On the State and Future of Violence

On the State and Future ViolenceGB picks the brain of one of the world’s brainiest on the roles of government, civilization and culture in disciplining man’s brutality.

GB In historical terms, how violent is today’s world?

SP Not very. The median homicide rate across countries in the world in the first decade of the 21st century was around six per 100,000 people per year. Compare this to the homicide rate in medieval Europe of around 50 – in some places, as high as 100 – or to the rate of violent death in tribal societies, which exceeds 500. If you count not just homicides, but try to estimate all of the violent deaths, the global average is around eight. That is much better than in the 20th century, where a very pessimistic estimate of the human damage from all wars, genocides and war-induced and man-made famines was around 60 (not counting the homicides). No matter how you measure the mayhem, the present stands out as exceptionally peaceful.

GB Why is the present so much more peaceful than the last century?

SP Bruce Russett and John Oneal have presented evidence to the effect that Kant got it right more than 200 years ago when he proposed that democracy, trade and international institutions are, in general, pacifying forces. All of these have shot up during the past 65 years, and all are statistical predictors of peaceable relations – holding other factors constant. Also, thanks to technologies of easy transportation and communication, we are living in a global village in which the lives of others are more immediate to us. The cliché that the Vietnam war was unpopular because it was the first war to be brought into people’s living rooms may well have some truth to it. More nebulously, there have been ideological changes. Utopian ideologies that exalt the nation, race, religion or class above the individual are slowly being superseded by a humanism that puts the flourishing of individuals first.

GB What is the most violent part of the globe, and why?

SP There is a crescent of armed conflict extending from sub-Saharan Africa through to the Middle East and Southwest Asia, into Southeast Asia. It is hard to pinpoint the causes of the violence because, across countries, bad things tend to go together: extreme poverty; bad governments; illiteracy and ignorance; lack of commercial infrastructure; marginalization of women; bulges of young men; and militant Islamist, nationalist and Marxist ideologies.

GB Are human beings violent animals – at their core – or might some be born magnanimous?

SP We all have competing tendencies that go in different directions, though the mix varies from person to person. Most people harbour violent revenge fantasies, and enjoy seeing these acted out in plays and films. People can easily be swept into a rampage going on around them. We have inherited circuits in the brain from our furry ancestors that make us lash out in rage. On the other hand, we are also equipped with faculties that pull us away from violence – what Lincoln called “the better angels of our nature” – such as empathy, self-control, a moral sense, and reason.

GB How do these tendencies change in the collective?

SP Every culture has norms and taboos that govern people’s sense of what makes for a decent and honourable person. Over the millennia, a ‘culture of honour,’ in which a man had to respond to any affront with violence in order to maintain a credible deterrent, has given way to a ‘culture of dignity,’ in which a man has to control his passions in order to distance himself from boors, peasants and roughnecks. Moreover, in most societies, the range of groups that are considered to be within one’s circle of concern and empathy has steadily increased. In respectable company, one can no longer make casual jokes about rape, the beating of women or children, or the laziness or stupidity of racial minorities. Yet another proliferation of individual psychology into collective norms is the range of behaviours that are considered morally punishable. By default, the human mind is apt to moralize a vast range of behaviours, including deference to authority, conformity to social conventions, as well as spiritual and physical purity. With the spread of modernity and liberal humanism, the sphere of legitimate moral concerns has been shrinking to just respect for autonomy, avoidance of harm, and the enforcement of fairness. Paradoxically, less morality means less violence, as there are fewer grounds for legitimate punishment of ‘sinners’ like blasphemers, heretics, pacifists, social critics, homosexuals, and unchaste sisters and daughters. Some of the sectors of the world that have maintained the greatest amount of traditional morality are sectors with a great deal of violence.

GB How violent will the world of the next 20 to 30 years be?

SP Only a charlatan could answer that question with confidence. Many trends are pushing in the direction of non-violence: an increased abhorrence of war among developed states; taboos against invasion, conquest and the use of nuclear weapons; the decline of militant communism; pent-up demand for democracy; and the empowerment of women. On the other hand, there are several known unknowns: militant Islamism; environmental degradation; revanchist movements in Russia or China; Chavismo movements in the developing world­. There are even more unknown unknowns: a kook with a nuke; or an eschatological ideology fermenting in the mind of a cunning fanatic – somewhere – who will take over a major country and plunge the world back into war.

