Violence down, claims Pinker the thinker

by Chris Bertram on October 16, 2011

The Guardian has an interview with Steven Pinker about his new book The Better Angels of Our Nature: The Decline of Violence in History and its Causes . It presents me with a problem. In order to evaluate its claims properly, I’d actually have to read the book, but everything tells me that doing so would be an immense waste of valuable time, so I probably won’t. I can, however, comment snippily on the material that surfaces in interviews and reviews … so here goes.

Central to the interview (and certainly sourced from the book) is a table, detailing the casualty rates from various events in the past, scaled to present population size. Now anyone who has argued about the number of victims of the Iraq war will know how hard it is to come up with reasonable estimates for events taking place now, but let’s assume that Pinker has, magically, arrived at fairly accurate figures. Even given that, it is pretty troubling to juxtapose “Middle East slave trade” 7th-19th centuries (9th on the list and, according to Pinker the third worst atrocity in history) with “Second world war” (9th worst atrocity). Because, well, one was an “event” of around 1300 years in duration and the other lasted (depending on start and finish dates) around six (6) years.

But, hell, maybe I’m a member of the

science-flunking intellectual elite, who would be aghast if someone didn’t know who Milton was, but cheerfully flaunt their ignorance of basic science and mathematics.

(And, by the way I have a “nostalgia” (!) for “environmental sustainability”, which Pinker cheerfully compares to “dentistry-by-pliers or biting a stick for pain management during surgery”!)

Still, I’m relieved to know that the general ad hominem insults are permitted in this fight and that I’m under no obligations to be fair to “the thinking man’s Malcolm Gladwell”.

My suspicion that the claim that violence has declined massively (no great suprise for matters such as everyday street brawling I suppose) may depend on what you are willing to count as “violence” was reinforced by the material that is disclosed by John Gray in his review of Pinker for Prospect. Apparently, the mass incarceration of African-Americans by the United States is not itself an act of violence (nor presumably the many hittings, stabbings and rapings that go on within the prison system) but merely a response to the fact that

“By the early 1990s Americans had gotten sick of the muggers, vandals and drive-by shootings.”

Well there you go. (And read more of Gray’s review for further reflections on Pinker’s attitude to the “torturable classes”.)

So, readers and commenters, can anyone correct my impression? Does anyone want to?

{ 352 comments }

1

Hidari 10.16.11 at 10:04 am

‘But there’s more to “The Better Angels of Our Nature” than reviving such politically incorrect notions. Pinker doesn’t just want to prove that rates of violence have fallen; he wants to explain why. The scope of Pinker’s attentions is almost entirely confined to Western Europe. There is little discussion in “The Better Angels of Our Nature” about trends in violence in Asia or Africa or South America. Indeed, even the United States poses difficulties for him. There is much in “The Better Angels of Our Nature” that is confounding. Those developments which might seem to fit into his schema are treated in detail. Yet other episodes that one would think are more relevant to a history of violence are simply glossed over.’

Read more http://www.newyorker.com/arts/critics/books/2011/10/03/111003crbo_books_kolbert#ixzz1awBwigT9

It’s funny how the Whig View of History, no matter how many times it is refuted, keeps on returning from the dead (zombie history?).

2

Gareth Wilson 10.16.11 at 10:09 am

So, assume every African-American prisoner in the US is shot dead as soon as they’re convicted, and add that to the US murder rate. What does that do to the trend?

3

Leinad 10.16.11 at 10:22 am

And it’s a weird form of enlightened civilisation that embraces the US prison-industrial complex. Was Procustes a Whig?

4

Chris Bertram 10.16.11 at 11:14 am

(Jack Strocchi seems to have forgotten that I permanently banned him some time ago. 2 comments deleted)

5

Guido Nius 10.16.11 at 11:31 am

But, regardless of Pinker, am I right that you believe violence has been constant or even rising throughout (recent) history?

I’m certainly not going to read Pinker but I think the question is an interesting one (and the answer complex no doubt but that doesn’t invalidate the question), if only because the standard argument from the right starts with how things are deteriorating in modern times (certainly with ‘the youth’).

If one could determine (or at least discuss) whether this argument is a non-starter or not, that would be informative, wouldn’t it?

PS: one could fairly limit the investigation to post-WWII in order to avoid the obvious funny stuff you singled out above.

6

John Quiggin 10.16.11 at 11:36 am

After The Blank Slate, I’m not going to read Pinker either.

But I am prepared to defend a moderately Whiggish view of history, at least as it describes the course of my lifetime. When I was young WWII was still fresh in people’s memory, and a WWIII that would wipe out the entire planet seemed more likely than not. The threat of nuclear annihilation has gradually faded (though the likelihood of some kind of nuclear disaster is still present), but the peace between great powers that it enforced has not. On almost any measure, and despite the efforts of successive US Presidents, the last 20 years have been among the most peaceful in the history of the world, continuing a gradual decline since 1945. I don’t agree that this is confined to Western Europe – the change has been equally marked in South America for example where (AFAIK) there has been no international war since 1945, and a big decline in coups, insurgencies and so on over recent decades.

To give this a Whiggish turn, I think that there has developed over the 20th century, for the first time of which I’m aware, a large global Peace party, not just opposed to particular wars, but opposed to the idea of war, and in particular the idea that nations can benefit themselves by going to war. Of course that’s due in substantial measure to the disasters caused by the War party in the first half of the century, but the lessons seem to have taken hold in most of the developed world and even (though not among the elite) in the US.

7

J. Otto Pohl 10.16.11 at 11:37 am

The table is just about worthless. It reminds me of the work of R.J. Rummel who compiled whole books averaging various estimates of such atrocities. Since the averages included outliers some of his estimates were far too high. But, Pinker’s table suffers many of the same problems. The time frames are not comparable nor are the events. But, even assuming they are all in the same general category how do you get any type of reasonable estimates of mortality for events in the 7th and 8th centuries? Even in the case of the 20th century atrocities where comparably good records exist it has taken quite a while to reach a semblance of agreement on the numbers. Once you start going backwards it becomes more difficult. The figures for Native Americans and the slave trade have been the subject of controversy as have Stalin’s death toll. He compounds this by failing to have clear categories. Some of the categories overlap. The Second World War and Stalin for instance. Probably about 3 million of the WWII deaths are already covered in the Stalin entry. Notably Pinker is not an historian. But, even social scientists should be able to compile useful comparative tables.

8

Bill Snowden 10.16.11 at 11:39 am

Must… not… feed… troll.

Isn’t the most delicious part of a Heather Mac Donald apology always her patient, sweet-but-stern exposition of the ways in which, e.g., the War on Drugs has redounded (as was its beneficent design) to the benefit of black Americans and, what’s more, those “activists” and “leaders” who claim to know better than she does what’s best for the downtrodden are in fact poisoning and parasitizing their own people? There’s something erotic about the way she condescends to put that big-college intellect of hers at the service of her inferiors that makes me shiver and pant. Or maybe it’s Strocchi’s invocations of “high heels” and “tottering”. I sure am glad the ladies can pursue Mr Big without the interference of Mr Big Black, whose pleasure at meeting them can apparently be expected as a matter of course to overflow into enthusiastic rape (and whom, besides, one uneasily suspects might be Mr Bigger).

“Much of it is inter-racial gang violence, frequently as a response to the fear of homosexual rape.”

Citation needed, or are we still comfortable “just knowing” this?

9

Bill Snowden 10.16.11 at 11:41 am

And by the time I’d put garnish to dish, the troll was already gone.

10

Thirsty Gargoyle 10.16.11 at 11:44 am

It’s frustrating, isn’t it? Pinker seems to be approaching his material in a fundamentally ahistorical and unsystematic way, defining things as violence to suit his purposes, glossing over stuff that’s inconvenient, and ignoring such issues as, say, improvements in medicine or the dodginess of ancient and medieval historians when it comes to numbers. I’d like to see more of the book than is revealed in pieces like the one linked to, but I get the impression that they’re fairly representative. I had a go at an earlier article connected with the book a few weeks back, but I have a depressing feeling that this might end up influencing people.

I’m not saying I’m glad Pinker’s wrong. I wish he weren’t. But he is.

11

Henri Vieuxtemps 10.16.11 at 12:06 pm

He published this book now, but he started making these noises years ago, and there was a CT thread a couple of years ago on this subject.

“the thinking man’s Malcolm Gladwell”

I believe he’s more like the thinking man’s Charles Krauthammer: celebrating great achievements of the western civilization, worrying about barbarians all around us, threatening to destroy our greatness.

12

Hermenauta 10.16.11 at 12:15 pm

Alas, what if we include “violence against non-human lifeforms” in the bill?

13

soru 10.16.11 at 12:17 pm

Is this one of those books that starts from what should be a completely uncontroversial premise, and restates it using certain key right-wing codes that make it seem like you have to be a conservative to believe what is self-evidently true?

Anyone who seriously thinks modern Norway is comparably violent than the land of the Vikings literally belongs in an institution, or at least under police watch so they don’t act on their belief.

What’s more, consider the effort required to kill someone by physically swinging a lump of metal through their guts. Compare to the massively greater opportunity to kill people with a gun, let alone artillery, drones or nuclear warhead. You really don’t need to gather many statistics to show that violence has, at the very least, not increased proportionate to killing power.

Look at the musket wars period of New Zealand history, where a classically tribal culture imported new technologies (muskets, and at least equally significantly, energy dense crops like the potato) without making any structural or cultural adaptations.

So clearly something is going on. If you raise the speed limit and there is the slightest controversy over whether road deaths fell or not, clearly something else changed at the same time. Study that other thing, enhance it and you can make deaths drop further, or, if you prefer, increase the limit again.

It is sad if people fall for Pinker’s ploy, though not as sad as if they give the remotest shred of credence to John Gray. It would be hard to think of a single public intellectual. not self-evidently trolling. who had less interest in the minor issue of whether anything he said was true or not.

14

Chris Bertram 10.16.11 at 12:22 pm

The “thinking man’s Malcolm Gladwell” is actually pretty unfair to Gladwell who is an essayist rather than someone with pretensions to being a major academic. Even thinking people can appreciate the occasional _apercu_ by Gladwell, however annoying he can sometimes be.

15

actio 10.16.11 at 12:23 pm

Peter Singer’s review of Pinker’s book:
http://www.nytimes.com/2011/10/09/books/review/the-better-angels-of-our-nature-by-steven-pinker-book-review.html

The OP has the tone of a small skirmish in a big old and bitter battle but I’m not clear on what that battle would be. I’ve read Pinker’s book and find the general argument very convincing. There argument is rough and the accuracy and relevance of some of the stats are debatable. But, again, the general argument is convincing.

Many have a hard time to keep these two truths in their heads at the same time:
1. the world is getting better.
2. the world is filled with despair, starvation, immense inequality and unnecessary sickness and death and that calls for much more radical political transformations quickly and globally.

The worry is, I guess, that focus on 1 would detract for the action component of 2. But that reaction isn’t rational. On the contrary, fact 1 should be taken as a sign of possibility and strengthen our resolve for 2 even more. Things CAN change. The hell that is life for many on earth does not HAVE to be like that. Let’s pick up the pace!

16

Chris Bertram 10.16.11 at 12:25 pm

_It is sad if people fall for Pinker’s ploy, though not as sad as if they give the remotest shred of credence to John Gray._

Well yes, Gray is a troll, but rather that than the nauseating sight of Pinker providing the intellectually pretentious fraction of the ruling class with a cosy colour-supplement image of itself.

17

Hermenauta 10.16.11 at 12:26 pm

“… the change has been equally marked in South America for example where (AFAIK) there has been no international war since 1945, and a big decline in coups, insurgencies and so on over recent decades.”

Not sure. After WWII we had the military dictatorshpis in much of South America, the La Violencia episode in Colombia, the drug cartels, drug related violence of gangs at the brazilian large cities, and even violence related to automobile traffic (significant source of violence in Brazil at least, mainly in the last decade due to increasing motorization).

18

Louis Proyect 10.16.11 at 12:28 pm

19

J. Otto Pohl 10.16.11 at 12:37 pm

In some places violence has decreased dramatically since 1945, most notably in Europe. But, this is not the first time that there have been long lulls in violence in Europe. The violence of 1914-1945 came after an even longer lull. Europe was free of any continent wide wars from 1815 to 1914 as well. That is a considerably longer time than the current lull has lasted. In fact a good argument could be made that the current lull is more marked by violence in the form of the wars in the Balkans, the war in Chechnya, the war between Armenia and Azerbaijan than the last lull was. It had the wars of German unification, the Crimean War, and of course the first set of Balkan Wars. Bosnia, Chechnya, and Nagorno-Karabakh have been quite violent.

20

novakant 10.16.11 at 12:54 pm

On almost any measure, and despite the efforts of successive US Presidents, the last 20 years have been among the most peaceful in the history of the world, continuing a gradual decline since 1945.

The Second Congo War has resulted in several million deaths and the bloodshed continues to this day. I am always amazed at how it seems to be totally forgotten, especially since we are all connected to it by way of natural resource extraction.

21

J. Otto Pohl 10.16.11 at 1:04 pm

Novakant:

Very few people in the US or Europe ever pay much attention to the part of Africa south of the Sahara and north of the Limpopo any more. This has some advantages for those of us living here.

22

John Quiggin 10.16.11 at 1:05 pm

Also Franco-Prussian War + Paris commune, Italian independence and unification, wars of Russian expansion, civil wars in Spain, and Irish risings (Irish famine should also be counted IMO). Not to mention the fact that the European powers were engaged in colonial wars more or less continuously. Overall, I think clearly more violent than the past 20 years. The peace of 1945-89 was admittedly artificial in some ways, but conversely, the peace in most of Europe since then is more surprising, given the amount of political upheaval, the disappearance of numerous nation-states and the emergence of others, and so on.

Still, it’s true that C19 (that is 1815-1914) was a relatively peaceful period and that the beginnings of the peace party, though still as a small minority, can be seen for example with John Bright.

23

Hidari 10.16.11 at 1:05 pm

A few points as they occur to me following Chris Bertram’s post at 6:

Speaking of his last book, may I point out that Pinker’s thesis here blatantly and flagrantly contradicts his thesis in The Blank Slate. To put it bluntly: you simply cannot claim in one book that human nature is the same throughout the ages and then in your next claim that it changes radically. (To be fair John Naughton questions Pinker on this but Pinker gives him an answer that basically amounts to ‘You foolish mortals fail to understand the majesty of what it is, I, Steven Pinker, have created!!’*).

Secondly, I don’t believe in the Whig version of history for a second, but in terms of Western Europe it’s so obvious that society has become less violent over the last 70 years that I don’t even see how you would begin to argue the converse. If Pinker wasn’t so busy attacking the ‘liberal elite’ (to which he, of course, is a prime examplar) he would want to look at the role of the right wing tabloid media in whipping up ‘fears of crime’, and whose interests the (widespread) believe that we live in a uniquely violent age serve.

*’Pinker: The Blank Slate did not argue that nature always trumps nurture, nor that it all comes down to our genetic inheritance. Rather, it argued that in order to understand the influence of culture, experience, and socialisation, we should get rid of metaphors such as society writing on blank slates or shaping lumps of putty, and identify the innate emotions, motives, and learning mechanisms of the human brain that allow people to create, share and acquire aspects of culture.’ In other words, just because in my last book I said it was (mainly) all innate, you shouldn’t therefore infer that I actually meant that it was (mainly) all innate, even though it obviously is, or isn’t, depending on the proximity of my publishing deadlines.)

24

Ashwin 10.16.11 at 1:19 pm

Just finished reading the book and IMO, not worth reading. The data has enough holes in it but the sections outlining the rationale are almost unreadable. There’s just an air of complete contempt towards all alternative explanations that permeates the entire book. Almost all his arguments touch upon well-trodden and intensely debated territory but you wouldn’t know from reading the book.

On the data, the comparison of 5-year events with centuries-long “events” is just silly. The improvements in medicine are another one – the lethality of assault has dropped dramatically in recent times http://people.umass.edu/zguo/iraqi%20war%20/murder%20and%20medicine.pdf . Despite this, homicide in England for example has gone up since the 50s http://www.parliament.uk/documents/commons/lib/research/rp99/rp99-111.pdf .

For a similarly Hobbesian view, I’d much rather read Azar Gat’s ‘War in Human Civilization’.

25

Ben Alpers 10.16.11 at 2:02 pm

I’m certainly not going to read Pinker but I think the question is an interesting one (and the answer complex no doubt but that doesn’t invalidate the question), if only because the standard argument from the right starts with how things are deteriorating in modern times (certainly with ‘the youth’).

Depends, of course, on what you mean by “the right.” The Classical Liberal / neoliberal right has a deeply Whiggish view of capitalism that is as much a standard conservative argument over the last half century or so as is handwringing over “the youth” and the decline of morals.

26

nostalgebraist 10.16.11 at 2:02 pm

I’m not a big fan of Pinker’s other popular writing, because I think ev-psych is mostly junk science, but this book had a really interesting-sounding premise and sounded more about data and less about theory, so I picked it up. I haven’t had time to get very far in it, though.

Now I’ve read this post/thread and I’m kind of confused. Is this something we don’t like because we don’t like Pinker and because he says some dumb things in interviews, and because he gets dumb views attributed to him in (vitriolic, possibly uncharitable) reviews? Or is there something clearly wrong about his thesis that we can know without having read the book? The “mass incarceration” thing is embarrassing but it struck me as the only serious charge leveled by the Gray review, which was otherwise composed of sneering and accusing Pinker of contradiction because he believes both in Darwinism and moral progress, which are indeed incompatible if you have as simplistic a conception of them as John Gray apparently does.

When I heard about this book, I thought, “hey, it looks like Pinker has moved away from recounting poorly tested hypotheses from a poorly defined ‘paradigm’ that can basically predict anything, and has moved toward writing about actual things that happened. Maybe he’ll use that charming writing style for good this time.” I’m still hoping that’s what has happened. Broad sneers at Pinker as a public figure, or attempts to find contradictions between this book and his earlier ones, does nothing to diminish my hope that the better angels of Pinker’s nature are starting to take over.

Not an attempt to troll, just a sincere (if perhaps oblivious) statement from a frequent CT reader and infrequent commenter.

27

Popeye 10.16.11 at 2:14 pm

Peter Singer’s review was pretty embarrassing. I guess he and Pinker are buddies, or Pinker wrote him a favorable review at some point? Seriously, he couldn’t come up with a single criticism of this book?

The idea that human history is a story of steady progress against the forces of violence and evil is something that virtually every American school child will pick up on. To present this thesis as some sort of brave stand against orthodoxy while sidestepping the bloodiness of (yes) modern warfare in WWI and WWII is pathetic.

Somewhere Andrew Sullivan wondered how much the internet was responsible for Pinker’s decline of violence. (I’m serious.)

28

Watson Ladd 10.16.11 at 2:16 pm

If we note that most crime is black on black (I hate the sexualized terminology, but there we go) then it seems that blacks benefit the most from any increase in policing and arrests of blacks, because the deterrent effect on crime caused by longer and harsher sentences would help the victims of crime.

Of course the real horrors aren’t associated with bodycounts. That the civilization of Goethe and Schiller would become engaged in the bloodiest racial war and inquisition in history is a fact worth thinking about, in a way that Catholic’s Spain earlier attempt at genocide isn’t. (To those who don’t know about this: google the Duke of Alba) This alone should give us pause for any story of social progress: millions of Jews, gays, and Communists lie dead in a Polish forest not because of some backward ideology making a triumphant return, but an ideology that conceived of itself as modern in the extreme. An d this ideology emerged from a country known for its tolerance.

29

Chris Bertram 10.16.11 at 2:29 pm

Watson, what bullshit. How about spending the money on a serious program to end black poverty and social exclusion in America? That would do a whole lot more to reduce the crime you’re on about and would help both those who become victims and those who become perpetrators as well as saving future generations. (Instead, of course, we get maximum punishment, pervasive poverty and little selective feel-good micro-measures to enable a few talented individual to enter the elite.)

30

FredR 10.16.11 at 2:30 pm

Why is Jack Strocchi banned?

31

tomslee 10.16.11 at 2:37 pm

nostalgebraist #26. My first reaction was like yours, that the book sounded interesting and possibly with some truth, but as I read an interview with SP I found myself getting just as pissed off as the other commentators here. It’s the sentence Chris B quotes that does it (and the para it is part of):

“I think that a failure of statistical thinking is the major intellectual shortcoming of our universities, journalism and intellectual culture. Cognitive psychology tells us that the unaided human mind is vulnerable to many fallacies and illusions because of its reliance on its memory for vivid anecdotes rather than systematic statistics. Yet pundits continue to hallucinate trends in freak events, like the Norwegian sniper (who shot all those young people on an island) and make wildly innumerate comparisons, such as between Afghanistan and Vietnam, or between today’s human trafficking and the African slave trade. It’s a holdover of the literary sensibilities of our science-flunking intellectual elite, who would be aghast if someone didn’t know who Milton was, but cheerfully flaunt their ignorance of basic science and mathematics. I lobbied – unsuccessfully – for a course requirement at Harvard in statistical and logical reasoning.”

All of a sudden I don’t give a damn about his thesis. Now I just dislike a man who is so pompous as to lambast an “intellectual elite” from his joint appointments at Harvard and MIT, and who places himself as the great outsider from his Cape Cod home and… well if “the better angels of Pinker’s nature are starting to take over” then let’s just say they have got a long way to go, and my own better angels are well and truly buried.

32

mpowell 10.16.11 at 2:48 pm

Regarding the black-on-black crime issue, there is evidence that imprisoning so many black men leads to an fatherless environment that helps contribute to raising future criminals. So even absent the case for direct helpful intervention in those communities, it is not clear that incarceration is helpful at reducing violence. And we’re not even talking yet about the hideous impact of the criminalization of drug use.

On another point, I want to echo Soru’s sentiments (I find this an unusual position). Pinker may be an ass-hat and this book may be no more use than a paper weight, but… do you seriously expect me to just take it as given that our society has gotten more violent? I am not a historian and I am even less familiar with the world outside of western europe (and the places that it has been heavily involved in from time to time), but it seems exceedingly likely to me that things have gotten less violent over time. There was a story circulating the blogosphere a few weeks/months ago about the drop in murders over a few centuries time line. And while there is some error in those estimates and other problems, the overall trend looks pretty incontrovertible to me. Even if we factor in the enhanced ability of states (particularly the US) to wage war, I’m not sure the human cost is that high relatively. If you applied a lancet like excess mortality rate estimate to your average 15th century conflict (with displaced people’s and dispoiled croplands and far fewer social resources to deal with such problems) I can’t imagine you’d get a pretty picture.

To me, at least, this thesis looks pretty likely, though still unproven. I’m not going to change my mind because Pinker wrote a book that happened to argue for it.

33

John Quiggin 10.16.11 at 2:52 pm

@Novakant. I want to restate the point made by actio @15. The fact that the world is getting better is consistent with the fact that there are still lots of bad things going on. Even confining attention to the Congo, the “Free State” under King Leopold was worse than the present atrocities, terrible as they are. And “we” (the developed world) weren’t just linked indirectly via resources, the whole setup was organised and approved by the leaders of Europe.

34

JW Mason 10.16.11 at 2:57 pm

If we note that most crime is black on black (I hate the sexualized terminology, but there we go) then it seems that blacks benefit the most from any increase in policing and arrests of blacks,

This may be the most grotesquely stupid thing that Watson Ladd has yet said on CT. And that’s a high bar.

35

Chris Bertram 10.16.11 at 2:58 pm

_do you seriously expect me to just take it as given that our society has gotten more violent?_

_To me, at least, this thesis looks pretty likely, though still unproven. I’m not going to change my mind because Pinker wrote a book that happened to argue for it._

AFAICS, no-one, including me, is arguing for the thesis that, say, Western European societies have become (in normal times at least) more violent over time. But we need clear definition of violence that _includes_ a lot of state-perpetrated coercion and a proper and dispassionate look at the global picture .

36

wilfred 10.16.11 at 3:03 pm

I wonder how much of this decrease in violence in Western countries is attributable to the advent of on-line, mass slaughter computer games. Has there ever been a better chance to sublimate (sexual) violence?
Instead of building cathedrals, we give kids the chance to virtually perforate assorted brown people and save Western civilization. Then they watch porn.
The most talented get to control drone aircraft from bunkers in Nevada. Draw your own conclusions.

37

Watson Ladd 10.16.11 at 3:08 pm

Chris, reducing sentences, increasing swiftness and certainty of punishment, and increased spending on social programs are all things I can support. But the idea that mass incarceration is state violence against black people just doesn’t hold up. Its not the rich who lose from crime: its the poor who can’t afford dogs, guns, or doormen as a substitute for policing.

tomslee, there are certain commentators who have a position of prominence on the national stage. This isn’t as much a thing now as it used to be. Very few of them are scientists, most of them are humanists. The issue is even worse with reporters. This has some problems when we are debating the issues of a modern industrial nation. Recall the prostate cancer screening debate. The New York Times saw fit to include statements from people who supported screening, even after it had been shown to cost lives. Do you know how a nuclear weapon works? How about a gun? What about a nuclear reactor? What about a coal plant? What does a vaccine do? What does asbestos do to lungs? All of these are parts in major policy debates, and yet the vast majority of people who feel themselves qualified to comment on these debates are not.

38

nostalgebraist 10.16.11 at 3:09 pm

tomslee #30:

I dunno, I found myself pretty much agreeing with the paragraph you quoted. It does seem true to me that more awareness of statistics and cognitive biases would be a good thing in many parts of academia. I’m thinking for instance of Philip Tetlock’s demonstration that political experts (including academics) do worse at predicting political events than simple statistical models, and that those experts continue to trust their own predictions despite their objectively poor track record (possibly because of confirmation bias or something similar).

I guess one could get annoyed with Pinker for criticizing a system that has benefited him, but I don’t see why the opposite would be preferable. Given that Pinker is an academic bigwig who gets a lot of publicity, I’d rather have him make criticisms of academia that I agree with than have him not make those criticisms.

39

Chris Bertram 10.16.11 at 3:12 pm

Incidentally, two obvious reasons for higher rates of homicide in pre-modern societies in regular time:

1. No real means of imprisoning people. So exile or death more common as punishments.
2. Rough equality of power between the strong and the weak, the rich and the poor. This has its downsides, of course, but the fact that the 1 per cent can credibly depend on the power of the state to sort out the uppity 99% of peasants so the discouraged peasants don’t bother revolting (ergo less violence) doesn’t strike me as unambiguously positive. Not getting your head kicked in matters, but so do freedom and justice. If the means of violence were more evenly distributed, the tax code might be fairer too.

40

bob mcmanus 10.16.11 at 3:28 pm

38.2: I am apparently not needed.

Why exactly can our newly-evolved cosmopolitan pacifism not mothball at least one carrier group?

We are docile domesticated subjects of some kind of Empire, not freely co-operative and peaceable equals. Pinker is celebrating a Triumph, is admiring the studs on our dog collars.

41

Henri Vieuxtemps 10.16.11 at 3:28 pm

These are great times to be an upper middle class westerner.

42

bob mcmanus 10.16.11 at 3:34 pm

Or dismantle the surveillance systems?

History ends with a whimper, from the few of us aware enough to still give a damn, not a bang.

The rest of you:

Smile at the camera

43

SB 10.16.11 at 3:39 pm

Humanities professors and social scientists don’t understand the hard sciences. Naturally, the hard scientist can do anything he puts his mind to. And anyone can do history.

In Pinker at least, we finally have confirmation that not anyone can do history well.

44

John Garrett 10.16.11 at 3:42 pm

Can’t resist one more comment on black incarceration. Anybody have any idea here what black incarceration is about? It’s about drugs. White folks use and deal drugs and don’t get caught: black men get caught two or three times and bye bye for life. Sure there is more violence in poor neighborhoods than in rich ones, although perhaps not more crime (see Occupy Wall Street). The gap between need and have is greater, although perhaps the gap between want and have is smaller. It’s being poor, not being black: a buddy of mine moved here to Boston recently and was stunned to get mugged by poor white kids!

45

JJ 10.16.11 at 3:45 pm

Upon subsequent examination, one might be more inclined to misread Pinker’s title as The Better Anglos of Our Nature: The Decline of Violence Among the Affluent in History and its Causes. The Anglos of course being a metaphor for the ruling elites of affluent nations, as well as their respective populations, compared to the elites and populations of the indigent nations who provide the “rivers of wealth” flowing from labor to capital to the capitals of the world.

46

Popeye 10.16.11 at 3:58 pm

Given that Pinker is an academic bigwig who gets a lot of publicity, I’d rather have him make criticisms of academia that I agree with than have him not make those criticisms.

I think this is why Chris mentioned the 1,300-year Middle East slave trade in his original post. Pinker’s focus on supposedly innumerate humanities/social science professors is a straw man argument, because it’s irrelevant to the discussion at hand. I’m all for more widespread mathematical literacy and understanding of cognitive biases, but I’ve seen Pinker do this before:

1. Divide the population into two groups (hard-headed realists versus innumerate idealists)
2. Propose a rather mundane thesis that your readers already believe (civilization has made a lot of progress over the past 10,000 years, or people are not completely blank slates)
3. Pretend as if all objections to your thesis arise from the fact that innumerate idealists can’t deal with reality
4. Sell lots of books

47

Sev 10.16.11 at 3:59 pm

From the Guardian piece: ” Perhaps the wisest thing we can say about the trajectory described by Pinker is what the guy who jumped from the 50th floor said when he was passing the 25th: so far so good.”

Hoping we’ll be able to avert the more dire consequences of climate change, or say, nuclear exchange between India and Pakistan. http://www.scientificamerican.com/article.cfm?id=local-nuclear-war

That said, pessimism is always an easy case to make, and we may yet get by, as Thornton Wilder thought, by the skin of our teeth.

48

Watson Ladd 10.16.11 at 4:15 pm

Unfortunately stats on crime relating to poverty are not easily available, unless there is a source I am not aware of. The FBI crime reporting covers race, not SES. I think poverty and density are the two factors leading to crime.

Chris, I’m happy to see you support concealed carry as a means to distribute the means of violence equally.

Henri, I think the fact India exports grain is worth celebrating.

