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Why Violence has Declined

I get raised eyebrows and harumphs of disagreement when I mention this book, but Steven Pinker, Harvard professor and author, makes compelling arguments that violence is declining worldwide, and he backs them up with a trove of statistics and analysis in The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence has Declined.


Granted, his timeframe starts in the Paleolithic, and the book was published in 2011 before the hate-filled debacle of the Trump years, but he has a point: "for most of history, war, slavery, infanticide, child abuse, assassinations, pogroms, gruesome punishments, deadly quarrels, and genocide were ordinary features of life."


Pinker not only proves that these conditions are declining but explains why and when.



Why: Pinke identifies several historical forces.

1.     The changing role of government: "Instead of thinking of government as the local franchise of God's rule over his kingdom, people began to think of a government as a gadget invented by humans for the purpose of enhancing their collective welfare." This reduced tolerance for governmental violence against its citizens. The state and judiciary having a monopoly on the legitimate use of force" reduces intrastate violence, he says. And finally, he says, "Democracy… would turn out to be one of the greatest violence-reduction technologies since the appearance of government itself." 

2.     Commerce: Because they could become customers, "other people become more valuable alive than dead, and they are less likely to become targets of demonization and dehumanization."

3.     Feminization: "is the process in which cultures have increasingly respected the interests and values of women. Since violence is largely a male pastime, cultures that empower women move away from the glorification of violence.

4.     Reduction in the power of religion which allowed a shift from valuing souls to valuing lives.

5.     Cosmopolitanism "such as literacy, mobility and mass media can prompt people to take the perspective of people unlike themselves and to expand their circle of sympathy to embrace them.




When: He defines six major eras.

1.     The Pacification Process. This "took place on the scale of millennia" and was the "transition from the anarchy of the hunting, gathering, and horticultural societies … to the first agricultural civilizations with cities and governments, beginning around 5,000 years ago. With that change came a reduction in the chronic raiding and feuding that characterized life in a state of nature and a more or less fivefold decrease in rates of violent death. 

2.     The Civilizing Process. Between the late Middle Ages and the 20th century, European countries saw a tenfold to 50-fold decline in their rates of homicide…due to the consolidation of a patchwork of feudal territories into large kingdoms with centralized authority and an infrastructure of commerce." 

3.     The Humanitarian Revolution. "The third transition unfolded on the scale of centuries and took off around the time of the Age of Reason and the European Enlightenment in the 17th and 18th centuries (though it had antecedents in Classical Greece and the Renaissance, and parallels elsewhere in the world.) It saw the first organized movements to abolish socially sanctioned forms of violence like despotism, slavery, dueling, judicial torture, superstitious killing, sadistic punishment, and cruelty to animals, together with the first stirrings of systematic pacifism." He calls the humanitarian revolution one of humanity's proudest achievements.

4.     The Long Peace. "The fourth major transition took place after the end of World War Two. The 2/3 of a century since then have been witness to a historically unprecedented development: the great powers, and developed states in general, have stopped waging war on one another. Historians have called this blessed state of affairs The Long Peace." 

5.     The New Peace. "Though it may be hard for news readers to believe, since the end of the Cold War in 1989, organized conflicts of all kinds-- civil wars, genocides, repression by autocratic governments, and terrorist attacks -- have declined throughout the world. In recognition of the tentative nature of this happy development, I will call it The New Peace."

6.     The Rights Revolution: "Finally, the post war era, symbolically inaugurated by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948, has seen a growing revulsion against aggression on smaller scales, including violence against ethnic minorities, women, children, homosexuals, and animals." 


It's an enormous book: 900 pages in print and 1,400 in an eBook, and I have more than 6,000 words of notes though I am only 700 pages into it.


Stay tuned for other surprising insights from Pinker.


And for additional optimistic musings, check out my blog post:

"Is Optimism a Progressive Stance?"


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