Steven Pinker’s “Better Angels” ignores demons that lie dormant

Steven Pinker maintains the world is less violent than ever. Robert Jay Lifton? Not so much.

Robert Jay Lifton. Courtesy Wikimedia Commons

Robert Jay Lifton. Courtesy Wikimedia Commons

In this month’s Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists (behind a paywall), esteemed atrocity authority Robert Jay Lifton addresses the “emerging school of thought” that “contends that the world is becoming increasingly safe.” For example he singles out Steven Pinker, who, in his book The Better Angels of Our Nature (Viking, 2011), maintains that the world is considerably less violent than ever before.

Professor Lifton writes:

The peaceable-world claim is deeply misleading in its failure to confront a revolution in the technology of killing and the increasing capacity for detached slaughter or numbed technological violence.

This author was happy to have his own reservations about that school of thought seconded by someone as esteemed and knowledgeable as Professor Lifton. He elaborates by recalling an interview with a Hiroshima survivor.

I was left with a powerful image: “One plane, one bomb, one city.” That image has deeply influenced my perception of our vulnerability to products of technology that are called weapons, but can more accurately be termed instruments of genocide.”

The author of The Nazi Doctors (Basic Books, 1988) then writes about the numbing processes that are adopted by those who carry out mass killings and concludes:

Drones are the epitome of numbed technological violence, perhaps even a caricature of it in their increasing replacement of human beings.

Viewed from another angle, violence is kinetic energy: action, bodies in – no matter to what end – motion. Its incidence has declined in recent years. (Recall that during World War II, each day an average of over 50,000 people were killed or died from the effects of the war.) But that’s an illusion in an age when, from a remove, our civilian and military leadership are countenancing violence that’s in not a kinetic state, but its opposite: potential energy.

Nuclear weapons, for example, are like a drawn bow, especially when they’re on high alert. Their potential, once realized, would dwarf all the kinetic energy expended in the violence of the past.

7 replies »

  1. I’ve read “Better Angels” and the amount of well-researched and -sourced evidence he gives leaves me with no reasonable doubt that his claims are accurate. This is not to say our _capacity_ for violence is not as great as it has ever been, but the amount of violence per person is _currently_ the lowest is has probably ever been in our species.

    I believe that the reason that we all have such a hard time accepting that we are all extremely civilized and cordial is that, as a society, we have moved the goalposts for what is an “acceptable” amount of violence.

    There are a million examples out there, but go watch some football games this Sunday and tick off the number of times the announcers decry how overly cautious the refs are in ensuring the safety of the players. “Back in my day, there was no way they’d throw a flag for that.”

    Then go back a hundred or so years. In the 1915 season, 19 college and amateur players died. http://www.cnn.com/2012/02/05/opinion/greene-super-bowl/index.html Here’s an excerpt from “The Big Scrum: How Teddy Roosevelt Saved Football”: http://imgur.com/AZ7X9q8 Forget concussions and broken bones, unconsciousness, comas and death were the norm. We would not accept that. We’ve changed the rules over the years to make it much safer and we continue to do so year after year.

    Although most people don’t appreciate it, we are living in the Golden Age of human safety. We don’t appreciate it because our standards about the well-being of others is so much higher than your grandpappy’s. And that extends to war as well as sports and all other aspects of our society.

  2. Where were those better angels yesterday? “Gunfire erupts at Kenyan mall, 59 dead in Islamist attack” “Suicide bomb attack kills 52 at Pakistan church”

    • well for starters those happened in Africa and the Middle East, two areas of the world least touched by our ‘better angels’. specifically (going of his five main historical forces from Wikipedia as I’ve yet to receive the book) The leviathan, Feminization and cosmopolitanism.

  3. Nice post Russ. I think your metaphor contrasting kinetic and potential energy is insightful. And that phrase “one plane, one bomb, one city” is so chilling… Another way of thinking about it too would be to ask: how safe do we tend to *feel* these days? Granted that a great deal of fear is generated and constantly heightened by the media – along with entities who hope to gain politically through the maintenance of a frightened public – still, as you say, there is ongoing terrifying potential in the world. September 11 brought that recognition home to the West in particular. But more generally (and I say this as someone who hasn’t read his book), what are Pinker’s temporal purviews in making this pronouncement? The twentiety-century would seem to have been the *most* violent in all of human history: aren’t we still part of that age? Clearly he would be arguing against this idea, but: the Balkan atrocities, Rwanda, Congo … on and on and on.

  4. Paul: As bad as the atrocities are that we have seen recently, they are little compared to what was common in the past. Besides our sensibilities, there are a couple of other things that have changed. One is the global communication network. We can now see hi-def video of something horrible happening around the world in a matter of minutes. Imagine if that happened during the Boer Wars or the 30 million Chinese that starved to death during the Great Leap Forward?

    The second is that there are more people around the world that can have horrible things happen to them. The earth has been gaining 1 billion more people every dozen years or so since the 1970’s. So when a current atrocity kills tens of thousands of people, that is still a small percentage of the population. But when 10,000 people in an area were killed a thousand years ago, that would wipe out most of the population.

    WWII was an exception to this downward trend of violence. An analogy is having a record cold week and comparing that to global warming’s trend over decades.

    • Djerrid: I guess I’d have to read the book to be able to add much specifically.

      I agree that there have been various positive developments in recent decades. Unfortunately I also see almost equal resistance to those having arisen. Look at the utter paralysis of the US politlcal system for example – the appalling partisanship and extremism that has developed.

      More generally I feel that this question is multi-dimensional and non-quantifiable. Ultimately becoming less violent requires a deeper shift in understanding – otherwise it becomes only an historic blip due to socioeconomic circumstances lining up in certain ways, and so on. If those circumstances were to change sufficiently, would we remain as (very relatively) non-violent as we are? I look around and see the main point still not having been absorbed, which at the deepest level is the truth of total interdependence. We’re all in the same boat.