Smerconish: Despite recent headlines, author says violence is waning

Philadelphia InquirerMay 16, 2014 

A Utah mother is accused of strangling six of her infants and stuffing them in her garage. A Connecticut 16-year-old allegedly stabs a girl in the neck because she wouldn’t go with him to the prom. Another 16-year-old, this one in Pennsylvania, is arrested for stabbing 20 classmates and a security guard.

Fort Hood was the scene of another shooting, the second in five years, with a soldier killing three colleagues (13 died in 2009). A white supremacist in a suburb of Kansas City is charged with killing three on the eve of Passover. We recently marked the anniversary of the Boston Marathon bombing. And any list of recent extreme violence need mention the atrocity of Sandy Hook, where 20 first graders and six adults were executed in December of 2012.

Anyone can see that we live in times of unprecedented violence, right?

Not so, according to a Harvard psychologist who places violence in historical terms and concludes that actually, humans have never been so safe from each other. His research suggests that people living today are less likely to meet a violent death than at any prior point in human history.

Steven Pinker is the author “The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined,” an 800-page tome in which he spends six chapters defending the proposition that “we may be living in the most peaceable era in our species’ existence.”

Pinker refutes the cliche that the 20th century was the “bloodiest in history” by noting that, while it accounted for more violent deaths, that is because it also had more people. An additional illusory factor that warps our thinking is historical myopia — the closer an era is to our vantage point, the more details we can make out.

“Violence has declined on many scales of time and magnitude,” he told me. “Homicide is down compared to what it was centuries ago. Wars are less common and less deadly, domestic violence is down, violence against racial minorities is down, people spank their kids less than they used to. So, pretty much any way you want to measure violence, the overall historical trend is downward.”

You want to talk real violence? How about the An Lushan Revolt in the eighth century, an eight-year rebellion during China’s Tang Dynasty that resulted in a loss of one-sixth of the world’s population? That death count, adjusted to a mid-20th-century equivalent, would total 429 million lives. The Mongol conquests would account for the second worst thing that people have done to people. But, although wars were pretty evenly distributed over 2,500 years, Pinker argues that since the end of World War II, we have lived in an era that historian John Gaddis coined as the “Long Peace.” Rich, powerful countries no longer go to war with each other.

“The world is more connected,” Pinker says. “Countries trade with each other and it becomes cheaper to buy things than to plunder them. There’s a norm against international war and conquest. It used to be if you were a big country what you would always try to do is expand your territory. That’s just what countries did. Since the creation of the United Nations, there is an international norm that boundaries are pretty much sacrosanct. You’ve got to stay within your own boundaries and war is just not on the table as a legitimate way of settling disputes. Of course, that’s not invariably followed, to put it mildly, but by and large the idea that war is just the continuation of policy by other means, which is the old cliche about how countries dealt with each other, it is just no longer true.”

To the extent that his conclusions seem jarring, Pinker says blame the media. Violence might be on the wane, but not the attitudes that cause its magnification.

“People like to watch violence on the media,” he said. “We watch it in movies, plays, and novels, and it grabs our attention on the news as well. So if it bleeds, it leads. Anytime there is a dramatic, violent event, you can be sure that you'll hear about it because news is about stuff that happens. It’s not about stuff that doesn’t happen.”

I rattled off for him the recent headlines concerning violence in the United States, wanting to know if these sort of things happened in the past?

“There certainly were rampage killings, although probably the rise of electronic media have made that particular category of mass killing more common,” Pinker says. “But you’ve got to remember that these kind of mass shootings, however dramatic they are, account for a tiny fraction of the violence that our country experiences. Every day 44 people are killed, that’s a Sandy Hook and a half, day in and day out, 365 days a year. So, when you ask, is the country getting more dangerous, it’s misleading to look at the school shootings. You’re looking at a tiny fraction of the country’s violence; that’s just not where the bulk of the violence occurs.”

Contact Mr. Smerconish at www.smerconish.com

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