Eins og ég hef áður minnst á, þá er ég um þessar mundir að lesa The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined eftir þróunarsálfræðinginn Steven Pinker. Ég er enn að vinna að umfjöllun minni um bókina -- og faktískt enn að lesa hana -- þannig að umfjöllunin sjálf verður að bíða þar til aflestri lýkur, vonandi í næstu viku.
Í dag átti ég hins vegar mjög áhugaverð tölvupóstssamskipti við enskumælandi vin minn um kenningu bókarinnar: að ofbeldi hafi farið snarminnkandi, í heiminum öllum, en sérstaklega í Evrópu og Norður-Ameríku, frá og með byrjun nýaldar. Hér er útdráttur úr einu tölvuskeytinu sem ég sendi fyrr í dag, þegar við vorum að deila um hvort ofbeldi í heiminum hefði í raun minnkað eða ekki:
To me, it is obvious that when a much smaller proportion of people is killed violently in war, the world is a less violent place, -- unless the large-scale violence previously manifested in warfare reappears in other forms (e.g. the use of violent state power against citizens).
Nobody, not me, not Pinker, is arguing that the world isn't a violent place. The question at hand is whether it is more or less violent than previously, and by how much. Violence is a difficult thing to measure, especially since no official statistics exist for the many forms of violence that are perpetuated daily. However, the death count in developed countries is something tangible, something we can measure, and it tells a striking story of decline in violent death.
Regarding the measurement of "violence", an abstract concept, *of course* violence is a complex combination of things and can't be measured directly. But does that mean we can't say anything about it, can't do *any* research on it, can't acquire *some* understanding of it through social science? That, to my mind, is obviously wrong. Even if we can only see vague social indicators in one direction or another, it's still something amenable to study and research, something to build tentative conclusions on pending further available information.
Violent death is just one metric of overall violence, true enough, but I'd say it's a pretty important one. Murder is one of the worst kinds of violence that exists. It takes everything away from a human being. It destroys their consciousness and reduces them to inanimate physical matter.
Even assuming that the level of "rape, beatings, torture, threats, scaring people into silence and enslavement" had stayed constant in the past 500 years, the decrease in violent death alone is an important indicator of improvement in how our societies are organized.
Also, "something you have rarely experienced in your sheltered life" is a cheap ad hominem argument. I may lead a sheltered life, and I may not understand the true horror of brutish violence, having never been subjected to it, but I don't see how this has anything to do with my analysis (or Pinker's, for that matter) of whether the world is a less violent place than previously. First-hand experience of violence does not make somebody into an expert on this complicated question, which can only be answered with measurable facts about the world.
I agree that killing someone is just one of many aspects of violence. However, the murder statistics correlate quite strongly with other forms of violence, e.g. assault and rape, at least in those countries where any statistics are available at all. Countries with fewer murders tend to have less of other forms of physical violence as well. So a murder rate can be a good indicator of overall violence, even if it is just one benchmark.
You say that "a decrease in violence by death simply means that people have found better methods, more hidden and secretive of destroying other people and exploiting them."
This, to me, is equivalent to saying "Yeah, the statistics tell one story, but there are hidden forces we can't measure and don't know about out there." Now, I certainly don't deny that other forms of control, exploitation and subjugation are present, and that many of them are hidden, secretive, and, indeed, violent. They exist, and they are a great evil, something to fight against perpetually. But I do think they are on another level, both in terms of sheer quantity and in terms of social acceptance, than the ubiquitous violence of past ages, which permeated all of society and was acceptable and, indeed, normal to the population at large. I may not have much personal experience with violence, but I am an historian, and I have *read* a great deal about it. To my mind, in order to evaluate whether violence has declined, one needs to have a fairly good understanding of the world as it was just a few hundred years ago. You may understand the horror of violence more personally than I do, but I do know history. Bear with me for a bit:
Until the early modern period, Europe was a STAGGERINGLY cruel and violent place, where people -- including children -- were routinely tortured, executed and flogged, frequently as public spectacles for the frenzied mob, which of course enjoyed every minute of it. Every single human being in society -- even members of the upper classes -- experienced regular beatings at the hands of their elders or social superiors. Torture was commonplace in the administration of justice. Execution was the punishment for most crimes, especially trivial transgressions that infringed on the rights of the elites. Other punishments included amputation, or being "drawn and quartered" or "broken on the wheel". You can look up these routine medieval punishments on Google for the grisly details of unspeakable horrors -- their sheer monstrosity sends a shiver down one's spine. On top of that, warfare was incessant. A young man could expect to be forcibly enlisted into an army against his will, where he would spend his time getting flogged and beaten by his superiors, or out in the field fighting and killing people, and then pillaging and sacking entire cities, raping the women and murdering their children, before putting everything to the torch. These weren't isolated incidents, or occasional bouts of carnage, but the stuff which medieval life was made of. Now, you can say a lot of bad things about the state of the world today, but the only places in the world where such things are routine any more are those countries that are in an effective state of anarchy, where the rule of law and order has broken down. Even the manifold cruelties of US capital punishment, or the relatively frequent executions in modern-day China, are a mere shadow of Europe's medieval past, both in terms of quantity and in how they are administered.
In the West today, most people are appalled by the application of Sharia law, where women are stoned in Muslim countries for minor offences. But a few hundred years ago, we were persecuting and murdering people with equal cruelty, with equally ignorant religious fanaticism, torturing and burning witches by the hundreds of thousands. The very fact that most people in the West today consider this barbarism, and are appalled by it, shows that the public culture in these countries -- and in other countries that have walked the road to economic prosperity -- has changed to an extraordinary degree, and quite clearly for the better. Exploitation and manipulation of human beings is a great evil, but it is definitely a greater evil when it is maintained by violence instead of bribes or economic pressures.
I have no illusions about Western moral superiority. Nor do I believe that human beings have improved morally over time (whatever that would even mean). However, I believe that changing technology and economic circumstances have nudged developed (and developing) societies in a direction of less violence, a turn which can be quite well explained in terms of economics and the self-interest of the capital-owning elites, rather than the naive "people have become nicer" explanation, which obviously doesn't hold water. The population of the West is kept in line, kept obedient, not with harsh violent punishment, but with bribes in the form of consumer goods. The Western countries exert control over a very large part of the world, but most of it is indirect. The West's exploitation and methods of subjugating other countries have become largely non-violent (in terms of warfare), mostly thanks to the fact that violence has (through a set of complicated historical circumstances) become an inefficient method of expanding influence and control. Poor countries in the 3rd world are usually kept in line using sanctions or other forms of economic coercion. No empire ever controlled as large a part of the world using as little violence as the United States. That is a historical fact which simply cannot be written off.
I agree that Pinker can be glib and superficial in his discussions -- for example, his book does not discuss the "all-but-slavery" lives of people in places like Indonesia -- but he is definitely on to something with his book on violence, and that is what I plan to write in my upcoming review of it. His fundamental insight is correct -- we live in less violent times than ever before.
That being said, I think the reason why many people I discuss this with refuse to acknowledge it may be traced to the assumption that acknowledging it is somehow equivalent to saying "everything is just fine with the world" or "the world is not a violent place." That is definitely not what I am saying. I am saying that things are as they are -- that is to say, pretty bad -- but until very recently, they used to be much, much worse.
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