Published on Truthout (http://www.truth-out.org)
Violence and Evolution: Where Do We Stand?
Wednesday 28 December 2011
by: Michael Nagler, Truthout | Op-Ed
(Photo: Paul Jacobson / Flickr )
How do we measure violence?
The question has come up because of recent studies by Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker, featured on TED, among other venues, which seem to show that, contrary to common opinion, violence has been steadily decreasing by a number of measures for several millennia.
Some of these measures are, at first sight, impressive, like the decrease in genocides and combat deaths and, of course, this is something we would very much like to believe. The reality, however, is more complicated.
So, to our question: how do we measure violence? Professor Pinker cites the fact that combat deaths are decreasing over a relatively recent time period. There are several reasons not to take this statistic at face value. First, as others have pointed out, it ignores the phenomenon of structural violence: inequalities built into the social system that cause death as surely as bullets. Gandhi once said, "it little matters to me whether you shoot a man or starve him to death by inches." And as Johan Galtung, to whom we owe the term structural violence, has shown, this kind of violence is increasing severely (hence the rise of the 99 percent!).
But let's go further. In the American Civil War, eight out of ten wounded soldiers died of their wounds (and they were primarily soldiers; now, the main victims in war are increasingly civilians). Today, with far more sophisticated medical technologies, that figure is probably more like one or two out of ten. In other words, a decrease in combat deaths is not a decrease in violence, which has its primary dimension in the human heart. If I shoot a man with the intention to kill him, I do not suffer less violence in my heart when he happens not to die of his wounds. Indeed, this sanitization of violence has arguably enabled, rather than reduced violence. And of that sanitization, there are now horrible examples in drone warfare and other technologies of remote killing that separate, or seem to separate, men and women from the effects and the meaning of their actions.
With regrets, we have to go further still. Look, for example, at a study done in the
Fortunately, human consciousness is not static. There are patterns of growing sensitivity clearly discernible in all human communities over the long span of time - growth in what we might call moral awareness, or the awareness of connectedness among fellow beings (and, ultimately, the planet that nurtures us). Slavery was accepted from the time of the ancient Greeks, at least; then, a group of Quakers stood up to it in
Because of this trend toward greater awareness, an act of violence can actually be more violent than it was 100 years ago: its wrongness has become more evident - as
But now let's turn the coin over. While violence has been increasing, by what I consider the more meaningful measures listed above, so has its opposite. Nonviolence has been increasing dramatically in the years since Gandhi and King, as anyone passing through
The world is not a safer place in the sense that Professor Pinker has taken to mean, but it will be a safer place if we build on that alternative.
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"The master class has always declared the wars; the subject class has always fought the battles. The master class has had all to gain and nothing to lose, while the subject class has had nothing to gain and everything to lose--especially their lives." Eugene Victor Debs