The Decline of Violence

From Reason Magazine, I hope this is beginning to percolate, it’s actually a perception I’ve had for a long time, that violence of all sorts is declining not increasing.  The perception of greater danger is completely due to the news cycle and our reduced tolerance to violence of all sorts because it is so much less common today than it was even when I was young (and as ancient as I feel I am not THAT old.)

The article is an interview with  Harvard University cognitive neuroscientist Steven Pinker in his new book The Better Angels of our Nature: Why Violence has Declined, where he claims that “You are less likely to die a violent death today than at any other time in human history. In fact, violence has been declining for centuries.”  

The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined

Read the book I have not yet so this is not a review, just a commentary on my own observations and thoughts.

A couple of anecdotes:  Growing up I heard repeated references to kids fighting, but mostly it was reference to the generations before me. I never got into a fight (I was a big geek living in the suburbs so maybe not representative) I was only struck twice by other kids in my whole school career, both events were unprovoked single ‘hits’ due to me being the wrong person in the wrong place at the wrong time.

In my family’s early days in the US (mid late 60’s) I distinctly remember my father driving us down a country road someplace in southern Indian and seeing two large farm hand types going at each other with bare knuckles with a ring of what looked like relatives and friends surrounding them. This had been typical in the generations before mine but is rare today. Where it exists it is professionalized and as such the repercussions of the violence are ameliorated and diffused (nothing personal about this beating I’m giving you hey mate?)

I hate to say this but all evidence indicates that in our natural state we’re not peaceful types (despite what fringe utopian greens think.) Hunter gatherer clan life was one of constant warfare with nature and other clans (this can be seen even today in the few places where this life style still exists.)  As we moved to more sedentary life violence was reduced.  Again this can be seen, there was and is a distinct difference in the violence levels of farmers vs herders.  As states developed they tended to damp violence, a dead serf is an unproductive serf, also the ‘justice’ of a third-party tended to defuse feuds and vendettas, which had remained very prevalent (and still survive.) Then the violence of the hierarchical despotic governments was gradually ameliorated by various forms of government based on order and not raw power, again a dead serf is not very productive.  Psychologically we began to be able to perceive others points of view as literacy gave us limited insight into the ways others thought and perceived the world.  As mercantilism developed there was more reason to see ‘the other’ as a possible source of value and not a threat, defusing a great deal of hostility.   Then the enlightenment came with the spread of various forms of representative government and a sense of people at all levels of society having worth. Violence of all sorts began to be seen as an evil in and of itself.   Today we are the beneficiaries of a virtuous circle that this long chain of change has wrought, where the less violence we experience the less tolerant we are of the behaviours leading to violence, and so on.

Of course there may be dangers to this: 

  1. We could become so intolerant of behaviours that we begin to make intolerant and anti liberal laws.
  2. In the land of the disarmed lotus eaters the thug with the shiv rules.
  3. Not all places will experience the same cycle or at least not at the same rate and time.  Are we seeing this with Europe vs MidEast, is it a threat  because it leads to self disarmament and then scenario 2 on a large-scale.
  4. People become disinclined to stand up for their rights because all those around them see ‘standing up for something’ as code for unacceptable pre violence behaviour.

But on the whole I like where we are today.  The only real problem I see is that many of us do not take advantage of the opportunities because A) we perceive violence as increasing not decreasing B) lack of self-confidence in one’s ability to deal with violence.  

Now a curious though (stream of consciousness being what it is) do A and B in conjunction with the very real decrease in average violence explain the increasing prevalence of concealed carry laws?   Given the decrease in violence in general does it make perfect sense to have armed citizens able to provide deterrence pressure on the remaining ‘thugs for life’ in society?   It could be argued either way but I think that it is a sensible question to ask.

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