Skip to main content

Psychologist Steven Pinker.Max S. Gerber

In a violent world, Steven Pinker is bound to stand out – precisely because he rejects the prevailing view that this is a violent world. In his optimistic and contrarian book The Better Angels of Our Nature, the 58-year-old, Montreal-born Harvard University psychologist presents a compelling argument from history that violence is in steep decline, and that the human species has never had it so good. On Tuesday, he will bring his unfashionably comforting perspective to the Grano Speaker Series in Toronto, in a talk titled A History of Violence – a subject he addressed with calm consideration in an interview with The Globe and Mail.

You describe a world that is much less violent than the one we experience. Where does this disconnection come from?

If you get your impression of the state of the world from the news, you're going to be misled. Because news is about stuff that happens, not stuff that doesn't happen. As long as rates of violence don't fall to zero, which they never will, there are always enough individual incidents to fill the evening news. It's the policy of the news business to focus on mayhem and gore and things blowing up. When you combine that with the fact that the human mind doesn't naturally do statistics well – we're more impressed by vivid anecdotes – then you get a systematically misleading impression of how violent the world is.

You're at Harvard – what kind of perspective do you have on the Boston bombings?

Terrorist bombings, like rampage shootings, are events that maximize the amount of publicity per amount of damage. That's why people do them, because they know they will set off a media frenzy. But in terms of the probability of dying in a violent act, both terrorism and shootings are quite minor causes. In the United States every day, more than 40 people are killed in acts of violence, which overshadows the casualties in a terrorist attack like the Boston bombing. But the media don't dwell on the 40 people across the country that are killed each day – instead, you get round-the-clock coverage of an event that is flamboyant and seemingly inexplicable.

Your critics point out that there has been vast amount of carnage in the modern world.

That's true, but there were a lot of deaths in other centuries too. In the 19th century, there was the Taiping Rebellion in China, which killed 20 million people, the Napoleonic wars, the conquests of Shaka. In prior centuries, there were the Mongol invasions, the Crusades.

The past as you describe it was certainly more accepting of casual, everyday violence.

You can be reading a quite innocuous history of Shakespeare's time and as an aside they mention that Catholics had to worry about being publicly disembowelled. How could this be? We don't necessarily empathize with every living thing on Earth. We care about our children, our friends, our loved ones and allies. People outside our natural circle are very easily dehumanized. We have to acquire the ability to expand the circle of empathy so that we can embrace people who are not naturally our allies or close relatives or other elicitors of sympathy like cute baby animals.

Among the factors you cite for the decline of violence is the rise of strong central government – an institution we don't often think of as promoting empathy.

The violence of anarchy is on the whole worse than the violence of tyranny – look at failed states, the American Wild West, contraband economies where you can't bring government in because the nature of your business is illegal in the first place. So your only defence against exploitation is the credible threat to defend yourself with violence. The quest for viable democratic government is an attempt to get the advantages of the state without the disadvantages – you cede just enough force to the Leviathan to deter people from preying on other people without giving it so much power that it will prey on people itself. And if you know government is deterring your neighbours and enemies from committing outright aggression and exploitation, you are less inclined to engage in pre-emptive attacks. And you don't have to act so tough and belligerent that other people don't want to mess with you.

Speaking of acting belligerent, what do you make of the Canadian passion for hockey violence?

We almost certainly evolved in a world of high levels of violence – no one could afford to be indifferent to it, how it works, what causes it, how to handle yourself, the strategies of threat and bluff and alliance. So there's a lot for us to learn.

You make a hockey game sound like a self-help seminar. Whereas I see bloodlust, something I thought we were eradicating.

The question I'm asking is why this taste or drive evolved in the first place. The acquisition of information about violence may be the explanation of why we find violence entertaining without it having to be true. We really are creatures of a violent world, biologically speaking – watching violence and learning about it is one of our cognitive drives. We can make fun of hockey fans, but someone who enjoys Homer is indulging the same kind of vicarious bloodlust.

What's the future of violence – are you optimistic about its continued decline?

It's a limited progress narrative, not a mystical arc of justice or utopia. It's just the same kind of progress that leads us to live longer, talk on the phone more cheaply, enjoy cheaper air travel. It's hard to solve violence all at once, but we come up with things that lower its frequency.

I wonder if we're being too optimistic and not recognizing the persistence of violence because it has been detached from our direct experience – state torture that goes on behind closed doors or drone strikes that happen at a safe distance.

The whole point of the drone is to wipe out the bad guy while causing as few additional deaths as possible. Compared to old-fashioned search-and-destroy missions or bombardment, drones are a way to minimize violence to the least amount necessary. The number of deaths is tiny, yet there's been a vast amount of debate on drones.

So even if violent deaths have been reduced, we still feed our anxiety about the presence of violence. I remember you talking about bullying and saying that 20 years ago this used to be called childhood.

If we're more sensitive to violence, that's a progressive development. But it also distorts our sense of progress, because we've become more expansive in what we count as violence. We think there's more of it simply because we're more sensitive to it.

What do you make of politicians who feed off that sensitivity and target violence in our society even as you say it's declining?

I know that's been an issue in Canada. Several generations of U.S. government got elected on law-and-order platforms, but they weren't hallucinating a trend the way it's happening in Canada now. Government policy should be evidence-driven. If crime is going down, you shouldn't be increasing resources for crime prevention. Or you should be taking note of what has worked and concentrate the crime-prevention methods on policies that have a track record of success.