Monday, January 23, 2012

Is Mankind Becoming More Peaceful?

Article first published as Is Mankind Becoming Less Violent? on Technorati.

Steven Pinker--in his new book, The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined--argues that we are. From the book's description:
Faced with the ceaseless stream of news about war, crime, and terrorism, one could easily think we live in the most violent age ever seen. Yet as New York Times bestselling author Steven Pinker shows in this startling and engaging new work, just the opposite is true: violence has been diminishing for millennia and we may be living in the most peaceful time in our species's existence. For most of history, war, slavery, infanticide, child abuse, assassinations, pogroms, gruesome punishments, deadly quarrels, and genocide were ordinary features of life. But today, Pinker shows (with the help of more than a hundred graphs and maps) all these forms of violence have dwindled and are widely condemned.
This is a powerful claim, on Pinker's part. After all, the twentieth century was filled with violence, horrific violence, from the World Wars, to the Holocaust, to the Russian Revolution and its aftermath, to the Killing Fields of Pol Pot. Timothy Snyder--reviewing the book for Foreign Affairs--explains how Pinker attempts (and fails, in Snyder's opinion) to account for this apparent problem:

A similar intervention Pinker makes in his own experiment is to dismiss the two world wars and the episodes of mass killing that took place in the first half of the twentieth century. Pinker describes these horrors powerfully and eloquently but claims they are irrelevant to his argument. He is right that historians often impose too much coherence on that time period, wanting all the violence to somehow make sense. But Pinker errs toward the other extreme, portraying the two world wars as "horrifically unlucky samples from a statistical distribution," and the major episodes of mass murder as resulting from "a few contingent ideas and events." In other words, it was bad luck to have two big conflicts so close to each other, and more bad luck that they were associated with especially bad ideas.
However, I would argue that the nineteenth century was hardly a time of lesser violence. For the oft-forgotten Taiping Rebellion occurred in this period, as did the Napoleonic Wars, and the American Civil War, along with a host of others. But for perspective, an estimated 20 million people died during the Taiping Rebellion. In fact, some estimates put the total much, much higher. It is even possible (though admittedly unlikely) that more people died in the Taiping Rebellion than in World War I and World War II, combined.

Pinker attempts to explain away the Taiping Rebellion (1850-1864) as a consequence of a "Divisive ideology." Though I am a fan of Pinker's writings, this is a major error. The Taiping Rebellion--on it's face--involved a break-away Christian sect, but the causes run much, much, deeper. Indeed, the rebel remnants--after the interdiction of European powers in the Rebellion--sought to link up with Muslim rebels in Western China and actually were not completely defeated until 1871. This entire period in Chinese history--from the mid-nineteenth to mid-twentieth centuries--was a period of armed rebellion and insurrection, as Elizabeth Perry so ably detailed in her 1980 book, Rebels and Revolutionaries in North China, 1845-1945.

What all of this indicates, in terms of Pinker's larger theory, is that he is very much right that we idealize the past. He argues that this is why we fail to understand how violent the world was in its prehistory, before the time of nation-states. But he falls into the same trap, himself, for though he does recognize that the nineteenth century may have been every bit as violent as the twentieth, if not more so, he fails to recognize the nature and extent of this violence as violence against the state, the entity that supposedly has been limiting violence since its inception.

In short, his theory--though captivating--is poorly argued and ultimately flawed. For regardless of the numbers, we know one thing beyond a shadow of a doubt: mankind today is every bit as capable of violence as mankind was yesterday.

Cheers, all.

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