SB, I’m not going to deny that the people who work in the humanities are very talented at what they do, or that it is valuable. I certainly couldn’t remember 100 books well enough to be tested on them at once, which is one of the requirements of anthro doctoral candidates here. What I am going to challenge is the monopoly that the humanities have on how we think about the social world.

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ScentOfViolets 10.16.11 at 4:33 pm

I dunno, I found myself pretty much agreeing with the paragraph you quoted. It does seem true to me that more awareness of statistics and cognitive biases would be a good thing in many parts of academia.

I guess one could get annoyed with Pinker for criticizing a system that has benefited him, but I don’t see why the opposite would be preferable. Given that Pinker is an academic bigwig who gets a lot of publicity, I’d rather have him make criticisms of academia that I agree with than have him not make those criticisms.

Well yes, if you take what he and others of his ilk (a very appropriate word) say at face value, you’d look pretty contrarian to disagree with them. But these are more often than not the same bunch who then crow that Science has “proven” that blacks aren’t as smart as whites, or that they more prone to violence than whites, or that they aren’t as good at parenting as whites, or that Science has “proven” evolution has made a small band of authoritarian males ruling with an iron hand over the rest of us the best form of governance, or that Science as “proven” that – but need I go on?

I’d be a lot more sympathetic to the likes of Pinker if they actually practiced what they preached instead of wielding the word “science” like a club to assault their victims yet again. “Draconian drug laws differentially passed and enforced against blacks has been scientifically proven to be good for them” – yeah, right!

50

Chris Bertram 10.16.11 at 4:38 pm

_What I am going to challenge is the monopoly that the humanities have on how we think about the social world._

Anyone else notice a monopoly?

[silence ….]

No, I thought not.

51

Watson Ladd 10.16.11 at 4:39 pm

SoV, where has Pinker said that? You seem to imply that Pinker is like Charles Murray, without offering a shred of proof.

52

ScentOfViolets 10.16.11 at 4:43 pm

1. Divide the population into two groups (hard-headed realists versus innumerate idealists)
2. Propose a rather mundane thesis that your readers already believe (civilization has made a lot of progress over the past 10,000 years, or people are not completely blank slates)
3. Pretend as if all objections to your thesis arise from the fact that innumerate idealists can’t deal with reality
4. Sell lots of books

Ah, you said it much better than I did. And speaking just for myself, it’s particularly infuriating to have people dismiss your own reasoned, researched, an rational criticisms to what they say on the grounds that by the very fact of raising any objections at all you’re “going against what the best science says”.

53

cian 10.16.11 at 4:45 pm

Watson Ladd is now pontificating on the Negro problem. I await with fascination his thoughts on “What Women Really Want”.

54

cian 10.16.11 at 4:49 pm

Is there any evidence that Pinker is actually any good as a scientist? The psychologists I know are pretty sniffy about him, which might just be academic jealousy, but certainly his pop science books suggest that he’s not got a great grasp on experimental technique, statistic analysis or clear logical thinking.

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Watson Ladd 10.16.11 at 4:51 pm

Chris, we live in a world driven by forces most of us, least of all the interpreters of it, do not understand. The hysteria over GMOs, the complaints over breast cancer screening not working, the demand for continued support for treatments that kill people on the basis that some are helped (but we don’t know which ones ahead of time), are all results of a news media beset by ignorance, and a commentariat as ignorant of the second law of thermodynamics as the Romans. Being wrong costs lives, and people are generally wrong about the way things work.

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JJ 10.16.11 at 4:54 pm

“What I am going to challenge is the monopoly that the humanities have on how we think about the social world.”

But for the most part, apart from the “humanitarians” among us, we don’t think about the social world. We think about the economic world, where privilege and poverty are simultaneously the “real-valued” functions of wealth, or the lack of it, and human rights or civil rights or the Bill of Rights are the imaginary ideals of antiquated secular humanists.

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Chris Bertram 10.16.11 at 4:57 pm

And that last comment establishes that the humanities have a “monopoly” on “on how we think about the social world” does it Watson? For someone so keen on science, logic and evidence don’t seem to be your strong points.

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Watson Ladd 10.16.11 at 5:01 pm

JJ, good point. But the claim of the Deceleration of Independence is that such rights are “self-evident”, so that one doesn’t have to study their origin to defend them. Of course we live in a world in which there is such a thing as right and wrong, and being wrong kills without mercy. How many lives did Sabin save, and how many do all the humanitarians in the world save? Powerful is he who knows the causes of things.

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cian 10.16.11 at 5:02 pm

Being wrong costs lives, and people are generally wrong about the way things work.

Except Watson obviously, as demonstrated by his keen insights into the Negro problem.

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cian 10.16.11 at 5:04 pm

Of course we live in a world in which there is such a thing as right and wrong, and being wrong kills without mercy.

Because most problems in the world really are that black and white. Some people are wrong, and some are wrong – it is that simple, science proves it. Seriously people, get with the program and follow Watson in the technocracy of the last century.

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Watson Ladd 10.16.11 at 5:05 pm

Chris, the dominant form of how we observe issues in the world is through anecdote. We open the paper and see anecdotes. We turn on the television and see anecdotes. I’ve given examples about how this methodology of thinking is dominant and kills people. All you’ve done is assert that the humanities don’t monopolize our way of thinking about the world, but you’ve offered no counterexamples. If they don’t it should be easy to see how we think about the world scientifically in public.

62

JJ 10.16.11 at 5:10 pm

“…and being wrong kills without mercy. “

Presumably, you’re implying that being right kills with mercy, although I’m not sure whether you’re referring to the moral rather than the political right.

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Watson Ladd 10.16.11 at 5:11 pm

cian, being wrong about what causes cancer or best treats it will kill you. I’m not saying there aren’t moral issues, rather that the world of issues in which science matters is quite a bit larger then most people expect. Ridding the world of idiots is already done quite well by nature. In a few generations we will see anti-vaccination die out as the children of the proponents cough their lungs out, shit their guts out, have their fingers fall off, die in agony from lockjaw, or breath with the aid of an iron lung and die of pneumonia because they cannot cough anymore. I just want us all to take the easy way and learn from others mistakes.

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Watson Ladd 10.16.11 at 5:16 pm

@JJ: No, I’m saying that if you are wrong about the natural world, you will discover pretty quickly and harshly. Think a bridge will stand up to your weight and you are wrong? You are dead. Think screening for prostate cancer is a good idea? You are going to be very likely to undergo unnecessary surgeries for a cancer that probably wouldn’t have killed you. Think vaccines kill children more then they help? Have fun in that iron lung. The world is not a nice place, and most places are quite a bit less nice.

65

cian 10.16.11 at 5:18 pm

being wrong about what causes cancer or best treats it will kill you. I’m not saying there aren’t moral issues, rather that the world of issues in which science matters is quite a bit larger then most people expect.

It is. This of course is not the same thing as saying that science can give us clear and unambiguous answers; sometimes it can, sometimes it can’t. Nor is it the same thing as saying that scientists are particularly good at providing those answers, or that scientific training makes you particularly adept at making decisions, even when those decisions are based upon scientific data.

And part of the problem with scientific data in public debates is the corporatisation of scientific data – but that would require rather more nuance on problems of power than you seem capable of.

66

Bill Snowden 10.16.11 at 5:25 pm

Derailed. Bravo, Watson. Star of the show.

67

Watson Ladd 10.16.11 at 5:29 pm

cian, just because I disagree with you doesn’t mean I don’t understand you. If you are a utilitarian, then morality is a decision problem, and Bayesian updating on experience tells you the data to put in. There is a course of action that is the best for us to take, uniquely determined by what we know, and as time goes on we all agree on it. You complain that data is “corporatized”, but don’t think that the solution is for us to be able to understand and question it. Merk was unable to keep the truth about Vioxx from emerging because other groups were able to conduct their own studies of adverse cardiac effects. A distrust of science because it comes from a certain group is completely unjustified. I’m not ascribing a special power to science, but simply claiming that there are ways to understand the world that people should use when they think about the world. Lastly you raise the question of power. I think its a good thing that we have power over the natural world. I’ve cheated death about 5 times now with the aid of modern medicine. We might ask how that power is exercised, who has access to it, but let’s not complain about having it.

68

Ashwin 10.16.11 at 5:42 pm

An alternative explanation of the data on wars in the last two centuries is that wars have become less frequent but more destructive. Pinker touches upon this phenomenon drawing upon the work of Lewis Richardson who first pointed it out, but he doesn’t draw out its full implications.

Our current period may be the equivalent of a Minsky-ian ‘Great Moderation’-like stable period. Similar arguments can also be made about ‘broken windows’ style policing which Pinker endorses i.e. we have increased stability but also increased fragility.

69

Watson Ladd 10.16.11 at 5:50 pm

Ashwin, that’s a good point. But if it reaches 2045 without a big war, I think that will mean something.

70

Chris Bertram 10.16.11 at 5:51 pm

Right Watson. No more comments from you on this thread for 24h please, you’ve made more than enough as a proportion of the total.

71

Salient 10.16.11 at 5:57 pm

The main problem with Pinker’s thesis is that ‘violence’ is not a word to which the modifiers ‘more’ or ‘less’ coherently apply (not even in the individual sense, but pretty obviously certainly not in any aggregate sense). Or rather, the main problem is that Pinker doesn’t seem to realize that ‘violence’ is not a word to which the modifiers ‘more’ or ‘less’ coherently apply. Or rather, the main problem is that anyone (e.g. the Guardian) is taking Pinker at all seriously despite the fact that he doesn’t seem to realize that ‘violence’ is not a word to which the modifiers ‘more’ or ‘less’ coherently apply. Or rather, there was an old woman who swallowed a fly.

72

LFC 10.16.11 at 5:59 pm

I largely agree w/ J. Quiggin @6 et seq.

More specifically:
Pinker is (or purports to be) writing about ‘violence’ in general. If however one narrows the focus to armed conflict of various sorts, then there is no question at all that the data show an unmistakable downward trend since c. 1990. The complete absence of traditional interstate war is significant and so, though less striking, is the declining severity and prevalence of civil wars; in terms of war, what we are left with now is a relatively small number of civil wars and armed secessionist mvts, plus e.g. Afghanistan (and Pakistan border regions), which one could argue about how to label. The fact that the US and some of its NATO and other allies have been involved in war(s) since 9/11 has meant understandably that many people have not noticed that, on a global basis, war has been on the decline.

(J.S. Goldstein’s just-published Winning the War on War: The Decline of Armed Conflict Worldwide (Dutton) is a book I plan to review on my blog at some point – I’m on a break from blogging at the moment – with appropriate caveats to acknowledge that I’m acquainted with the author.)

73

Andrew F. 10.16.11 at 6:01 pm

I haven’t read the book, but my impression from reviews is that Pinker uses the higher rates of crime and incarceration among poorer urban areas to bolster his main argument: that the growth of effective law enforcement regimes and the imperatives of city living led to the teaching of certain behaviors which resulted in lower violence. Poorer urban areas, lacking effective law enforcement regimes and certain economic/social imperatives, therefore suffer higher rates of crime and incarceration. He applies the same argument to the American South and West, and indeed to explain higher rates of violent crime in the US generally. N.B. That is all Pinker’s argument, not mine.

My take is that the thesis that violence has declined in Western society isn’t much in doubt. We could argue about whether to count each instance of arrest as an incident of violence, but I think this would be tangential to Pinker’s focus. It also seems likely that Pinker names some relevant factors in that decline. But I doubt – and this is without reading the book – that Pinker was able to give the entire story.

74

Walt 10.16.11 at 6:05 pm

Watson, I’m a little slow today, so are you actually arguing that if we don’t listen to the insights of Pinker, nature is going to kill us?

75

William Timberman 10.16.11 at 6:06 pm

If I had a mind to engage in a debate with someone about whether the glass is half empty or half full, I wouldn’t choose Pinker. He’s entirely too full of himself, and entirely too empty of anything else that might be put to beneficial use.

As it happens, I’m not much interested in engaging in such a debate, but I would like to understand a) what, if any, measurable effects human social and technical evolution have had on our propensity toward violence, and b) what we might do to prevent our accumulated technical savvy from enabling ever more efficient forms of butchery. Without arguing whether or not we’ve outdone the Romans or the Huns, it does seem safe to say that we’ve become more and more adept at breaking eggs, yet the promised omelets seem no more forthcoming than they were in Roman times, and when they are, the list of invitations to dine on them has been just as rigorously limited.

I also wonder if David Gibbs here and here is right in asserting that most genocidal incidents of modern times have had their origins in state-sponsored involvement of one sort or another. If so, wouldn’t that be something we ought to ask the Pinker-like sunshine merchants about?

76

christian_h 10.16.11 at 6:06 pm

Just to repeat the blindingly obvious: people who are experts at statistics are also often wrong. They’re just much better at convincing themselves and others that they are not.

77

LFC 10.16.11 at 6:11 pm

W. Timberman:
what we might do to prevent our accumulated technical savvy from enabling ever more efficient forms of butchery

Since butchery in the form of armed conflict has GONE DOWN SUBSTANTIALLY in the last 20 yrs (see my previous post), one wonders where this particular concern might fit on a list of concerns to be prioritized.

78

LFC 10.16.11 at 6:17 pm

christian h:
people who are experts at statistics are also often wrong

A lot of people are often wrong, but, all else equal, I’d rather listen to someone who is conversant w statistics but also knows about other things and can see that numbers are one piece of evidence, not the be-all and end-all.

79

Meredith 10.16.11 at 6:18 pm

Watson Ladd on anecdote. Drawing conclusions that are too large for the data (e.g. an anecdote here and there) is one thing. (Btw, it strikes me that many here are basically criticizing Pinker for doing just that.) But using inductive reasoning (which may initially involve nothing more than making “anecdotal” observations) is not only legitimate but as important to scientific discovery and new ways of thinking in mathematics as anything I can imagine. It also provides a check on established beliefs. (The single experiment whose results don’t conform to what established theory predicts — and you can’t account for the discrepancy — is perhaps nothing more than an “anecdote.” Multiply the “anecdotes” and pretty soon you’re questioning established theory.)

From what I’ve read here, a fundamental problem with Pinker’s project is one of definition: what is violence? Without a clearer notion of “violence” to work with, his project doesn’t necessarily fall apart entirely and may still offer some valuable insights or questions to pursue (I’m just trying to be fair here), but it certainly can’t live up to the grandiose claims he himself seems to make for it.

When I think about the progress we humans may have made collectively in terms of the murder and mayhem we inflict on one another, I think of three things: the Geneva Conventions, the extension of legal rights and protections to a wider and wider range of people in any given jurisdiction, and a growing consensus (with its ups and downs, to be sure) that we must do our best to ensure that virtually all people on earth are decently fed and housed, receive basic medical care, and in general are treated with the respect that they deserve simply by virtue of being human beings. It’s progress of some sort that so many of us on this fair earth have developed these ideals, however inadequately even the best of us live up to them.

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ScentOfViolets 10.16.11 at 6:24 pm

All you’ve done is assert that the humanities don’t monopolize our way of thinking about the world, but you’ve offered no counterexamples. If they don’t it should be easy to see how we think about the world scientifically in public.

SoV sez science fail. If you actually knew anything about SOP for scientific methodology you’d know that you actually have to do some work and show some evidence for your rather emphatic claim that ‘humanities have a monopoly on how we think about the social world’. The skeptics? Not so much. Note that you can’t fall back on the hoary old chestnut that they’re just as guilty of failing to support the counterclaim that humanities don’t have a monopoly on how we think about the social world. No. They’re just being skeptical. What they’re saying, in the parlance of the financial world is “show me the money”. You can’t read a quote like this as anything else:

Anyone else notice a monopoly?

[silence ….]

No, I thought not.

So yes, understandably we get peeved when someone goes on about how shameful it is and how damaging it is to social policy that other people just don’t understand science like they do . . . and while doing so, talking and arguing in ways that rather decisively indicate they really haven’t any idea how science works.

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William Timberman 10.16.11 at 6:28 pm

LFC @ 76 (more in sorrow than in anger)

Since butchery in the form of armed conflict has GONE DOWN SUBSTANTIALLY in the last 20 yrs (see my previous post), one wonders where this particular concern might fit on a list of concerns to be prioritized.

Tell that to the editors of The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, or Bill McKibben. I’m old, and therefore not likely to benefit all that much from any squabbling over priorities.

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Substance McGravitas 10.16.11 at 6:38 pm

From what I’ve read here, a fundamental problem with Pinker’s project is one of definition: what is violence?

It’s nice that we can rely on the organizing and humanizing power of the state to avoid another Cultural Revolution.

83

harry b 10.16.11 at 6:44 pm

I so wish I had read JQ’s (#6) review of the Blank Slate before reading the Blank Slate. Damn.

84

ScentOfViolets 10.16.11 at 6:44 pm

From what I’ve read here, a fundamental problem with Pinker’s project is one of definition: what is violence? Without a clearer notion of “violence” to work with, his project doesn’t necessarily fall apart entirely and may still offer some valuable insights or questions to pursue (I’m just trying to be fair here), but it certainly can’t live up to the grandiose claims he himself seems to make for it.

What’s violence? That’s easy. That’s something rich folk don’t use as very much these days as a tool for conflict resolution . And when they do – say imprisoning poor blacks for drug offenses – they’re actually incarcerating people for their own good, so you can’t really count that as violence. Sorta like how our opponents in various resource conflicts engage in terrorism but when our own guys do it they’re Freedom Fighters.

Although actually, if you use the ‘violence is a tool for resolving conflicts’ paradigm, I think a good case could be made that violence has declined only insofar as better methods have been developed to extract concessions from an adversary. When the Terminator finally comes back from the future to rid the machines of meddlesome humanity the first item on his agenda will be to get a job on Wall Street as an investment counselor ;-)

85

Popeye 10.16.11 at 6:45 pm

Since butchery in the form of armed conflict has GONE DOWN SUBSTANTIALLY in the last 20 yrs (see my previous post), one wonders where this particular concern might fit on a list of concerns to be prioritized.

I think if history shows us anything, it’s that if humanity can simply get through two decades without a massive world war, modernism will have triumphed over violence once and for all.

86

Aaron Baker 10.16.11 at 6:53 pm

Well yes, Gray is a troll . . . .

Is he? I don’t know much about the man, but he seems pretty decent in this review.

87

Salient 10.16.11 at 7:00 pm

What’s violence? That’s easy.

Agreed, as a binary yes-or-no question, but quantifying or aggregating violence in a coherent and meaningful way, for purposes of comparison, is intractable and unnecessary.

If someone attempts to quantify the violence (or harm, or suffering) from two atrocious incidents, in order to compare them, the proper response is almost always “those were both atrocities, and trying to assert that one was ‘less bad’ than the other just dilutes the horror — why do you feel a need to calculate this comparison, unless you’re attempting to partway excuse the less-bad incident?”

Would we feel less upset and dismayed and affronted by a mass murder if the casualties were reduced by 50%? Is anyone really capable of refining their own sense of horror and remorse in that way? I guess we can all agree to say that the Holocaust was obviously ‘worse than’ the killings of Jeffrey Dahmer and we’d all agree, but what is the point of that statement?

Same with saying we’re “less violent” than our ancestors of a few hundred years–are we giving ourselves a pat on the back? Well, ok, we don’t need to quantify anything in order to do that. Are we reassuring ourselves that there’s reason to be optimistic? Again, well, ok, no need to quantify. Are we attempting to suggest we shouldn’t worry so much about modern-day atrocities because they’re dwarfed in scope by previous centuries’ atrocities? That seems self-evidently not ok. So what is the point of Pinker’s thesis?

88

Salient 10.16.11 at 7:02 pm

(I meant to include in there that I agree with the rest of your post too, SoV, I’m just branching off from it in a slightly different direction.)

89

Matt McIrvin 10.16.11 at 7:12 pm

Anybody have any idea here what black incarceration is about? It’s about drugs. White folks use and deal drugs and don’t get caught: black men get caught two or three times and bye bye for life.

That disparity suggests that it’s not actually about drugs, doesn’t it? If nobody did any drugs, it’d just be something else. They’d be putting black guys away for 40 to life for littering.

90

roger 10.16.11 at 7:13 pm

I would think, given a statistic which encompasses 1300 years, that we will have to look at the subject of violence since 1945 in another 1255 years in order to tell if violence has gone down.
However, the interest this book has may be in the reversing of a conservative meme. Fukuyama, in the Great Disruption, argued that Western society has gotten noticeably more violent in the post war era – a feat he accomplished by simply overlooking WWII. You know how it is when you are a great thinker – historical events have to be really large to bite you on the nose. At the time he wrote this, the rightwing meme was all about how liberalism, unions, black people and maybe feminism had caused the non-violent bourgeois societies of old to decline into rape, murder, and selling crack near the White House. Hmm, I’ve noticed for a while that the right is dissatisfied with this idea, although every once in a while a rightwinger likes to haul out the factoid that it was less dangerous in Baghdad in 2004 than in downtown Philly.

Pinker, however, is not that kind of rightwinger. I’d group him with the Slate contrarians – open to, say, the idea that blacks are inferior to whites (only because we must be open to all potential facts!), as Saletan infamously was, open to the idea that Bush is secretly a liberal (the Kaus idea), and certainly open to the idea that now is the least violent time in history – which is a point I am sure I have read some columnist on Slate make.

91

Meredith 10.16.11 at 7:17 pm

Btw, I agree that violence should include things like societal collusion in the conditions of the inner city and in the creation and application of laws that incarcerate black men at absurd rates — the contemporary version of Jim Crow. Thoughts like that were in my head when I observed Pinker’s apparently (I haven’t read the book myself) inadequate definition of violence. The fact that we have developed grounds for arguing that our individual laws should be fair and just, that they should be applied equally to all people in our borders, and that, quite apart from the legal system, basic “economic” needs and conditions for human dignity should be in the reach of all people IS progress, historically, I would argue. Actually living up to the possibilities that this form of progress offers is another matter.

92

Adrian Kelleher 10.16.11 at 7:22 pm

@LFC etc., fragmentary argument on state terror:

1) Balance of state power vs individual power is partly a function of technology. Of long time periods, technology will be the major factor altering this balance.

2) Because of it’s ever increasing complexity, technology strongly favours factions that can operate overtly: in this case, the state.

3) Sometimes considered a modern phenomenon, guerilla warfare is as old as humanity; Sun Tzu, Fabius, Robin Hood etc. etc. In spite of perceptions, pre-modern history is full of near-endless guerilla wars.

4) By contrast, West Bank barrier (w South Armagh as mini-prototype), Afghanistan etc. illustrate modern state can counter guerilla enemy ad-infinitum without either unbearable losses or resort to unlimited atrocities. These phenomena are novel in human history.

Using this simple framework to evaluate state terror in history leads to conclusions:

a) Historical oppression mostly noble oppression/enslavement – i.e. involving power distributed among large numbers of individuals; no less unpleasant at the receiving end, but generally carried out in pursuit of rational objectives.

b) Historical rulers could ally with nobles vs peasants or peasants v nobles (occasionally true in most European monarchies except for HRE and Poland where noble victory was absolute) but either way power of state only facilitates centralised rule after renaissance.

c) Historical rulers could impose extremes of tyranny only by engaging in a form of civil war, i.e. by pandering to some faction in an existing struggle, even if distribution such that no lines of territorial countrol often masked nature of conflicts.

d) State terror in its modern form, i.e. where the central state may need no domestic allies, only really possible with modern state; e.g. Stalin’s terror which mostly bypassed ‘peasants’ and heavily targetted nomenklatura (‘nobles’ – perceived disloyal elements, but of his own power base!) is a manifestation of a phenomenon not possible in the pre-modern era. Typewriter proves amongst most cruel and deadly weapons in history. Potential for subjugation of individual to state power has since accelerated.

Comments: Recent history has not witnessed ever-increasing state terror, but extrapolating based on a few decades is risky. Obviously many factors other than those cited at play (*) but fact remains that computer databases, biometrics, automated surveillance etc. create potential for much more absolute forms of oppression than pre-modern social conditions permitted.

Ancient terror was moreover always broad-based and generally in pursuit of either rational economic or ethnic/religious group objectives. Potential for extremes of terror, in particular arbitrary terror such as the holocaust, has actually increased.

(* But please spare me twitter. Camera phones maybe, though central control of dissemination networks is much greater and simpler than possible with historically comparable media)

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Bruce Wilder 10.16.11 at 7:24 pm

Maybe we are fooling ourselves about the underlying dynamics.

It seems unlikely that the dynamics driving violence among states is related closely to the dynamics of violence among individuals.

Decreasing violence among individuals may be just one of the by-products of increasing prosperity. In the U.S., lead poisoning might have more to do with the sudden rise in violent crime in the 1960s and its unexpected decline in the 1990s than policing methods or incarceration rates. But, we train our minds to expect to find “causes” in social structures, like “policing”, and not in biology and the environment.

I recall Barbara Tuchman, in her book about the calamities of the 14th century, In a Distant Mirror, proposing that child rearing practices might have had something to do with the remarkable popular taste for horrendous violence, public torture and mutilation among the pastimes of the day.

If the near-monopoly on nuclear weapons had something to do with the decline of Great Power warfare post-1945, we may well look forward to a more horrendous future, as nuclear weapons proliferate and the means of killing millions transmigrates to technologies, which don’t require a technologically-competent state. Nuclear weapons still require a lot of organization to produce. By contrast, the technology to produce a lethal contagious virus or bacteria is becoming available to small groups in biological labs worldwide, as knowledge of genetics and the technologies of genetic engineering proliferate.

94

engels 10.16.11 at 7:26 pm

Sadly, only about 30% of the people in the world understand even basic statistics. The other 80% just don’t have a clue.

95

Gene O'Grady 10.16.11 at 7:42 pm

I am among the minority, even on Crooked Timber, who have read Paradise Lost and Samson Agonistes and Milton’s Latin verse and even some of his classical scholarship; the reason I despise Pinker is not because I am some sort of elitist (that’s a hoot!), it’s because he uses putatively sophisticated quantitative analyses on data that just isn’t able to bear the arguments with no realization that there is a problem with it — Brad DeLong, a much more sympathetic character, likes to do the same thing.

To take an increasingly relevant example (because there is a genuine controversy involving knowledgeable people with good methodologies) what was the literacy rate in Roman Egypt, a time and place that is almost incomparably well documented. For that matter, what is the real rate of child abuse among Catholic clergy?

96

Omega Centauri 10.16.11 at 7:43 pm

LFC @71:
But twenty years (1990 onwards) is a pretty short span of time to establish a trend on noisy data (war casualties tend to cluster). The climatologists are continunlly having to keep reminding that a decade is to short a time to establish a (climate) trend.

As far as the ease of killing, brought about by technology. I’m far from convinced. I’ve seen studies, of expenditures of money per enemy killed for various wars, and the trend is dramatically upwards. We also (in the more advanced parts of the world), have dramatically better battlefield (and later) medicine. So lots of wounds that would have had high fatality rates fifty or a hundred years ago have very low casualty rates today. So much so, that comparing say US fatalities in say Iraq and Afghanistan against past wars creates a very deceptive impression about the human cost of modern wars on the warfighters. Since so many injuries that would have been fatal in the past rarely kill todays soldiers, but often leave them with lifelong disabilities instead. To invent an extreme example, in the stone age, I might only have a sharpened stick with which to kill my tribal warfare rival. But there is a significant chance that a minor scratch inflcted upon him by my primative stich will get infected and kill him. My investment in the effort would have been minimal.

In terms of the longer sweep of history. We live in what I think of as a short anomolous era. If the normal state of human society without constraint is exponential growth of population, then for most of history, we’ve had a sort of Malthusian like incentive to kill off our co-competitors (other humans mainly). Interesingtly starting from roughly the time Malthus wrote his thesis, we’ve enjoyed a period where technological advances have largely overcome those resource constraints. A lot of indications are that this brief vacation from Malthusian resource constraints is going to be over. How we react to the increasing zero-sum nature of economic (and ecological) competition remains to be seen. But an increase in violence seems entirely plausible.

97

Adrian Kelleher 10.16.11 at 7:52 pm

My feeling is that Pinker is mostly correct but with one or two obvious holes in his argument, notably that political violence simply is not a statistical phenomenon.

Surprisingly given his professional background, he appears to adhere to the view that perpetrators of violence are somehow defective. This is a common view made more attractive because it flatters westerners as being not only richer but also more civilised. There is ample evidence, however, that a significant proportion of the most extreme murderers in history simply have different priorities and tastes from most people. Some will never be cured by civics lessons because they aren’t ill, they just don’t care.

Hitler: basically personality disordered; could have been probably rendered infinitely less dangerous by forceful psychological intervention. Wouldn’t have made him nice, but would have sucked the energy from his malice.

Heydrich: Sociopath. Murder total pre 1933:0. Murder total after: 6,000,000+;

von Rundstedt: Basically normal individual; cultured and with genuinely elite talent and education; only obvious vice pre-1939 was self-regard. Nationalism, careerism and talent for moral evasion caused him to implicate himself in >250,000 murders (offhand total; figure may be larger).

Of the three, Hitler should be most curable under Pinker’s hypothesis.

Heydrich is completely beyond hope, and such individuals will always be among us.

Von Rundstedt was basically normal emotionally. His degree of philosophical responsibility for his crimes is therefore the greatest. Under influence of generous bribes of money and status, decided that conquering Europe and murdering millions was a good thing. Never previously resorted to violence or criminality. Never resorted to violence or criminality other than sanctioned by his social milieu. Lessons: What people think matters. Ideology matters. Extreme violence may result when perpetrators manage to convince themselves what they’re doing is not in fact violence at all.

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christian_h 10.16.11 at 8:10 pm

LFC (77.): A lot of people are often wrong, but, all else equal, I’d rather listen to someone who is conversant w statistics but also knows about other things and can see that numbers are one piece of evidence, not the be-all and end-all.

Well yes, I don’t disagree with that at all. Being a mathematician myself I’m just very wary of the way statistics have been used in the public discourse of social sciences often not as a tool but as a way to present claims that are fundamentally political in nature as incontrovertible fact. (Disclaimer: this is not a dig at social sciences as such, nor at the many social scientists who use survey and statistical methods in the full awareness of their limitations. It’s a dig at the method Pinker uses here: present some numbers – any numbers – then declare the debate over.)

