Violence seems to be all around us. Journalists and politicians, especially in the run-up to an election, love to create the burning platform – a sense of urgency that sends adrenalin pumping through our veins, and justifies their sound-bites and simplistic talking points.
But it turns out that our sense of danger is not supported by the facts. Stephen Pinker’s extraordinary book The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined lays out the argument that in many tangible ways, the world is safer now than it has ever been.
It’s important to be clear about what he is and is not saying. His primary point is that statistically, the number of violent deaths per 100,000 has been dropping, and has reached historically low levels. In other words, the probability of suffering a violent death has declined on a global basis. We are safer than ever before. However, he is not saying that our fundamental make-up has changed, or that violence is no longer part of our nature. He is also not saying that because the measured probability of violence has declined, massive future violent events cannot happen. He is saying that such events are less likely than at any time in the past, and that there are reasons why this is so.
The book is very long, partly because he takes pains to explain his sources, and to develop his argument methodically and carefully. It is also long because he attempts to explain some probable causes of the decline in violence. Of these, the overall reduction of ideologically based political beliefs (despite the visible rise of extremism in certain parts of the world), and their replacement with democratic and economically motivated civil societies is especially interesting. He argues that the more visibility and consistency there is to the rule of law, the lower the observed rates of violence will be. He also argues that the more economic interdependence we create, the more we see trade as better than than zero-sum competition for resources, the less valuable we find unilateral aggression to be. He points out that since the end of the second world war, no democratic state has gone to war with another democratic state.
This short article cannot do justice to such a massive work. Pinker also speaks articulately about the emergence of political and social ideas developed by Hobbes, and about the growing importance of empathy and mutual understanding. Ultimately his social and psychological argument, with which I agree, boils down to a reduction in our willingness to objectify, classify, and demonize those not of our tribe. It is simply harder to kill a person or a group with whom we identify. The great contribution of this book is to provide us with a longer view of history, supported by a compelling and rich set of trend data, framed within the sociological, philosophical, and psychological insights which are his primary intellectual territory.
We have imperfect knowledge of the distant past, and Pinker is careful to guard-band his data where he believes there is doubt as to its accuracy. But the overall sweep of the book is credible and persuasive, and suggests that despite the baying of the political wolves, we have much for which to be thankful.