GB Are the sources of human violence likely to change in the foreseeable future?

SP It is possible – though by no means necessary – that climate change will lead to wars over water or arable land, or over incompetent governments that cannot feed their populations. Perhaps the male-dominated cohorts of the girl-aborting countries in Asia will make trouble. Ideologies are a wild card: the human mind is inventive in coming up with reasons to demonize and dehumanize other groups.

GB Are modern electronic or social media enablers of new ideologies, or do they make their development more difficult?

SP In general – though not always – freedom of speech and communication have been liberalizing and pacifying forces. The explosion of printing and literacy in the 17th and 18th centuries preceded the Enlightenment and its associated humanitarian revolution, which saw the abolition of slavery, judicial torture, blood sports, duelling, witch-hunts and other barbaric practices. The electronic revolution in the 1950s and 1960s probably contributed to the civil rights revolution and the rebirth of Western pacifism. Sunlight is the best disinfectant, and open exchange of ideas can debunk toxic theories – such as that witches cause crop failures, Jews poison the wells or control the world economy, infidels go to hell, Africans are animalistic, and so on. Also, new and old social media can help to solve the collective action problem, in which no single member of a large class of dissidents is willing to stand up alone and be picked off by government goons, whereas a large number who agree to rise up at once can challenge even the strongest government. No one can really predict whether Al-Jazeera, Facebook and cell phones will lead to Arab democracy, but many historians believe that the European and American Enlightenments were made possible by the Republic of Letters and the networks of coffee houses and pubs in cosmopolitan cities.

GB Should political leaders be more concerned, as a matter of policy, with intra-state murder rates or the prospect of inter-state wars?

SP If they are concerned about minimizing violent deaths, they should be concerned with the extremes at each end of the destruction scale: the large number of murders – each with a death toll of one – and the small chance of really big wars – such as the two world wars in the last century – with death tolls in the millions or tens of millions. The sum of the deaths from all the deadly quarrels in the middle – riots, skirmishes, small and medium-sized wars – are dwarfed by the murders and world wars.

GB Are states still the lead players in minimizing intra- and inter-state violence? What are the roles, in this new century, of other players?

SP Decent governments with a competent and reasonably non-corrupt police and judiciary are probably the best safeguards against individual and gang violence within their borders. However, the international community has increasingly played a role. Engagement with the world economy lowers the risk of civil war and genocide. Belonging to intergovernmental organizations lowers the risk of entering into inter-state wars. And peacekeepers from the UN and other international bodies are provably effective in preventing civil wars from reigniting, as Joshua Goldstein shows in his new book, Winning the War on War.

GB Would a world with zero political violence necessarily be a good thing?

SP As long as it did not come at the price of an increase in non-political violence (homicides, slavery, warlordism), then yes. Canada and the US – to take a ready example – do not seem to have suffered any harm from having had no political violence between them for a couple of centuries.

GB Might political violence – say, in the form of humanitarian interventions – still be necessary to address some of the non-political violence you mention?

SP It will be interesting to see whether the world’s governments will develop a systematic framework for humanitarian interventions – analogous to the way in which a decent criminal justice system reduces violence within countries. World government remains a fantasy of science-fiction fans, and neither the UN General Assembly (a soapbox for despots) nor the Security Council (with two authoritarian behemoths wielding vetoes) will assume the role – though, as mentioned, it is important to recognize the effectiveness of peacekeeping forces. It is possible that the world’s democracies are groping and bumbling their way toward implementing a consistent and coherent ‘Responsibility to Protect’ policy. One of the impediments is ‘Black-Hawk-Down’ casualty dread, which seems to have chilled enthusiasm for interventions in non-strategic failed states. We do not yet have a culture of awe and adulation for the courage and sacrifice of peacekeepers and humanitarian interveners as we have had for millennia for aggressive warriors. Another impediment is a well-founded nervousness about unilateral interventions – or lopsided coalitions of the willing – such as in the last Iraq war, where it is not easy to distinguish the self-deluded or self-interested motives of a single leader from a legitimate and disinterested humanitarian intervention. A third is the necessary contradiction between the principles of sovereignty and of human rights: on the one hand, it is generally a good thing when borders are sacrosanct and the temptation of irredentist, imperialistic or opportunistic conquest is taken off the table; on the other, we do not cede to despots carte blanche to murder their citizens with impunity. These are not necessarily insoluble problems, but they certainly are difficult ones.