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Kaveh 10.16.11 at 8:20 pm

I just wanted to throw in my vote for making statistics and statistical reasoning a graduation requirement for all high school students. Just because a lot of(?) the public intellectuals who advocate this are goofballs who want kids to learn the wrong lessons from it doesn’t make it a bad thing in itself.

100

soru 10.16.11 at 8:32 pm

@85 That’s precisely why he is particularly effective troll. For example, look at these two sentences from the review:

The astonishing numbers of black young men in jail in the US is due to the disproportionate impact on black people of the “decivilising process,” notably the high rate of black children born out of wedlock and what Pinker sees as the resulting potential for violence in families (black or white) that lack the civilising influence of women.

and

The possibility that mass incarceration of young males may be in some way linked with family breakdown is not considered.

Obviously, on a factual level, those two things directly contradict each other. No-one with any level of commitment to factual accuracy, or the vaguest interest in the meaning of what they were saying, would so blatantly contradict themselves in such a short space of words.

But that doesn’t matter to Gray. He just sees in one paragraph a chance to imply Pinker is racist, and in the next the chance to call him an idiot. Both of those match the goal of his review: raising his profile. So both claims are made.

Asking which he believes to be true is a simple category error.

Pinker and Gray can be neatly regarded as equal and opposite. One makes factual statements attached to a symbolic or cultural resonance the facts don’t support. The other makes symbolic or cultural gestures without any regard for underlying facts.

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Henri Vieuxtemps 10.16.11 at 8:33 pm

Extreme violence may result when perpetrators manage to convince themselves what they’re doing is not in fact violence at all.

I don’t think this about them convincing themselves of anything. They’ve already long been convinced that conformity and obedience are virtues. The Milgram experiment and all that.

102

Erik Labelle-Eastaugh 10.16.11 at 9:12 pm

For starters, I find it completely shocking that Mr. Bertram would devote a blog post to slagging a serious academic like Pinker without even having bothered to read the book–and proudly admitting that fact!

As a general matter, I get the sense that many people posting on this board have arrived at their opinions based on the fact that they dislike the very notion of a ‘human nature’, or find the idea that the current incarnation of Western society/civilization/culture is somehow an ‘improvement’ over the past to be highly distasteful. Fifty years of anti-colonialism and anti-Eurocentrism have taught many in the humanities and social sciences to be viscerally (which is not to say obstinately) skeptical of the notion that some cultures can be better than others. I detect a whiff of this in Mr. Bertram (and a strong stench of it in Gray). Needless to say, the truth of a proposition bears no relationship to the discomfort it may cause you.

I also get the sense that many people have profoundly misunderstood the argument Pinker (and other proponents of EP, like Dunbar and Tooby and Cosmides) is making with respect to ‘human nature’. I think such people should read more carefully. It is not, as one person suggested, a contradiction to suggest that there is simultaneously a) a fixed, pan-species human nature, in the form of evolved psychological mechanisms (eg the ‘language instinct’) and b) a means of improving human behaviour through better moral ideas and political/legal institutions. Pinker’s argument that human thought is structured via pre-existing modules does not preclude the possibility that cognitive innovations, like new moral rules, or new ways of conceiving of the moral community, can alter the way those modules operate in practice. Evolution gave us the hardware, and culture gives us the software.

I myself haven’t yet read Pinker’s latest, but I will say this: the much-derided table posted by the Guardian strikes me as nothing more than a pedagogical device, i.e. a means of getting the lay reader to place historical events in proper perspective. What really matters are the long-term statistical trends Pinker relies on. Carping about whether the Mideast Slave Trade is really ‘comparable’ to WWII is completely missing the point.

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Substance McGravitas 10.16.11 at 9:52 pm

It is not, as one person suggested, a contradiction to suggest that there is simultaneously a) a fixed, pan-species human nature, in the form of evolved psychological mechanisms (eg the ‘language instinct’) and b) a means of improving human behaviour through better moral ideas and political/legal institutions.

What a novel and shocking idea to sell a book with.

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Henri Vieuxtemps 10.16.11 at 9:58 pm

skeptical of the notion that some cultures can be better than others

What’s the meaning of ‘better’ when it’s applied to cultures? Who’s to judge, some supernatural omni-cultural being?

105

Erik Labelle-Eastaugh 10.16.11 at 10:06 pm

Henri –

In this case, ‘better’ at avoiding/preventing violent death. You can choose any metric you like, and then compare two societies or cultures on that basis. It’s not rocket science, nor is it a moral abomination.

I would agree that debates about whether culture A is ‘better’ than culture B in some abstract or metaphysical sense are pretty pointless. But to deny that it’s possible to evaluate different cultures in relation to a particular value is to deny our very capacity for reason and judgment. In other words, it’s pretty silly.

At the end of the day, either you value something, or you don’t. If you do, you can make judgements about how best to achieve or preserve what you value. The fact that it may be theoretically impossible to arrive a set of logically necessary universal values is interesting but practically irrelevant.

106

Popeye 10.16.11 at 10:10 pm

All that needs to be said about Pinker.

He objects to using education “to instill desirable attitudes toward the environment, gender, sexuality, and ethnic diversity”; but he insists that “the obvious cure for the tragic shortcomings of human intuition in a high-tech world is education.” He thinks that we should be teaching economics, evolutionary biology, and probability and statistics, even if we have to stop teaching literature and the classics. It’s O.K. to rewire people’s “natural” sense of a just price or the movement of a subatomic particle, in other words, but it’s a waste of time to tinker with their untutored notions of gender difference.

107

Kevin Donoghue 10.16.11 at 10:12 pm

I would be interested to see what a demographer would make of Pinker’s table. If I understand his calculations correctly, falling infant mortality drives his index of violence down, by increasing the denominator. It doesn’t matter that the infants were mostly dying of natural causes in earlier times; the mere fact that they died young makes their world more violent (by his criterion). But I don’t suppose any demographer is likely to consider Pinker’s dreck worthy of attention.

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Henri Vieuxtemps 10.16.11 at 10:17 pm

You can choose any metric you like

Suppose I choose the incarceration rate. Now what?

109

LFC 10.16.11 at 10:27 pm

A few things:
Re the points made (among others points) by Omega Centauri — 20 yrs is too short a time to establish a trend w noisy data — and Adrian Kelleher: “extrapolating based on a few decades is risky…”
I’m not claiming the trend is irreversible. Armed conflict of various kinds could go up again. I do happen to think that major great-power war of the WW1 and WW2 type is obsolete, following the arguments of, e.g., J. Mueller, Retreat from Doomsday, and C. Fettweis, Dangerous Times? Obviously, reasonable people can and do disagree about this.

@Omega Centauri re the effects of better battlefield medicine: yes, though I’m not sure offhand how much of the casualty drop that accounts for. (The people whose profession is to research this would know. One could look at their work for the answer. E.g. N.P.Gleditsch and others.)

@Bruce Wilder: nuclear weapons I don’t think are the decisive factor in the post-1945 great-power peace, though they may have contributed somewhat.

@Popeye: The world has not had a great-power war since either 1945 or 1953, depending on one’s definitions.

@A. Kelleher argument on state terror: Noted. Have to ponder it.

110

stostosto 10.16.11 at 10:30 pm

Of course violence is down in a long term perspective. No question. That goes between countries, but even more so within countries.

http://marginalrevolution.com/marginalrevolution/2011/06/long-term-trend-in-homicide-rates.html

I don’t know what Bertram’s or Gray’s problem is. They seem to want Pinker to be wrong, not only in his explanation for the trend but also in describing the trend.

111

Chris Bertram 10.16.11 at 10:44 pm

_I don’t know what Bertram’s or Gray’s problem is. They seem to want Pinker to be wrong, not only in his explanation for the trend but also in describing the trend._

Well your reading comprehension is clearly defective, at least in my case. See comments upthread.

112

william u. 10.16.11 at 10:48 pm

I agree with J. Q. that the transition between the Europe of 1914-1945 to that of 1945-present is truly remarkable — though I don’t expect that Pinker writes much about social democracy or the construction of post-war pan-European institutions.

113

Erik Labelle-Eastaugh 10.16.11 at 10:53 pm

Henri –

Now what what? I assume you think you’re making a point here, but you’re going to have be slightly less cryptic if you expect me to engage.

Not that this really has anything to do with Pinker. His claim (I gather) is that the world is growing less ‘violent’ as certain beliefs and institutions spread. By ‘less violent’, I take it he means that an individual’s risk of violent death at the hands of another person is decreasing in a way that is somehow proportional to the spread of this complex of beliefes and institutions. This is an empirical question. Either it’s true or it’s not.

My original point was that some people are so deeply committed (intellectually or emotionally) to the idea that Western civilization is/was a brutal oppressor and warmonger that they are incapable of taking Pinker’s argument at face value, on the facts. I think this is pretty evident from Gray’s review, and some of the posts here. Do you disagree?

114

Erik Labelle-Eastaugh 10.16.11 at 11:03 pm

Chris –

Even assuming that the entirety of the decline in violent death were attributable to the fact that incarceration has replaced execution or banishment, do you not think that this is an improvement both in morality and in outcomes? Your earlier comments make it seem like you don’t.

115

Kaveh 10.16.11 at 11:14 pm

Erik @101, 104

In this case, ‘better’ at avoiding/preventing violent death. You can choose any metric you like, and then compare two societies or cultures on that basis. It’s not rocket science, nor is it a moral abomination.

No, you really can’t do this in anything like the way you’re suggesting. How do you even define your units here? What is “a culture” or “a society”? How do you account for change over time? Surely you would agree American culture in 1990 was different from American culture in 1950, 1920, &c. But if you work with much smaller segments of time, how can you identify long-term tendencies? The Nazi Holocaust was committed by the (or really, a) German state, so we can say that in a certain period of time German culture/society became brutally violent. The US was much less violent during that period. But that tells us very little about the deeper underlying factors that determine the inherent likelihood of such an event, which is what your comparison requires–there’s really no way to be sure that an event like the Holocaust couldn’t have happened in the US, or Britain, or China, all we can say is that it didn’t.

116

Salient 10.16.11 at 11:17 pm

Chris, could you do us the favor of disemvoweling and name-redacting this troll masquerading as Erik Labelle-Eastaugh (who is in fact a real person, a professor at Oxford)? Whoever’s stolen his name for the purposes of posting here is committing what amounts to defacement. At the very least, I guess someone should write Dr. Labelle-Eastaugh to let him know there’s a troll posting comments under his name, and give him the opportunity to address the matter. A one-comment drive-by could just be shrugged off, but this person has now posted four comments under the name, and it hardly seems fair to let some pseudonymous troll (most likely a disgruntled student of his) sockpuppet-drag Labelle-Eastaugh’s name through the mud.

117

Harold 10.16.11 at 11:18 pm

The Nazis offshored much of their violence to Poland and the Ukraine — we have offshored our wars. Out of sight, out of mind.

118

novakant 10.16.11 at 11:52 pm

John et al: I just don’t get your argument about the decrease in violence in the past 20 years – within that time-frame occured:

– Second Congo War
– Second Sudanese Civil War
– Rwanda Genocide
– The Wars in the Former Yugoslavia
– War in Afghanistan
– War in Iraq

119

stubydoo 10.17.11 at 12:06 am

One comparison of violence that I find particularly interesting (basically because it happened during my lifetime) is the way things have gone lately in Latin America. The closest thing to a proper war now in the Western Hemisphere is in Colombia. Subcomandante Marcos’ little war in Chiapas I understand to be still in progress on paper, but only on paper. The drug stuff at the other end of Mexico gets a lot of press lately, but I expect it to get sorted out somehow. When I visited downtown Managua in 2008 I saw the Sandinistas had a tent city reminiscent of today’s Zucotti Park (I didn’t ask them why). Venezuela had an attempted coup nine years ago, and two years ago Honduras had a constitutional crisis that was sounding vaguely coupish. Cuba might be in for an interesting transition soon, but so far is not. Haiti perennially looks scary, but most recently its biggest problems have been violence of the naturally occurring kind.

What did I miss? Compared to the 1970s/80s Latin America of Pinochet, the Contras, the Shining Path etc. etc. etc. (& wars triggered by Soccer Games!) this is nothing.

Maybe it doesn’t really justify much or any of the stuff in that book that we’ve all agreed not to read, but still, something big has been happening.

And I expect that 20 years from now we’ll get to say similar things about Africa. But not quite yet.

120

Henri Vieuxtemps 10.17.11 at 12:13 am

His claim (I gather) is that the world is growing less ‘violent’ as certain beliefs and institutions spread. By ‘less violent’, I take it he means that an individual’s risk of violent death at the hands of another person is decreasing in a way that is somehow proportional to the spread of this complex of beliefes and institutions. …. This is an empirical question.

Yeah, right, empirical. Talk about being cryptic. What are these “certain beliefs and institutions”? Buddhism? Three strikes and you’re out? Anti-imperialism? The project for the New American Century? Spell it out.

My original point was that some people are so deeply committed (intellectually or emotionally) to the idea that Western civilization is/was a brutal oppressor and warmonger that they are incapable of taking Pinker’s argument at face value, on the facts.

Why, maybe it’s the idea that Western civilization is/was a brutal oppressor and warmonger is that magical belief that’s responsible for less violence. Or maybe it’s just that Pinker’s argument is bullshit.

121

John Quiggin 10.17.11 at 1:22 am

@Novakant: if you don’t think violence has declined, what is the more peaceful period you had in mind? To be clear, no one is saying that war and violence are at an end, just that, bad as things are, they are not as bad as at any previous point (at least any point where meaningful comparisons are possible).

122

Brett Dunbar 10.17.11 at 1:30 am

@117

Those did occur yes, however that sort of thing has been going on since before the dawn of history there has been a fairly consistent trend for there to be less of it and even those wars that have occurred have been tending to be less bloody than before. The previous twenty years had included the Cambodia genocide, the Ethiopian civil war the Pakistan civil war, the Sudan civil war &c . The point is that the proportion of violent deaths seems to be falling fairly consistently. Some older evidence includes the very large proportion of ancient burials that show signs of violent death and non-fatal serious violence compared to more recent times. The number of murder cases in western Europe shows a huge decline since the middle ages, murder being a crime where the court records give a pretty good record of the number of murders committed.

123

LFC 10.17.11 at 1:31 am

HV @119:
Pinker’s argument is no doubt v. debatable but to dismiss it out of hand as bullshit is unwarranted. And instead of asking someone to spell out P’s argument for you perhaps you could bestir yourself to read a summary of the argument, available I presume in, e.g., the NYT or WPost reviews (they have both reviewed the book, I believe).

novakant

John et al: I just don’t get your argument about the decrease in violence in the past 20 years – within that time-frame occurred:
– Second Congo War – Second Sudanese Civil War – Rwanda Genocide – The Wars in the Former Yugoslavia – War in Afghanistan – War in Iraq

People think the Second Congo War killed 5.4 million. Wrong. Not even close.
Wars in Afghanistan and Iraq: foreign policy disasters, caused much suffering, and produced in case of Iraq c.2 million refugees. But in terms of casualties not, in historical terms, high.
There are no traditional interstate wars where country A’s regular army fights country B’s regular army, afaik, going on at the moment. None. Zero. (The last one might have been Russia-Georgia, Dec. 2008. Not exactly WW2, was it, nor even the Russian invasion of Finland Nov. 39.)
You apparently find the absence of interstate war to be completely insignificant. Was decolonization insignificant? In terms of basic changes in the int’l system, they are arguably of comparable importance.

124

JW Mason 10.17.11 at 2:32 am

Popeye @105-

Very nice quote but the link to the source is defective. Which is too bad, because it looks worth reading.

125

Popeye 10.17.11 at 2:35 am

Try again with the link

126

js. 10.17.11 at 2:35 am

Sort of going back to Salient @ 70 (if I understand it correctly):

A lot of people seem to be objecting Pinker’s thesis on the grounds that violence has not decreased, historically speaking; and a lot of people (who don’t necessarily agree with Pinker’s claims in general) seem to be arguing that, nevertheless violence has too decreased (since 19945, or 1991, etc.).

But isn’t the real problem with Pinker’s thesis that either of these kinds of comparative judgments is fairly meaningless, because there’s no clear metric for quantifying violence (esp. when the implicit or explicit point is to establish some thesis of human progress or regress, or even some plus ca change type thesis).

127

JW Mason 10.17.11 at 2:39 am

There are no traditional interstate wars where country A’s regular army fights country B’s regular army, afaik, going on at the moment.

It’s not entirely clear why this matters. Probably no one was killed by a wheellock musket or an atlatl recently, either.

128

Jawbone 10.17.11 at 2:40 am

@js #125

“no clear metric for quantifying violence”? How about # of people intentionally killed by other people/100,000 people?

Why are you retreating to some sort of know-nothing position?

129

JJ 10.17.11 at 3:09 am

The transition from an agricultural economy to an industrial economy usually results in a lower non-violent mortality rate, and, until the birthrate matches it, a much higher mortality rate attributable to violence. Healthy people live longer. Hence, the population competing for available resources grows larger and, until the birthrate drops, the crime rate goes up. In other words: wars, revolutions, forced migrations and genocide, in addition to the more pedestrian varieties of crime which threaten to overturn the stability of established ruling elites and compel them to resort to the former, less pedestrian varieties of crime will continue to climb until the birthrate drops and the less criminal acquisition of available resources are simultaneously increased.

130

Salient 10.17.11 at 3:14 am

“no clear metric for quantifying violence”? How about # of people intentionally killed by other people/100,000 people?

Doesn’t work. A society in which rape/mutilation/imprisonment of females is ubiquitous, but murder is unheard-of, would score as perfect under that metric–would you feel comfortable asserting that such a society is violence-free?

Wait, don’t respond, I already know the answer is “no, of course not!” I don’t mind giving you the chance to revise the metric. But now you have to consider, is 1 rape = 1 murder, or what’s the scale of equivalence? 1.5 to 1? Etc. And then of course you have to take all other forms of violence into account, etc, etc.

The “can I devise an objective metric for violence” game is easy to play, but the “can I devise an objective metric for violence that my opponent can’t convince me is lip-bitingly gut-clenchingly wrong in one paragraph” game is mutually assured deconstruction– The only winning move is not to play.

It’s not a even question of whether the past-to-present comparison is true or false (we can invent metrics, subject to the problems I just noted, to make the case either way). It’s mostly a question of whether the comparison is meaningful. (You can substitute ‘useful’ at the end of that sentence, if you like.) What value do we derive from the comparative statement, reasonably presupposing that nobody here is trying to act as apologists for present-day atrocities?

Let’s say you convince me, and I completely believe, that someone really really could construct a Ptolemy-in-the-age-of-Kepler epicycles theory of violence that covers enough special cases that we run out of imagination coming up with possible special cases. Perhaps we find what appears to be heavenly evidence that 1.14 rapes = 1 murder in cold blood = 2.26 accidental murders in the course of assault = 1.09 genital mutilations, and we can quantify every last thing satisfactorily. Other than now being able to play Atrocity Trivial Pursuit and rank the Top 100 Well-Documented Atrocities by badness (perhaps in a Time retrospective article with the computations mostly suppressed), where on Earth does this get us?

We might find there’s no reason to be morally complacent (but there never is). We might find there’s every reason to be optimistic (but there always is). We might find there’s good reason to be proud (there always is). We might find there’s good reason to not be proud (there always is). So even if we suppose it’s possible to come up with a metric that approximates the impossible, satisfactorily aggregating violence well enough to make broad-strokes comparisons, what are we supposed to use it for?

To me, saying that 1215 unjust imprisonments ~ 500 murders feels like I’m being a jerk to 1215 people. Now, ok, there exist situations in which being a jerk to a lot of people (or hypothetical people) is entirely called for. Is making this kind of comparison one of those?

131

mds 10.17.11 at 3:18 am

Probably no one was killed by a wheellock musket or an atlatl recently, either.

“See how deeply the wheellock is embedded in the skull? This musket was obviously hurled with great force, probably from a slingshot or atlatl. Yet until this mystery man in conquistador regalia turned up dead, atlatl-related violence had been declining for years in the Anthropology Department.”

132

Ewa 10.17.11 at 3:18 am

As far as I can tell, the majority of the case against Pinker’s thesis in this post (and much of the subsequent discussion) pretty ad hominem.
If you don’t want to pay attention to his arguments, that’s really up too you, no one is going to make, but I don’t understand why you’d write a post saying “Pinker puts forward X thesis… I haven’t really read the argument, but it’s wrong because he sucks.”

133

Alex Prior 10.17.11 at 3:19 am

Pinker aside, there is an excellent study of a related question by Prof Lawrence H Keeley (War Before Civilization, OUP, 1996). He is looking at evidence of violent death starting with the archaeological record (solving the definition problem).

It’s more than 10 years since I read this, but if my memory is working at all accurately, he concludes that deaths from warfare in hunter-gatherer societies were in the realm of 20% of the male population, and that this had fallen to 1% in modern warfare. His definitions were narrow, but his data was very good.

134

Alex 10.17.11 at 3:29 am

Sorry if someone has posted something similar, but haven’t had a chance to read all te comments. Here is anthropologist Greg Laden on what he als thinks Pinker’s book contains (he discusses the hunter-gatherer aspect):

http://scienceblogs.com/gregladen/2011/09/pinkers_new_book_has_a_fundame.php

Also, I offered a (in hindsight, poorly worded) comment there, where I mention this document:

http://www.parliament.uk/documents/commons/lib/research/rp99/rp99-111.pdf

You should see there that crime increased dramatically over the 20th century in Britain. It’s fallen a little bit since the mid-90s, but still way up compared to before WWI. Crime is a big problem in Britain – sometimes the tabloids are right.

135

Jawbone 10.17.11 at 3:29 am

Most of these things are correlated in the real world–that is, more violent societies are likely to have more murder, rape, assault, etc. You would be hard-pressed to find an example of a society with lots of murder but not much assault. That said, I do see your point, and I suppose the answer would be to use a number of definitions of violence, rather than just one, so we could pick up anomolous cases such as those you suggest (which are definitely theoretically possible, but not empirically frequent).

At any rate, my frustration with the position that it’s somehow impossible to quantify violence is that, no, we should be able to convince a visiting Martian, through the use of statistics, that in fact Hong Kong is less violent than New York, which in turn is less violent than Sao Paulo, without requiring the Martian to visit said cities. If you claim not to agree with that ranking, you seem like a know-nothing, if you do agree, how do you know?

136

Alex 10.17.11 at 3:40 am

Watson:

Chris, we live in a world driven by forces most of us, least of all the interpreters of it, do not understand. The hysteria over GMOs, the complaints over breast cancer screening not working, the demand for continued support for treatments that kill people on the basis that some are helped (but we don’t know which ones ahead of time), are all results of a news media beset by ignorance, and a commentariat as ignorant of the second law of thermodynamics as the Romans. Being wrong costs lives, and people are generally wrong about the way things work.

This may be true, but the problem is that just because the likes of Steven Pinker rail against society’s scientific illiteracy, doesn’t mean that such people themselves are free of such baggage. Observe UK politician Michael Gove declare he’s going to make sure kids learn about “Newton’s laws of thermodynamics” in their science lessons:

http://politicalscrapbook.net/2011/06/michael-gove-physics/

137

Kaveh 10.17.11 at 3:46 am

@119 Well, I’ll bite. I don’t know about beliefs, but certainly institutions. Modern, centralized bureaucratic states that became common in the Early Modern period, IMO beginning with the Ming dynasty in China, put an end to succession struggles and other internecine warfare that was common in appanage states. Not all of them exported their violence via colonization the way European colonial powers or the Mughal Empire (colonizing Bengal through a good part of its lifespan, I think) did. The widespread population growth that took place in this period was probably at least partly due to greater political stability. There is the question of whether violence that disrupts food production and thus limits population growth really is worse than violence that doesn’t do this, since the limiting of population growth is a sort of indirect consequence and depends on technology–it’s like trying to compare violence between two situations in which the lethality of the same injuries is very different due to different medical technology. If people starve as a result of their crops being burned, herds killed/stolen, grain stores looted, that certainly should count as a violent death, but how do you count population growth that doesn’t occur because of lost opportunities to invest in agricultural improvements? (And at least some Medievals did practice birth control by methods such as withdrawal, so not all the lost population growth was due to infant/child mortality, starvation, &c..) Also, there is the moral issue of whether wiping out a population that cultivates land more extensively and replacing them with a farming population (like, pastoralists may have been pushed out of parts of Central Asia by Chinese colonists) should really be called “less violent” than if they had been left in place, but occasionally engaged in violent raids on settled populations.

However, just to take China and the Ottoman Empire, AFAIK the new crops that were important in Ming-era population growth (esp. faster-maturing strains of rice) were already around in the Song period (10th-13th c.), but the population didn’t change much overall between 900 and 1400, since in the late 13th c. large parts of China were massively depopulated during and after the Mongol conquests, and there were no similarly massive violent events in China between 1368 and 1800. Whereas there was massive population growth in China between 1400 and 1800, even throughout the part of this period before the widespread adoption of important American crops (peanuts, maize, & sweet potatoes) which I think mainly got underway in the 17th c.. The Ottoman Empire also saw huge population growth at least in Anatolia and at least in the 1500-1700 period, I think in other territories & periods too.

This is blog comment/back of envelope-level analysis, not rigorous, but it strikes me as at least not absurd to describe this historical period as overall less violent than the preceding (say) five centuries. None of which makes me want to read Pinker on anything…

138

nostalgebraist 10.17.11 at 3:49 am

So even if we suppose it’s possible to come up with a metric that approximates the impossible, satisfactorily aggregating violence well enough to make broad-strokes comparisons, what are we supposed to use it for?

To identify what traits of groups are correlated with violence. Because if we know that then we are one step closer to knowing how to reduce the amount of violence in the world (or is that not right?)

The fact that any simple metric for “violence” will have flaws, and “gotcha” cases where it fails ridiculously, doesn’t seem to me to be a unique feature of “violence” as a concept. Most of the concepts that matter to us are pretty fuzzy and complicated, and if we always bound ourselves by standards this strict, academics would never be able to make claims about anything, ever (except math, and some of physical science). The point is not to create an operational definition that has no flaws (which is impossible) but to create one whose flaws do not damage the particular argument you’re interested in making. (And besides, there’s some worth even to “first tries” with significant, relevant flaws; people can always come along and refine your ideas.)

139

Nancy 10.17.11 at 3:52 am

Unless she misrepresents the book badly, the point made by Elisabeth Kolbert in the New Yorker review seems incredibly damning to me. How can Pinker have attempted accurate statements about violence in the West without ever once mentioning European imperialism? Is the operative idea that violence caused, encouraged, or abetted by Europeans doesn’t count against them when it happens to populations outside of Europe?

140

Salient 10.17.11 at 3:56 am

You would be hard-pressed to find an example of a society with lots of murder but not much assault

Ok, but I’d have an easy time finding a society in which there’s lots of assault but not much murder; I’d have an easy time finding a society in which there’s little murder but quite a lot of imprisonment.

the answer would be to use a number of definitions of violence, rather than just one

Epicycles, exactly.

my frustration with the position that it’s somehow impossible to quantify violence is that, no, we should be able to convince a visiting Martian, through the use of statistics, that in fact Hong Kong is less violent than New York, which in turn is less violent than Sao Paulo, without requiring the Martian to visit said cities

If we’re to take ‘violent’ as somewhat synonymous with ‘likely to kill or harm you’ that doesn’t really follow. And you could also convince a visiting Martian that Hong Kong is less loving than New York, which in turn is less loving than Sao Paulo. There’s probably a sense in which that’s true.

If you claim not to agree with that ranking, you seem like a know-nothing, if you do agree, how do you know?

There are a lot of nonsense statements that I claim to agree with when pressed for an answer, not because my answer is meaningful but because I dislike fistfights. “I support the troops” comes to mind; if you disagree that we should support our troops, you seem like a moral monster, if you agree, then [fill in whatever you like].

If someone from Hong Kong asks me which is more violent, I’ll say uh probably NYC; if someone from NYC asks me which is more violent, I’ll say uh probably Hong Kong; if someone from neither place asks me, my brain will instantly start churning, not with computation of which place I’d feel safer in, but with calculation of which choice is less likely to cause conversational strife.

And ok, sure, “New York, NY is more violent than Waco, TX or Birmingham, AL” seems self-evidently true, on the {I would feel safer wandering through the fantasy-simplified version of that city that I currently have in my head, having actually visited neither place} metric. And that metric is probably what would matter if I was choosing a place to move, so ok, there are cases where the “where would I feel safest” metric obtains. I would feel weird drawing broader conclusions about the populations in either city from that (am I supposed to conclude that Waco and Birmingham are ‘better’ than NYC, in any meaningful sense?)

141

Salient 10.17.11 at 4:09 am

To identify what traits of groups are correlated with violence. Because if we know that then we are one step closer to knowing how to reduce the amount of violence in the world (or is that not right?)

Sure, of course, but that’s not comparative (the questions “is this violent” and “what forms of violence are common in this society” and “is this an atrocity” are very useful, as are “if we attempt to interfere with this instance of what appears to be atrocity, how likely are we to perpetrate one ourselves” and “if we engage in war what effect will that have to the living conditions of the population, and is that acceptable,” and a whole host of assessments that don’t rely on us asserting one society is ‘less violent’ than another).

Possibly I’m only dismissing questions of the form “are we more violent or less violent as a species now than we were X generations ago” and/or “is this population more violent or less violent than that population” — I don’t even mean to be dismissing a question like “in which city are you less likely to be the victim of violence” which is also both sensible and calculable.

142

Kaveh 10.17.11 at 4:13 am

“the answer would be to use a number of definitions of violence, rather than just one”

Epicycles, exactly.

I don’t see how measuring degrees of violence is any less legitimate an enterprise than other attempts to measure human well-being, such as the various human development indices. Sure, none of them is objectively the best one, they have different strengths and weaknesses, but they do tend to be correlated.

The only big problem I can see is comparing more- to less-lethal violence, and accounting for the changing lethality of violence. But if more-lethal violence declines or increases, and other types of violence don’t change much in the same period, it’s not really problematic to say things got less violent.

