why there is unparalleled peace.

Regions of the world still seeped in this violence do not go entirely unmentioned. “The Muslim world, to all appearances, is sitting out the decline of violence,” Pinker observes in the chapter “The New Peace.” Indeed, a pocketful of countries still severely punish or kill homosexuals and adulterers – but the fact that most of the world no longer does should be noted and applauded. Pinker never pretends that there is no more progress to be made. Violence may have declined, but it certainly has not yet died.

Hands Off the Future

Despite the wide breadth of topics and adept writing in each of them, Pinker identifies promising trends without making many predictions. But for the future’s sake, Pinker implies that this most peaceable era is not one to take for granted. He evokes George Santayana’s famous quote toward the end of his book: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” As Pinker so skillfully warns us, that past we want to avoid – like a happy crowd in 1660s London – is much bloodier than we tend to remember.

  • Empty Sack

    Poor Major-General Thomas Harrison. I had to have my testicles removed so I can commiserate. It was bad enough being castrated in a hospital under general anesthetic, but for it to be done brutally along with disembowelment in front of a jeering crowd. All the more reason to evaluate the past for what it was – brutal.  

  • Socraticslinky

    This review has made me very interested in reading Professor Pinker’s book. Perhaps his stories will help me trade in my cynical world view for a more optimistic one. (Or will simply destroy my faith in humanity. It could go either way.)

  • Fariba

    I truly enjoyed reading this article. Interesting perspectives and well written!

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