Pinker, 2007. The surprising decline in Violence [TED Talks].
According to experimental psychologist Steven Pinker, over thousands of years, violence has diminished so much that the current era could be considered the most peaceful in the history of mankind. Although he admits that brutality has not been totally eradicated, and that it’s probably not possible to guarantee the eradication of violence, Pinker compares the statistical figures of earlier times with those of ours to defend the idea of that we are in a privileged historical moment.
Adhering or not to this thesis may depend on the way each of us perceive reality: there will be those who agree that, despite some isolated facts or one or many outbreaks of violence in some regions of the world, we have actually been "blessed by unprecedented levels of peaceful coexistence". On the other hand, there will also be those who think that crime, terrorism, murders, infanticide or crimes motivated by homophobia, misogyny and even xenophobia are not only recurrent, but have been increasing.
Those who share the first point of view are usually among those who embrace a utopian rationality, and maintain an unconditional faith in the powers of Social hierarchies as suppliers of laws and regulators of society. However, the commitment to a more rational and civilized world does not prevent to point out that in Pinker's proposal there are several debatable aspects. The statistics to which he resorts, for example, can’t be an absolute indicator to obtain such conclusion since they never portray the true totality of the crimes committed. On the other hand, his vision pays little attention to countries such as Mexico or certain countries in Africa or the Middle East where violence has increased almost in a savage manner along with methods of torture and annihilation of the Mexican cartels or groups like Boko Haram and the Islamic State, that have recently caught the attention of international media.
The main problem with Pinker's thesis, however, is its very definition of the concept of "violence". Pinker admits that he has defined what he refers to when he talks about violence, sticking to the definition of The American Heritage Dictionary: "the behavior or treatment where physical force is exerted for the purpose of causing harm or injury". Pinker also clarifies that it focuses on violence against sentient beings: homicide, outrage, rape, robbery and kidnapping, which have been committed by individuals, groups or institutions (in the latter case, wars, genocide, corporal and capital punishment, deliberate famines). Without this delimitation in effect, its study would seem incomprehensible.
It is possible that, in effect, the type of violence to which Pinker alludes is less frequent now than in ancient societies. However, we should ask ourselves if one of the reasons for the supposed decline of these forms of violence would be that we have moved towards more subtle and discreet ones. It is understood that for academic reasons the phenomenon to be studied must be limited. However, the omission of other types of violence in this case could be serious, since it points to a defect in the way in which Pinker presents his thesis: it may not necessarily be that violence has diminished, but that today it’s exercised in a more silent and sophisticated way with the same, or even greater, degree of cruelty.
Human, as every psychoanalyst knows, is in this constant crucifixion with his worst innate impulses - selfishness, fury, greed, and so on - and his best. Pinker gives us hope that perhaps some day our best qualities will triumph, taking into account that a great reason for the decline of violence is social pressure - that moral, social contract that forces us to repress those less desirable impulses. The true effect is expressed in lower crime rates, and a lower incidence of social turmoil.
Human aggression is a biologically adapted behavior, a part of our survival instincts that we share with other animals, but, unlike these, humans also experience violence - a kind of conscious aggression that is related to creative power. Throughout the history of mankind we have managed to cultivate a relatively more peaceful coexistence. Today we have the advanced concepts of "human rights" and "global consciousness" to shield us from chaos. There is also a struggle to protect the planet at the same time that others continue to decimate it. But what Pinker achieves to remind us is what we have seen throughout this course: the enormous capacity for growth that we have as a species. We are unique animals, “moldable” from birth, which have developed a series of social contracts and moral values that evolve according to a very specific context. Perhaps that’s the key to Utopia.
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Thanks for reading.
Pinker, 2011. Violence Vanquished. The Wall Street Journal. https://www.wsj.com/articles/SB10001424053111904106704576583203589408180
Pinker, 2015. Frequently Asked Questions about The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined. Department of Psychology, Harvard University. https://stevenpinker.com/pages/frequently-asked-questions-about-better-angels-our-nature-why-violence-has-declined
Sapolsky R. 2006. A Natural History of Peace. Foreign Affairs 85:104-120. http://opim.wharton.upenn.edu/~sok/papers/s/sapolsky-foreignaffairs-2006.pdf