Is Violence Passé?

I have been reading recently Steven Pinker’s The Better Angels of Our Nature: The Decline of Violence in History and Its Causes.  Anybody with an interest in peace and conflict should read it.  Pinker makes the provocative claim: “This book is about what may be the most important thing that has ever happened in human history.  Believe it or not – and I know that most people do not – violence has declined over long stretches of time, and today we may be living in the most peaceable era in our species’ existence.”  You would have to admit that such a claim will raise eyebrows.

In two classes in which I presented Pinker’s thesis students reacted with skepticism.  One can certainly understand the basis for skepticism. The daily diet of death and dying, of violence and threat that we get through the media makes it appear as if the world is more violent, not less.  Happily, however, the media does not present a dataset that is randomly populated.  Instead, it is a biased dataset and is unrepresentative.

I don’t think there can be much doubt of Pinker’s claim of a decline in conflict fatalities.  This is the same one that Robert Ted Gurr and Monty Marshall made several times – they argue that since the end of the Cold War there has been a noticeable decline in conflict fatalities.  (Take a look at Peace and Conflict: 2005)  What makes Pinker’s work different is the fact that he goes beyond conflict fatalities.  He claims, “No aspect of life is untouched by the retreat from violence.”  And adds, “…whether we see our world as a nightmare of crime, terrorism, genocide, and war, or as a period that, by the standards of history, is blessed by unprecedented levels of peaceful coexistence.”

Of course, Pinker is not claiming that violence has vanished from the landscape, but that on balance violence is at an all time low.  This is heady stuff.

If Pinker is right, then what are the causes of such a change?  Pinker spends much of the book grappling with this issue and I won’t spoil the ending for you.  But it did make me think of an earlier post on this blog.  In Want to Find a Growth Industry? I commented on the work of Andrew Mack, and the much quoted by former Australian Foreign Minister Gareth Evans, that one possible explanation for the decline in violent conflict deaths has been the study of and professionalization of peacemaking. Some may find it easy to poo-poo such an idea, but in response to such comments I am reminded by a comment made by Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams.  In a lecture he gave at the Woodrow Wilson School at Princeton University he commented upon a problem IRA leaders faced.  In the late 1980’s IRA leadership, according to Adams, asked “How do you get peace?” While simple on the surface, it hides considerable complexity.

So, perhaps one explanation of the decline in violence is that we have improved our capacity make peace.  Pinker’s claim, though, that we value violence less is not explained by improved peacemaking skills, however.  It reflects something deeper and perhaps more subtle.  I don’t know what that deeper thing is, but I am encouraged.  And I am left to wonder have we begun to crack the conflict code?  Have we begun to unravel the Gordian knot of violence?

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