143

Peter T 10.17.11 at 4:21 am

While Pinker is as likely as cavalier with history here as elsewhere, I can easily accept that life almost everywhere now is more peaceful than in medieval or ancient times, and high levels of interpersonal violence amongst most hunter-gatherers are fairly well-documented. After all, most ordinary men in ancient and medieval times carried weapons if away from home (and kept them close by if at home), hired guards if travelling, and routinely pursued local feuds. People spent considerable effort in fortifying their dwellings, building refuges and so on. The surviving evidence suggests that for many people violence was routine, often admired. But while this is a relatively uncontroversial, it is a long term trend, not really amenable to more than rudimentary number-crunching, patchy, subject to major fluctuations, and often heavily qualified. In short, needs careful historical analysis. Pinker’s explanations, as reported, do not convince.

144

Jawbone 10.17.11 at 4:32 am

Salient said:
If we’re to take ‘violent’ as somewhat synonymous with ‘likely to kill or harm you’ that doesn’t really follow

I honestly am lost here, Salient. That’s exactly what it means. The locals are *in fact* much less “likely to kill or harm you” in Hong Kong than in New York, and in New York than in Sao Paulo. If you disagree with that, you are removing yourself from important human knowledge. If you are going to go wander down a random street in Sao Paulo because it was safe to do so in Hong Kong you are acting quite stupidly. It is this kind of refusal to acknowledge basic facts because at times inconvenient that sabotages so much of the left in terms of practical, winnable politics.

145

Meredith 10.17.11 at 4:37 am

Kaveh@135, thank you for raising examples of the kinds of question that matter, that complicate in productive ways and make Pinker’s approach uninteresting (at best).

146

js. 10.17.11 at 4:48 am

Jawbone @ 133:

Exactly what would you trying to be trying to convince the Martian of? Is he/she/it a potential investor? A potential home buyer? A possible resident of the city? Given any one of these, or some other, context, we could surely come up with a perfectly useful (and indeed right) answer to the question of whether NYC or Hong Kong is more violent.

Part of the point of the OP (entirely right in my opinion) was that there are various forms of state-perpetrated (and perhaps culturally sanctioned) violence that we’re going to miss if we look at, say, violent crime statistics.

Also, what Salient said.

147

derrida derider 10.17.11 at 5:15 am

A bad-tempered post leads to a bad-tempered comments section; it took until comment 125 before anyone got to the nub of the question. Pinker indeed seems from this distance to be more vulnerable to the charge that he is trying to measure the immeasurable than that his measurement is outright wrong. Unlike some, though, I’m not willing to pronounce judgement without bothering to read the book.

FWIW I thought the Language Instinct a fine book, The Blank Slate a poor one. They’re the only two Pinkers I’ve read. The big difference was tone – Pinker in the first dealt with alternative explanations in a nuanced and convincing way, in the second dismissed them with abuse (but not, I note, personal abuse).

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Jawbone 10.17.11 at 5:34 am

@js #144

The point is, Hong Kong is less violent than New York across the full range of relevant comparisons, from murder to rape to assault to imprisonment. Feeling unable (or, “weird”) to answer the question as to which is more violent is just badly retrogressive in terms of basic human knowledge about the world. It is to be an idiot for weird ideological reasons.

149

Jawbone 10.17.11 at 5:48 am

Just think of how dumb it would be for one to claim (re)distribution was impossible because who can tell who is “poor” or “rich.” Claiming obliviousness to violence is just as pig-headed.

150

purple 10.17.11 at 6:17 am

How can Pinker have attempted accurate statements about violence in the West without ever once mentioning European imperialism? Is the operative idea that violence caused, encouraged, or abetted by Europeans doesn’t count against them when it happens to populations outside of Europe?

Because he, like Diamond, mostly supports European imperialism.

151

purple 10.17.11 at 6:21 am

And the reason we haven’t had a World War since 1945 is because of Nuclear Weapons.

This should be obvious to anyone with a brain.

152

Kaveh 10.17.11 at 6:28 am

@149 I don’t think that was really in doubt, the question is whether there’s been a decrease in casualties of armed conflict within the 66 year period since then.

153

mclaren 10.17.11 at 6:28 am

If we focus on quality rather than quantity of violence, I’d still say Pinker’s general thesis seems correct. Consider, for example the documented fact that public cat-burning qualified as a form of light entertainment during the middle ages. Cats were tied to poles and slowly lowered onto bonfires until they burned alive.

Do we tolerate this kind of thing today?

Or consider gladiatorial games. Don’t see a lot of those anymore. Might it have something to do with a general reduction in public willingness to watch people mutilate and kill one another in public?

You can quibble with Pinker’s specific statistics — and it makes good sense to do so. What’s much harder to debunk is his basic thesis that the circle of those we consider part of our group has progressively expanded over the past several thousand years to include people who are not closely related to us, some of the more familiar domesticated animals (dogs, cats, horses) and even people who are not members of our particular nation-state.

I’d say the historical evidence supports that claim and represents a significant advance.

154

purple 10.17.11 at 6:31 am

Sorry for the repeated posts, but reading over this again …why does every discussion of violence end up with a good chunk of the (white) readership getting practically sexually excited as they rave about black men committing crimes and getting locked up.

It’s embarrassing. Please keep your fantasies to yourself.

155

mclaren 10.17.11 at 6:51 am

Racism.

This has been another edition of “simple answers to simple questions.”

Incidentally, it’s also worth debunking the main arguments by the reviewer, who claims that the first world merely exported its violence to the third world. If that were correct, we’d see plenty of gladiatorial games in third world countries.

Do we?

156

Alex 10.17.11 at 6:55 am

One reason that Pinker’s thesis is flawed is that his statistics would count deaths during the so-called “Arab Spring” as violent, but wouldn’t count the very existence of the dictatorships under assault as violent (i.e. it’s hardly a moral improvement if a State rules through fear alone, not needing to resort to violence to get its way). Violence is subjective, as others have said. Some might say that Pinker is missing the violence inherent in the system.

157

Alex 10.17.11 at 7:04 am

who claims that the first world merely exported its violence to the third world. If that were correct, we’d see plenty of gladiatorial games in third world countries.

That exporting of violence doesn’t come in the form of FedEx packages. It’s a euphemism for things like Hellfire missiles.

Incidentally, it’s also worth debunking the main arguments by the reviewer

Are you leaving that task to everyone else?

158

Kaveh 10.17.11 at 7:05 am

@153 No, but on the other hand you have the extermination of half the population of the Congo by the Congo Free State under King Leopold of Belgium, a death toll of perhaps 10 million.

@151 What’s much harder to debunk is his basic thesis that the circle of those we consider part of our group has progressively expanded over the past several thousand years to include people who are not closely related to us, some of the more familiar domesticated animals (dogs, cats, horses) and even people who are not members of our particular nation-state.

I don’t think this kind of universalism is as new as you think it is. I’m even doubtful that more people are firmly convinced of it now, compared to 2000 years ago. Nation states are a very new thing, and who even has good evidence for how much people accepted the basic human worth of the rest of humanity before modern times? On the other hand, Buddhism at least has AFAIK pretty strong views on gratuitous cruelty to animals, and I know of at least literary and anecdotal evidence that it has generally been frowned upon in the Muslim world.

One thing you could look at is acceptance of infanticide, which has changed a great deal within recorded history. Islam and Christianity both strictly forbade it, and (at this point I’m just going off of Wikipedia, because I need to go grade papers) Buddhists in China didn’t forbid it–in fact, used reincarnation as a rationalization for it–male (but not female, or at least not as much) infanticide declined during the Ming period.

159

Henri Vieuxtemps 10.17.11 at 7:14 am

Murder is an extremely inefficient and stupid form of violence; why destroy valuable machines that can do many useful things for you?

Why not try to organize the society in such a clever way that not only most of the human beings are alive and working hard producing things (and services) for you (all the while you’re entertaining yourself by giving stupid lectures and photographing flowers), but they even get upset and angry when, due to technical difficulties, there is no suitable work for them. They actually come out and demand ‘jobs’, can you imagine that? Now, that’s what I call ‘violence’!

160

anon 10.17.11 at 7:15 am

As a white person should I be concerned about the unjustifiable, disparate rate of black incarceration or should I keep that to myself lest it be thought a prurient fixation on my part?

161

Guido Nius 10.17.11 at 7:23 am

145: it is not because you started reading at 125 that 125 is right; the question is not even simply whether we think it is immeasurable but whether we should spend the effort to try to measure it? I for one think it would be worthwhile to try to measure it, see above

I see no reason why to dismiss at face value (or because of one failed attempt) any and all attempts at measuring the decrease/increase of violence across historical periods. Sure, I don’t think the measurement will look like a table and a powerpoint graph. & that is fair enough because measurements rarely are as simple as that. Probably a good discussion on what we count and do not count in the measurement would mean a lot. I do think violence in prisons and by police for instance needs to be taken into account. I would also think that the violence implicit in knowing one cannot do as one wants is also of importance (whether that violence comes from social norms or political rules).

162

Alex 10.17.11 at 7:25 am

After all, most ordinary men in ancient and medieval times carried weapons if away from home

Note that even if true, this would be illegal in modern times in most Western countries (except the US, where gun ownership and corresponding violence is high).

163

heckblazer 10.17.11 at 7:26 am

From what I’ve read previously of Pinker I got the impression that he thinks that when discussing human nature things like “culture” and “ideology” are minor details that can be safely ignored. Given that attitude I wouldn’t expect him to do a terribly good job on this topic, which is why I was planning on giving the book a pass.

I’ll second War Before Civilization as a book worth reading.

164

Alex 10.17.11 at 8:01 am

Just think of how dumb it would be for one to claim (re)distribution was impossible because who can tell who is “poor” or “rich.”

Inequality though, is itself a subjective quantity:

http://crookedtimber.org/2010/10/01/fun-with-gini-coefficients/#comment-334080

And the reason we haven’t had a World War since 1945 is because of Nuclear Weapons. This should be obvious to anyone with a brain.

I guess someone should tell historian Tsuyoshi Hasegawa he has no brain then:

Yet Bernstein, Hasegawa, and many historians agree on one startling point. The public view that the atomic bomb was the decisive event that ended World War II is not supported by the facts.

What happened at Hiroshima and Nagasaki has framed the world’s thinking about nuclear weapons. Those days in August remain the only instance of nuclear war. The sheer horrors of the destruction, and the lingering poison of radioactivity, inform what has come to be called nuclear deterrence: No sane nation would bring a nuclear attack on itself, and so having nuclear weapons deters your enemies from attacking. When two rival nations have nuclear weapons, as during the Cold War, the result is stalemate.

Hasegawa’s scholarship disturbs this simple logic. If the atomic bomb alone could not compel the Japanese to submit, then perhaps the nuclear deterrent is not as strong as it seems. In fact, Wilson argues, history suggests that leveling population centers, by whatever method, does not force surrender. The Allied firebombing of Dresden in February of 1945 killed many people, but the Germans did not capitulate. The long-range German bombing of London did not push Churchill towards acquiescence. And it is nearly impossible to imagine that a bomb detonated on American soil, even one that immolated a large city, would prompt the nation to bow in surrender.

If killing large numbers of civilians does not have a military impact, then what, Wilson asks, is the purpose of keeping nuclear weapons? We know they are dangerous. If they turn out not to be strategically effective, then nuclear weapons are not trump cards, but time bombs beneath our feet.

http://articles.boston.com/2011-08-07/bostonglobe/29861790_1_hiroshima-tsuyoshi-hasegawa-japan-surrender

165

Alex 10.17.11 at 8:03 am

Crud. All the last four paragraphs in my last comment should be in italics (quoted from the linked article). Stupid, deceptive preview function.

166

Chris Bertram 10.17.11 at 8:08 am

Incidentally, does anyone else see a problem with using a population-scaled metric here as a measure of decline in violence. Seems to me that absolute numbers ought to matter too.

So, compare

Society A (hunter-gatherer band). Population 50, murder 7 in orgy of violence.

Society B (advanced capitalist society). Population 50 million. Murder 6 million using bureaucratic apparatus and industrial chemicals.

Violence up or violence down? Or indeterminate?

167

Alex 10.17.11 at 8:17 am

The OP has the tone of a small skirmish in a big old and bitter battle but I’m not clear on what that battle would be

Indeed. The whole thread is rather impressive, given the number of people who offer substantive criticisms of Pinker’s book, and indeed aspersions on his character, while happily admitting they haven’t read it. Also, he can’t logically be guilty of “ignoring Asia and Africa” if he is also guilty of being over-confident about his estimate for deaths during the Middle Eastern slave trade!

132: My esteemed colleague Chris “Chris” Williams and his colleagues at the Open University have a very interesting take on British crime numbers, specifically murder. Basically, the big question is whether murder became more common, or whether deaths by violence (notably against children and women and among the poor) that had been happening anyway, with the perpetrators getting away with it, began to be recognised by the state as murders and investigated.

It isn’t obviously silly that if you had to fight to be recognised as a human being with rights like the right to vote, you might also need to fight to be recognised as someone with the right to police protection. Nor is it silly to think that the two things might be linked and correlated in point of time.

168

Walt 10.17.11 at 8:25 am

Chris, I don’t see any alternative to scaling by population size. Suppose you had 50 million people who all lived in villages of population 50, where in each village 7 people died in the local orgy of violence. This seems to me exactly as violent as your Society A, and thus Society B is less violent.

169

Chris Bertram 10.17.11 at 8:33 am

Walt: the same issues come up wrt to the question of whether the world is getting better or worse re deaths from starvation, preventable diseases etc. If you scale by population then things are getting better whilst the absolute numbers continue to rise. But if you think that 6 million people dying is morally worse than 7 people dying, than the absolute numbers ought to count for something. (A familiar problem from consequentialist ethics.)

170

Hidari 10.17.11 at 8:39 am

‘The whole thread is rather impressive, given the number of people who offer substantive criticisms of Pinker’s book, and indeed aspersions on his character, while happily admitting they haven’t read it.’

Well there’s a large element of truth in that, but of course, if The Blank Slate hadn’t been so awful (indeed, this was a key point of the main post) then more people wouldn’t be inclined to write off Pinker’s new one.

But you must remember that the OP began with a link to a Guardian interview with Pinker in which he made some staggeringly bizarre points. His key argument would seem to be that the idea of ‘declinism’ is associated with the political left.

But giving this theory one second of thought (that is, one second more than Pinker gave it) would show that this is a highly problematic idea. Indeed, thinking for one second about why those on the left describe themselves as being progressives might give a serious thinker pause before proclaiming this concept to the rooftops.

It is certainly true that many on the left are opposed, generally, to the Whig View of History (for very good reasons). And also it is true that, as the true horrors of colonialism has made many on the left look again at pre-colonial civilisations: specifically as to whether they were quite as awful as the colonists made them out to be. And (again this is only common sense) the left is highly aware of the many forms of violence and ‘violence’ (e.g. poverty, environmental destruction) associated with capitalism.

But that’s very different from arguing, as Pinker seems to be arguing, that ‘liberals’ want us all to return to some prehistoric Arcadia. Nor is it the case the ‘environmentalists’ want that. Indeed, if Pinker wasn’t so intent on making right wing political arguments dressed up as science, he might have noticed that it is the environmentalists that champion the new sciences of climate change modelling, and the political right which oppose them etc. (and of course, this is even more apparent when it comes to ‘intelligent design’).

Equally, it is the political right who have gone out of their way to ignore the drop in violent crime that has occurred since 1995 and to continue to insist that we live in a uniquely violent age (and it’s no great mystery why they do that).

Right wing hysteria over the recent riots in the UK is highly instructive here, as is this article.

171

Phil 10.17.11 at 8:52 am

Crime is a big problem in Britain – sometimes the tabloids are right.

Whoa Nelly. First off, crime in England and Wales (as in the US) has been steadily declining since the early 1990s. Nobody knows why. With a bit of massaging of the figures, the decline can be made to coincide (roughly, sort of) with a ratcheting-up of the prison mania of those two places. However, both England and the US have a handy natural experiment just to the North: countries whose legal systems are a great deal less prison-happy, and where crime has followed just the same declining trend. At the system level, ramping up fear of crime and getting tough – the tabloid agenda – doesn’t bring crime down. We don’t know what does, but we can be reasonably sure that most of the factors are outside the scope of the criminal justice system.

Secondly, the long decline in crime doesn’t postdate tabloid fearmongering but actually coincides with it. The tabloids’ great achievement has been to convince people that crime is going up even when it’s going down.

And thirdly, even at its peak ~20 years ago crime wasn’t a big problem in Britain, and for most Britons it was hardly a problem at all. It was (and is) highly concentrated in particular areas and socio-economic groups. You could even say that it wasn’t a problem in its own right at all, but a morbid symptom of poverty, inequality and social exclusion.

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soru 10.17.11 at 9:02 am

Note that even if true, this would be illegal in modern times in most Western countries

Isn’t the fact that there is a meaningful concept called ‘illegal’, backed up by more or less effective institutions, clearly going to be at the core of the relevant trends?

173

Alex 10.17.11 at 9:02 am

(Reposting a comment gone in the spam filter, offending word edited, with added reply to the other Alex)

John Quiggin:

Even confining attention to the Congo, the “Free State” under King Leopold was worse than the present atrocities, terrible as they are.

Yeah, but surely everything that came before Leopold was better in the Congo. “We are less violent than Belgian colonialists” doesn’t sound sxey enough to sell lots of books.

mclaren:

If we focus on quality rather than quantity of violence

Now why would we want to do that? Surely if certain types of violence are getting you hard, that’s a bad sign?

Consider, for example the documented fact that public cat-burning qualified as a form of light entertainment during the middle ages. Cats were tied to poles and slowly lowered onto bonfires until they burned alive. Do we tolerate this kind of thing today?

Actually, violence against animals is surely the biggest hole in Pinker’s theory. Sure, we don’t have cat burnings today, but then they never had slaughterhouses in the Paleolithic.

And it’ not like most middle class Westerners have much excuse for this, unlike our ancestors:

http://www.andcabbagesandkings.com/2011/09/06/the-moral-case-for-vegetarianism/

What’s much harder to debunk is his basic thesis that the circle of those we consider part of our group has progressively expanded over the past several thousand years to include people who are not closely related to us, some of the more familiar domesticated animals (dogs, cats, horses) and even people who are not members of our particular nation-state.

But his alleged “basic thesis” is not all the same thing as the claim being debated here, that the human species is less violent than at any period in our history.

In case you don’t see it, consider that the “circle of those we consider part of our group” has always contained our family, and yet domestic violence and incestuous child abuse still exist.

Henri:

Why not try to organize the society in such a clever way that not only most of the human beings are alive and working hard producing things (and services) for you (all the while you’re entertaining yourself by giving stupid lectures and photographing flowers), but they even get upset and angry when, due to technical difficulties, there is no suitable work for them. They actually come out and demand ‘jobs’, can you imagine that? Now, that’s what I call ‘violence’!

The price paid if no-one works is the same in every system, capitalist, socialist, communist, anarchist, feudalist, whatever – death. How do you expect people to live if no-one works?

Alex:

132: My esteemed colleague Chris “Chris” Williams and his colleagues at the Open University have a very interesting take on British crime numbers, specifically murder. Basically, the big question is whether murder became more common, or whether deaths by violence (notably against children and women and among the poor) that had been happening anyway, with the perpetrators getting away with it, began to be recognised by the state as murders and investigated.

It isn’t obviously silly that if you had to fight to be recognised as a human being with rights like the right to vote, you might also need to fight to be recognised as someone with the right to police protection. Nor is it silly to think that the two things might be linked and correlated in point of time.

All true, and I think the pdf above mentioned that part of the reason figures were lower is due to recording issues. However, I’m skeptical that this explains even most of the rise in crime recorded:

1. The rise seems too huge to put it down to a recording issue alone.

2. Most of the rise occurs in the late 50s/into the 60s, which doesn’t seem to correlate well with events like women getting the vote.

3. Isn’t most violence today perpetrated by men against other men? How then can the big increase in recorded crime be explained by crimes against women?

These are just off the top of my uninformed head. If you know of any concrete research (e.g. by this Chris Williams), I’d be interested to see how the figures stack up.

Also, how does technology come into this?

—-

Oh, and this may derail the thread, but does abortion count as violence? I’m pro-choice, but it’s still violence, yes?

174

Hidari 10.17.11 at 9:22 am

‘Secondly, the long decline in crime doesn’t postdate tabloid fearmongering but actually coincides with it. The tabloids’ great achievement has been to convince people that crime is going up even when it’s going down.’

Exactly. And if one wanted to know why that was, and cui bono, one could do a lot worse than study the works of a real psychologist (i.e. not Pinker).

‘”Mean World Syndrome” is a term coined by George Gerbner to describe a phenomenon whereby violence-related content of mass media makes viewers believe that the world is more dangerous than it actually is.… Gerbner, a pioneer researcher on the effects of television on society, argued that people who watched a large amount of television tended to think of the world as an intimidating and unforgiving place. The number of opinions, images, and attitudes that viewers tend to make when watching television will have a direct influence on what the viewer perceives the real world as. They will reflect and refer to the most common images or recurrent messages thought to impact on their own real life. Gerbner once said “You know, who tells the stories of a culture really governs human behaviour,” he said. ‘It used to be the parent, the school, the church, the community. Now it’s a handful of global conglomerates that have nothing to tell, but a great deal to sell.“‘

And cui bono?

‘Gerbner testified before a Congressional subcommittee on communications in 1981. He said that “fearful people are more dependent, more easily manipulated and controlled, more susceptible to deceptively simple, strong, tough measures and hard-line postuires….They may accept and even welcome repression if it promises to relieve their insecurities.”‘

If Pinker wasn’t so concerned with making cheap political points and attacking ‘liberals’ he might ask some hard questions about why Americans nowadays are so terrified of the (negligible) threat of ‘terrorism’, who is stoking these fears and why.

But I suspect that’s not a question that would interest him.

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Alex 10.17.11 at 9:51 am

Phil:

And thirdly, even at its peak ~20 years ago crime wasn’t a big problem in Britain, and for most Britons it was hardly a problem at all. It was (and is) highly concentrated in particular areas and socio-economic groups. You could even say that it wasn’t a problem in its own right at all, but a morbid symptom of poverty, inequality and social exclusion.

I agree with your first two points, but here I have to disagree. Perhaps this is just quibbling over the meaning of “big” as in “big problem”. I mean sure, there are/were bigger problems than crime, but I don’t think any leftist crime policy can based on dismissing it as a problem (never mind sounding callous), particularly given that we’d surely want to also say that much of the money spent tackling crime would be better spent on mental health programs for instance (and/or investing in medical research to fight more worrying threats to humanity). We can’t say on the one hand “there’s not much of a problem”, and on the other hand say “here’s what urgently needs to be done to fight it”.

Oh, and I’m not sure trends in inequality have much correlation with crime figures in Britain?

soru:

Isn’t the fact that there is a meaningful concept called ‘illegal’, backed up by more or less effective institutions, clearly going to be at the core of the relevant trends?

Only if we’re defining away some violence by declaring the law f the land to be inherently non-violent.

Question: what’s the difference between the criminal who steals from his employer, and the police-officer who arrests him and his boss who sacks him?

Epaulets.

176

Hidari 10.17.11 at 10:07 am

‘Consider, for example the documented fact that public cat-burning qualified as a form of light entertainment during the middle ages.’

Y’see this is typical of Pinker’s MO. First, a quick look at the relevant wikipedia page shows that this was a form of activitiy associated with the Renaissance (not the middle ages) and that it was mainly practiced in France. Secondly it wasn’t a form of ‘light entertainment’ but a ritualistic attempt to ‘cleanse’ the community of sin: with cats being associated with the devil.

Secondly, as you say, there is the issue of slaughterhouses.

And finally there is the issue of the internet. I’m sad to say, but many people still are amused and entertained by cat burning, public executions etc. albeit via electronic means, not ‘live’.

177

Peter Erwin 10.17.11 at 10:58 am

Alex @ 173:

… but then they never had slaughterhouses in the Paleolithic.

Nor did they have veterinary hospitals.

(Though I suppose you could consider things like buffalo jump sites as the Paleolithic [or at least Neolithic] equivalent to slaughterhouses.)

Hidari @ 176:

a quick look at the relevant wikipedia page shows … it wasn’t a form of ‘light entertainment’ but a ritualistic attempt to ‘cleanse’ the community of sin: with cats being associated with the devil.

Oh, well, that makes it OK, then. (After all, if you slaughter your neighbors with the wrong religion for purposes of entertainment, that’s bad; but if you do it to save people’s souls, that’s ever so much better.)

Actually, the Wikipedia page calls it “a form of zoosadistic entertainment” — clearly, the ritual association did not prevent people from treating it as entertainment as well.

(See also: bear baiting and other forms of staged animal fights and torture — popular during the Renaissance, banned in Britain the 19th Century.)

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soru 10.17.11 at 11:01 am

Only if we’re defining away some violence by declaring the law f the land to be inherently non-violent.

Colour me sceptical that you could change the trend by counting things plausibly violent-but-legal, as opposed to picking some other more or less arbitrary bad thing and choosing to apply the label ‘violent’.

It’s not like there wasn’t a lot of violent-but-legal things back in the day, say: (wiki)


In late December, shortly after Christmas, the combatants met in the grounds of an abbey in the Northern Paris suburbs. After lengthy ceremony battle was joined and after a furious and bloody encounter, Carrouges stabbed his opponent through the throat with his dagger and claimed victory, being rewarded with substantial financial gifts and a position in the Royal household. The duel was watched by the Royal court, several royal dukes and thousands of ordinary Parisians and was recorded in several notable chronicles including Froissart’s Chronicles and Grandes Chroniques de France.

Or lynching, conscript wars, slavery, …

If anyone wants to say they would prefer to live in a country where the rich fought duels, and sometimes wars, for power, go ahead. Could just be direct preference, or you could have some argument it would tend to lead to better outcomes. No need to redefine common words, make radical claims about the impossibility of knowing anything, or any other universal solvent of an argument.

There does seem to be something genuine going on here, connected to what Hidari said about ‘progressives’ @170. It’s not just the usual revolutionaries against progressives; there seems to be a real group of people who have a visceral,. pre-rational dislike for the concept of political improvement. I doubt they are actual feudal nostalgists.

I blame confusion sown by the US corporate media, the annexation of the term by one faction of the Democrat party, and the limitations of the US academic-led neoliberal+cultural left. I suppose there may be a religious element too.

179

stostosto 10.17.11 at 11:06 am

@ Bertram #111:

[In response to my comment in #110: I don’t know what Bertram’s or Gray’s problem is. They seem to want Pinker to be wrong, not only in his explanation for the trend but also in describing the trend.]

Well your reading comprehension is clearly defective, at least in my case. See comments upthread.

Well, your blog post headline is: “Violence down, claims Pinker the thinker”. Seems like a pretty direct questioning of the trend itself (and a dig at Pinker’s credentials, too, regarding his ability to observe such trends) rather than questioning any explanation for the trend. And in your thread comments you devote much of your effort to sniping around the edges of the statement that the trend in violence is down: Questioning definitions, enlisting other problems like the American rate of incarceration and the trend towards greater inequality, ascribing more weight to absolute (modern) numbers than to relative (older) numbers, etc.

All well and good, but by no means a convincing refutation of well-established data on violence. I think it’s plausible to take the homicide rate as the most reliable historic – as well as cross-sectional – indicator.

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Tim Wilkinson 10.17.11 at 11:07 am

1. Why assume that acclimatisation to institutional cruelty, social violence, war casualties (,…) are to be treated as a single category? To make one representative point: as any propagandist knows, the whole thing about warfare – these days at least – is that it tends to be treated as though morally exceptional. Since it is often done at considerably more than arm’s length even by those on the frontline (see robots, killer, flying: several thousands killed in Pakistan, mostly civilians) there’s good reason to expect that the waging of war is largely independent of social levels of violence.

2. Pinker: innumerate comparisons, such as between Afghanistan and Vietnam – can he really mean that arts grads can’t tell which of two numbers is larger?

3. Pinker: a hostility to modernity is shared by ideologies that have nothing else in common – as is ‘disagreeing with Stephen Pinker’, which might be a better way of describing the phenomenon.

4. Pinker: I try to explain historical changes in violent behaviour by showing how a changing historical environment (anarchy versus government, illiteracy versus literacy, parochial versus cosmopolitan milieus) engages the various parts of human nature in different ways. Sometimes our inner demons are activated, such as with greed, revenge, dominance, puritanism; at other times our better angels, such as self-control, empathy, fairness and reason have the upper hand.

If there is any point to the book it must really lie here. The range of phenomena involved (see 1) and of factors affecting them is pretty staggering. If Pinker examines, say, the (empirical) psychology of war and elucidates the ways in which normal people engage or acquiesce in atrocities, that is certainly of interest. But I suspect that this aspect will be almost Graylingesque in its elevation of mundane platitudes to the status of keen insight. Resort to ev-psych narratives seems likely to be about as useful as approaching the issues through the medium of contemporary dance. But headline claims and grandstanding apart, there could be something useful there.

5. There’s a bit of a problem with timescales here. Comparing the degree to which people are inured to seeing grotesque suffering, say, as between the C20th and the C10th in Europe, seems rather obvious and not necessarily very useful. And it’s not entirely clear that a long-term trend in terms of war casualties can be established (see below for inadequate figures).

I’m sympathetic to the project of pointing out that various plaints about the violence of modern youth etc are largely unfounded and that the 50s or the Victorian era were not notably less violent nor free from moral panic. But that’s very different from divining a general historical trend from a period of 10 or 20 years or whatever it’s supposed to be. It looks as though Pinker is doing a bit of a Fukuyama, extrapolating from the downward slope of the hillock on which he finds himself, to some grand narrative about the wider landscape of history.

There may be a bit of a lull under a kind of pax Americana, but the GWOT seems to have taken forward the Cold War language of spreading democracy (pssst! and capitalism) and combined it with newfound openness about belligerence, torture, lack of UN control etc. Probably 1 million dead in just one war, Iraq, in the 1st decade of the new American century, though a mere 50 thousand or so in Afghanistan and Libya so far. (Meanwhile, maybe another .5m in Darfur and 4m in Congo.)

