Pinker: Pollyanna of Peace?

A man and his son are pushing a shopping cart with their belongings across a devastated American landscape. There has been a global catastrophe, and the few survivors cling to a meager existence. Ruthless gangs roam the ruined cities in search of food. Nothing grows, the animals have all died, and the canned goods have nearly run out, so cannibalism has become the default option. In this world drenched in violence, human interaction is mediated almost solely by rod and gun. As they trek westward to the coast, the father tells his son that they are the carriers of the fire, that they are the good guys, that they must blunder on until they meet the other good guys. The boy struggles to understand, for his experience of survival has been full of pain and hunger and death. At one point, he asks his father plaintively how the two of them could possibly be good guys since they haven’t actually helped anyone on their journey. Short of utter annihilation, it’s the bleakest future imaginable.

Cormac McCarthy’s The Road is a modern classic of post-apocalypse fiction. It depicts the effects of a great burst of violence, perhaps a nuclear attack, and then the horrific violence that the survivors visit upon themselves. The science fiction genre once produced a plethora of utopian narratives – Edward Bellamy’s Looking Backward, Charlotte Perkins Gillman’s Herland, H.G. Wells’ Men Like Gods. But after the great bloodlettings of the 20th century, the genre became a great deal darker. The future was no longer an island paradise but instead a totalitarian state (1984), a planet decimated by disease (The Stand), or a world so degraded by nuclear war that even language had begun to devolve (Riddley Walker). Published in the post-9/11 era, The Road reflects a resurgent anxiety over the barbarism that lies just around the corner and just beneath the surface.

This anxiety over an impending barbarism is reflected in headlines that trumpet the threat of nuclear terrorism, melting icebergs, paralyzing pandemics, and disappearing food stocks. If the promise of future cataclysm doesn’t raise your blood pressure, then there’s all the daily global violence to which we’ve become dangerously inured. The Syrian government has killed thousands of protestors. War drags on in Somalia. The narcobattles in Mexico have left tens of thousands dead. The insurgencies in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Iraq continue. Nigeria is on the verge of civil war. Each year we build a new addition to the charnel house of contemporary life.

Virtually everything we read in novels and newspapers, not to mention the video games we play and the Hollywood movies we watch, reminds us that we’re steeped in violence and that it’s only going to get worse.

Everything, that is, except Steven Pinker.

In his new book, The Better Angels of Our Nature, the Harvard psychologist urges us to ignore what we read, what we see, and what our common sense is telling us. The world is not getting more violent. In fact, as Pinker meticulously documents in his 800-page opus, the world has become demonstrably less violent. More to the point, this development is not simply a matter of happenstance. It is a victory, at least in part, of peace, human rights, and humanitarian movements.

Pinker knows that his argument is counter-intuitive. “In a century that began with 9/11, Iraq, and Darfur, the claim that we are living in an unusually peaceful time may strike you as somewhere between hallucinatory and obscene,” he writes at the outset. Moreover, the 20th century was one horrific atrocity after another: the Armenian genocide, World War I, the Soviet famine, World War II, the Holocaust, the Great Leap Forward, civil wars in Indonesia and Guatemala, conflicts in Congo and Chechnya, the genocides in Rwanda and Bosnia, a seemingly endless march of folly. Not only did humanity’s thirst for cruelty seem unquenchable over the last century but new technologies made mass annihilation even easier.

Pinker challenges this received wisdom by looking not simply at the number of deaths in these conflicts but assessing them relative to overall population. Using this technique, he discovers that only one 20th century conflict – World War II – makes it into the top ten all-time atrocities. The Mongol conquests of the 13th century, the slave trade, the fall of Rome: these all had proportionately larger death tolls. And however violent the first half of the 20th century might have been, a “long peace” has since prevailed that has gradually reduced the destructiveness of war. “In 1950 the average armed conflict (of any kind) killed thirty-three thousand people,” he writes. “In 2007 it killed less than a thousand.”

It’s not just war. Practices like slavery and torture, although they still exist, are nowhere near as pervasive as they once were. The rate of homicide has dropped precipitously over the centuries in Europe and the United States. Violence against women, against homosexuals, even against animals has all become less and less socially acceptable. At the same time, we romanticize the past, forgetting the overwhelming violence of previous eras. Pinker goes into great detail, indeed perhaps too much detail, about these earlier cruelties. You think boxing is barbaric? Consider the popular medieval game of tying a cat to a post and taking turns trying to kill it with your forehead. Unlike cats, it seems, humans have only recently been domesticated.

