Our potential for violence: same as it ever was.

It’s a profound mistake to think that human nature has undergone gross improvement over the centuries. Biological evolution doesn’t work that way – why should we think social evolution (whatever that might be) does?

No one denies that progress occurs – in some fields within certain cultures, in given historical periods; but not without continuing potential for regress. When I was young, capital punishment seemed on its way to becoming a thing of the past; now the arguments against it are barely heard in public. Sometimes it is 2 steps forward, 1 step back; unfortunately, it can just as well prove the other way around.

I want to discuss an article by experimental psychologist Steven Pinker, which I found alternately amusing and irritating: http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2015/sep/11/news-isis-syria-headlines-violence-steven-pinker

Pinker’s claim is that statistical evidence of declining incidence of wars and violent crimes, indicates that human nature has been changing for the better, that we are becoming more tolerant, and less likely to resort to violence in our relationships, both personal and political. “As modernity widens our circle of cooperation, we come to recognise the futility of violence and apply our collective ingenuity to reducing it.”

Pinker’s article is the most ridiculously skewed, narrowly focused argument I’ve read in a long time. But it’s quite in keeping with the painfully artificial optimism of academic progressivists – from Marxists still prophesying a global revolution to robotics experts promising ever greater ‘leisure’ for humanity (read: unemployment and poverty). Undoubtedly, the worst delusion fostered by Modernity is that social evolution (technological, cultural, psychological) can somehow hasten biological evolution – if we can’t somehow realize the full potential of our species, why, transhumanists will create another species that will inherit that potential and improve upon it.

Pinker only picks the ripest cherries for his argument. No talk at all about state surveillance and other oppressive measures used to keep the masses in line in many countries. No discussion of the exigencies of global capitalism, which has produced some pressure to avoid military confrontation, but which has also generated cultures of vicious competition and inhumane disinterest in the spread of poverty. Further, Pinker is pretending to offer an argument concerning statistics over history – but surely this is a profoundly truncated history we are given!

“From a high in the second world war of almost 300 battle deaths per 100,000 people per year, the rate rollercoasted downward, cresting at 22 during the Korean war, nine during Vietnam and five during the Iran-Iraq war before bobbing along the floor at fewer than 0.5 between 2001 and 2011.”

The Second World War was only 70 years ago; the potential for another such war remains problematic. One dirty bomb in the wrong city would shift these numbers somewhat, I should think.

But this is an odd way to count the dead, anyway. We’re not looking at some bugs under a microscope. The victims of ISIS would hardly breathe relief reading this article, ‘ah, well, but over all the species is doing better!’ Nor can this reckoning account for how WWII happened to begin with. The 19th century had its fair share of pacifist savants and progressivists promising the dawn of new eras of enlightenment and camaraderie. Yet WWII saw the violent death of more than 100 million globally in less than 10 years (if we see Spain, Manchuria, and Ethiopia as part of that war, as i think we should). What happened to all that pacifism, how did the new era of enlightenment meet such a bloody finale?

Pinker can’t even consider such a question, yet it’s the question that can’t be avoided when trying to make sense of his argument. The fact remains that neither political movements nor statistical trends can fully explain, or prophecy, what current social configurations will produce tomorrow or exactly how. How could the tragedy of 9/11 really lead to America launching an aggressive war of conquest against an uninvolved nation, leading to the chaos in the mid-east with which we deal today? Pinker reads this as just a spike on a graph – how impoverished an ‘explanation’ is that?

Do we really want to suppose that human nature leaves us less prone to violence now because the Soviet Union lost 10% in WWII but the US only lost less than .2% of its population in Vietnam – and even a smaller percentage in the current Mid-East entanglements? Outside of the weird statistical parameters needed to make that suggestion, the kind of argument going on, if we carry that suggestion to term, not only begs the question of what ‘more or less violence’ would actually mean (supposedly indicative of evolving empathy, charity, and tolerance, as we might define ‘niceness), but would actually beggar it by reducing it to a matter of the most obvious instances of egregious transgression.

Now, I don’t question the statistics Pinker is using, but the narrow selection of categories measured, and the kind of argument Pinker seems to be making, which, IMO, is facile and specious.

I’m reminded of the efficiency expert who needed to account for the contentment of the workers in a given factory, and whose sole criteria for this were the number of complaints workers made (in a company where any complaint would lead to immediate termination). Statistic: 0 complaints; conclusion: happy workers.

The measure is true; but there is something wrong with the choice of what’s to be measured. And the structure and style of the argument seems divorced from actual experience, because lacking any depth or breadth of consideration of context.

One long standing argument for capital punishment has been that it cannot be inhumane (which would violate the Constitutional interdict against inhumane punishment), because there are humane means of killing the sentenced person. So presumably, if one kills another ‘humanely,’ with legal authority, then no violence is involved, and everyone remains ‘nice’ and innocent? There is a line of reasoning that goes down that path, and it shows up whenever the SCOTUS has to decide cases involving methodology of execution. But the stronger, more basic argument for capital punishment is that the state reserves the right to violence against individuals and groups that threaten the interests of government or of the people as a whole.

That reservation (and I know of no national government that has foresworn it) tells us that, although global capitalism has for now largely re-channeled violence into forms of financial competition, the future of warfare has not been settled.

And that is what rebels, terrorists, fanatics and the occasional war-mongering dictator (and police and military responses to these) remind us – not that we are more violent than we have been in the past, but that potential for great violence remains within us pretty much the same as it ever was.

 

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From comments made at the Electric Agora.

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2 thoughts on “Our potential for violence: same as it ever was.

  1. Our capacity for cruelty, for violence and for war has remained almost the same as it was among the ancients. People are still drafted into the national armies. You’d think if we have become more peaceful, why are armies and military spending going above the roof.
    A few years ago, one of the tea firms decided to mechanize their tea picking. No one had given thought to the hundreds of people who were directly employed and would lose their jobs nor the thousands of people who depended on them. If the world is going to mechanize, much thought has to be given to what the people who will lose their jobs will be doing.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. If you live in a rich country, you might get the impression that violence has reduced. There has been a long phase of relative peace in places like Europe or northern America. However, these areas are rich and this wealth is the result of the exploitation of resources that are finite. The peace springs from the oil wells, so to speak. It is naive to think that this is going to last forever. Wealth allows for relatively peaceful solutions of problems and for the organization of well-working institutions. In poorer areas of the world, the rate of violence is much higher.

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