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Violence among humans: Up or down?
“Car wash shooter has violent past” “Saint Paul man charged in fatal shooting of woman, 21” “Police arrest two after man brandishes gun, officer fires” These stories appeared in the Local Briefing section of yesterday’s Pioneer Press, along with the story: “Traffic deaths could be lowest in Minnesota since 1944”.
The juxtaposition of good and bad led me to reflect on Stephen Pinker’s assertion that violence has decreased since the dawn of the human race, and on Robert Jay Lifton’s counterpoint that perhaps it had not.
Based on as much historical evidence as he could amass on murders, war crimes, torture, assassinations, human sacrifice, slavery, the death penalty for small crimes or for disagreeing with authority, Pinker concluded that violence has declined. The process of civilization has made humans more humane: “The doctrine of the noble savage—the idea that humans are peaceable by nature and corrupted by modern institutions—pops up frequently in the writing of public intellectuals like José Ortega y Gasset ("War is not an instinct but an invention"), Stephen Jay Gould ("Homo sapiens is not an evil or destructive species"), and Ashley Montagu ("Biological studies lend support to the ethic of universal brotherhood"). But, now that social scientists have started to count bodies in different historical periods, they have discovered that the romantic theory gets it backward: Far from causing us to become more violent, something in modernity and its cultural institutions has made us nobler.”
Lifton demurs that this conclusion does not characterize the 20th and 21st centuries which he has experienced. He sees Auschwitz and Hiroshima as defining events for our era. Moreover, he points to what he terms “the emergence of extreme forms of numbed technological violence, in which unprecedented, virtually unlimited numbers of people could be killed. Those who did the killing could be completely separated, geographically and psychologically, from their victims.” In disputing Pinker’s assertion, he states: “Dr. Pinker and others may be quite right in claiming that for most people alive today, life is less violent than it has been in previous centuries. But never have human beings been in as much danger of destroying ourselves collectively, of endangering the future of our species.”
Certainly, some recent statistics do look better. As Compass shows, the “serious crime rate” in the United States has declined substantially over the past two decades. The state of Minnesota has experienced a similar decline. Admittedly, if you find yourself in the face of a threatening gun or knife, it matters little to you whether you are one of 5 people in that situation, or one in 25. Nor would Pinker’s statistics on the decline of torture pacify the Afghan teen whose plight involving six months of confinement and abuse also appeared in the same day’s Pioneer Press. However fewer of us have these experiences, than in previous generations (even if the modern news media easily and frequently transmit horrendous stories about oppression by the Taliban and others).
In the end, I think, it comes down to how we treat one another, person to person, in our neighborhoods and communities, and to how we extend our connections to others across land and ocean. Building our social capital may not eliminate all violence in the near future, but it can prevent a lot of violence from occurring, and it can give us the strength to recover and persist in the face of violence. In our globalized world, our quality of life and our fate depend more than ever on how every one of us around the globe acts in concert to promote respect, value all humans, and build societies that meet the needs of all. Local action is global action, and vice versa.
Harry S Truman stated “We must build a new world, a far better world - one in which the eternal dignity of man is respected.” Pinker might consider Truman a cheerleader for evolutionary progress; Lipton would cite Truman's involvement in the bombing of Hiroshima as evidence that we have a long way to go (if we can make it). With a mixture of optimism and realism, I think we can do well if we affirm our commitment to reduce violence, acknowledge the issues that we must address collectively as an interdependent human civilization, and do the necessary work in our hearts, our communities, and our world, to remove those impediments which inhibit us from achieving peace in all its forms.