6. The table supplied with the Graun interview, with a modicum of spreadsheet-based retabulation, provides the following century-by-century breakdown of war deaths from C3-C20 (numbers spanning centuries are divided evenly). I think this is about as useful as that particular set of data can be made for these purposes:

century . deaths(m)
8 . . . . .439
13. . . . .288
17. . . . .201
20. . . . .148
19. . . . .137
15. . . . . 95
16. . . . . 71
14. . . . . 60
18. . . . . 45
3 . . . . . 35
4 . . . . . 35
5 . . . . . 35
7 . . . . . 10
9 . . . . . 10
10. . . . . 10
11. . . . . 10
12. . . . . 10
6 . . . . . . 0

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SusanC 10.17.11 at 11:11 am

Whether violence is going down (or not) is an interesting question, but there are serious obstacles to measuring it:

a) Changing forms of violence.

An apparent decrease might instead be due to a changing form of the violence, from something that we’re counting to something that we’re not. What we’re including as “violence” clearly matters. e.g. someone being put in prison probably counts as an act of violence — it’s the state using its power of violence against an individual.

b) Increasing inequality of violence.

You’ld need to distinguish an overall decrease in violence from an increase in inequality in violence, where part of the population experiences less violence but another part does not. Beware of your own biases here — just because you are part of the class experiencing less violence, it does not follow that everyone is.

Obvious cases to consider:

a) Prisoners.

b) Professional soldiers. In the UK, we don’t have compulsory military service, and so most of the killing is being done by professional specialists. [Who nay, of course, have joined the army because they were unable to find other forms of employment]

c) Overseas victims of our country’s military actions. e.g. many of the people killed by UK soldiers are foreign nationals, so there may be a serious difference in the figures between “people killed by UK citzens” and “UK citizens who have been killed”

============

I seem to recall from a psychology conference somewhere that pre-Vietnam, many soldiers were reluctant to kill in battle, but that, post-Vietnam, training methods used by the US have changed so that their soldiers are much more likely to kill. Take this with a pinch of salt, as I can’t recall the reference and it’s not my field of expertise, but if it’s true it’s in some measure a counter-example to Pinker: within the recent (relatively easy to measure) past, US soldiers have become much more willing to kill, and this has been caused by changed training methods (i.e. is environmental…)

182

Chris Bertram 10.17.11 at 11:16 am

stostoto, I was clear both in the OP and in the comments thread that I think that it is probably true that the trend in interpersonal violence is probably down. This is an unsurprising fact, self-regardingly presented by Pinker as a bit of daring iconoclasm by him in the face of the humanities-educated liberal elite.

That misleading self-presentation is objectionable in itself. I objected.

Comparing 1300 year practices with a 6 year long war is pretty shoddy too, especially from someone carping about other peoples’ statistical ignorance. I objected.

Finally, “other problems like the American rate of incarceration” … It isn’t an “other” problem. It is an instance of state-sponsored violence in itself. Do you disagree? It is presented by Pinker as part of the civilizing process. Which is simply disgusting. I objected.

183

ajay 10.17.11 at 11:17 am

In order to evaluate its claims properly, I’d actually have to read the book, but everything tells me that doing so would be an immense waste of valuable time, so I probably won’t. I can, however, comment snippily on the material that surfaces in interviews and reviews … so here goes.

I’d condemn CB for being intellectually lazy, but I’m just overawed at his honesty. This is the kind of sentence that would deserve mockery if it appeared at Pajamas Media.

184

John Quiggin 10.17.11 at 11:19 am

“Yeah, but surely everything that came before Leopold was better in the Congo. “We are less violent than Belgian colonialists” doesn’t sound sxey enough to sell lots of books.”

“Surely” is doing a lot of work here. I’m entirely ignorant of the pre-colonisation history of the Congo (as I imagine are most of us), but I don’t have any reason to believe that it was a peaceful utopia. In particular, there’s no good reason to suppose that people had better or more peaceful lives then than they do now. I agree that it’s hard to imagine that things were worse pre-colonisation than under Leopold, but the current situation of chronic low-level warfare with the resulting famine and so on seems likely to have prevailed for much of the past, as it has elsewhere in the world.

The general point about non-comparability made by quite a few others is applicable here of course.

185

Chris Bertram 10.17.11 at 11:22 am

Oh come on ajay! You mean you don’t decide whether or not to read a book on the basis of an author’s past record (I’ve read Language Instinct and Blank Slate), and interviews and reviews? Also see my final sentence, asking commenters to provided reasons why I should reconsider my view that it would be a waste of my time to read it. No-one has managed, so far.

186

Bill Benzon 10.17.11 at 11:27 am

I’m yet another person who hasn’t read the book but also, I must confess, I’m not a Pinker-hater. I think, for example, that The Stuff of Thought is quite useful, and have used it myself. His analysis of swearing is interesting and his penultimate chapter, on certain kinds of indirect speech (e.g. “Would you like to come up and see my etchings”) is worth serious consideration. Like many of you, I’ve read earlier and considerably shorter versions of Pinker’s current thesis in this or that place and, on the book, I’ve also seen his diavolog with John Horgan.

So, in # 79 Meredith asserts: I think of three things: the Geneva Conventions, the extension of legal rights and protections to a wider and wider range of people in any given jurisdiction, and a growing consensus (with its ups and downs, to be sure) that we must do our best to ensure that virtually all people on earth are decently fed and housed, receive basic medical care, and in general are treated with the respect that they deserve simply by virtue of being human beings.

I don’t know about the first, but I do think Pinker suscribes to and argues for the second and third, though perhaps not in those terms.

# # # # # #

Salient, #87: Same with saying we’re “less violent” than our ancestors of a few hundred years—are we giving ourselves a pat on the back? Well, ok, we don’t need to quantify anything in order to do that.

Are you saying that, since this is self-evidently true, we need not try to make an explicit argument? IS it self-evidently true? Or are you saying that we have no way of knowing whether or not we’re less violent than our ancestors, but we can (and should?) give ourselves a pat on the back anyway? OR, we don’t and cannot and will never ever know and we shouldn’t give ourselves a pat on the back.

Are we reassuring ourselves that there’s reason to be optimistic? Again, well, ok, no need to quantify.

Are you saying that, since this is self-evidently true, we need not try to make an explicit argument? Or is it that optimism comes cheap and so is of no significance?

Are we attempting to suggest we shouldn’t worry so much about modern-day atrocities because they’re dwarfed in scope by previous centuries’ atrocities? That seems self-evidently not ok.

I’m sure Pinker would agree. He doesn’t believe that we’re home free on the peace and ponies-for-all bus.

# # # # # #

McLaren, #153: What’s much harder to debunk is his basic thesis that the circle of those we consider part of our group has progressively expanded over the past several thousand years to include people who are not closely related to us, some of the more familiar domesticated animals (dogs, cats, horses) and even people who are not members of our particular nation-state.

I believe Pinker got that idea from, or at least attributes it to, Singer, no?

@Alex, #173: Pinker argues this as a causal factor in the overall decline in violence.

187

stostosto 10.17.11 at 11:28 am

CB: To me it seems like a giant heap of quibbling. You concede the downward trend in interpersonal violence, then brush it off as “an unsurprising fact, self-regardingly presented by Pinker”. I haven’t read Pinker’s book (like you), and I am sure he is all sorts of self-regarding bad. But I do think the downward trend in interpersonal violence is a fact, and a significant one.

And fwiw, no, I don’t agree that incarceration is violence in this sense. Sure, it’s a form of violence, (states have a legal monopoly on violence that they can utilise in various ways, some of which are highly debatable) but it’s in a different category.

188

Bill Benzon 10.17.11 at 11:33 am

@Chris Bertram: …I think that it is probably true that the trend in interpersonal violence is probably down. This is an unsurprising fact, self-regardingly presented by Pinker as a bit of daring iconoclasm by him in the face of the humanities-educated liberal elite.

Yes, Pinker is annoying on the humanities elite business. Setting that aside, is this “unsurprising fact” also unimportant? If unimportant, why? If it IS important, then why not give the man some credit for at least attempting an extensive exposition of evidence and attempting, as well, to account for it? He’s not the first one to the idea by any means, but, as far as I know, this is a major attempt to put the argument before a large educated readership.

189

ajay 10.17.11 at 11:36 am

Oh come on ajay! You mean you don’t decide whether or not to read a book on the basis of an author’s past record (I’ve read Language Instinct and Blank Slate), and interviews and reviews?

Of course I do – but, if I decide not to read a book, I don’t then blog about how it’s all a load of nonsense.

I noticed that you’ve rather changed your position between the OP and this post, by the way.

“My suspicion that the claim that violence has declined massively (no great suprise for matters such as everyday street brawling I suppose) may depend on what you are willing to count as “violence” was reinforced…”

Has violence really declined massively? Maybe not! It all depends on definitions! Pinker is making a dodgy claim! Bad Pinker!

“I think that it is probably true that the trend in interpersonal violence is probably down”
Of course it has! Pinker is correct, but he’s saying something that’s obviously true and portraying it as some sort of new discovery! Bad Pinker!

(I anticipate some sort of quibble over the phrase “interpersonal violence”. But all violence, state-sanctioned or not, is interpersonal. I think we can ignore animal attacks and trees falling on people, and autonomous killer robots are not so far a problem.)

190

ajay 10.17.11 at 11:38 am

And fwiw, no, I don’t agree that incarceration is violence in this sense.

A substantial number of people (odd people, admittedly) would argue that it is, and that taxation is also violence in exactly the same sense.

191

Peter Erwin 10.17.11 at 11:38 am

Salient @ 130:
So even if we suppose it’s possible to come up with a metric that approximates the impossible, satisfactorily aggregating violence well enough to make broad-strokes comparisons, what are we supposed to use it for?

You use it for answering questions like, “What policies or social conditions increase violence, decrease it, or have no effect?” “Does abolishing the death penalty lead to a decline in violence, above and beyond the decrease in executions?” “Does more poverty lead to more violence?” etc., etc., etc.

(And of course, you can use individual metrics — rates of homicide vs rates of rape vs rates of judicial torture, etc. — to answer the questions in more detail. It’s hardly a question of “There must be only metric, period!”)

Of course these are complicated questions, and you have to try your best to account for confounding effects and false correlations. But you seem to be aiming at an obscurantist position where nothing will ever be done, because it’s impossible to define the problem in the first place. It’s a bit like objecting to the entire field of medical research and health care on the grounds that terms like “healthy”, “ill”, “disabled”, “living”, and so forth have some inherent ambiguities, and that different parts of the body can be affected in different ways. (“What if someone has a healthy liver — but they’re losing their eyesight? Clearly, medicine is impossible!”)

192

Salient 10.17.11 at 11:49 am

Chris, I don’t see any alternative to scaling by population size.

I laid out a pretty solid alternative upthread…

I honestly am lost here, Salient. That’s exactly what it means.

If my examples of Waco and Birmingham didn’t cause anything to click, I’m not sure what else I can do to help, sorry. [I’ll let your calling me and those who agree with me pig-headed idiots go, as the CT regulars have been asked to keep the temperatures cooler around here, but that doesn’t mean I have to keep engaging.]

193

Chris Bertram 10.17.11 at 12:06 pm

Ajay …. I may have been imprecise, but yes, please allow me to quibble (or at least clarify) on “interpersonal” and contrast street-brawling, everyday homicide and the like (certainly down) with institutional violence and the credible threat thereof (states killing people, incarcerating people, stopping them crossing borders which were previously open etc etc)

194

Tim Worstall 10.17.11 at 12:17 pm

“and a proper and dispassionate look at the global picture .”

That would be interesting. Anyone know a professor type with a sabbatical year who could write a book about it?

Which we could then discuss?

195

Z 10.17.11 at 12:39 pm

The scaling to population is not obvious to me: after all, historical phenomena are not linear in nature, so that I would not necessarily be surprised to learn that the same quantity of X leads to the production of Y in a population of 100 million and to the production of 10Y in a population of 7 billion. After all, we do not normally conclude that more mathematics was produced in the 3rd century BC than in the 20th century because of Euclid or that the absolute peak of artistic production was in 17000 BC (because of Lascaux).

That said , even granting this debatable premise, I was struck by the fact that the 19th and 20th century seem to be quite violent times. They can claim exclusive possession of half of the 20 worse atrocities listed by Pinker, with a notable appearance of 3 others. Taken together, they are the worst pair of centuries in the history of the world, except for the 8th century (and this is because of a very questionable choice of figure for the An Lushan Rebellion). That these centuries lie in immediate vicinity of the spread of Enlightenment ideas would seem to raise obvious questions.

196

ajay 10.17.11 at 12:41 pm

stopping them crossing borders which were previously open

I really think that you are off in a blind alley here with the idea that lots and lots of state actions count as “violence” because they are enforced by the credible threat of violence. And the alley is also populated by the sort of person who says that taxation falls very definitely into this category – as does, really, any state action. The issue of making things like border controls (!) commensurate with actual violent acts is one that I doubt you want to really address.

To pick an example: in 1962, the British government changed the law on UK nationality; as a result, 5 million Hong Kong-born Chinese no longer had the automatic right to live in the UK.
In 1982, the British government engaged in the Falklands conflict, which resulted in the death or injury of around 3,000 British and Argentinian servicemen.

Which would you say is the more violent act?

197

LFC 10.17.11 at 12:48 pm

JW Mason @127,
responding to my: “There are no traditional interstate wars where country A’s regular army fights country B’s regular army, afaik, going on at the moment,”
says: “It’s not entirely clear why this matters. Probably no one was killed by a wheellock musket or an atlatl recently, either.”

It matters for several reasons: (1) traditional interstate wars have in the past produced some high casualty numbers (although there can also be small, short ones, as I pointed out); (2) traditional interstate wars have been a big part of conflict since the 18th cent or so. Remove them from the scene and conflict as a whole might well be expected to go down. (3) Up until some date that we could quibble about, traditional interstate wars were an ‘institution’ of modern int’l society, an accepted part of how states behave toward each other, with rules governing how they were to be conducted. The decline and possible disappearance of such an institution is a significant historical development, much more so than the disappearance of a particular weapons technology, e.g. the musket or atlatl.

@purple 151
And the reason we haven’t had a World War since 1945 is because of Nuclear Weapons. This should be obvious to anyone with a brain.
Far from being “obvious to anyone with a brain,” there is a lot of dispute about whether or to what extent nuclear weapons have contributed to the post-45 great-power peace. (See e.g. Mueller, Retreat from Doomsday, chapter on the ‘irrelevance of nuclear weapons’.) To assert that something which is NOT obvious is “obvious to anyone with a brain” is stupid, ignorant, and offensive.

198

Chris Bertram 10.17.11 at 12:52 pm

_The issue of making things like border controls (!) commensurate with actual violent acts is one that I doubt you want to really address._

Really? Maybe you ought to look into some of the activities of Frontex in the Med then or perhaps take a look at the razor-wire at Mellila.

199

Torquil Macneil 10.17.11 at 12:56 pm

” institutional violence and the credible threat thereof (states killing people, incarcerating people, stopping them crossing borders which were previously open etc etc”

As Ajay suggests above, if passport controls are going to be included in the definition of violence it is difficult to see why taxation should necessarily be excluded, which puts makes for very strange company for CT-ers.

200

Torquil Macneil 10.17.11 at 1:00 pm

“or perhaps take a look at the razor-wire at Mellila”

Is there something unusual about the way razor wire is used in Mellila? I have a Chubb lock on my front door, is that an act of violence too?

201

ajay 10.17.11 at 1:03 pm

Putting up a razor wire fence is not in itself a violent act, according to the normal sense in which most people understand “violent act”. If you are using “violent act” in a different sense – one in which anything done coercively or dissuasively by a state is by definition a violent act – then first you need to address the taxation point, and second you need to explain why you are using this extremely non-standard definition.
You also need to address whether coercive or dissuasive actions by non-state actors are also violent. Is a barbed wire fence violent when it’s along a border but not when it’s around, say, a warehouse wall?

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Nancy 10.17.11 at 1:04 pm

I make no apologies for mistrusting Pinker’s book without reading it. I’ve earned that right by having slogged my way through two large Pinker tomes while trying to set aside the sweeping, almost meaningless characterizations he made about people like me (a cultural historian of the family)–you know, those “cafe inellectuals” who are blockheaded enough to believe cultural and social factors matter when it comes to kinship. Only to read a flippant essay in the New Republic a few years later in which his whole argument turned on the importance of cultural and social factors when in comes to kinship–but this time an argument that let him bravely state the truth that Western people, with their social contracts and weaker kinship ties, are fundamentally different than those beastly Iraqis who all marry their cousins.

Pinker has put himself into the arena as a public intellectual. That means his value rests with whether he fairly and soundly frames scientific questions for readers who by definition with know less than he does about the science. So his track record matters. And that record is poor. He can’t be bothered to actually inform himself about what humanities scholars are actually arguing, but still has no qualms about dismissing their work as liberal nonsense. Meanwhile, he lets his own political investments and animus govern the way he chooses to frame the science, depending on the target of the moment. If so many readers are prepared to express suspicion–or even contempt–for a Pinker book they will never read, I think it says more about Pinker than his (non) readers.

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Bill Benzon 10.17.11 at 1:17 pm

A brief comparison of Buddhist, Jewish, and Christian views on violence.

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Henri Vieuxtemps 10.17.11 at 1:30 pm

Ajay, what’s so special about taxation and barbwire around warehouses? Any action (or a threat of action) undertaken to enforce property rights is violence. Otherwise, why don’t we invite some homeless people and tell Pinker to share his house with them? That would seem to make sense, wouldn’t it?

And they use barbwire simply because it’s cheaper than hiring people with guns.

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Salient 10.17.11 at 1:33 pm

But you seem to be aiming at an obscurantist position

I’d categorize my position as anti-apologist.

It did just occur to me that we’ve somehow gotten sidetracked into talking about violence at a very local and even individual level, whereas my point was most applicable to state-sponsored violence, whether targeting its own population or the population of another state. (State-sponsored might not be the right adjective. State-authorized, maybe? State-endorsed? Not sure.)

On the other hand, I’m not sure my point is restricted to those cases. Maybe we should use a phrase like ‘coordinated violence’ instead?

You use it for answering questions like, “What policies or social conditions increase violence, decrease it, or have no effect?” “Does abolishing the death penalty lead to a decline in violence, above and beyond the decrease in executions?” “Does more poverty lead to more violence?”

There’s a tension between state violence and rogue actor violence that gets lost here.

The first question runs into a ‘what actions of the state count as violence’ problem. For example, we probably have a measurably lower incidence of murder per capita in the U.S. than we would have otherwise, due to a high incarceration rate. Does this count as ‘less violent’ than [a society with a very low incarceration rate but a higher rate of murder]? I’d say no. Does this count as ‘more violent’ than [ ]? I’d say no. Does this count as ‘just as violent’ as [ ]? I’d say no.

I’d say that better questions would be, for example, Does abolishing the death penalty lead to a decline in the number of murders per capita per year, above and beyond the decrease in executions? –or– When a population becomes more impoverished, does the local rate of {list some crimes and/or behaviors here} jump up?

If we found the answer to that last one is ‘yes’ that would not mean impoverished populations are ‘more violent’ — hopefully this clarifies the narrowness of my intended point.

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LFC 10.17.11 at 1:34 pm

SusanC @181:
I seem to recall from a psychology conference somewhere that pre-Vietnam, many soldiers were reluctant to kill in battle, but that, post-Vietnam, training methods used by the US have changed so that [its] soldiers are much more likely to kill.

A study of US combat in WW2 (S.L.A. Marshall, Men Against Fire, 1947) found that most soldiers (I forget the exact percentage) never fired their rifles; perhaps this is what the first part of the above sentence refers to. I have no idea about the second part of the sentence or whether it’s correct. But this debate (or whatever you want to call it) is not about training methods so the point, even if correct, is by itself of doubtful relevance.

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Torquil Macneil 10.17.11 at 1:35 pm

The point Henri, is that if taxation (say) is counted as violence in a sense thatis meaningfully similar to the things we usually call ‘violence’ are (things like GBH, execution, torture etc), we will begin to have a hard time justifying the taxation of citizens. There are lots of people out there who hold this to be the case, but you don’t usually find them on CT.

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Henri Vieuxtemps 10.17.11 at 1:41 pm

If you prefer, you can call it ‘coercion’. But if you actively refuse to comply, the response, of course, is likely to be violent.

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Salient 10.17.11 at 1:45 pm

I should mention that I think Peter Erwin had a very good point and I was happy to engage and respond to it; the response sounds a bit negative or dismissive in a reread and that was not intended at all.

It occurred to me that there’s a subtle but crucial distinction to be made: comparisons that infer ‘more crime’ or ‘less crime’ are completely ok in exactly the way that comparisons ‘more violence’ or ‘less violence’ are not, and you can replace the word ‘crime’ with [list of crimes] and it’s still ok. But quite a large problem pops up when we infer something about how violent a society, nation state, or population is, exclusively from crime rates, and that’s where/when my point obtains. Consider:

A society with a 0.00000001 murders per capita and 14% incarceration is clearly more violent than a society with 0.000001 murders per capita but only 0.5% incarceration.

A society with 0.000001 murders per capita and 0.5% incarceration is clearly more violent than a society with 14% incarceration but only 0.00000001 murders per capita.

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ajay 10.17.11 at 1:59 pm

Ajay, what’s so special about taxation and barbwire around warehouses? Any action (or a threat of action) undertaken to enforce property rights is violence.

Well, that’s a defensible position, of course. But it’s not the sense in which “violence” is commonly used, and I would venture to suggest that it’s probably not the sense in which Pinker etc are using it when they talk about modern societies being less violent.

You could have a sort of William Blake-ish approach in which the education of children is an act of violence. In that case literally everyone in every Western country is or has been a victim of state-sponsored violence for years at a time. But, again, that’s not the commonly understood meaning of “violence”. You could have a libertarian approach in which taxation is violence, in which case Sweden is a more violent country than Congo because the tax rate is so much higher. But, same objection.

If so many readers are prepared to express suspicion—or even contempt—for a Pinker book they will never read, I think it says more about Pinker than his (non) readers.

We are justified in condemning him out of hand without examining the evidence because lots of other people are doing the same thing. Nice one.

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Chris Bertram 10.17.11 at 2:00 pm

Torquil, ajay ….

I think there are some good reasons to distinguish between state control of borders and territory and state enforcement of taxation and property rights. One reason is that it is far easier to make the (ideal) case that the latter is mutually beneficial (and those subject have reason to consent), whereas the former is closer to a pure assertion of force in the face of outsiders.

Having said that, in the real world, where states are a long way from the liberal ideal and defend massively unequal wealth-distributions, something of the same applies.

Of course you are right to make the point that the credible threat of violence is not itself violence. But to the degree to which the absence of actual violence is the result of a monopolist wielding such a credible threat, it seems somewhat relevant. (Imagine a peacable favela, peacable because the drug gang enforces order ….)

On razor wire and the like …. Would you also have objected to a description of the East German management of their border with the West as “violent”? Sure there was sometimes actual shooting. But mostly there wasn’t: there were physical barriers, land mines, guns triggered by tripwires and the like. Knowing they couldn’t safely cross, most people didn’t try.

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Torquil Macneil 10.17.11 at 2:09 pm

“Imagine a peacable favela, peacable because the drug gang enforces order ….”

It would make sense for the average inhabitant of such a favela to claim that his society had become radically less violent, wouldn’t it? Of course the situation wouldn’t be ideal but it would make sense to describe it as less violent

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Kaveh 10.17.11 at 2:17 pm

Shouldn’t it be clear by now that there isn’t a single “right” metric for violence, but that all of the different sorts of metrics proposed–counting incarceration as a form of violence (which rings true to me, and no it doesn’t mean I also have to consider taxation), counting only lethal violence, scaling vs not scaling for population–have their own usefulness?

Also, that not all forms of injustice or coercion are violent? I think the problem is less about the impossibility of measuring violence than it is a matter of expecting too much from the measurement.

Tim Wilkinson @180 6. The table supplied with the Graun interview, with a modicum of spreadsheet-based retabulation, provides the following century-by-century breakdown of war deaths from C3-C20

I’m extremely suspicious of the reliability of total war casualty numbers for the entire world(!) from C10 and earlier. In China you have census counts, so that’s something (although treating a drop in the census count can give inflated casualty numbers because that includes refugees who left an area), but how would you even estimate casualty figures for the Arab conquests of C7-9 or the expansion of the Roman Empire, &c.? To say nothing of lower-scale warfare between small principalities that is either mentioned in passing in the histories of the time, or totally left out?

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Henri Vieuxtemps 10.17.11 at 2:22 pm

@212 It would make sense for the average inhabitant of such a favela to claim that his society had become radically less violent, wouldn’t it?

In that case, your best bet to diminish violence is more violence. Something like Singapore.

This reminds of this ‘memorable quote’ from the movie called Red Heat:

Art Ridzik: Yeah? Well, tell me something, Captain. If you’ve got such a fucking paradise over there, how come you’re up the same creek as we are with heroin and cocaine?
Ivan Danko: Chinese find way. Right after revolution, they round up all drug dealers, all drug addicts, take them to public square, and shoot them in back of head.
Art Ridzik: Ah, it’d never work here. Fucking politicians wouldn’t go for it.
Ivan Danko: Shoot them first.

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Torquil Macneil 10.17.11 at 2:30 pm

It depends how you look at it Henri. If a street is notorious for muggings but they stop as soon as a policeman is appointed to patrol the area, it would be very, very odd, according to the usual definitions, to claim that there had been an increase in violence. Most people would claim that violence had decreased in that situation (and assuming that mugging rates did not rise elsewhere to compensate). I guess you would say that the level of violence had remained constant but that its form had changed?

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Kaveh 10.17.11 at 2:40 pm

@214, 215 In other words, introducing effective law enforcement is not the same as “they made a desert and called it ‘peace'”.

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soru 10.17.11 at 2:44 pm

Of course the situation wouldn’t be ideal but it would make sense to describe it as less violent

It would, by assumption, be _correct_ to say so. Whether it would _make sense_ to say so would depend on a lot of other things, ranging from what your political philosophy tells you about the wisdom of making true statements, and of course whether you are likely to be made a visible statistical exception to the general trend by saying anything else.

Certainly, there seems to be a trend in internet political discussion that there is no particular value in making true statements; in the absence of any other visible metric, commitment to a cause only be demonstrated by claiming to believe competitively implausible absurdities.

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Tim Wilkinson 10.17.11 at 2:48 pm

Kaveh – yes, I wasn’t supposing that the data was actually useful, just pointing out that even taken at face value, it doesn’t disclose a trend of decreasing ‘violence’ over time. And indirectly, I suppose, to highlight just how amazingly uninformative (anecdotal, innumerate, arts-graduate-ish) the data is in the form supplied.

@CB, ajay et al. re: threatened violence of border guards v threat of imprisonment for failing to disclose taxable income, refusing to instruct bank to pay IRS etc.

Libertarian squealing about generic ‘force’ is ridiculous partly because a respectable middle class type who evades tax is not going to get killed or injured (unless he/she really tries, e.g. by violently resisting arrest, saying something about a cop’s mother, etc). Someone attempting to cross a border, acting suspiciously while black, etc., may very well get shot or have the crap beaten out of them.

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ajay 10.17.11 at 3:01 pm

Of course you are right to make the point that the credible threat of violence is not itself violence.

Yes. Thank you. Therefore incarceration and so on, state actions backed by the credible threat of violence, are not state-sponsored violence, therefore violence is in fact lower now than it was in the past, and Pinker is correct – and Gray, whom you cited approvingly, is wrong.

What would be more interesting would be to discuss whether or not Pinker is right about why violence has decreased, but that might require someone to find out what Pinker’s theory is by actually reading his book.

220

Fats Durston 10.17.11 at 3:04 pm

Just to harp on the statistics-hypocrisy angle, the “Worst Atrocities” chart is embarrassing for its historical gaps and its inconsistency for classifying violent “events”–first mentioned with regard to the Middle Eastern slave trade in the OP.

First, the claim that the deaths are the “median/mode of figures cited in encyclopaedias” is an outright lie. The An Lushan revolt (as noted above) figure is the largest argued (and a preposterous number besides). The “Middle East slave trade” is also the largest estimation (and quite contentious). Curiously, the Atlantic trade is nowhere near the high end of the estimates.

Second, how exactly are the two included slave trades enumerated? It looks as though he’s using numbers calculated from total people exported plus those killed in extraction of the slaves. Sure, huge portions of slaves in Atlantic tropical plantations died within 5 years, but some died more “natural” deaths. And the 20 million Amerindian deaths (very low estimate) certainly weren’t all at the end of arquebus, sword, and rifle.

Third, if “Middle East slave trade” is a unit of analysis or “Napoleonic wars,” why isn’t “British Empire” (or Spanish, or Ming, whatever) a unit worthy of inclusion in the chart? (And why are 20th-century British India famines not aggregated with the 19th-c?)

Fourth, where are the Crusades (3 million? deaths unless you add in the Cathars, Jews, and Baltics, which might add a million more)? Using his multiplication formula, this “event” roughly contemporaneous to the Mongol conquest should squeeze the crusades into #14 on the all time adjusted-for-human-inflation atrocity list! The fall of the Roman Empire is here, but what of building the empire (and its centuries-long slave trade)?! Certainly some few millions perished making Pax Romana, which–adjusted–should land them ahead of that piker Leopold!

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Fats Durston 10.17.11 at 3:06 pm

Bah, I see Wilkinson and Kaveh made most of my points while I was composing…

222

bianca steele 10.17.11 at 3:12 pm

A noted scientist writing a popularization that, in the opinion of other scientists, oversimplifies or leaves things out (IMHO How the Mind Works) is one thing. A scientist whose specialty is having an opinion on one of the most contested questions in his field (the question whether it’s actually his field’s question or another field’s also being a highly contested question) writing a book that presents his personal, professional take as truth, as with The Language Instinct, is another thing. A scientist publishing his own actually rather elegantly expressed thoughts about literature, as in the last chapter of The Blank Slate, is perfectly fine. You can see how a few people might be (justifiably) irritated, but that’s okay.

But these last two books, especially, have been science popularizations of a particular kind, almost falling into the category of science journalism, for a very broad audience, and as such there are certain expectations. Facts (even generalizations) that supposedly aren’t expected to be read as factual, but as “teaching tools,” seem beyond the pale to me. And I doubt that’s the case.

Though I did like how John Gray may or may not have asserted the non-existence of the Enlightenment altogether.