GB Is non-violence an effective strategy for dealing with violence, or is it patently naive?

SP When it comes to individual predators and thugs, deterrence and incapacitation are probably indispensable. But when it comes to organized political change, then non-violent movements are more effective – at least statistically. According to Max Abrahms, at least 93 percent of terrorist movements fail, whereas only two-thirds of movements that rely on economic sanctions fail. And, according to Erica Chenoweth and Maria Stephan, half of non-violent protest movements succeed, whereas only a quarter of the violent ones do. This is seldom appreciated, because people just rack their brains for examples, and so the violent ones dominate. Only if you compile statistics will you discover how effective non-violence can be.

GB Why this apparent potency of non-violence?

SP One eternal problem with violence is that it is attractive to many young men as a form of recreation, and as an opportunity to plunder and rape. So once a programme of violence is legitimated, it will draw in thugs and psychopaths, who will in turn corrupt the movement. Non-violent movements are less heart-poundingly thrilling: they attract a larger demographic – including women, older people, and moderate citizens of all kinds – and their followers tend to keep their eye on the original goals. A second problem is that violence invites retaliation, igniting a cycle in which each side – blinded by self-deception – believes that it is morally pure and only responding to a provocation from the other side, while third parties do not know whom to believe or trust. That impedes the recruitment of new members to the cause, as well as the support of external parties. Indeed, when a guerrilla or terrorist group escalates to violence against innocent civilians, large segments of the population support a brutal crackdown, figuring that the fighters are just out for senseless mayhem, and would be no better as leaders than the incumbents. By contrast, when a movement is consistently non-violent, and when all of the violence comes from government repression, the movement can mobilize an increasing proportion of the populace and peel away internal and external support from the other side. If, at the same time, the movement engages in non-violent resistance, it can frustrate the pretensions of the country’s leaders that they are presiding over a viable, well-functioning society. In this case, it has some probability – though of course, no guarantee – of prevailing.

GB Which trends in intra-state and inter-state violence concern you today?

SP Militant Islamism, irredentist nationalism, and vicious little Maoist movements – since ideologies can rack up high body counts. Tribal turf battles and score-settlings also concern me – particularly in post-Arab Spring countries. There is also the economic collapse of vulnerable poor countries, as well as countries with lopsided gender ratios and real or de facto polygyny.

GB Can ruthlessness in international politics yield any good at all?

SP Not that I can see – at least, if you distinguish ‘ruthlessness’ from resolve, deterrence and strength.

GB In intra-state dynamics (e.g. majority-minority scenarios), can ruthlessness ever lay the ground for eventual magnanimity?

SP This tends not to happen. The genocidal governments of the 20th century all came to power by murdering their opponents. Chenoweth and Stephan show that movements that gain power through violence are more likely to be oppressive and non-democratic once they are in place.

GB Are most revolutions – even ones that usher in peaceable or democratic governments – not born of violence?

SP You mean like the bloody ‘Canadian Revolution’ of 1867? I do not know of any statistical studies, but I suspect that democracies that grew out of acts of parliament, or out of Glorious, Velvet or colour revolutions, tend to have happier endings than those that grew out of regicides and insurrections. The American Revolution may be an exception that proves the rule. This was a violent revolution that did give the world a more or less democratic country, but at the start it contained the most undemocratic institution imaginable – slavery – which four score and seven years later led to the worst war in the country’s history. And even today, the US remains one of the more violent of the advanced democracies, with a high homicide rate and a pronounced tendency to get involved in wars.


Steven Pinker is Harvard College Professor of Psychology at Harvard University. He is the author of eight books, including The Language Instinct, How the Mind Works, and most recently, The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined.

(Photograph: Courtesy of Harvard University)

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