Catching Up I: Charity Towards the Uncharitable

I’ve had a pretty demanding series of weeks where I couldn’t afford my usual distractedness, so the backlog of things I’ve been meaning to comment on is considerable.

To start, I had bookmarked a thread at Crooked Timber on Steven Pinker’s newest book that claims that violence is on the decline in human history. Chris Bertram and most of the CT commentariat is scornful of this argument, in no small measure because it’s Pinker making the argument. For the same reason, I’m also inclined to jump on the dogpile. Pinker usually assembles an army of straw men that could outnumber the terracotta soldiers in the biggest Chinese tomb, and makes them so flatteringly attired for the confidently preformed common sense of a certain kind of enthusiastic but unwary generalist reader that it takes either a withering dose of disproportionate snark or a patient long march of skeptical questioning about details and complexities to get people to look underneath the attractive exterior.

I haven’t read Pinker’s new book yet, but I can see from the CT thread and elsewhere that there are likely to be many assertions big and small in it that I’d challenge or question. Most of the CT commenters rightly zero in on the big epistemological and definitional problem that would haunt any book by any author that was intended to characterize the general arc of global history in terms of violence: what is violence, anyway? There are some very precise philosophical and empirical hairs to be split if you’re going to say that any number of state or official acts of violence are not ‘violence’, that the paucity of quantitative data about most areas of the world besides Western Europe and the United States justifies using the West as a metric of ‘universal’ trends, and on and on. Does every time a Belgian colonial official or plantation manager used the chicotte on an African worker or peasant count as one incidence of ‘violence’? It ought to. I am not going to put good odds on Pinker counting it as such. Does it count every time a parent slaps a child? A fistfight breaks out in a bar? A militia member loots at gunpoint? A Gitmo detainee gets waterboarded? An enforcer sticks a hockey forward? A bully menaces his victims without touching them?

And yet, there’s probably a version of Pinker’s argument that I would be perfectly ok with. As the commenter Soru says at CT, “Anyone who seriously thinks modern Norway is comparably violent than the land of the Vikings literally belongs in an institution, or at least under police watch so they don’t act on their belief.” The problem is that charting or counting or ennumerating violence is simply the wrong way to go about making that point.

I often struggle with how to think about premodern violence (whether we’re talking about 16th Century France or the Luba Empire or the expansion of Mongol rule). Something like the patented Foucauldian storyline of epistemic transformation seems to be in order: violence gets named and imagined and tracked and lived in and on the body in modern states in ways that almost can’t be compared to a variety of premodern ways of experiencing and understanding ‘violence’. And yet I don’t want to be a silly nominalist about this or any other point. There’s some continuity and relationship between getting killed by an iron spear hurled from a Hittite chariot and an incendiary dropped on Dresden, between a woman beaten by a spouse in a premodern household and a modern one, between murders in the night across time and space. People in any given premodern society may not have imagined violence categorically as we do, or connected to a particular belief in individual rights, or felt that moral progress was linked to the reduction or elimination of violent action. But just about no one ever has welcomed being beaten, tortured or murdered themselves, even if they were enthusiastic practictioners of beating, torture or murder.

The thing that seems right in some way to me is that modernity’s understanding and mapping of violence names it as a new kind of problem and connects it to new structures of power as well as to new kinds of self-fashioning and aspiration. Somewhere in there ‘progress’ beats yet, both as something which has happened and something which has yet to happen. It does seem to me to be important to not bury that lede in an avalanche of skepticism about the details–or the author.

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8 Responses to Catching Up I: Charity Towards the Uncharitable

  1. LFC says:

    As I remarked on the CT thread in question, there’s a difference betw. Pinker’s claim that “violence” has declined and the narrower claim that armed conflict has declined, since the end of WW2 and more dramatically since the end of the Cold War.

  2. Dave says:

    Indubitably, interpersonal violence, of the basic whack-ouch kind, has declined, on a curve that approaches secularity, for the last several hundred years at least, so far as historians can tell. See for example Pieter Spierenburg, A History of Murder; Personal Violence in Europe from the Middle Ages to the Present (2008); any of the many studies of duelling, or a book such as David Grimsted’s American Mobbing, 1828-1861; Toward Civil War (2003). How that relates to Pinker’s essentially speculative quest for reasons and implications is a whole other issue.