223

Chris Bertram 10.17.11 at 3:22 pm

_Yes. Thank you. Therefore incarceration and so on …._

Er no. Because incarceration doesn’t just involve credible threats but actual physical acts against persons (shovings, manaclings, etc etc) which are clear instances of violence. Additionally, the state knowingly condones and permits sundry beatings, rapings etc among prisoners.

224

Western Dave 10.17.11 at 3:24 pm

This discussion has really gone off the rails. The problem here is that there are three crappy ways of telling history:

1. The world is getting better and better
2. The world is going to hell in a handbasket
3. The more things change, the more they stay the same.

These I learned at my mother’s knee before I went to graduate school and learned fancy names like Whig history, declension narrative and equilibrium theory.

Good history engages the insight: “you don’t get something for nothing.” Who is getting what? What is lost? What is gained? Since Pinker apparently doesn’t engage these questions, I won’t bother reading him regardless of whether I think a) people should take more statistics (and by that I mean any – and they should) b) Humanists don’t know their way around statistics (contrary to popular belief, many of them do). c) this whole thing ignores a more interesting question about how does violence change over time? (And I’m surprised the whole medical technology piece drops out so quickly in discussion of homicide rates. Is there a comparison of homicide vs. attempted homicide charges out there that might lead one to conclude that the violence rate is constant but that the death rate has gone down?).

225

ajay 10.17.11 at 3:25 pm

223: no, that doesn’t follow. Might as well say that playing football is a violent act because fights occasionally break out between players. Think about it.

226

Chris Bertram 10.17.11 at 3:33 pm

No again ajay. There’s a difference between a practice where violence is incidental (your football example) and one where it is an constitutive part of the practice. If you wanted to choose a sport, a better example would be boxing, which is, of course violent.

(More generally I’d want to say that what really matters morally speaking is unjustified coercion whether violent or merely backed by the threat of violence. The US prison system involves both massive unjustified coercion, actual violence as part of its official practices and incidental (but condoned) violence among inmates. To say this is not to deny that some coercion in a non-actual US penal system might be justified.)

227

Bill Benzon 10.17.11 at 3:35 pm

a@ bianca steele: But these last two books…

Which last two, the last two that he’s written (Angels, The Stuff of Language) or the last two you mentioned (Language Instinct, The Blank Slate)?

228

novakant 10.17.11 at 3:42 pm

what is the more peaceful period you had in mind? (…) bad as things are, they are not as bad as at any previous point

I have listed two conflicts resulting in millions of deaths including the bloodiest conflict since WW2, as well as the bloodiest conflict in Europe since WW2, a full blown genocide and two neocolonialist wars of aggression led by the US that resulted in undeniably high rates of violence over long periods of time, if not extremely high casualty numbers. Now we can play games with numbers all day – and casualties are just the tip of the iceberg of violence – but I see the past twenty years as part of a continuum of violence rather than a turn for the better.

229

pogonisby 10.17.11 at 3:47 pm

As a side note, why isn’t John Gray celebrated as a seer?

230

bianca steele 10.17.11 at 3:49 pm

Bill Benzon: The ones I mentioned. I had forgotten the other one.

Re. the “peaceable favela”: Peace imposed by a gang is not so great. Actually, I doubt it would be so peaceful in most cases. How many gangs manage without an outlet for their enforcers among the ordinary folk? But even so, would peace imposed by outsiders be better? Especially if they were going around imposing peace on other places mostly to have an outlet for their own enforcers (or worse).

231

William Timberman 10.17.11 at 4:02 pm

I don’t know whether or not a measurable decline in violence — if indeed one has been measured accurately — represents a trend or a hiatus. I would argue that Pinker is a dyspeptic masquerading as a philosopher, and not much of a scientist, but in light of things he’s said publicly, I don’t think I really need to make such an argument.

As to the role of technology in all of this, I would offer these observations:

When I was 13, and attending a high school in Laurel MD, the local gangs were armed with things like bicycle chains and switchblades. I was once bent over a lathe in wood shop with the point of one of those knives under my chin. I had expressed an inappropriate amount of disrespect — I forget how — but after making the necessary obeisance, I escaped without any damage except to my own psychology. Fifty years later, I watched The Wire, which had something to say about the effect of freely available 9 mm automatic pistols on Maryland 14-year olds. I remember being glad I wasn’t 14 any more.

In medieval times, a man-at-arms could impose pretty much any kind of mayhem he wanted on this or that customer of a local tavern, particularly if the rest of his troop was nearby, but a deranged person with an AK-47 can — and has — walked into a suburban franchise restaurant and killed pretty much everyone in the place in less time than it takes to tell about it.

As for nuclear weapons keeping the peace, that seems to me to be an unfortunately common form of whistling in the dark. I can think of all sorts of colorful metaphors to illustrate the error of believing that what hasn’t happened can’t happen, and can’t happen precisely because it hasn’t happened, but what would be the point? Ars longa, vita brevis is the only point that needs to be made, and others more reliable than Pinker have already made it.

232

ajay 10.17.11 at 4:07 pm

There’s a difference between a practice where violence is incidental (your football example) and one where it is an constitutive part of the practice.

Violent attacks on prisoners by other prisoners, or indeed by guards, are not a constitutive part of incarceration. They may be _common_ (in the US) but then so is violence in football.

233

bianca steele 10.17.11 at 4:12 pm

In medieval times, a man-at-arms could impose pretty much any kind of mayhem he wanted

I imagine there was a fair amount of variation between places and times when an armed nobleman who imposed too much mayhem, and was as a result set upon by the peasants with pitchforks, would be met by his liege lord with “serves you right,” and places and times in which the latter would say “let’s fire the village.” (I suppose times of transition from one of those to the others might also see a somewhat higher level of violence generally.)

234

Tim Wilkinson 10.17.11 at 4:26 pm

Violent attacks on prisoners by other prisoners, or indeed by guards, are not a constitutive part of incarceration

Actually, I think the endemic violence in prisons is regarded as an integral part of the punishment by those parts of officialdom that actually consider the matter at all. Routine references to rape made by cops and prosecutors in US films are not invented, and evryone involved is aware that a significant part of the deterrent, especially where short sentences are concerned, is constituted by the fear of violence (which ironically means the most vicious thugs are less deterred than others).

In the end this comes under definitions of various kinds of violence, and why we care about it – are we concerned only for the victim, or do we require intentional violence on someone’s part, etc. Pinker’s approach so far as one can tell without wading through the 800 pages is to focus on deliberate direct attacks, sadism, glorification of cruelty, etc.

This is of course just the way a ‘free market’ advocate likes it – ‘unintended’ consequences due to callousness or – in practice – self-deception get a free pass. (Note Pinker counts avoidable famine as violence when it takes place in a military context, but apparently not otherwise).

235

William Timberman 10.17.11 at 4:26 pm

bianca steele @ 233

True enough. The forms and methods are subject to all sorts of variables, which is why I think that comparative measurements of the kind LFC and John Q believe to be valid are more questionable than they do. In evaluating their claims, and Pinker’s, I ask myself first whether people today are more or less willing to do violence to one another than people in times past, then whether they have more or less opportunity and means to do that violence. Only then do I look at a) statistics, and b) projections. As I’ve said, after following that path of reasoning as far as I’m able, I’m not persuaded that anyone has enough evidence to make the claims that Pinker is making.

236

Chris Bertram 10.17.11 at 4:27 pm

ajay: I really don’t know what to say at this point. Obviously I’m not just talking about guards randomly losing their temper and lashing out but about officially sanctioned acts that people are trained to do and which are essential to the functioning of the penal system as it presently exists. Perhaps you believe that the guards all say “please step inside your cell, sir, otherwise I’ll be obliged to use force” and the convicts all reply “certainly, sir” and comply, and no actual shoving, manacling or beating happens or that it is incredibly rare?

Incidentally, though I conceded that compliance with credible threats of overt violence is not sufficient to count as an instance of violence itself, I really wonder whether I should have done. Instances where the threat of physical harm is sufficiently immediate and direct to get a person to comply with another’s will (or flee) through fear, so that actual hitting doesn’t happen, ought to count in many cases I think. But maybe you think that the KKK (for example) surrounding a house and setting fire to a cross outside isn’t actual violence?

237

Henri Vieuxtemps 10.17.11 at 4:41 pm

If incarceration is not violence, then mugging isn’t violence either. I show you a knife and say ‘your wallet or your life’, you consider the options and give me the wallet, I say ‘thank you’ and leave. Where’s violence?

238

Tim Wilkinson 10.17.11 at 5:06 pm

There’s a weath of interrelated distinctions to be made which talk of generic ‘force’ ‘coercion’ or ‘violence’ obscures.

threat v warning (e.g. of own loss of temper)
imminent v remote
feared v dispassionately assessed (cf Nozick on residual fear of compensated attack)
rational v reflex reaction (e.g. goading)
harmful v harmless bodily contact
striking v restricting (I’d say manacling not essentially violent, just restricts liberty)
painful v painless

also
justified v unjustified
excusable v inexcusable
sadistic v callous v regretful
proportionate v disproportionate
easily avoidable v not

239

MPAVictoria 10.17.11 at 5:08 pm

Chris, Henri and company:
Is a tax on cigarettes violence? Is requiring that a person have a drivers licence and insurance before they can drive violence? Are building codes violence? Are speed limits? It seems to me that if everything is violence than nothing is violence.

240

Chris Bertram 10.17.11 at 5:16 pm

MPA Victoria. No they aren’t, and I’d be opposed to generalized metaphorical extensions of the term. But, to quote myself at 236 “Instances where the threat of physical harm is sufficiently immediate and direct to get a person to comply with another’s will (or flee) through fear, so that actual hitting doesn’t happen, ought to count in many cases.” That gets us Henri’s mugging case, clearly. Physical restraints on a person to a very small space with chains or a cell also count as violence, and anything I might have said above to contradict that is, on reflection, hereby retracted [so I’m inclined to disagree with Tim W].

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MPAVictoria 10.17.11 at 5:19 pm

Chris:
Fair enough. I can agree with almost all of that (Not that that matters of course).

242

Tim Wilkinson 10.17.11 at 5:26 pm

Going off on a bit of a tangent, but just to note that

Libertarian squealing about generic ‘force’ is ridiculous partly because a respectable middle class type who evades tax is not going to get killed or injured

and

endemic violence in prisons is regarded as an integral part of the punishment

are compatible at least so far as the UK is concerned, because we have special white collar ‘open’ prisons for people who are sufficiently refained that it wouldn’t be appropriate to subject them to all the additional (cruel but usual) aspects of punishment over and above restriction of liberty.

243

Guido Nius 10.17.11 at 5:32 pm

So you have prisons for the plebs and non-prisons for bankers.
Seems like a wonderful solution for bankers.
Maybe that’s why they continue as is.

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Bill Benzon 10.17.11 at 5:32 pm

@bianca steele: FWIW, the reason I asked is because Stuff doesn’t really fit your characterization: “…science popularizations of a particular kind, almost falling into the category of science journalism.” It’s full of detail on semantics, detail that’s interesting if semantics interests you, otherwise, eww, all that boring detail–which was a common refrain in reviews.

On The Language Instinct, if someone says to me, “I don’t know anything about linguistics, what’s the one book I should read if I read only one”, well, at the moment The Language Instinct is what I’ll recommend. I’ll likely also tell them that I find the notion of a language instinct somewhere between unhelpful and flat-out-wrong, and that I don’t agree with the Chomskyian approach to grammar, which is what he offers in the book (though, FWIW, that’s not what he uses himself). But I simply don’t know of any other popular book that gives such a good overall feel for what contemporary linguistic thinking is about. I wish there WERE another, one that’s more skewed toward my own intellectual tastes. But, as far as I know, there isn’t.

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piglet 10.17.11 at 5:38 pm

I wish you had spared us the link to Alan Gray.

246

ajay 10.17.11 at 5:44 pm

Even for a post which started off “I can’t be bothered to actually read this book, but I’m going to slag it off anyway”, 236, with its combination of strawmannery and implied racism, is pretty low.

However, here goes: “Perhaps you believe that the guards all say “please step inside your cell, sir, otherwise I’ll be obliged to use force” and the convicts all reply “certainly, sir” and comply, and no actual shoving, manacling or beating happens or that it is incredibly rare?”

The latter, in fact. ie that the use of physical force by guards against prison inmates is extremely rare.
Why, how often do you think that a typical prisoner in a UK prison is the subject of a physical attack from a prison warder? Most of the time – and this may be a complete surprise to you – they don’t actually need to be beaten senseless and hurled into their cells every night, only to be beaten senseless and dragged out again for breakfast twelve hours later. They’re human beings, not caged animals. Given the choice between “walk into your cell” and “get into a fight, get bruised, and get shoved into your cell and denied privileges” they generally take the sensible option. Try talking to some ex-prisoners.

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djw 10.17.11 at 5:45 pm

Violent attacks on prisoners by other prisoners, or indeed by guards, are not a constitutive part of incarceration

I’d be curious, ajay, to you show your work here; to unpack your notion of ‘constitutive part’ and help me see how you arrived at that conclusion. If it’s merely because it’s hypothetically possible to imagine an ideal model of incarceration that minimizes actual violence almost entirely, I don’t think that’s particularly useful. We’ve got extensive sociological evidence now that state incarceration produces actual, cuts-and-bruises-and-much-worse, physical violence against the incarcerated with a good deal of regularity. To deny this is to live in the world of forms.

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bianca steele 10.17.11 at 5:49 pm

@Bill Benzon: I’m not sure what you’re getting at with your description of The Stuff of Thought as “not science.” It’s presented as psychology, Pinker’s field, a science (there are people who think of psychology as not science, but not many in US universities, and not AFAICS Pinker), and linguistics, also Pinker’s field, similarly (in all those respects) a science. It’s absolutely presented as a scientist presenting the discoveries of science for laypeople.

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ajay 10.17.11 at 5:54 pm

I’d be curious, ajay, to you show your work here; to unpack your notion of ‘constitutive part’ and help me see how you arrived at that conclusion.

Fairly straightforwardly: “would it still be incarceration if it didn’t include acts of violence?” Answer: yes. And your ideas of the level of violence involved in incarceration are swayed by your being (I assume) from the US, where prison violence is extremely high.

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Torquil Macneil 10.17.11 at 6:06 pm

Yes, I think a jay is right on this one, violence is not a constitutive part of incarceration. And I would say that the KKK burning a cross osn the lawn of a householder is a threat of violence, not an act of violence. That does not mean it is not serious, or terrifying, or a crime, but it is not in the same category as actually assaulting that householder. Violence must mean something more precise than just crimes that we think are especially repugnant or it becomes more or less an empty category.

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Torquil Macneil 10.17.11 at 6:10 pm

If being kept in a room as punishment is no less violent than beating or is violence of a similar order, what do we make of the distinction between corporal punishment and other forms of discipline towards children by parents? Is it a false distinction? Are we to say that violence towards children is an inevitable and even desirable aspect of parenting?

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Chris Bertram 10.17.11 at 6:11 pm

_it is not in the same category as actually assaulting that householder_

Which goes to show what you know about the meaning of assault.

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Torquil Macneil 10.17.11 at 6:13 pm

I think I do know something of the meaning of assault, and I think I am right that even the legal definition would exclude a menacing message, but I might be wrong. Are all menaces violence or only racist ones?

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piglet 10.17.11 at 6:43 pm

Omega 96: “If the normal state of human society without constraint is exponential growth of population, then for most of history, we’ve had a sort of Malthusian like incentive to kill off our co-competitors (other humans mainly).”

That statement is quite weird but also in a sense representative for what is wrong IMHO with this whole debate. Because, of course, exponential population growth is nowhere close to “the normal state of human society” (I’m disregarding the “without constraint” here because I am not aware of any society ever having existed “without constraint”). On the contrary, the high population growth rates of the past 200 years (exceeding 2% in the middle of the 20th century) are a historical anomaly. Population growth rates were almost negligible, 0.1% or less, for most of human history.

This whole debate suffers from an absurd over-interpretation of recent short term trends. Has warfare been slightly lower in the past 20 years compared to the preceding 20 years? If it were, would it really matter? Do we have reason to believe in any kind of sustained long term trend towards less violence? Such would seem to be extremely hard to argue since it would have to dismiss at least WWII as a mere outlier. But as someone pointed out above, the violence of WWII and the Shoah was unmistakeably modern. Any argument therefore that tries to link modernity with peacefulness has a hard time coming to terms with the modernity aspect of modern violence.

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Bill Benzon 10.17.11 at 6:59 pm

Well, bianca, what I said is that it didn’t match your charactization, and I left off a clause and a second sentence in that characterization. Here’s your full characterization: “…have been science popularizations of a particular kind, almost falling into the category of science journalism, for a very broad audience, and as such there are certain expectations. Facts (even generalizations) that supposedly aren’t expected to be read as factual, but as “teaching tools,” seem beyond the pale to me. And I doubt that’s the case.”

I’m not quite sure how to interpret that second sentence, but the general idea seems to be that Pinker is being misleading in a particularly irresponsible way. Do you think he was doing that in The Stuff of Language? I thought it was well reasoned and, where I happened to know at least some of the relevant literature, it seemed accurate.

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Henri Vieuxtemps 10.17.11 at 7:04 pm

This whole debate suffers from an absurd over-interpretation of recent short term trends.

No, that’s not the debate, it’s a sideshow. All this is merely a launchpad for some equivalent of “Countries with McDonald’s Never Fight Each Other”.

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piglet 10.17.11 at 7:13 pm

mclaren 153: another fallacy is looking at specific practices of violence. So we don’t have gladiatorial games in the US today but we have a justice system that locks up millions of people into tiny prison cells. Comparing these different forms of violence isn’t just a question of coming up with the right metrics. You have to at least acknowledge the possibility that “violence” changes with society, and that our outlook might be just as biased as that of any previous society when we declare to have overcome certain barbaric practices while still tolerating others. Remember that the Spanish conquistadors, while mass-killing native people, thought the natives to be incredibly cruel because of the specific forms of violence (like human sacrifice) they practiced. Nowadays we think of the conquistadors as cruel and violent. It is pretty much a constant of every society’s self-image that they regard their own society as advanced compared to their ancestors and to other contemporary societies. Pinker’s thesis seems to be just another variation on that age-old theme.

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Brad DeLong 10.17.11 at 7:17 pm

https://twitter.com/#!/crookedfootball/status/125999249589665792 ::

>@crookedfootball Chris Bertram

>@dsquareddigest I’ve been hoping for a DeLong intervention [in this thread], so I can joke that, before, the internet, I’d have punched his lights out.

I think that pretty much says all that needs to be said. Satisfied?

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piglet 10.17.11 at 7:17 pm

It is pretty much a constant of every society’s self-image that they regard their own society as advanced… and the idea that civilizational advancement is related to a taming of violence is also a pretty old one of I’m not mistaken. That doesn’t preclude admiration for certain acts and perpetrators of violence. In case you haven’t noticed, modern liberal society is hardly shy in expressing admiration of and support for violence, as long as it is the “right” kind of violence.

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Henri Vieuxtemps 10.17.11 at 7:26 pm

@259 piglet – well said.

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bianca steele 10.17.11 at 7:33 pm

Bill:
I do not mean that Pinker intends to mislead (or even that his publishers intend to mislead), though I can see how I may have written too quickly and given that impression. I would not be surprised if he fully expects–should there be a qualified scientist who disagrees with him–a future book of similar scope, attempting to refute his arguments. It is not the author’s fault if reviewers don’t understand this as a possibility, though it would be nice if an author occasionally anticipated it. It’s not the publisher’s fault if they anticipated reviewers would read the book in what was, in reality, a basically unscientific way (unless, maybe, they understood that their author thought about his book differently). I don’t think Pinker shaded what he said to suit an ideology or a politics or something along those lines; I don’t think he disguised his personal belief system as a scientific argument, either.

What I meant to object to (or what seems still to be unclear from my earlier comment) is what seems to be an attempt to make Pinker’s books worth reading for unscientific reasons. To say something like, he has interesting things to say, they’re not true, but they’re in some sense inspired, and we should listen to him, very closely, though maybe not agree with his intentions and goals. Or to make something almost Straussian and convoluted out of what is actually science popularization (a very particular kind of thing) and was intended to be taken literally.

As for your second paragraph, in the books where I know a little about the field, Pinker’s writing seemed about as accurate as any other popularization, and the books should be being discussed as views from a particular vantage point in a very broad field, which is not how they are being received. If there’s nothing else out there, of some of them you might say, “some of what he writes is partial” (very different from implying that he doesn’t mean it).

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piglet 10.17.11 at 7:39 pm

JQ 184:

“I’m entirely ignorant of the pre-colonisation history of the Congo (as I imagine are most of us), but I don’t have any reason to believe that it was a peaceful utopia. In particular, there’s no good reason to suppose that people had better or more peaceful lives then than they do now. I agree that it’s hard to imagine that things were worse pre-colonisation than under Leopold, but the current situation of chronic low-level warfare with the resulting famine and so on seems likely to have prevailed for much of the past, as it has elsewhere in the world.”

There goes the Whiggish history. JQ doesn’t know anything about precolonial Congo but surely there is no “reason to believe that it was a peaceful utopia”, from which logically follows that people in that part of the world would be starving and killing each other even if colonialism had never happened. Because, it is simply hard to imagine otherwise when you are partial to the Whiggish view of history.

Now that was convincing.

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ragweed 10.17.11 at 8:01 pm

I confess that I have some trouble getting through 200+ comments, so I apologies if this has already been chewed over.

What strikes me about any sort of historical view of human violence is that it will most likely be, well, historical. In other words, there may not be some linear curve of increasing or decreasing rates of violence throught all time, but rather specific increases and decreases in violence related to historic events. The flaw seems to be in trying to create an overarching meta-narrative of either universal progress or decline. It ignores history, and it ignores human agency. Wars are the product of specific historical events – the decision to, say, attack Iraq was not the product of some intangible force, but the product of human individuals, imbedded as they may be in various social formation, who made it happen. Different choices would have resulted in different outcomes.

John

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LFC 10.17.11 at 8:04 pm

Henri V.:
No, that’s not the debate, it’s a sideshow. All this is merely a launchpad for some equivalent of “Countries with McDonald’s Never Fight Each Other”.

This is ludicrous. It is Henri V.’s apparent mode of proceeding: Tar the people with whom you’re arguing w/ the brush of Thomas Friedman, originator (afaik) and proponent of the silly ‘McDonald’s theory’.
This has nothing to do with McDonald’s. It has nothing to do with denying the “modern” aspect of mass bureaucratized violence. It has nothing to do with “absurdly over-interpreting short-term trends.” These are all straw men thrown up by commenters who are determined to avoid certain facts — which I’m not going to repeat since I’ve already mentioned them probably more than once.

To be clear: Some good-faith disagreement on these matters is to be expected and I think I sort of see where e.g. Timberman is coming from, even though I don’t agree with him. But the Henri V. comment about the ‘McDonald’s theory’ is pure trolling. It’s a silly attempt, as I said, to tar your opponents w the Friedman brush and think you’ve won the argument. Really really low.
Parts of this discussion, featuring some commenters authoritatively pronouncing on subjects (e.g. the incidence of war) on which they might charitably be described as uninformed, have been much less than edifying.

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Peter Erwin 10.17.11 at 8:11 pm

piglet @ 254:

… exponential population growth is nowhere close to “the normal state of human society” … On the contrary, the high population growth rates of the past 200 years (exceeding 2% in the middle of the 20th century) are a historical anomaly. Population growth rates were almost negligible, 0.1% or less, for most of human history.

A population growth rate of 0.1% is exponential. It’s slower than a growth rate of 1% (and faster than a growth rate of 0.01%), but it’s still unambiguously exponential.

Some crude fits to data from this site suggests approximately exponential growth at a rate of about 0.08% from about 3000 or 4000 BC to very roughly 1650 AD (during which time the human population increased by about a factor of 100). After that you get steeper exponential growth (a rate of about 0.5%) to around 1900, and then it steepens twice before slowing down after about 1970. So exponential growth clearly has been the normal state over at least the past five or six thousand years. It’s the rate of that exponential growth that’s been changing in the last few hundred years.

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Bill Benzon 10.17.11 at 8:16 pm

OK, bianca, I think I got you. No, Pinker is certainly not some kind of seer who’s magically right about Something Deep even if he’s got the ‘facts’ wrong. But he’s not the blind ideologue that some in this conversation seem to think he is, nor is he even a conceptual dullard with a gift for catchy prose. He’s a smart man with something to say and, by ordinary standards in these matters, his technical program (which, as far as I know, he’s never abandoned) justifies a Harvard professorship.

I do, however, think there’s something more than popularization going on here and there in at least some of his books. He’s trying to think on a scale that’s all but forbidden to any academic except perhaps for certain kinds of philosophers and literary critics. There’s some of that going on in The Stuff of Language and I think that’s all to the good. And I’d wager there is some of that in the current book as well. Anyone who attempts such work is almost certain to fail in small and not-so-small ways. But don’t we need someone to take a serious try?

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piglet 10.17.11 at 8:34 pm

As to claims about the pervasiveness of violence amongst prehistoric societies, they are highly contentious. In addition to the criticism by Greg Laden (http://scienceblogs.com/gregladen/2011/09/pinkers_new_book_has_a_fundame.php, thanks to Alex 134), I highly recommend the writings of Brian Ferguson as an antidote to popular generalizations.

http://dga.rutgers.edu/~socant/ferguson.html

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piglet 10.17.11 at 8:39 pm

Peter 265: “A population growth rate of 0.1% is exponential.”

Well yes I am aware of that. However, I don’t think we really have that precise figures of past population counts to pinpoint when and where exponential growth really occurred. More to the point, I was responding to a post (96) that clearly assumed high growth rates. A constant very low population growth rate (e. g. about one per year in a tribal group of 1000 people) would hardly suffice as an “incentive to kill off our co-competitors”.

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Henri Vieuxtemps 10.17.11 at 8:39 pm

LFC, here’s Pinker’s quote, from 180:

I try to explain historical changes in violent behaviour by showing how a changing historical environment (anarchy versus government, illiteracy versus literacy, parochial versus cosmopolitan milieus) engages the various parts of human nature in different ways. Sometimes our inner demons are activated, such as with greed, revenge, dominance, puritanism; at other times our better angels, such as self-control, empathy, fairness and reason have the upper hand.

So, if it’s not exactly The Lexus and the Olive Tree, it sure does sound like a more nuanced version of it, does it not?

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ScentOfViolets 10.17.11 at 8:43 pm

This is pretty weird; it looks as if some people are putting the cart before the horse and it’s not even a horse; it’s an ostrich that people are calling a horse in the hopes that this will somehow make their arguments not only valid, but relevant.

Let me ruthlessly rip off a story from Jack Vance and posit a future society that’s managed to reduce what we would all agree was violence to zero. How do they do this? Simple: at birth, every citizen is fitted with a indestructible tamper-proof collar containing an explosive charge which is impossible to remove. Citizens whose transgressions are deemed a sufficient threat the social order can be dealt with simply by punching in a certain code at any convenient terminal anywhere in the world.

It’s a pretty peaceable place, actually. There are no assaults and no robberies, no public drunkeness, no public enemies. People respect each others personal boundaries and have a natural inclination to volunteerism. Should they be called on by their government to make personal sacrifices on behalf of all citizens everywhere, they seldom display any hesitance to cooperate.

Now Pinker might give this society high marks for having abolished violence, but somehow I get the impression that most people wouldn’t really want to live there . . . I just can’t quite put my finger on it somehow.

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piglet 10.17.11 at 8:54 pm

More Peter: “So exponential growth clearly has been the normal state over at least the past five or six thousand years. It’s the rate of that exponential growth that’s been changing in the last few hundred years.”

Sure and that’s precisely my point. Exponential growth is defined by a constant growth rate and historically, that’s not what we observe. The data you point to are consistent with very slow exponential growth over most of the Holocene, then super-exponential growth between about 1750 and 1960, and linear growth (slowly turning into sub-linear) since. But fitting an exponential model is really beside the point. Of course technically speaking a very low constant growth rate is exponential growth but the ordinary use of the term really implies high growth rates. I may have been a bit imprecise in my wording but again, I was responding to a particular post.

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Salient 10.17.11 at 9:11 pm

An act of violence has been perpetrated on a victim if and only if the victim, if given the chance to do so safely as an alternative to the act, would have preferred to sprint at top speed away from the source of the threat until falling over from exhaustion.

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Bill Barnes 10.17.11 at 9:58 pm

Sorry to be late, but it should be noted that, contrary to stubydoo at 119, most of Central America has much higher rates of homicide over the last ten years than during the 1980s years of civil war – literally more people dying from bullet wounds now than combatants dying in battle then (here and there there might be a year in the ’80s that was an exception – a number of them if you include noncombatants massacred by the Army in Guatemala). Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras have among the very highest rates of violent crime in the world. (But not Nicaragua, and the contrast constitutes a very interesting puzzle, see Miguel Cruz’s recent Vanderbilt political science dissertation). And there’s no sign of this changing. And the idea that “the drug stuff at the other end of Mexico [will] get sorted out somehow” any time soon is laughable. Read the literature on the recent expansion of the Zetas and others, and their paramilitary capabilities. More broadly, read the emerging literature on “Deviant Globalization,” and “The Age of the Warlord Entrepreneur.” Combine that with the impact of climate change on the Global South and its mega-cities and you’ve got a future of wall-to-wall violent hell on wheels as far into the future as the eye can see. Add in the U.S. military’s increasing emphasis on robotic (“compress the kill chain”) M.O.U.T. (military operations on urban terrain) as a mode of counter-insurgency in those mega-cities — the literature of which, believe it or not, goes so far as to imagine over-head drones doing remote brain scans on people below and making “decisions” launching micro-missiles at particular human targets according to some algorhythm, without human intervention – that’s what they mean by “compress the kill chain.”

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Watson Ladd 10.17.11 at 10:47 pm

SoV, that’s the question of justice. It seems that what’s behind much of the debate is the question of legitimation. We understand there are some acts (rape, robbery, arson, murder) which justify violence administered by someone in response. But that then raises the question of whether to count this as as bad as actual violence or not. The democratic state imposes violence that is in some ways essential to society: without it there is so much more, as everyone other then Henri (and probably a few others) seem to think. State violence can exist: anyone denying it wasn’t awake during the WWII period. But ordinary administration of criminal law, while it involves acts that for any private individual would be violence, seems to live in a different moral category. Yet at the same time this administration can also be morally corrupt. (See 1984)

Harold, there is world of difference between exporting the murder of European Jews and Russian PoWs to Poland and engaging in a distant war against a totalitarian enemy.

