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The Better Angels of Our Nature—Why Violence Has Declined

by Steven Pinker

Viking | 2011

Reviewed by Jane M McCabe

I was mad at Dr. Steven Pinker for having written such a long book—696 pages of text, 40 pages of 8 point footnotes, 32 pages of 8 point references and an index 29 pages long! Talk about a weighty tome. I couldn’t lie in bed and hold it on my chest.

I can’t deny, however, that Dr. Pinker presents a convincing argument that violence has declined in the modern world. In the past things were much worse—during the Roman Empire and Spanish Inquisition, with their auto-de-fe’s, people enjoyed watching others being tortured and killed as a form of entertainment.

He believes that we live in the most peaceable era ever, that we’ve lost our taste for war and violence, and for all the horrific tortures that marked previous times.

A combination of reasons account for the decline:

To what movements does Dr. Pinker credit for bringing about the decline? Not from pacifist religious doctrines, but from the forces of civilization and the Enlightenment.

More than fifteen million people were killed in the First World War and more than fifty million in the Second—“the 20th Century would seem to be an insult to the very suggestion that violence has declined over the course of history,” he writes.

Pinker doesn’t go by those numbers, but by the “density” or number of those killed compared to the population total, the number deaths per 100,000 people, making the fall of Rome and the exploits of Genghis Khan, more deadly.

Immanuel Kant wrote a remarkable antiwar document, his 1795 essay, “Perpetual Peace.” In it he lays out six steps towards peace followed by three sweeping principles. The preliminary steps were that “peace treaties should not leave open the option of war; the states should not absorb other states; that standing armies should be abolished; that governments should not borrow to finance wars; that a state should not interfere in the internal governance of another state; and that in war, states should avoid tactics that would undermine confidence in a future peace, such as assassinations, poisoning, and incitements to treason.”  

His conditions for perpetual peace are that nations should be democratic, that “the law of nations shall be founded on a Federation of Free States,” and “universal hospitality” or “world citizenship.” He thus anticipated the creation of the United Nations by over 150 years.

This is my thinking: The preponderance of wars historically have been predatory, nations seeking to conquer the territory of others to gain their resources. There was nothing to stop this phenomenon. Thus the rule of the world was those who conquer, rule. The only thing that could check this tendency was a consortium of united nations that would condemn and repel predatory nations. This didn’t happen until late in our earthly existence, in 1948, with the formation of the United Nations.

When Iraq attempted to succumb Kuwait in the early 1990’s, claiming it had once been a part of its country she was roundly condemned by the United Nations. Some nations, including the United States, sent troops and armaments to force Iraqi troops out.

People are fond of disparaging the United Nations and saying that it is ineffective, but it’s a much safer, less violent world since it’s been created.

By the early 20th Century, the age of colonization was over and most former colonies were liberated. New problems arose, especially in Africa and the Balkans. Boundaries had been drawn arbitrarily. When countries were under the control of their colonial masters they were at peace, but once the masters left, tribal hatreds flared, hence the holocaust in countries like Rwanda and ethnic cleansings as in the Balkans.

The biggest deterrent to war was the creation of the atom and nuclear bombs. The knowledge that a nuclear war could very well bring about the eradication of the entire planet has given nations pause.

Dr. Pinker writes that there seems to be an increase in empathy, “the ability to put oneself into the position of some other person, animal, or object, and imagine the sensation of being in that situation,” of feeling distress at witnessing the suffering of others.

I sometimes skimmed this book, not wanting to read all he had to say on certain subjects, but a subject that I found of interest and would like to have had explored further is under a section called, “The Moralization Gap and the Myth of Pure Evil.”

Dr. Pinker writes that “people who perpetrate destructive acts, from everyday peccadilloes to serial murders and genocides, never think they are doing anything wrong,” and that most people “get angry at least once a week, and nearly everyone gets angry at least once a month. Something in human psychology distorts our interpretation and memory of harmful events.”

In a study of this phenomenon, it was found that “both victims and perpetrators distorted the stories to the same extent but in opposite directions, each omitting or embellishing details in a way that made the actions of their character look more reasonable and the other’s less reasonable.”

“We lie to ourselves so that we’re more believable when we lie to others.”

“It’s not just that there are two sides to every dispute. It’s that each side sincerely believes its version of the story, namely that it is an innocent and long-suffering victim and the other side a malevolent and treacherous sadist. And each side has assembled an historical narrative and database of facts consistent with its sincere belief.”

How true this is.

There’s no doubt that Dr. Pinker has made a major contribution to the study of war and violence. He is to be credited for that. I was glad that he did not try to extrapolate from his data that people have been improving over the centuries and thus will continue to improve. He ends his lengthy study with the following comments: “Yet while this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, that species has also found ways to bring the numbers down, and allow a greater and greater proportion of humanity to live in peace and die of natural causes. For all the tribulations in our lives, for all the troubles that remain in the world, the decline in violence is an accomplishment we can savor, and an impetus to cherish the forces of civilization and enlightenment that made it possible.”

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