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The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined, by Steven Pinker

An American infantryman, his buddy killed in action in the Korean War, weeps on the shoulder of another GI somewhere in Korea, in this Aug. 28, 1950 file photo.

AP/Al Chang

Assuming the mantle of modernity's cheerleader, Steven Pinker's new work on violence, and its apparent decline in the past 50 years, asserts that we are in is the most peaceable era of our species' existence, and that this is evident whether we are waging wars or spanking housewives and children. For Pinker, daily existence now is very different from a past in which "you always have to worry about being abducted, raped or killed." No matter that these remain precisely many people's fears, the revelations of science and statistics will show you how mistaken you are.

For Pinker, then, modernity is an erosion of family, tribe, tradition and religion by the forces of individualism, cosmopolitanism, reason and science that has been taking place progressively since the 17th century, at least in North America and Europe. The "decline in violence" is actually strictly limited to the West, and so, too, is what Pinker considers "violence," principally "homicide" and deaths in military combat.

Pinker – whose previous works include How the Mind Works and The Blank Slate – is a cognitive psychologist, so the emphasis of his analysis, and the rationale behind his breathless rhetorical claims, is the idea that how we see our world, "as a nightmare … or [as]blessed by … peaceful coexistence," is all a matter of perception. In order to dispel the folk illusions derived from our daily experience, a presentation of the "arithmetic trends in violence" is needed so that our faith in "the civilizing process" can be restored. The "disconnect between perception of violence and its actual incidence" is so counterintuitive, as Pinker triumphantly proclaims, that it requires no less than this "big book" to overwhelm our doubts.

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However, Pinker uses a very questionable definition of violence and, in dismissing our perception of violence as irrelevant, completely overlooks the fact that reporting and representations of violence are not just "about" violence but are actually part of it. He characterizes media coverage as: "If it bleeds, it leads," but this fact actually tells us a lot about how important violence is to our society, not that it is illusory.

There may well have been, as Pinker argues, a decline in attitudes that tolerate or glorify violence of certain kinds, but it does not follow that "by standards of the mass atrocities in human history, the lethal injection of a murderer in Texas, or an occasional hate crime … is pretty mild stuff." This flippant attitude assumes we can compare suffering (or happiness) across time and culture without reference to the meaning such conditions have for those times and places.

Although "quantification" for Pinker is a corrective to people's mistaken perceptions, in fact, many people might feel, for example, that the incarceration and execution rates for young black males in the United States today do constitute a form of "mass atrocity." As a result, forms of violence that may be structural, not just "interpersonal" and the tempo of violence, whether singular acts of killing or cumulative processes of immiseration, are no less important to consider. Nonetheless, Pinker completely ignores them.Pinker's approach is to explain the decline he identifies not as a coincidence of statistical trends, but as a change in psychology and history in which the "better angels of our nature" (one of Abraham Lincoln's memorable phrases) now have the upper hand, thanks to the civilizing processes of Western modernity.

The structure of the book's argument is to follow homicide rates for six key historical moments: the transition from the "anarchy" of hunter-gatherer societies to the first agricultural states and governments c. 5,000 BC; the period from the 15th to the 20th century and its changing "homicide" rates; the parallel advent of the Enlightenment, bringing humanitarian values; the "Long Peace" after the Second World War, with no wars involving Western sovereign states; and, since the 1980s, a "New Peace," in which civil war, genocide and terrorist attacks decline in the West. Last, another Enlightenment-style "Rights Revolution" is under way for animals, women, children and gays.

As an evolutionary psychologist, Pinker is committed to the notion that inner demons – instrumental violence, dominance, revenge, sadism, ideology – and better angels – self-control, empathy, moral sense, reason – are a permanent legacy of "human nature." Fortunately, the Hobbesian Leviathan of the State, the benefits of commerce, the feminization of political process and the good old application of knowledge and rationality have served to undergird an unstoppable progress toward the civilizing of that flawed human nature.

Thus, The Better Angels of Our Nature is both a factual claim about "violence statistics" and a theoretical claim about those statistics. Those theoretical claims are nothing new and have been extensively discredited by social scientists, although Pinker engages none of that literature.

Moreover, the statistics he advances are problematic in any number of ways. For example, the trumpeted decline in the percentage of deaths in warfare rather naively aggregates estimates from such a disparate set of examples that little credence can be given to the neat set of bar charts and graphic lines that decorate the text. Not only are numbers notoriously difficult to establish accurately in periods before the 20th century, as Pinker quietly admits, but deaths in wars were only partly due to direct homicidal violence. In the past at least, as many died of disease and untreated wounds.

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The contemporary equivalent of this could be seen as the relation between combat deaths and injuries such as post-traumatic stress disorder, which, as a psychologist, Pinker should realize are a significant component of the violence of war even though they are not "homicides." Likewise, anthropologists have long accepted that modern tribal populations have been deeply affected by the violence of colonialism and so cannot stand as ciphers for past societies or the state of nature that Pinker's Hobbesian fantasy requires.

Another significant example of this failure to think through what "violence" actually is becomes evident in the discussion of torture, paradoxically enjoying something of revival. While the Grand Guignol of medieval torture may no longer be with us, the use of torture has not abated. Pinker's timeline for the abolition of judicial torture thus overlooks how extra-juridical "touchless" torture, enhanced interrogation and rendition are a persistent feature of the post-Second World Wart world. Similarly, although incarceration may have supplanted bodily mutilation and execution, it remains a violence nonetheless.

Even if all Pinker says were true, this would not lessen one jot the need to deal with serious violent problems that beset even the pacified West. Indeed, self-congratulation seems premature, even grotesque, as we in the West cling to a well-armed life raft, adrift in a sea of poverty, environmental degradation, joblessness, homelessness, economic inequity and terrorist rage. But "sneering" at the Enlightenment and its contemporary legacies is apparently simply "ingratitude' on the part of liberals, though I cannot see that this book will do much to change that.

Neil L. Whitehead is professor and chairman of the department of anthropology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He is the author of numerous works on the anthropology and history of violence, warfare and colonialism, with particular reference to the Caribbean and South America,.

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