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Omega Centauri 10.17.11 at 11:24 pm

piglet, I was hoping it would be obvious that by unconstrained exponential population growth, I meant in the sense of Malthus, that which occurs when the population is well below the carrying capacity of the land. Versus the state, which has prevailed through much of history, where deprivation due to too many mouths versus the supply of food (or whatever) limits population. The mechanism could be excess deaths, or fewer births -because perhaps only males of sufficient means can marry -or whatever. In the state of deprivation, because of overpopulation, a political entity will very likely covet its neighbors land, and is not unlikely to try to take it by force. For the past two to three hundred years, that pressure has mostly been absent, populations have been able to expand, because starvation/disease/germs, have been minor factors. That happy state, may be ending, as there are indications the human population is(or may be approaching) unsustainable levels. Then the pressure to use violence to acquire others resources will intensify. This is a reason to postulate that the decrease in violence may be a hiatus, rather than a trend.

There are also slippery areas, like putting someone in a situation where injury has some statistical likihood, but whose probability is much lower than certain. If say I operate a factory, and cut corners concerning worker safety, does that count as doing violence to my employees. Or if say I routinely drive at eighty miles per your through suburban neighborhoods, does the additional risk that places upon the inhabitants constitute violence -even if an “accident” doesn’t occur?

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Sam 10.17.11 at 11:38 pm

I’m suprised no one has mentioned this yet:

http://www.prio.no/CSCW/Datasets/Armed-Conflict/Battle-Deaths/

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nostalgebraist 10.17.11 at 11:59 pm

@266

I do, however, think there’s something more than popularization going on here and there in at least some of his books. He’s trying to think on a scale that’s all but forbidden to any academic except perhaps for certain kinds of philosophers and literary critics. There’s some of that going on in The Stuff of Language and I think that’s all to the good. And I’d wager there is some of that in the current book as well. Anyone who attempts such work is almost certain to fail in small and not-so-small ways. But don’t we need someone to take a serious try?

I agree with you here, but I think the way in which Pinker does this is perilous in a way that’s worth noting. One of the things about Pinker’s popular writing is that he treats most of the academic results he reports as much more certain than they really are. This is completely typical for popular science writing, but most popular science writing is by science journalists or other non-scientists. Pinker is a scientist, and to someone used to reading popular books, Pinker’s books have a very “academic” feel — there are all those endnotes, for one thing, and there’s his (honestly admirable) attempts to really explain the content of scientific theories rather than just use cute metaphors. Combine this with his tendency for sweeping speculation and you get a type of writing with the tendency to cause ordinary people to believe that science has now solved a bunch of sweeping age-old human questions, which they know because of this very serious tome by an eminent scientist they just read.

(I know this because it happened to me as a teenager with The Blank Slate. I was practically, like, converted by that book. Converted to some combination of evolutionary psychology, vague contrarianism, and ill-informed distaste for the humanities, all of which I eventually began to shed when I finally started to look up Pinker’s sources and read his detractors. But damn did that book seem impressive at the time. Firebrands with big ideas are one thing, but firebrands with big ideas and endnotes . . . )

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Kaveh 10.18.11 at 12:47 am

Salient @272 An act of violence has been perpetrated on a victim if and only if the victim, if given the chance to do so safely as an alternative to the act, would have preferred to sprint at top speed away from the source of the threat until falling over from exhaustion.

I guess you’re proposing this as a proxy, not actually an all-inclusive definition of violence, but I still think I can break your definition. What about situations where people choose not to run from violence? For example, what about martyrs? Not just martyrs who give up their lives, but martyrs who expose themselves to serious pain in order to advance a cause by exposing the brutality of their enemy–something that is probably true of a large number of people who publicly demonstrate against the government, anywhere? Some of the people who suffered pepper spray or blows from police clubs would not have run away from those injurious situations even if they could have (around the start of February, I heard from a friend of people protesting in Egypt that a friend of mine, and their friends, were “ready to die”). They put themselves in harm’s way and did not sprint away from the attackers until exhaustion. Does that mean they weren’t exposed to violence?

You might object that under normal circumstances, they would have sprinted away from the attacker to the point of exhaustion, but how uncommon are abnormal circumstances, really? Being in Egypt, which has relatively little violent crime, and on top of that a good number of the protesters were well-to-do and lived in safe neighborhoods, it’s probably the case that most of these people faced far more violence-in-abnormal-circumstances than violence-in-normal-circumstances. I’m sure that some of the men, at least, and as adults, never faced a situation which they sprinted away from and would have continued sprinting from to the point of exhaustion.

If the condition is then that you could find situations, absent the moral/political cause, where somebody would have sprinted away as an alternative to the act, that might restore the possibility of political violence, but then how do you determine the role of emotion in the decision to run or not run? And what about other situations where people choose not to run from violence?

What about situations involving, for example, domestic abuse, where an individual chooses not to run from violence because of their personal ties to the violent one? What about machismo and bravado, wanting to prove oneself powerful, physically or otherwise (say, through one’s ability to love)? What about irrational fears? I don’t think it’s as straightforward as you’re suggesting to classify acts into ones a person would run from given the chance, and ones one wouldn’t.

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Kaveh 10.18.11 at 12:50 am

(Or was your whole point to show that a definition like this doesn’t work, and I just sort of self-nerd-sniped?)

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Bill Benzon 10.18.11 at 1:05 am

@nostalgebraist, #277: And you survived, critical faculties in good order, ready to think another day. Hallelujah!

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Watson Ladd 10.18.11 at 1:25 am

Kaveh and Salient make good points about the difficulty of dealing with violence. I think we can get away with defining it much like it is when we define porn: we know it when we see it. There might be a few fuzzy cases but by and large we know what acts of violence are. The question is whether we should count violence in law enforcement as violence for the purpose of saying things like violence bad, and how much we should count it. Certainly I don’t mind it if a rapist gets shot averting the act, and I doubt most people would either. But shooting a jaywalker in the midst of committing his heinous crime is probably a but much. So I don’t think we actually need to define violence for this discussion to be meaningful.

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sg 10.18.11 at 1:54 am

I agree with ajay here that the Americans in the audience have a tendency to fetishize prison violence and rape and/or to assume it’s normal. Well-functioning prisons in civilized democracies don’t have to involve much violence at all, and even the act of getting people to those prisons (from arrest to incarceration) can be done through fairly low-violence means.

It’s a bit depressing that so much of the internet-based discussion of crime and punishment, and the related issue of the “war on drugs” is tainted by the US’s weird and racist criminal justice history, and its lurid mass media depictions of same. It would be best if when discussing prisons we distinguished between (moderately) well-functioning systems (such as in Canada, the UK, and Australia) and poorly-functioning systems. Or between systems that genuinely aim to respect at least some of the humanity of their inmates, and systems that don’t.

I know how some smart-arse is going to find a news report about something horrendous that happened in a British or Aussie prison, but … whatever. meh.

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Salient 10.18.11 at 1:59 am

Eh I try not to post things I think are false without saying so and offering why, since that feels like trolling and I try to be a good CT guest… but maybe it’s the case that I was trying to nerd-snipe myself and compromise my own position as much as possible.

Actually scratch that, no, that’s not right. My definition above is a completely sincere (but badly flawed) attempt. I’ve never said that the word ‘violence’ is undefinable, which would seem silly to me. I’ve just said that violent is a binary adjective, like pregnant, for which the comparative modifiers ‘more’ and ‘less’ don’t obtain, which still seems true to me.

#272 was a sort-of-off-the-cuff, but genuine, attempt to build a victim-sympathetic definition of violence. I figured the best way to account for disparate experiences would be to collapse everything into the one-dimensional realm of bodily exhaustion (I am assuming that whatever violence is or may be, exhaustion is uniformly preferable to violence — disputing this premise would be one of many completely reasonable ways to deprecate my proposed definition).

The question it poses is not literal, though; it’s not would you run away? The question is if given the choice between [a] {this perpetrator perpetrating these acts of which you are the victim} or [b] {the experience of complete bodily physical exhaustion}, which reality would you prefer? (For less loaded terminology, feel free to substitute out the words ‘victim’ and ‘perpetrator’ throughout, for more dispassionate terms.)

We do have to presume a Rawlsian type abstract scenario in which the person is completely safe and comfortable and in a dispassionate calm state, fully capable of assessing which reality they’d be happier in, given the choice of fates between the incident-that-was-possibly-violence and the physical exhaustion, or if you prefer revised-Rawls, the decision made by an omniscient angelic advocate that dispassionately but sympathetically assesses which reality the victim really would rather inhabit.

Some other miscellany:

It’s important to accumulate the experience of the victim, giving them a choice between the exhaustion (as a single event) or the entire experience imposed upon them by the perpetrator-that-was-possibly-violent. If someone flicks your ear once you might blow it off as not a big deal (i.e. not violent) but if someone does it a hundred times over the course of a week you might decide it crosses the threshold. (If the victim sincerely feels that there was enough suffering caused to qualify for multiple instances of violence–say, getting beat up twice–we can modify our accumulation procedure to accommodate this.)

It’s also important to isolate and accumulate only those incidents that ought to qualify as potentially violent in the first place. This is easy to define rigorously in the case of individual violence–say, in the case of abusive spouse, it would be unfair to accumulate the entire relationship–only include those moments which are eligible to be violence in the first place, namely, those moments in which the perpetrator intentionally perpetrated an act that their most dispassionate and diplomatic self would recognize as likely to cause suffering in the victim. Word-salad-y, but it seems to nail down all the right nails.

It’s a lot harder to define what qualifies for potential institutional violence, since ‘awareness that the act is likely to cause suffering’ is kind of incoherent. We might have to default to some kind of advocacy scheme, I’m not sure… but really, in the end, the goal is to give the victim recourse. [A fundamental rule ~ If a person sincerely feels that they’re the victim of violence, then they’re the victim of violence. That’s not a necessary condition, but it’s sufficient.]

Throughout I haven’t said “alleged” victim because it’s enough word salad as it is, but it might be necessary in places.

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William Timberman 10.18.11 at 2:11 am

sg @ 282

I don’t disagree with your characterization of U.S. prisons and criminal justice system at all, but I do wonder if the history of places like Long Kesh doesn’t leave some room for doubt about the humanity of British prison administration. Perhaps some of the Irish main page contributors would like to weigh in on the subject. As an American, I have only fleeting impressions of something that from this distance seemed awfully nasty in both theory and practice.

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Watson Ladd 10.18.11 at 3:01 am

Salient, sincere belief is troublesome. If I sincerely believe that you depicting the Tetragrammon or the Prophets name is violence against me, my belief does not constitute the basis for any claim that violence has in fact happened.

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Tim Wilkinson 10.18.11 at 3:02 am

I know how some smart-arse is going to find a news report about something horrendous that happened in a British or Aussie prison, but … whatever. meh.

LMGTFY: http://www.google.co.uk/search?q=violence+in+UK+prison

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LFC 10.18.11 at 3:34 am

Sam @276:
“I’m surprised no one has mentioned this yet,” referring to the PRIO data.

Well, I mentioned Gleditsch (of PRIO); mentioned Goldstein’s book, which cites their data; mentioned PRIO itself by name, I believe, in a related discussion on an earlier thread. (By itself, however, it doesn’t resolve the debate here, for reasons that a reading of the thread will likely indicate.)

I’ve looked at Better Angels in a store for about 15/20 mins. Quick/dirty impressions: very long; no doubt has flaws, maybe including those noted by nostalgebraist above; tone is occasionally irritatingly flip. (And do his readers need to be told how Poisson is pronounced? Apparently.) On substance, too short an inspection to really say; I saw a few things I thought were dubious and/or oversimplified, but nothing (at least in the chaps. on war) that struck me as completely bonkers and off-the-wall. YMMV.

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Kaveh 10.18.11 at 3:40 am

@282 The issue isn’t so much that prisons can be violent as that being in prison isn’t the same thing as being subject to violence. The two might always be positively correlated, but to very different degrees in different prison systems. And this is an issue even if you hold that imprisonment itself constitutes violence.

Salient @283, I agree it would be silly to say that violence simply can’t be defined, and I’m intrigued by your attempt to define it. I’m not sure about it having binary nature. Part of me likes the idea of a victim-sensitive definition of violence, but I still think it is better to avoid defining violence in a primarily subjective way.

I don’t see how you can assign a sufficiently stable value/set of values to {the experience of complete bodily physical exhaustion}. Maybe it’s because my prior experience with these kinds of questions is with the intro micro-economics version of “utility”. But, for one thing, that’s not even always necessarily a bad experience, some people actually try to achieve it through exercise or other physical regimens (fasting, &c.). For another, the thing that would make it bad in an obviously violent context is the emotions that go along with it, i.e. you are running from something that you imagine to be horrible, imagining what is about to happen to you, you’re not just running and getting tired. Or maybe this is a failure of my own imagination, because I don’t really appreciate the experience of total physical exhaustion. I’ve been in severe pain before due to an illness, and incapacitated and exhausted, and there are still things I’d prefer that experience over… maybe that’s not the same as what you mean by total physical exhaustion? But then I’m not sure what would qualify as total physical exhaustion, if you are specifying an emotional state too.

[A fundamental rule ~ If a person sincerely feels that they’re the victim of violence, then they’re the victim of violence. That’s not a necessary condition, but it’s sufficient.]

I think even this seemingly iron-clad rule will trip up on the frequency with which people both 1) invite and 2) imagine violence being perpetrated on them. For example I think we’d all be comfortable with saying forcing someone to engage in sexual acts (even if it doesn’t involve physical injury) could be called violent. But what about forcing people to violate other taboos? Being tricked into eating human flesh is a no-brainer at least WRT most people, but what about being tricked into violating taboos based on, say, strongly-held religious beliefs (I mean, ones that would result in a *sincere* feeling of being subject to violence, not Wattson’s silly, oh-so-unsurprising-ripped-from-the-headlines example), or beliefs in one’s racial superiority to other people?

But then (and IMO less problematic), what if two participants in a boxing match give different answers as to whether they were subjected to violence, because one of them thinks of boxing as an art form and sees physical injury in boxing as no different from falling off your bike, and the other one truly loves being violent (and is willing to suffer violence from others for the opportunity to dish it out)?

What about various macho types who really get a thrill out of violence? I think this includes a lot of people, actually. The feelings people have towards violence they mutually participate in can be complicated. I think this is where the binary-nature-of-violence assumption could encounters really serious problems.

I think it actually might have been hard for many Medieval Persian-speakers to even answer the question, for linguistic reasons–I think, though I’m not sure, that خشونت, the word we use today for “violence” (for example, to translate the English word, “violence”) wasn’t commonly used for this purpose until recently. In the one very old example of the meaning corresponding to “violence” in the Dehkhoda dictionary, it is used to describe somebody’s words. I would need more data than I was able to find in a few minutes of research, but I think this is the case.

I think the best approach is not to try and come up with a rigorous definition of violence, and then see where in history we can find it. Rather, work in the more top-down manner of writing a historical narrative: look for trends in certain types of violence within given times and places, accept that our definitions are somewhat arbitrary, and that there is a kind of uncertainty principle at work (the longer the time period and the more diverse populations you include, the less rigorous the definitions can be), and see what kinds of violence we can meaningfully track, or even ones for which data *could* exist (even though it might be mostly lost)–thinking of more domestic forms of violence here. For this reason, I think the “wage slavery is violence” end of the inclusiveness spectrum is better avoided.

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Kaveh 10.18.11 at 3:52 am

Okay, looking back at that, I was being snarky to Watson for no good reason. Sorry for that. Also, I think the boxers and macho types counter-example is probably of more value than everything else in the comment.

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js. 10.18.11 at 3:57 am

Having been accused of Know-Nothingism, pigheadedness, and what-not, let me try this once more:

If one assumes some specific purpose or context (e.g. which policies—presumably of a recognizably modern state—would reduce violent crime; which would be a better place to live or visit, etc.), then of course we can make perfectly good comparative judgments about more or less violent places or times (assuming that the times at issue are more or less comparable).

But of course this isn’t Pinker’s point, is it? His thesis about declining violence is supposed to establish that the current state of affairs in the Free World (or whatever’s it’s now called) is the best actual, and perhaps possible, state in human history (more or less). And the kind of comparative judgments mentioned above won’t get you this. They won’t get you anywhere near close. And again, there’s simply no reasonable metric for measuring violence that’ll get you Pinker’s conclusion, or anything like it.

On a related note, suppose ajay and others are right that incarceration/credible threats of violence, etc. are not in fact acts of violence. What exactly does this get you? Suppose a society where everyone (and why not?) is incarcerated, but there are no murders. Assuming ajay’s point, this society would be less violent than a previous one that it replaced, say, where almost no one was incarcerated but a few number of people died violent deaths. So is the society where everyone is incarcerated better than the one it replaced? The question answers itself. (This of course merely recaps ScentofViolets @270.)

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Watson Ladd 10.18.11 at 3:58 am

Kaveh, considering that people have killed on the basis that this constituted violence I think its a serious question. We live in a world in which people feel that violations of taboos by third parties justify murder. I don’t ascribe insincerity to people to save them from their statements, and sincerity is purely a function of mental state for Salient, otherwise he wouldn’t have needed to qualify belief in the occurrence of violence. (I believe X, I sincerely believe X are the same sentence. All my beliefs are held sincerely, and I do not believe that others are not because it doesn’t make sense to assume otherwise.)

As for the question at hand I think this is an advantage of utilitarianism. By avoiding moral categories like violence and just grouping things into “good feelings” and “bad feelings” it avoids these sorts of semantic issues: bad things are bad regardless of what we call them.

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Kaveh 10.18.11 at 4:22 am

js @290 As for imprisonment as violence, the problem is that violence is not the only bad thing in the world, so if the world is less violent, that probably, but not necessarily, means it is better in general.

Watson, you’re absolutely right, it’s a legitimate question. I think we’re pretty much on the same page as far as saying that particular violations of taboos in certain modern contexts, at least, simply shouldn’t be regarded as violence.

And getting back to the main point, I am, however, sure that we could come up with other contexts in which “merely” violating “merely” religious taboos really is violent. For example, stealing somebody’s hat (even if they really, really like the hat) isn’t violent, but deftly swiping a woman’s hair covering that she is wearing (for reasons of piety/modesty) probably would (sometimes) count according to Salient’s definition of whether somebody sincerely feels they were subject to violence. But this act could be violating in a particular sense only because of the taboo. Religious beliefs/rules affect how we define our personal space, but once that personal space is defined, to violate it is, well, violent. But then, you have to give a similar consideration to taboos (regarding personal space, hygiene, &c.) based on notions of class, race, or caste, and somehow that feels icky…

The question of whether the world is more “violent”, defined in particular ways, is interesting and worthwhile (and this puts me a couple more levels into the abyss, but I’m not even reading reviews of Pinker’s book, because in spite of what I think was an implicit invitation to do so in the OP, nobody’s really offered any good reason why I should pick up this particular work by Pinker, so there!) even if it simply can’t support the point Pinker supposedly wants it to support.

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dr ngo 10.18.11 at 4:44 am

I think the best approach is not to try and come up with a rigorous definition of violence, and then see where in history we can find it. Rather, work in the more top-down manner of writing a historical narrative: look for trends in certain types of violence within given times and places, accept that our definitions are somewhat arbitrary, and that there is a kind of uncertainty principle at work (the longer the time period and the more diverse populations you include, the less rigorous the definitions can be), and see what kinds of violence we can meaningfully track, or even ones for which data could exist (even though it might be mostly lost)—thinking of more domestic forms of violence here. For this reason, I think the “wage slavery is violence” end of the inclusiveness spectrum is better avoided. Kaveh @ 288.

YES. Long-time lurker, I’ve actually read (well, skimmed) through this entire thread hoping someone would actually utter this kind of sense.

We cannot come up with any comprehensive definition of “violence,” no matter how we calibrate and qualify it, that can possibly be measured, much less be fit for utilitarian or any other calculus.

But that does not leave us with no alternative but idle speculation. As a historian (humanities) whose research has frequently taken a quantitative turn, I learned many years ago – probably from the works of Peter Laslett and E.A. Wrigley and the rest of that Cambridge group – that the key to meaningful quantitative research was to start with something that could be operationalized. We don’t get far generalizing about “the nobility,” but in specifying “people listed in Debrett’s Peerage,” we get at some kind of actuality that can be measured, which may give us a small first step toward understanding the larger phenomena we are interested in.

The shady areas, the ambiguities, the moral equivalencies (or disequivalencies, if that’s a word) still remain to be dealt with afterwards, and they never get easy. We would be fools to think that what we wind up measuring, whatever that may be, is the totality of the thing. But it is something.

In this case, the most obvious candidate for measurement over time and space would seem to be lethal violence. FOR THIS STAGE OF CONSIDERATION, we simply omit assault, rape, bullying, incarceration, slavery and many many other kinds of personal or institutional “violence” that may be equally objectionable, because we can’t come close to measuring them. (We haven’t forgotten them, however.)

We then ask: has the likelihood of a given human *dying* as a direct result of human agency increased or decreased over time? By no means easy to define the parameters (e.g., when the “immediate” cause of death is starvation or some other incidental byproduct of war), certainly not easy to measure, but at least imaginable, as the quote by Kaveh suggests. (As for the length of time, I personally wouldn’t bother with a span of a mere twenty years or so, but that is beside the point here.)

IF we find enough data to establish a trend here (up, down, random, cyclical, whatever) we have actually learned something (!!) and can then return to the more subtle and difficult topic of “violence” taken broadly. IF that trend is, as Pinker and others suggest, generally downward – a person today is less likely to be killed by violence than s/he would have been in past centuries – we can try to interpret it.

Perhaps lethal violence has simply been replaced by institutional forms of coercion (grounded in, as many have suggested, the ultimate threat of state violence). Perhaps this trend in lethal violence “tracks with” similar downward trends in other kinds of violence – rape, incarceration, etc. – or perhaps it doesn’t. Perhaps the new arrangements are morally superior to the old ones; perhaps not. If things are in fact better, maybe it’s because “we” are more civilized after all (Whigs Rule!), or maybe it’s because of a dozen other possibilities. But all of these, it seems to me, are most useful tackled after we have made a valiant effort to count (OK, to estimate) something specific, in this case, the incidence of lethal violence.

(The historiographic advantage of “lethal violence” over other kinds is obvious. Death tends to be a yes/no kind of thing, not complicated by degrees of bruising or questions about consent, and whenever humans keep track of stuff, they tend to be more systematic about observing and counting death than other misfortunes. There may well be fates “worse than death” – there are certainly some I would regard that way – but they do not lend themselves to this kind of assessment.)

I realize that this blog is primarily for/by philosophers, to whom my plodding efforts at empiricism may seem risible. But in the words of Popeye: I yam what I yam.

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Meredith 10.18.11 at 5:00 am

In utter and complete sympathy with Kaveh and dr ngo: why are we focusing on violence at all, when we could be talking about justice? That seems to me the more important, the more valuable (carefully chosen word) question.

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Peter T 10.18.11 at 5:50 am

I second Kaveh’s remarks. Are we looking for an “objective” metric of “violence”? I doubt we will ever find one. After all, one of the points of studying history (or anthropology) is to realise that the past is another country – they do things differently there. I’m sympathetic to looking at the victims of violence in our own time or milieu, but I doubt the average male of many past times and places thought of themselves as a victim when they were injured or killed, or even would have preferred to avoid death or injury if it meant loss of honour, status, possessions….What the women thought is not well documented, but it’s not hard to find instances where they seem to have shared the outlook of the men.

Without being able to quantify it in any exact way, it is fairly obvious from surviving remains, records, literature and other evidence that being violent, in the sense of being prepared to inflict physical injury on others (and to accept the risk of physical injury to oneself) was much more normal in the past, across most of the world, than today. I think I would look elsewhere than Pinker for explanations of why that is so, but I can’t see torturing the meaning of the word “violence” as a useful response to the general point.

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Kaveh 10.18.11 at 6:12 am

@294 It’s funny, I actually thought asking about violence was a more interesting (and maybe more manageable) question than asking if the world has become more just–that seems like it’s been done to death. Asking about justice is a more inherently, basically valuable question, maybe, but much less interesting because “justice” is so close to the words we already use to describe social orders, whereas “violence” is somewhat more oblique to them, and constitutes a particular and (for some definitions) easy-to-isolate part, and furthermore, the older forms of it are partly but not entirely intuitable to us now.

@295 but I doubt the average male of many past times and places thought of themselves as a victim when they were injured or killed, or even would have preferred to avoid death or injury if it meant loss of honour, status, possessions…

Hmmmm… I’m not sure if I’m ready to accept that they wouldn’t see themselves as a victim, but maybe if I read more of the right texts/ethnography I’d become convinced of this. I would think that at least in the Ancient and Medieval urban settings, even if people were more ready to rise to defend their honor with a sword than they are now, I’m not so sure that they necessarily relished doing it, or that this was generally the case in urban settings (I don’t remember ever reading about duels as an aspect of Middle Eastern social history in any period, but maybe I just missed out on it).

My point was more that people still operate this way to some extent, even for totally frivolous or at least not extremely grave reasons. So treating violence strictly as something people try desperately to avoid might blind us to some of the psychological factors involved in trends of increasing or decreasing criminal violence in countries not at war.

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Meredith 10.18.11 at 6:34 am

Kaveh, re justice vs. violence, I know what you mean. I guess I’m just swinging at the moment on the justice end of this dialectic. But maybe what’s important is that it is a dialectic, this violence-justice thing.

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ragweed 10.18.11 at 7:11 am

CB and Torquil Macniel @ 250-253 (and other related posts).

Whether a cross burning on the front lawn is an act of violence or not is a matter of the context. Burning a cross itself is an act of vandalism. It becomes a threat of violence in a context where actual violence has occured in relation to the symbol.
So the question of whether that act is violent or not exists in relation to the level of actual violence that is occuring in the society – a social context in which cross-burning was a credible threat of violence would already have a higher level of actual physical violence, which could be measured independantly (if it could be measured).

The flaw in that argument, of course, is that a symbolic act may signal a significant threat of violence due to historical levels of violence associated with the act, even if the level of contemporary physical violence is much lower.

Likewise, I would argue that the level of physical violence present with incarceration is what should be measured, not incarceration itself. A prison system in which actual physical violence rarely occurs is less violent than one in which physical acts of violence are routine.

John

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Henri Vieuxtemps 10.18.11 at 7:32 am

Well, ‘justice’ is, of course, a part of it. As we are all indoctrinated (to various degrees) with the dominant ideology, some forms of violence (like mass-incarceration, because “Americans had gotten sick of the muggers, vandals and drive-by shootings”) seem so unobjectionable to us (or, at least, some of us) that we even refuse to classify it as ‘violence’. But it’s always been like that. I’m sure whipping of slaves wasn’t violence either; it’s just that super-civilized Romans got tired of their laziness and insubordination. It was more like an educational activity, rehabilitation.

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ajay 10.18.11 at 8:52 am

298: “Assault (or common assault) is committed if one intentionally or recklessly causes another person to apprehend immediate and unlawful personal violence.”
So you don’t actually have to make contact, but you do have to do something like raise a fist or say “I am going to break your arm” or something.

Cross-burnings come under “threat of harm” or “intimidation” or similar, and under hate speech laws if such applied.

I notice that Yglesias has just posted on the same book, by the way:

“I think I’m sufficiently interested in the subject of Stephen Pinker’s The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined that I should actually read it instead of simply reading the coverage.”

Ooh, snap, as they say.

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Bill Benzon 10.18.11 at 9:29 am

dr ngo, #293: IF we find enough data to establish a trend here (up, down, random, cyclical, whatever) we have actually learned something (!!) and can then return to the more subtle and difficult topic of “violence” taken broadly. IF that trend is, as Pinker and others suggest, generally downward – a person today is less likely to be killed by violence than s/he would have been in past centuries – we can try to interpret it.

The Star Chamber of the Pillory Pinker Party hereby assesss you five demerits, a rotten tomato, and three cabbages for violating the Basic Rule for Discussing Pinker: Thou shalt not be sensible.

Meanwhile ajay has just pointed out that Matt Yglesias has decided to read Pinker’s book. The Star Chamber of the PPP hereby recommends that Yglesias henceforth be banned from posting comments at CT. The ban, however, can be lifted if Yglesias completes the 30 day reeducation course at the Kamp Krusty Kollege for Elite Humanists.

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Alex 10.18.11 at 9:47 am

269: You do realise that there’s nothing actually wrong with optimism in itself? Can I wake up and feel cheerful without being accused of being Thomas Friedman?

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Henri Vieuxtemps 10.18.11 at 10:15 am

I think indeed something’s wrong with this sort of optimism, expressed by members of the elite.

Like Messrs. Pinker and Friedman, I’m also glad that these, beneficial for me, socioeconomic arrangements can be maintained (or it seems like they can be, anyway) without me having to actually kill anybody with my own hands. That the violence inherent in the system is sufficiently masked/legitimized by ‘certain institutions’ and obscured by ‘certain beliefs’.

But what’s the value of this sort of optimism, expressed by me and Mr. Pinker? I would prefer to hear from someone from the Bronx or South-Central L.A.

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Marcos 10.18.11 at 10:56 am

Not sure if someone posted this already (if that’s the case sorry), but as a substitute to the book, Pinker deploys the arguments here:
http://edge.org/conversation/mc2011-history-violence-pinker

Read this a while ago, and have been sitting on the sidelines here trying to grasp what’s going on. Can’t say I have arrived at it yet…

I haven’t read the book and don’t plan to, however, after reading the summary above, I tend to have the same feelings as actio @#15. Argument looks convincing, however data flaky (loved the spanking poll for relevance…). And reduced “violence” (introduce appropriate qualified term if you prefer) does not mean awful realities exist and the game should be picked up to eliminate those that we can.

