In his recent book, The Better Angels of Our Nature, Steven Pinker suggests that violence has been in steep decline over the last 20 years and argues that this drop in violence is the result of our being increasingly more rational creatures, capable of seeing the ‘futility’ of violence, while also developing more civilized ways of addressing differences through more effective forms of public policy and by being more capable within our international dialogues. Those interested can get an abbreviated review from the Guardian (here). Pinker has also attracted a lot of critical comments, some of which can be summarized here.
As one of the major proponents of Evolutionary Psychology, Pinker appears to be the master of the ‘just-so’ story. It is truly amazing how he continues to expand outside of his area of specialty to weave titillating tales that tell the rest of us how we ought to understand reality. However, it seems to me that he is again engaging in a kind of narrow-minded thinking and leaps of logic that distort the real picture.
Many critics have a hard time understanding how he can use such a narrow window of history (i.e. relying heavily on the years since the Second World War) to justify his belief in a continued trend toward a reduction in violence. As some critics have pointed out, we may find ourselves in a relative time of peace in part because we are still capable of remembering the Second World War. A brief oasis of peace tells us nothing, since it follows years of protracted violence of the kind and scale that still haunts the memories of our collective society. We may have developed an intense phobia toward engaging in this kind of violence, though I doubt the memories sustaining this phobia are resistant to fading.
But more importantly, I want to question Pinker’s claim that civilization and rational thinking has led to a more peaceful society, because here I believe he is presenting an oversimplified view that is dangerous, and in my opinion dead wrong. While he may be correct to surmise that that on a global scale, individual face-to-face physical violence has in the last couple hundred years be on the decline, this does not mean that modern societies have found a successful strategy to do away with violence. On the contrary, modern society may have just found different ways to package it, to outsource it, and to institutionalize it.
The common assumption is that civilization, politics, and reason, have helped to restrain an otherwise unruly populace that may have tendencies toward aggression and potential for violence. But I would argue that our modern societies create a potential for violence that would otherwise be impossible to imagine. The modern bureaucratic society is in part a product of rational thought: it is organized and compartmentalized into functional departments with checks and balances and with the goal of achieving a particular end – the result of which is deemed by that society as ‘progress.’ This leads to a ‘push button’ philosophy where ends justify means, and violence and murder have the potential of being automatized within the bureaucratic institution. Over the years, the individual has been removed from first-hand experience of violence, only to become part of the rational and efficient machine that may use violence as an instrument of societal ‘progress.’ This has the potential to make us less morally responsible, and not, as Pinker seems to think, more rationally aware of the consequences of violence.
For example, the decision for the US to drop the atomic bomb on Hiroshima was the product of a modern and rational society looking for an efficient way of ending the war. The act itself was divided among bureaucratic levels that were each expected to accomplish an individual part – each with a clear ‘goal.’ The real persons involved were in a sense morally sterilized and psychologically detached from what part their additive role would play. The individuals dropping the bomb were miles above their victims and could never see their faces… this is a new side-effect of modern societies and modern technology. Participants of institutionalized forms of violence end up following ‘orders’ that are essentially part of their job description – they do what they are told. Milgrim’s experiments showed us that when persons of power (usually distant themselves from the process and higher up in the institutionalized setting) instruct someone to do something, including acts of violence, the moral responsibility that a person feels is dramatically lessened, to the point where they often end up doing things that are not within their individual nature. They feel no sense of ethical duty or moral responsibility because they were only a small part of the larger machine.
Zygmunt Bauman makes some of the above points in his book, Modernity and the Holocaust. Bauman persuasively argues that the holocaust was only possible by it being a product of rational and modern civilization, and not as many seem to think, as being the result of a racist dictator who was able to sell his ‘evil message’ to the masses. It is noteworthy that the leaders within Hitler’s circle looked for ways to make it easier for the German military to exterminate the Jews with fewer psychological ‘side-effects’ – there was something in their human nature that made it difficult to murder helpless civilians. Their trials with carbon monoxide, and later with the gas chambers, allowed for a psychological detachment from the process with the added bonuses of it fitting within the highly detailed, efficient, and organized government plan for a ‘better’ society.
We may also be reminded of the Vietnam War. Soldiers were being asked to kill civilians and commit horrific acts of violence, the effects of which they would necessarily have to experience first-hand. As a result, many of them went AWOL and refused to follow orders. It seemed that the government could not get these men to do something that was not in their nature. When this became an apparent roadblock, the government resorted to using Agent Orange in an effort to finish their bureaucratic and political goal. Again we see that a modern and rational society, detached from face-to-face violence, and psychologically removed from its effects, often has the potential to be violent on a much grander scale.
In short, I think understanding violence is far more complex than Pinker would have us believe. We must be capable of looking at the larger picture, appreciating history, culture, and the complexity of our modern environments. It is not surprising to me that Pinker would misunderstand all of these, since it seems to be a common criticism of Evolutionary Psychology as well (Pinker being a staunch advocate of that view). But it ends up being nothing more than a justification for the status quo and a belief that our Western worldview and our particular place in history, has progressed beyond the problems that plagued those who came before us. It is an unfortunate, and I believe dangerous delusion.