Pinker points to two main reasons for this decline in violence. The state’s monopoly on violence has reduced the lawlessness that encourages everyday aggression. And civil movements have gradually humanized society from below. In Bury the Chains, Adam Hochschild chronicles the first modern human rights movement that formally abolished slavery in the British Empire in the 19th century. Following this example, activists have progressively altered the practices of states and of societies by launching campaigns against child soldiers, against domestic violence, against torture, against the death penalty.

Pinker makes a sweeping argument. And although he marshals much quantitative data to prove his assertions, his analysis is not without flaws. Why, for instance, should we take solace in the face that the atrocities of the 20th and 21st century rate low in the list of history’s worst cataclysms merely on the basis of percentage of population? Surely other factors should be taken into consideration, such as the duration of the killing, its geographic spread, and its temporal proximity to other great tragedies. Even though the state may well be “the most consistent violence-reducer,” as Pinker argues, it has also acted in the service of various ideologies to perpetuate enormous atrocities, from the Holocaust to the great famine in China to the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Governments kill, as I have argued in the past, and that rule applies to democracies as well.    

Pinker also endorses a rather tenuous correlation between the free market and peace. His book doesn’t seriously engage the question of the violence that corporations inflict on the world. Businesses are responsible not only for specific tragedies like the Union Carbide gas leak at Bhopal in 1984 that killed several thousand immediately and tens of thousands eventually. They cause scores of deaths related to environmental damage, workplace conditions, and product defects. Commerce may play a role in reducing inter-state violence – countries with McDonalds restaurants and complex trade relations tend not to attack each other – but a military conflict between China and the United States can break out just as surely as war pitted the two major trade partners Germany and Britain in 1914. And, as Timothy Snyder points out in Foreign Affairs, Pinker’s definition of violence doesn’t take into account the potential for our economic system to unleash immense violence in the future through resource depletion, vast inequalities, and global warming.

Pinker is an Enlightenment liberal, and he lavishly praises “civilization” throughout his book. He seems to have forgotten that “civilization” often replaces one type of violence with another. The violence of the civilizing empire, the violence of the civilizing state, and the violence of the civilizing economy push aside more localized violence. The different tribes of Native Americans didn’t exactly live in harmony before 1492, but the bringing of “civilization” to the natives raised the magnitude of violence from skirmishes to genocide. We can acknowledge the overall reduction of violence over the centuries even as we remain clear-eyed about the wages of civilization.

For all his questionable generalizations, Pinker asks important questions. Conservatives have often claimed that human nature is immutable, that social programs designed to improve the lot of humanity will always come up against the essentially sinful disposition of mankind. Progressives, on the other hand, argue that human nature is more plastic. Pinker’s arguments about the reduction of violence, even if it must be amended by significant caveats, suggest that collective effort over the centuries has indeed changed the way we act and, indeed, the way we are. The peace movement, the social justice movement, the human rights movement: these enterprises have not just succeeded in curtailing or stopping specific incidents of violence and injustice, they have contributed to an overall transformation of society. For this reason, Pinker’s work should serve as a starting point for a new generation of peace studies.

But we progressives, for all our utopian or merely ameliorative aspirations, tend to be a gloomy lot. If we’re not going on about the coming apocalypse, we’re focused on the everyday horrors that confront the world. When was the last time a progressive told you that the world was getting better? Maybe for a few days after the Berlin Wall fell or the end of apartheid; maybe for a few hours after the election of Barack Obama. We are not Pollyannas. And we tend to look at the Pinkers of this world as hopelessly naïve.

But Pinker is not a Pollyanna. He is careful to point out that if conditions change, violence will return. “Though I am confident that human sacrifice, chattel slavery, breaking on the wheel, and wars between democracies will not make a comeback anytime soon,” he concludes, “to predict that the current levels of crime, civil war, or terrorism will endure is to sally into territory where angels fear to tread.” If our current movements to reduce the scope of violence continue, however, there is reason to believe that Pinker’s trajectory will continue as well.

In much apocalyptic literature, the “good guys” discover some community at the end that represents the kernel of a new society, the phoenix that rises from the ashes. In The Road, the father and the son never find such a society. But the book’s denouement suggests that despite all the violence endured by father and son, the fire of humanity they have carefully tended will not die out.

In his own way, Steven Pinker offers us his version of the fire of humanity and demonstrates that despite all of the horrors of the last 100 years, we can keep it going and pass it on to the next generation through our committed activism. Is that being a Pollyanna? No. That’s being human.

Subscribe to FPIF's World Beat here. Sign up with FPIF on Facebook. Follow FPIF on Twitter.