Is Stephen Pinker right to say that the world is becoming less violent?

Okay. I managed to get past the smugness and watch the talk that I’m assuming this is related to. (There’s also a book, but frankly, I don’t think I have time for that right now!)

There’s clearly a strong argument there, but I think an important crux is in a notion mentioned halfway through. Standards, or expectations, change at a pace faster than behaviour.

The world is less violent measured in ‘objective’ or abstract terms. Our crusades are smaller, they kill less people. The headline statistic of 90% reduction in genocide since the cold war ended is impressive, and argues straightforwardly for a less violent world.

But less violent doesn’t mean ‘not grounded in violence’.

Overall less violence is grounded in an increasing realisation of more people that violence is unacceptable. The violence that exists is even more profoundly anathemic to our outlook, so we see it magnified. We are slowly getting more ethical, and our behaviour is hopefully one day going to catch up with that.

Of course, there’s two problems. First of all 10% genocide is still vile and horrendous, especially as this is stuff that we know about and don’t challenge, or do slowly.

The second problem, is that Pinker pats the west on the back for getting us to this point, whilst ignoring the economic violence of the system supporting the states he praises. He ignores the violence to the environment, the world itself and the other life forms on it (whilst acknowledging that maybe one day, our empathy will extend across species lines).

I know, I sound like a hippy. But this is still violence, and it directly impacts on the people we manage to just dodge that empathy for. The people just remote and distanced enough to be othered out of the empathy circle. The statistics are blurrier, not least because the eco-system is too complicated to measure directly. We don’t know the detail of what is going on, but we do know we are starving the starving, and stealing water from the thirsty, and ripping off the people with little.

We get fat on unseen violence. This is the nature of consumer capitalism.

Pinker’s right though. Violence is shifting, and empathy is growing. I don’t think this sort of attitude is sustainable, I just hope that our behaviour catches up to our ethics before our economic and environmental violence becomes genocidal, and shows up enough to really damage the statistics.

And we’d better. Of 60 million people dying a year, 20 million are doing so because of poverty. There are simple solutions that there is no will to implement, because the notion that the rich few are killing the planet, and the people who have to live directly from it, and not from the exploitation of others.

Our violence may be less, but that doesn’t make it acceptable. We must increase our empathy and bring our behaviour in line, on a societal scale.

And every moment we don’t, we’re still killing people.

Illustration by Emma

About Alabaster Crippens

Learner. Guesser. Thinker and Stinker.
This entry was posted in Illustrations by Emma, Questions by Paul. Bookmark the permalink.

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