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Guido Nius 10.18.11 at 11:23 am

303: don’t people in the Bronx get to vote in mayor elections? I guess we can now have a string of 300 posts why they don’t vote, or why their vote is not properly represented or why their voting pattern can be explained by the elites brainwashing them. On the other hand one might also consider that if most cities have in the last decades chosen to be on the more oppressive side of things that this is at least in part due to the electorate being somewhat inclined to think that this is not all together a bad idea.

Let us assume that the level of personal violence is down and that this is compensated for by more state violence, is that a bad evolution to have? Actually, I think things are better but even if they are not: I rather have my violence in an orderly way because it is easier to question the order than it is question somebody that hits me out of the blue just because he stands to gain from it.

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Walt 10.18.11 at 11:28 am

Is there a catchy Latin name for pre-emptively caricaturing your opponent’s position before someone has had a chance to advance it. If not, clearly there should be.

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Mordaunt 10.18.11 at 11:32 am

My complaints about Pinker’s thesis would be that recalibrating the death toll in c20th century terms is fairly meaningless. Nomadic horsemen swooping down off the steppe and sacking the cities of China was a real threat in Genghis Khan’s day. Nowadays, not so much. Also the global population, by definition, global, and therefore linking contingent local atrocities to it is fairly meaningless – presumably the An Lushan rebellion would have taken a smaller percentage of the world’s population, and therefore be further down the scale, had the plague of Justinian not wiped out half the population of Europe.

Furthermore, as Chris points out, the duration of the events in question varies massively. The Great Leap Forward and the Mongol Conquests both claimed 40m lives. One did so in four years, the other in 164. Surely the data suggests, if anything, that agrarian societies exist in a condition of continuing low level violence punctuated by spasms of more serious conflict whereas industrial societies exist in conditions of relative peaceability punctuated by episodes of massive violence.

Incidentally, Pinker doesn’t include the Congolese Civil War which, with a death toll of 5.4m over a decade or so seems to indicate that our species’ capacity for carnage has not significantly abated. Although, I guess that it has claimed a smaller percentage of world population than previous conflicts which will comfort Pinker, if not the Congolese.

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soru 10.18.11 at 12:00 pm

If one assumes some specific purpose or context (e.g. which policies—-presumably of a recognizably modern state—-would reduce violent crime; which would be a better place to live or visit, etc.), then of course we can make perfectly good comparative judgments about more or less violent places or times (assuming that the times at issue are more or less comparable).

I think this is kind of backwards. Something can be generally true without being politically useful in a particular context. You can only explain the problem with the general truth in terms of that specific context.

Certainly, the human world is a complicated enough place that any general statement, no matter how true, will have particular contexts, relevant to political struggle or choice, where emphasising that truth would be unhelpful or misleading.

For example, take the data on the violent mortality rates in tribal societies (popularised but not originated by Pinker), bring that up in the context of the recent treatment of such people by the Australian state, and you are likely to end up finding yourself on the unwise side of that argument.

Maybe that kind of thing, in some people’s experience, happens often enough that they are starting to develop a general aversion to true statements? So they counter with not a different proposed truth or theory, but a set of universal rhetorical strategies ( nobody knows nothing) that would apply equally to any and all such claims?

That certainly would explain how this thread is approaching the point where it’s a meaningful fraction of the length of book, without anyone so far owning up to having done more than skimmed it in a book store.

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Henri Vieuxtemps 10.18.11 at 12:03 pm

don’t people in the Bronx get to vote in mayor elections?

But so what? Pinker doesn’t live in the Bronx, and even if he did, those certain institutions and beliefs would prevent them from expropriating his stuff. They can vote, but they can’t vote themselves into the elite or even into the middle class, so how does it help?

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belle le triste 10.18.11 at 12:03 pm

Ashwin @24 says they read it, soru

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Henri Vieuxtemps 10.18.11 at 12:21 pm

Let us assume that the level of personal violence is down and that this is compensated for by more state violence, is that a bad evolution to have?

It’s certainly a good evolution to have for you and me and Pinker. But maybe not that good for this guy, who got 25 years to life for stealing one slice of pizza. Or maybe it is good even for him, what do I know.

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JP Stormcrow 10.18.11 at 12:21 pm

Walt@306: Is there a catchy Latin name for pre-emptively caricaturing your opponent’s position before someone has had a chance to advance it.

I think occupatio comes close, although some seem to define it more as just a form of paralipsis.

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soru 10.18.11 at 12:32 pm

@310: ah well, there’s another theory falsified.

Or maybe I can rescue it by claiming Ashwin is a statistical outlier?

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LFC 10.18.11 at 1:11 pm

Mordaunt @307:
Pinker doesn’t include the Congolese Civil War which, with a death toll of 5.4m over a decade or so seems to indicate that our species’ capacity for carnage has not significantly abated.
The Congo death toll figure of 5.4 million is WRONG. (How many times do I have to say this?)
From Winning the War on War (pp.253ff):

…the claim that 5.4 million people died as a result of the war in Congo since 1998 is way too high. One or two million would be much closer to the truth…. [p.261-62:] The IRC [International Rescue Committee] researchers arbitrarily used the average mortality rate for all of sub-Saharan Africa — 18 per thousand annually — as representing Congo’s rate before the war. But this is a very bad choice, because clearly Congo’s mortality rate was already much worse than the African average before the wars ever broke out in 1996. This is because Congo is much poorer than the average African country….In the World Bank’s recent listing of GDP per person in 210 countries, Congo ranked…last, with $280 per person per year…. The…GDP number for sub-Saharan Africa as a whole was $1,950… these income differences created high mortality in the Congo compared with sub-Saharan Africa as a whole….The researchers also extend the war deaths estimate forward year by year as the war itself recedes…. Their idea is that the war shocked the mortality rate up from the African average [which it was a mistake to use to begin with] to a high level, which has remained elevated ever since…. But this is not the case–Congo’s mortality rate was rising before the wars began in 1996 and falling after the war ended in 2003. The…indirect deaths that derive from the war would be those during the temporary additional rise in mortality during the war years themselves…. [L]ooking at the available…estimates, the total war deaths is clearly much more like 1-2 million than the claimed 5.4 million….

In short, the 5.4 million figure depends on: (1) underestimating the mortality rate in Congo before the war, and (2) overestimating the mortality rate during and after the war.

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Bill Benzon 10.18.11 at 2:07 pm

A review by a psychiatrist that’s favorable on the whole, but critical of the neuroscience:

http://www.wilsonquarterly.com/blog/index.cfm/Current_Books/2011/10/17/peace-on-earth

316

novakant 10.18.11 at 2:22 pm

The Congo death toll figure of 5.4 million is WRONG.

… is wrong

There is a debate about methodology and numbers between the IRC/Burnet Institute (authors of the study) and the HSRP (Human Security Report Project) – see e.g. here.

The fact that Goldstein chooses to side with the HSRP is hardly decisive and not surprising since the thesis of his book is that conflict casualties have gone down dramatically over the past decades, so of course a high death toll in Congo would be very inconvenient to him.

317

LFC 10.18.11 at 3:05 pm

novakant 316:
Ok, “is wrong” was perhaps too definitive.
I have only read the Goldstein side of the debate (which seems persuasive to me) but I should read the other side too.
Still, it is not the case that the 5.4 mill. figure is uncontested, which is what a lot of people seem to assume.

318

piglet 10.18.11 at 3:07 pm

novakant 316: more to the point, if scholars’ estimates of the death toll of a recent conflict differ by a factor of five, how well constrained does anybody think are estimates from centuries ago? As a methodological suggestion, maybe somebody can run a bunch of Monte Carlo simulations using the whole spectrum of estimates and then tabulate how often a statistically significant trend emerges.

Not that I really think this is worthwhile doing. I think the general flaw in the Pinkerian project, as I pointed out at 254, is that any attempt to link modernity with peacefulness has a hard time coming to terms with the modernity of modern violence. The Pinkerian (or Friedmanian or whatever) project is simply to deny the Dialectic of Enlightenment. And that is wrong and intellectually dangerous.

319

Salient 10.18.11 at 3:28 pm

As for the length of time, I personally wouldn’t bother with a span of a mere twenty years or so, but that is beside the point here.

Not sure it’s beside the point, it seems like that is the whole point: to say that the past 50 years have been ‘less violent’ than the previous 11,000 years, and then stipulate reasons why this is so. Your comment made a lot of sense to me, and convinced me (along with Kaveh) that that attempted definition of violence is worth abandoning. And as for the larger topic of discussion, I suspect we’re actually in nearly complete agreement, just emphasizing somewhat different things.

320

piglet 10.18.11 at 3:37 pm

“Let us assume that the level of personal violence is down and that this is compensated for by more state violence, is that a bad evolution to have?”

As Henri says, depends on who you ask. But first we’d have to agree what should count as state violence and apparently we can’t. I maintain that incarceration is clearly violence (even absent beatings). Incarceration is physical, it restrains bodily movement. It historically has replaced other violent forms of punishment like flogging (or gladiator games, as somebody mentioned). I see that one could make the argument that this represents a move from more to less violence. And one could make the opposite argument, or one could maintain that the wrong question is being asked. What is not intellectually honest, in my view, is to say: “I shall judge modernity by comparing modern violence with premodern violence but I’ll make sure to use a definition of violence that ignores the structural violence embedded in modern state power.”

The Pinkerian (or Whiggish) argument I am most suspicious of is the one that celebrates our purported intolerance of certain forms of cruelty (the burning cat example). As pointed out, the conquistadors and other colonialists used similar arguments to maintain their moral superiority over non-European cultures, painting them as cruel and backward while themselves inflicting far worse atrocities on the natives in the name of civilization. Any debate about modernity and violence that ignores this history is a grotesque failure.

321

bianca steele 10.18.11 at 4:30 pm

I may give my daughter Pinker’s book in about 15 years as a jumping-off point for a high school term paper, but I’m not about to read 800 pages of that right now. I have actually read Norbert Elias. The only detail that I remember is the rudeness in former times of failing to grope your female dinner partner.

322

Guido Nius 10.18.11 at 4:55 pm

311: even for that guy the difference is that he may argue his specific case and we may argue such cases in general with a hope of changing the rules e.g. via elections that are open to people outside the elite. If it would be a matter of tit for tat to be applied in the street, that guy could have been lynched. I assume we do not prefer lynching.

I frankly don’t understand what elites have to do with this however lousy they may be in many other matters. If anything the elites would be softer on crime afaics. It’s the popular vote in urban areas that has driven towards a tougher approach on crime. At least that is how it was in my city.

323

rf 10.18.11 at 5:19 pm

“though not as sad as if they give the remotest shred of credence to John Gray.”

“Well yes, Gray is a troll”

Whats everyones problem with John Gray? At times this site can resemble a 14 year olds diary, spitting abuse at everyone they disagree with

324

Henri Vieuxtemps 10.18.11 at 5:57 pm

@322,

Rules do change; via elections – it seems unlikely to me (because of certain institutions and beliefs), but somehow they do change. Sometimes for better, sometimes for worse. Lately it hasn’t been going well: some bad new wars, some bad new law.

I agree that most of the population in urban areas probably is in favor of a tougher approach on crime. But so what; that’s not here nor there. The issue is the existence of these areas, the conditions in these areas. Unless, of course, you believe that criminality there is not a product of the environment but a result of mentally defective individuals somehow gravitating to these areas.

325

piglet 10.18.11 at 6:15 pm

“If it would be a matter of tit for tat to be applied in the street, that guy could have been lynched.”

No. Lynching a thief is not tit for tat.

326

Guido Nius 10.18.11 at 6:47 pm

Yes, lately it hasn’t been going well and that for sure increased crime. But a general cause is not sufficient to explain an individual crime. If it were so that woumd be very unjust to the great many people suffering from the same general cause and not committing any individual crime. That said, it is sufficient to change the rules so as to avoid criminalizing people for petty crimes committed out of need, this is in my city also the change that is being made.

And no it is not tit for that, it is worse which is exactly why people favour taking violence from citizens and entrust it to the law. There is no violence more violent than constant threat of random application of violence, with no recourse but reciprocating with more violence.

327

Meredith 10.18.11 at 9:09 pm

Some random thoughts (but I think not irrelevant to this discussion):
Most legal systems distinguish killing from murder. Both are acts of “violence” by any definition I can imagine, but they are deemed profoundly different from one another.
The birth of a child is “violent” in a profound way.
Sex is “violent” in a profound way (and I’m not talking about rape here).
Maybe all language is an act of violence. (So it has been eloquently argued, though not by the kind of thinkers Pinker is likely to read.)
I vividly remember a conversation some years ago with a senior defensive lineman, sadly contemplating the football game he was about to play because it would be his last. He was just going to miss that collision, that smack (he punched his open left palm with his right fist). It was very sweet, really.
The erotics of violent encounters. I’m thinking especially of the Iliad, but also of opposing hoplite lines described by poets in language like “shield on shield, thigh on thigh.” There’s also the movie (I don’t know the book), Fight Club.
The word “kratos” in Greek, from which all those -cracies are formed, including Krugman’s recent “kvetchocracy” and including democracy: kratos is might, force, the power to inflict violence.
Back to the distinction between killing and murdering, made by a legal/social authority with its own kratos. There will be violence among human beings, and maybe (I’d say definitely, but there is certainly room to argue here) not all of it bad or even unpleasant. When it comes to many forms of violence (the forms people are most concerned with here), there should at least be accountability and proportionality (as determined by the norms of a particular time and place — as noted above, these change with time, vary from culture to culture). (Yeah, I’m back to wanting to locate discussions of violence, certainly of the Pinker-sort, in larger frameworks like legal, political, social systems.)

328

Peter Erwin 10.18.11 at 9:37 pm

js. @ 290:

… suppose ajay and others are right that incarceration/credible threats of violence, etc. are not in fact acts of violence.

Leaving aside the question of incarceration, it’s more than a little odd to claim that the threat of violence is the same thing as violence, when it rather obviously isn’t. The whole point of a threat of violence is the prospect, but not the actual existence, of violence. If the violence happens, there is no longer any threat.

Of course, it would be idiotic to then conclude that threats are irrelevant, or meaningless, or inconsequential. Saying that the only thing which matters in human history is violence is a (straw-man) position as silly as arguing that only the prevalence of disease matters. (A society without disease but with lots of [well-defined] violence is better or worse than a disease-ridden society with less violence: discuss.)

Most legal systems recognize a distinction between threats of violence and actual violence: threatening to burn down a store (or to kill someone) may well be a criminal act, but it is not exactly treated the same as actually burning down a store (or killing someone). Armed robbery is worse than simple theft because of the element of threat; but any actual violence that takes place during an armed robbery is a separate, additional crime.

329

LFC 10.18.11 at 10:13 pm

Meredith @327
I don’t know that it makes much sense to stretch “violence” to cover the spectrum from consensual contact that causes no physical harm to e.g. football (which can cause physical harm) to classical Greek warfare. If memory serves, there are some extremely gory passages in the Iliad; I’m glad I’m typing the words “hoplite line” in 2011 rather than marching in such a line in xxx BCE.

330

Bill Benzon 10.18.11 at 10:16 pm

From the good old Wikipedia:

The monopoly on violence (German: Gewaltmonopol des Staates) is the conception of the state expounded by Max Weber in Politics as a Vocation. According to Weber, the state is that entity which claims a monopoly on violence, which it may therefore elect to delegate as it sees fit. Weber’s conception of the state as holding a monopoly on violence has figured prominently in philosophy of law and political philosophy in the twentieth century.

331

Salient 10.18.11 at 10:17 pm

Leaving aside the question of incarceration, it’s more than a little odd to claim that the threat of violence is the same thing as violence, when it rather obviously isn’t.

I don’t see why these two things are not equivalent in context — remember, in context, we’re not discussing whether or not an individual act is violent; we’re discussing how to measure how violent a society is in a way that lets us compare the past 50 years to the previous 11,000 or so and get a meaningful result that doesn’t obfuscate critical aspects of society that would undermine our broad assertion about modern society. Much more specific, much more technical, and much harder to do. I did try to construct a definition of individual violence that would enable to this kind of aggregate analysis, contra my earlier statement that finding such a definition is intractable — perhaps that muddied the waters? — but even if my definition was a smashing success in context, thereby annihilating my previous point about applying the words ‘less’ and ‘more’ to multi-generation-aggregated violence, it would have been completely crazy of me to say my definition should, for example, be used to categorize types of burglary in a legal code.

That’s just not what we’re talking about–definitions of violence that don’t let us compare the past 50 years to the previous 11,000 are of course useful elsewhere, just not here. Certain finer-point distinctions that matter to how we denote or penalize individual acts just don’t apply in the sweeping-big picture.

332

Peter T 10.18.11 at 11:22 pm

It’s not even clear that pre-industrial war was less deadly than modern industrial war – although the latter is certainly faster. French deaths in the Revolutionary/Napoleonic wars are of the same order of magnitude as those in World War I, and it’s not hard to find plausible estimates of population losses due to war that rival or even exceed Soviet losses in World War II (over ten per cent of population). Some I have come across include the Elizabethan and Cromwellian campaigns in Ireland, Thirty Years War in Germany/Bohemia and the Mongol conquests of Iran and Georgia. We cannot, of course, get precise estimates, but the surviving evidence offers an order of magnitude.

Further to Meredith, a try at estimating trends in some more obvious forms of violence over time is not an exercise in moral philosophy, if only because the morality of violence has altered. A capacity for inflicting or enduring violence was often admired in past times.

333

Meredith 10.18.11 at 11:23 pm

LFC, I’m not for a moment suggesting that all these different forms or kinds of violence be conflated blithely. But I do mean to suggest that determining what makes them different from one another (while also keeping in mind how they do not differ) is important for evaluating any one or two forms.
Yes, very gory and violent passages in the Iliad. And they are inseparable from the poem’s acute appreciation of living and of life’s pleasures, of loving and being part of a network of social obligations and benefits. I don’t know how most hoplites of, say, the fifth century would have felt about typing the word hoplite as opposed to fighting as one! And that’s the problem (well, part of the problem) with ahistorical anaylsis and with moving too quickly to universal judgments.

334

soru 10.18.11 at 11:29 pm

The discussion of incarceration versus violence, and evaluation thereof, does seem pretty counter-factual. Claiming a trade-off exists may make for a more interesting moral discussion, with better opportunities for striking postures, but it has little else to recommend it. It’s all a bit trolleybus.

In the real world, when you compare the USA to peer states, it has both more violence and more incarceration. And in theory, other things being equal, greater violence will almost certainly cause greater incarceration, and very likely vice versa. And there are plenty of available polices that, given sufficient funding and moderate competence in execution, could be expected to reduce both.

They don’t get put into place, largely because the profit extractable from the difference in desirability of a minimum wage job and jail is greater than that between the same job and welfare.

335

Kaveh 10.19.11 at 12:28 am

Salient @331, I don’t think it’s a bad idea to define violence, I just think it was being approached in the wrong way. Comparing the last 50 years to the previous 11k is silly, but smaller though still very large comparisons, like between C15-19 and C9-14, or 1900-1950 and 1950-2010, or between the Atlantic slave trade and the Mediterranean/Indian Ocean slave trade[1] are not so crazy and they seem to want definitions of violence.

fn 1 The term “Arab slave trade” puzzles me (well, no, it doesn’t, I can see why certain people would like it). I’m not clear on how the slave trade in the Islamic period differed from the slave trade that existed in Byzantine and Roman times, but I’m at least not aware of evidence practices of slavery in the Islamic period weren’t largely a continuation of earlier institutions (the trade routes, markets, uses of slaves, number enslaved, &c.), with the exception that a new cultural and legal regime came to be governing the whole thing. I also haven’t seen any good justification for the term “Arab slave trade” or “Islamic slave trade” as distinct from Medieval European Christian practices of slavery before 1500.

336

js. 10.19.11 at 12:33 am

@334.

Sure, I guess I agree with pretty much everything here. My last post was responding to specific a thesis (Pinker’s thesis, which this thread was nominally supposed to be about, I thought), and various posts that seemed to providing partial defenses of this thesis.

If you leave all this out, it will no doubt seem trolley case-ish.

337

soru 10.19.11 at 1:52 am

@336

As far as I can tell from reviews, not having, you know, read the book, Pinker’s thesis is that the high incarceration rate is:

1. an example that low violence isn’t an unambiguous good

2. a consequence of ‘police bigotry and indifference, and laws that (unsuccessfully) attempt to make up for inconsistent or arbitrary application by simply becoming harsher’

Which I don’t see any great problem with. It’s just he uses words like ‘ghetto’ and ‘civilised’, and makes positive statement about how things are, with both graphs and vivid examples. As opposed to limited contingent statements about how things might be correlated between ethnic, occupational or perhaps demographic categories, though on the other hand we don’t really know.

338

John Quiggin 10.19.11 at 2:28 am

But Novakant, what is the point of quibbling about the numbers for the Congo, when (@228) you’re just going to ignore the numbers in the end anyway? Why not stick to the claim that as long as some people are dying, violence can’t be declining?

339

Alex 10.19.11 at 11:12 am

A review.

Even taking into account the extremity of the 20th century’s world wars, genocides (including the Holocaust), ethnic cleansing campaigns, and war-related diseases and famines, which marked a genuine uptick in the otherwise downward historical trend in the rate of violent death, a conservative estimate puts deaths from these human causes at just three percent of the deaths in the 20th century.

Why won’t Pinker include deaths by war-related famine or disease? eh? Eh?

In prehistoric hunter- gather societies, Pinker observes, roughly 15 percent of people came to violent ends. Several conflicts of the distant past took a proportionately greater toll on the global population than the world wars, including the Mongol conquests of the 13th century and the An Lushan Revolt in the eighth century during China’s Tang dynasty, in which 36 million people (two-thirds of the Chinese Empire’s population) died

Why won’t Pinker discuss anything outside Europe? Eh? Eh?

340

piglet 10.19.11 at 4:05 pm

But JQ 338, if you admit having no knowledge of and no evidence about violence in pre-colonial Congo (see 184), why make claims? Si tacuisses.

Alex 339, the claim about prehistoric hunter-gather societies is highly contentious at best. Again see http://scienceblogs.com/gregladen/2011/09/pinkers_new_book_has_a_fundame.php.

“Several conflicts of the distant past took a proportionately greater toll on the global population than the world wars” – even if true, that is not sufficient to establish a long term trend.

Peter 332: this and other posts raise the question what the frame of reference is. C20 compared to C17? C16-20 compared to C11-15? The last 50 years compared to the preceding 11,000 years? Some of the examples you give – Cromwellian campaigns in Ireland, Thirty Years War – are preindustrial but not premodern. That is relevant. If the thesis is one of a long term trend toward less violence due to civilizational progress, it should give us at least a little bit of pause to observe that our current level of civilization was heralded by some of the most savage butcheries in history. And the observation that *not all* savage butcheries are modern (look, the 8th century An Lushan revolt was unimaginably terrible if we can trust 8th century census figures) is hardly a convincing argument in favor of Pinker.

341

Kaveh 10.19.11 at 4:37 pm

I think that figure for the An Lushan revolt is extremely overstated, and if Pinker takes it as given, that’s really not to his credit. For one thing, that discrepancy in census counts will include most people who became refugees, who (obviously) did not die or even suffer direct physical violence. There’s good evidence that both An Lushan and the Mongol conquests resulted in a lot of refugees colonizing land south of the Yangtze (which by 1500 was the most urbanized, cultivated part of the country, but in 1100 was still considered kind of a backwater). For another, it also reflects a degradation of the state’s census-taking capability. Households wanted to avoid the census, because that meant they could avoid taxes and corvee labor responsibilities, so a decline in the government’s ability to count effectively combined with a huge refugee situation… And for the 100+ years the Tang dynasty lasted after the rebellion, it had much less control over policy in the provinces–a lot more policy was determined at the provincial level. That greater independence is a main reason for the economic explosion in southern China that led to the mini-industrial revolution during the Song period and the precipitous rise in Chinese maritime activity. So that suggests their census-taking capability was likewise greatly diminished.

342

ajay 10.19.11 at 4:48 pm

If the thesis is one of a long term trend toward less violence due to civilizational progress, it should give us at least a little bit of pause to observe that our current level of civilization was heralded by some of the most savage butcheries in history.

Or not. To take an analogy, you’d expect to see a lot of progress in firefighting in the immediate aftermath of the Great Fire of London. If there’s ever a bird flu pandemic, I reckon there will be a lot of improvements in flu vaccines and treatments in the years immediately after it. Why shouldn’t civilisational progress towards nonviolence be strongest immediately after a terrible outbreak of violence? The UN was devised during the bloodiest war in history.

343

Henri Vieuxtemps 10.19.11 at 5:02 pm

I can see why civilizations would progress towards a better firefighting, but why nonviolence would be a goal is not clear.

As long as hierarchical structures persist, and I don’t see any movement towards abolishing them, violence is the tool, indispensable tool. Methods evolve, the essence is the same.

344

lemmy caution 10.19.11 at 5:56 pm

“By the early 1990s Americans had gotten sick of the muggers, vandals and drive-by shootings.”

If you read this section of his book he goes on to say that the US imprisons “far too many people” with a disproportionate impact on African-Americans:

http://tinyurl.com/3fmha48

Pinker has a whig view of history but it isn’t one that puts Texas on the top:

http://edge.org/conversation.php?cid=mc2011-history-violence-pinker

LEDA COSMIDES: Right, I think that’s the claim. But the real question I
had was about the cosmopolitanism, because I’m puzzled by that in a
certain sense. It almost sounds, like “come be an undergraduate and
everything is going to be okay.” I’m wondering if that is a real factor
that’s contributing to this. It must be driven a lot by popular culture
because you don’t have massive numbers of people reading Proust and etc.

STEVEN PINKER: It’s a rising tide that lifts all the boats. It sounds
elitist to say this, but attitudes toward women, homosexuals, and racial
minorities, and the tolerant attitudes that we celebrate of not beating
up your kids, tend to start among the most educated strata, and you
can see the rest of the country being dragged behind. With a lot of
these statistics, the red states today have attitudes that the blue
states had 30 years ago—toward women, towards spanking, towards
homosexuals, towards animal rights, and so on.

What starts out at the universities and the pundits can trickle down
and become conventional wisdom. That probably happens worldwide as well.
This is another thing I’ll probably get flak for saying, but very
roughly you can see a continuum in the world in a lot of variables
related to the decline of violence: Western Europe, then the American
blue states, then the American red states, then Latin America and Asian
democracies, and the Islamic world and Africa pulling up the rear. We
can look, say, at the criminalization of homosexuality in Africa, or
human trafficking, and say the world is in a terrible state, which of
course it is. But the historical trend is that the other parts of the
world eventually catch up. Slavery is a concrete example: just fifty
years ago, slavery was still legal in Saudi Arabia.

345

piglet 10.19.11 at 8:17 pm

Thanks for the quote lemme caution 344 because it makes the problem with Pinker’s Whiggish views so obvious:

Panglossians very much like Pinker espoused very similar views ca. 100 years ago. They were equally convinced that civilizational progress was marching in the right direction. Hadn’t slavery in America been abolished just 50 years earlier, and Jewish emancipation achieved in Germany just recently? Hadn’t theirs been an epoch of unprecedented peace (when conveniently overlooking the colonial butcheries going on in Africa and Asia), hadn’t warfare become relatively less violent compared to the Dark Ages, hadn’t the Red Cross humanized international conflict? Wasn’t it obvious to anybody that there was a continuum in civilizational progress in which Western Europe undoubtedly marked the top?

It’s a nice, soothing, heartwarming vision. Maybe this time it’s not completely wrong.

346

Kaveh 10.20.11 at 12:30 am

I like how 5 billion out of the world’s 6 billion people are “bringing up the rear”.

347

Hidari 10.20.11 at 7:51 pm

‘It’s a nice, soothing, heartwarming vision. Maybe this time it’s not completely wrong.’

Yeah but it probably is. Let’s face it (and I hope I’m wrong about this) at the time of writing, it seems that no one has any intention of doing anything, whatsoever, about AGW. Or the other horrendous environmental catastrophes that face us in about 20/30 years time. Or about the spiralling gap between rich and poor which cannot help but lead to violence (cf the rise of the Nazis, world war 2, what’s happening right now in Greece (or, arguably, Libya)).

In any case, it would be interesting for someone to actually, like, read Pinker’s book. My own feeling is that it’s impossible, in the absence of a time machine, to work out precise tallies of deaths in so-called ‘hunter-gatherer’ societies, let alone work out whether or not the (frankly incredible) death tolls attributed to Genghis Khan etc. bear any relationship to reality. Since these numbers are essentially unknowable, Pinker’s thesis is essentially unprovable.

Incidentally, interesting ‘fact’ from that New Yorker review I linked to at the top of the comments thread. Alert readers might be interested in colonialism, and the problems this poses for Pinker’s thesis.

According to the New Yorker there isn’t even an entry for colonialism in the index.

348

Bill Barnes 10.20.11 at 8:10 pm

347
Hidari 10.20.11 at 7:51 pm
‘It’s a nice, soothing, heartwarming vision. Maybe this time it’s not completely wrong.’

Yeah but it probably is. Let’s face it (and I hope I’m wrong about this) at the time of writing, it seems that no one has any intention of doing anything, whatsoever, about AGW. Or the other horrendous environmental catastrophes that face us in about 20/30 years time. Or about the spiralling gap between rich and poor which cannot help but lead to violence

See 273 above

349

lemmy caution 10.21.11 at 12:45 am

“Incidentally, interesting ‘fact’ from that New Yorker review I linked to at the top of the comments thread. Alert readers might be interested in colonialism, and the problems this poses for Pinker’s thesis. According to the New Yorker there isn’t even an entry for colonialism in the index.”

He discusses the death toll of pre-twentieth century genocides, including colonial genocides here:

http://tinyurl.com/66lb4p6

350

Hidari 10.21.11 at 7:32 am

351

piglet 10.21.11 at 3:34 pm

Horror. I agree with Ross Douthat (at least his point 1) and maybe even with Tyler Cowen. Is this a setup?

352

Bill Benzon 10.21.11 at 4:58 pm

Yes,it’s a set-up. The bus will swing by your place tomorrow at 6AM to transport you to the Kamp Krusty Kollege of Higher Hermeneutics and Deep Insight for a 10-day refresher course in Fundamental Truth. You should bring your own toothbrush, toothpaste, soap, and shampoo.

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