  3. Bill Benzon says:

    The thing that seems right in some way to me is that modernity’s understanding and mapping of violence names it as a new kind of problem and connects it to new structures of power as well as to new kinds of self-fashioning and aspiration.

    That’s fine. I rather suspect that has happened too–and you might even find evidence of same in Pinker (no, I’ve not read the book, but I’ve read articles of his on the subject).

    But if this understanding and mapping doesn’t result in a reduction in countable acts of violence, however you want to define them, then how do we know this understanding and mapping is of any value? Why should we care about new structures of power that keep up the same old regime of bodily harm on the citizenry? Maybe these new structures of power even make it worse–which is one of the strands that came up in the CT argument: Look at WWI and WWII, and the Stalinist purges, the Chinese revolution, Pol Pot, look at all that modern violence. Do some of those qualify as new structures of power?

    A number of people in that discussion DID say that, yeah, they thought Pinker was right, that violence had declined. And then went on confidently to argue that Pinker’s argument about it, however, must be nonsense because, as you said, Pinker made it.

    How could anyone possibly get the idea that Viking society was more violent than contemporary Scandinavia? I’m guessing it has something to do with informal intuitive guesstimates of numbers of violent acts one reads about in history books or sees in movies. Are you saying that such guesstimates are the best we can do, that they are, in fact, better than anything we could get by making the best explicit counts we can? Or, who knows, maybe there really IS no difference between contemporary Norway and Viking Norway with respect to violence. Maybe the apparent difference is mostly a matter of bad Hollywood movies, misleading comic books and ideologically driven historical accounts.

  4. I, too, haven’t read Pinker’s new book. But I’ve always been amused by spawn-of-Vikings countries and their reputed pacifism. I’ve always wondered whether all the truly violent (with violent alleles, violent parents, and influential, violent friends) tended to die at a higher rate than the more introspective Vikings that might also have been prone to seasickness. So even though some of the violent ones no doubt increased their personal fitness via rape, on average their strategy might have been evolutionarily short-sighted. The timid guys back home were, after all, the ones left hanging out with the women (FWB, etc.). In a similar way, albino native americans in some villages have a surprisingly high fitness because they don’t go outside like melanin-protected ones…they spend their time, inside being, um, productive. Anyway, I’m sure there are fascinating and true cultural and historical reasons that can fully explain modern day Norway, but I just wanted to mention the biological explanation. Probably has nothing to do with the Pinker book, with apologies.

  5. Brian J. says:

    @Colin It’s important to consider that ‘going viking’ was an activity predominantly practiced by the aristocracy, i.e. a relatively small proportion of the population. Most people were, indeed, staying home and being farmers or craft-workers.

  6. Tim Mason says:

    Pinker is not the first to have suggested that warfare is on the wane in recent times, or that it is related to the development of the state. See, for example, R. Brian Ferguson’s ‘Ten Points on War’, which you can access through his home page. Ferguson’s “Yanomamo Warfare” and his “War in the Tribal Zone” (a collection edited with Neil Whitehead), however, both offer antidotes to Pinker’s take on the question; state-formation and colonialism would appear, by this reading, to first lead to an upsurge in warfare, as the barbarians are brought to heel, ultimately leading to the creation of a semi-docile underclass.

    BTW, news today suggests that deaths in custody in the UK are far more likely among prisoners who are black or Irish.

  7. jerry hamrick says:

    Months ago, maybe more than a year ago, I saw Pinker on TV talking about one of his books. Toward the end, he was asked what new projects he had underway. He said that violence was in decline and his next book would give details. My immediate reaction was, “Huh?” With that, I got my clubs and headed for the golf course. In the last week or so I saw Pinker on BookTV talking about the new book. I was not impressed. It seemed to me that he offered nothing new. But still, I like Pinker, but I won’t buy this book.

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