Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Five books on the decline of violence

Steven Pinker's new book is The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined.

With Daisy Banks at The Browser, he discussed five books on the decline of violence, including:
The Remnants of War by John Mueller

Next is John Mueller’s The Remnants of War. The author, like you, thinks that war is in decline.

Not only is Mueller unfailingly insightful as a political analyst, but he is a stylish writer with a sardonic wit. In several books he has argued that war between states, particularly war between developed states, is almost obsolete. Though civil wars and clashes between militias persist, they shade into organised crime, and do far less human damage than two organised states mustering their might to destroy each other. Mueller first made this argument in the late 1980s, before the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War. He deserves credit for noticing the trend before it had come to fruition. He has been vindicated by statistics on wars in the decades since, which have shown that, in contrast to millennia of recorded history, today there are few wars between states and no wars between developed states.

Mueller connects the repugnance of advanced countries towards war to a general humanitarian current that also led to the abandonment of slavery, foot binding, torture-executions, laughing at the insane and beating naughty children. In the West, war is no longer seen, as it was until World War I, as “noble, uplifting, virtuous, glorious, heroic, exciting, beautiful, holy, thrilling”. Now it is “immoral, repulsive, uncivilised, futile, stupid, wasteful, and cruel”.

And yet the UK and the US are engaged in wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, where torture is taking place. So war is still happening, if not to the same extent as before.

Quantitatively, there’s no comparison. Almost 60,000 Americans were killed in Vietnam, but less than a tenth of that number have been killed in Iraq and Afghanistan combined. Two to three million Vietnamese died, compared with some 130,000 Iraqis and 15,000 Afghans – the vast majority at the hands of their countrymen, not the Americans or the British. And this is to say nothing of the tens of millions killed in the World Wars.

There is always a public debate about bodybags coming home, and whether the public can stomach it.

That’s very much a cause of the phenomenon. Even in America, the most truculent modern democracy, voters no longer tolerate massive casualties.

How else do you explain why the world is becoming more peaceful?

One part of the explanation is that Hobbes got it mostly right. A disinterested judiciary and government with a monopoly on violence damps down cycles of revenge and vendetta, by taking people out of the role of their own judge, jury and executioner – in which they are bound to favour their own interests. If you put justice in the hands of a disinterested observer, disputes can be settled and aggression deterred, without cycles of revenge.

And one reason why we believe things are more violent these days has surely got to do with perception. We think of the world as violent because we see violence all the time in the media.

Yes, that’s a large reason for the illusion that violence has increased. The human mind estimates probability from the ease with which it can recall examples. And since, in absolute terms, there will always be enough shootings to fill the evening news, as the news media becomes more effective at beaming images of violence to us we will naturally conclude that violence has gotten more prevalent. Perception is disconnected from the statistics.
Read about another book Pinker tagged at The Browser.

Learn more about Steven Pinker's most important books and Steven Pinker's five best list of books that explore human nature.

--Marshal Zeringue