A Cheerful View of Mass Violence

Some books make modest claims. Not this one. Steven Pinker says that the process he is tracing is perhaps “the most significant and least appreciated development in the history of our species.” Grand claims like this are often made in the spirit of a jeremiad: We are less civil (or less literate, virtuous, or thoughtful) than we used to be. Or we are in greater danger than we think because of global warming or nuclear terrorism—and my book explains why. But Pinker’s book is about the better angels of our nature. It is that rare creation: a long, sprawling, impassioned blockbuster that tells us how things are getting better, not worse. The world is less violent in more or less every respect—less murder, less war; people are less vicious in their criminality, less savage in their response to crime, and less violent in their religious enthusiasms.

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Jean-Christian Bourcart/Getty Images
Steven Pinker, Boston, Massachusetts, October 2005

Better Angels doesn’t just argue that the world is getting less violent. It also explains why: actually it offers layer after layer of understanding. Pinker’s explanations range from the apparently trivial, such as an increase in novel-reading (apparently a great source of interpersonal empathy) and an improvement in table manners (the imposition of a discipline of restraint in daily life where sharp instruments like knives are involved), to momentous causes like the invention of the state and the transformation of morality from ancient taboos to the “razor-sharp” arguments of writers such as Jeremy Bentham or Peter Singer.

If my experience is anything to go by, people respond to Pinker’s claims with some quite searching questions. The world is supposed to be getting less violent. Less violent than what? Less violent than we were a hundred years ago, a thousand years ago, or ten thousand years ago? Secondly, what does Pinker mean by violence? Does it include fear as well as mayhem, disruption as well as death, starvation as well as murder? A third question is the most common and it’s also the most indignant: What about Hitler? What about the world wars and genocides and the murderous tyrannies of the past hundred years?

Let’s take these questions in order. What is Pinker’s time frame? Much of the book is concerned with the ways in which we are less violent now than we were in the Middle Ages. Fourteenth-century records reveal that Oxford used to have a murder rate higher than 100 per 100,000 people every year. If you follow Inspector Morse on television,1 you might think it still does, in order to generate the two or three murders a week that that celebrated detective has to solve. In fact these days a real-life Morse would struggle to find more than a handful of murders every year in the jurisdiction of the Thames Valley Constabulary. For England as a whole the murder rate in 2008–2009 was 1.43 per 100,000—a hundredfold …

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  1. 1

    Inspector Morse, ITV Series, UK, 1987–2000.