This post’s title alone will offend many readers. And I’ll make it worse by telling you that the 20th was history’s least violent century, and the 21st is on track to do even better. “But modern man is the most depraved and murderous creature ever,” the critics will argue. “Look at the carnage of the two world wars, the atomic attacks on Japan, and the reigns of Hitler, Stalin, Mao, and Pol Pot!” (A few will throw in George W. Bush too.)
What the critics won’t do is provide statistics to back their argument. But psychologist Steven Pinker does, in The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined (2011). Pinker cites hundreds of studies to support his claim that a human’s chance of dying at another human’s hands — through war or crime or their collateral effects — has been falling for centuries, was lower during the 20th Century than ever before, and is lower still today. Yes, we killed unprecedented numbers during the early 20th Century’s cataclysms. But there were lots of us, and an unprecedented percent lived free of violence.
For many who read history, this isn’t surprising. Even without statistics, history readers get a sense of horribly regular violence in past people’s lives. Normal existence involved quarrels that became knife-fights, highway robbery, barbarian raids, slave raids, cattle raids, armed turf battles, infanticide, legal murders of cheating wives, ethnic riots, piracy, religious persecution, justice systems that tortured traitors and executed thieves, and constant wars, most of them too small to record, fought by lords who openly preferred slaughter, rape, and plunder to the unmanly pleasures of peace. And just a bit of anthropology-reading will tell you that the kill-rate was (and is) highest among those living closest to nature: the idyllic hunter-gatherers and stone age farmers.
Why has violence declined? Pinker offers a host of reasons, including:
- the rise of powerful states, particularly modern ones, that monopolize the use of force;
- the spread of trade and particularly capitalism, with its requirement that you get into the other guy’s head — empathize with him — to make a profit;
- the spread of rationalism and individualism during the Enlightenment and later, with their emphasis on individual rights; and
- the related spread of “rights revolutions,” particularly minority rights, women’s rights, and children’s rights.
Pinker even points to the spread of novels during the 1700’s and 1800’s, with their regular journeys into other people’s thoughts and feelings.
The real question is, why do many of us find this obvious improvement so hard to accept? I see three reasons:
- We enjoy getting moralistic about the evils of our contemporaries, so we exaggerate their significance. We don’t get anywhere near as much pleasure from the wrongdoing of people who died centuries ago.
- We idealize the past without necessarily learning much about it.
- News sources focus on exciting stories: the handful of people killed in crime or war today, rather than the hordes who weren’t. We’re freaked out because anecdotes don’t offer a sense of proportion.
© 2013 by David W. Tollen
Painting: Judith with the Head of Holofernes, Lucas Cranach the Elder (1520-1540)