The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined

Here is an interesting dichotomy while the speed of the Internet has made our globe just about one big planetary village, it has also made it seem more violent and malevolent, yet it is nothing like that at all.

While not borrowing strictly from the Internet analogy, best-selling author Steven Pinker has debunked the notion that the world is a more violent place in his ground-breaking work.

Putting violence in its historical context, which is essential in an era of smart drones and missiles with their targeted and very limited violence, Pinker’s landmark work shows that, ultimately, violence is actually subsiding. Indeed, it has been violence that has marked much of mankind’s existence since the first hunter-gatherers stood guard over their prizes, lest another tribe try to run off with the trophy.

That, as much as anything else, has been the hallmark of mankind since the dawn of history. As far back as Nineveh or Gilgamesh (if you are into Biblical studies), you will find that violence was a way of life.

The key books that form the basis of society – even Hammurabi’s first Code of Law – attempt to leaven violence and punishment with the need for justice. Yet, they have all had one fatal flaw, if you read them closely: violence is at their basis.

“An eye for an eye,” reads the Bible, or a “tooth for a tooth” may look fair on the surface but when you strip away the veneer of justice, you still have the basis of western thought – violence in the defense of justice is okay.

Yet, is it the nature of the world? Author Pinker, whose many graphs and charts prove otherwise, shows that mankind can learn from its mistakes. Indeed, he shows that, at its root, violence or as some have termed it “man’s inhumanity to man,” has declined over the many millennia that humankind has been living in civilized cities and close quarters. Where once a tribe or or group of fighters could settle everything in an open draw, fighting until the last man standing delivered the news to the King, when you move to a city, you can’t do that.

You have to learn to live and let live. As a perfect example, in 15th Century Europe the challenge and acceptance of the same would lead not only to a “legalized” form of murder as the challenged and challenger defended themselves, but then it would open the rest of each clan up to a blood libel that continued the feud for hundreds of years. As the countrified city gave way to the vertical city where people lived elbow to elbow, one had to learn to draw the line somewhere and it was often drawn just because of necessity. You cannot expect a city to grow and prosper if you are constantly going to be involved in feuds and violence. It detracts from the underlying nature of just living.

At its root this is what author Pinker, whose works have also appeared on the New York Time’s best-seller list, seems to be saying, although in a more scholarly fashion.

For a scholar, though, Prof. Pinker has a remarkable eye for the ironic and does know how to turn a playful phrase as his research is thorough and his writing is engrossing. He is one of those gifted writers who knows how to explain a topic that would seemingly be the fodder of coffee table books (those that everyone knows something about yet cannot put their finger on exactly what they know) and turns it into an exploration that is enjoyable to take.

He also proves that despite the seeming daily assault of mayhem that the Internet loves to bath us in, the incidents are small and disconnected and no longer part of society as a whole.

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