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Can’t believe it

Claude Fischer, professor of sociology | February 14, 2012

In the flurry of reviews – and comments on the reviews – of Stephen Pinker’s recent book, The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined, I spy a frequent complaint. (Here is my own analysis of Pinker, in the Boston Review.) The book’s central claim is that rates of killing, attacks, brutality, and war have — even given the 20th century’s world wars and genocides — sharply declined over human history. He must be wrong, the critics assert. He has miscounted, or used sleight of hand, or willfully ignored what is obvious to all, they say: that violence is up.

angel stained glass


Why are such critics so intent on, so earnest in, defending the view that our time – this decade, the past century, the modern era – is the most violent time? The historical record is clear, as I noted in an earlier post, that rates of violence – and sadism and physical abuse – are at the lowest ever, at least in the West. And violence has been in a long, although unsteady, decline even in the United States (see here). This is not a controversial conclusion among scholars. Why do so many people nonetheless disbelieve?


A few critics object to Pinker’s basic assumption, that we need to compare rates of violence: the number of killings or attacks per person in any given historical era. They point out that, with vastly more people in the world, the total amountof violence on Earth must be higher now than in, say, in Roman or Medieval times. Perhaps, but that is a foolish objection. By that logic, there must also be far more loving acts, incidents of charity, and moments of compassion now than in earlier times. Clearly, we need to compare rates of violence, the chances that a person will be the victim of violence, in different periods.

Other critics want to widen the notion of violence to encompass not just physical acts against people, but also indirect damage of all kinds, like environmental degradation, or violence against other species, such as eating meat. Certainly, readers can redefine the word “violence” as they wish, but then they are not addressing the topic of Pinker’s book, which is the physical violence of humans against one another.

Some critics point to what might be called metaphoric or emotional violence, such as racial hatred, homophobia, and suppression of women. Pinker does address some of these animosities, not because he considers them to be violence, but as precursors to violence. He demonstrates, convincingly, that the rates of such hostile attitudes have also greatly declined.

Then there are critics who insist that Pinker must be wrong simply because violence continues. Of course it does. But that does not negate the claim that it is less likely than before. Finally, some just reject Pinker and his data as “obviously” false, because they sense the violence of the world around them; it just feels greater than in the past.

I, too, have objections to The Better Angels of Our Nature. But my objections are not really about the basic story line. As I pointed out here, it’s been long-known and oft-reported by social historians. (My criticisms center on Pinker’s muddled efforts to explain what happened.) Why do so many reviewers and review readers resist the finding that violence has declined?

Rhetoric and justification

For many critics, the implicit reason seems to be the belief that acknowledging the decline in violence undermines the effort to curtail violence. If it looks as though we’re headed in the right direction, then the argument for doing something  different seems to lose urgency. Metta Spencer, a Canadian sociologist and long-time peace activist, noted, “Oddly, most of my peacenik friends cannot BEAR the idea that violence is diminishing . . . . I think they assume that such upbeat convictions would undermine any motivation to work for peace or democracy or disarmament.” This is not a logical objection. We applaud the decline in, say, deaths from TB or heart disease while supporting efforts to push those deaths rates yet closer to zero. Similarly we can appreciate the drop in violence, but work to reduce its still too-high level. Many people, however, seem psychologically to need a sense that things are collapsing in order to justify action.

Framing social problems as a decline or loss is common on both right and left. Many on the right, for understandable reasons, talk about “restoring” an America that they value (examples: Romney’s oxymoron “Restore Our Future” superPAC, Rick Perry’s “Make Us Great Again” superPAC). They want to “return” to what seems (at least in rosy hindsight) a better time. But the left does, too. They often explicitly or implicitly claim that capitalism has robbed us of a more communal, non-alienated past. Historically, American defenders of workers and farmers have argued for regaining lost rights (e.g., here and here). Put simply, for many people things have to be getting worse in order to energize concern; just trying to make things better seems insufficient motivation.

Looking even more deeply, this common reaction may reflect the psychological habit labeled “loss aversion” — that people react more strongly to the possible loss of some value than to possible gain of the very same value. The rhetoric of loss may be powerful because it plays on that mental bias.

Or perhaps this disbelief in the violent past arises, as sociologist Ann Swidler suggests, in a failure of historical imagination. We moderns take security so much for granted — a business person traveling from one city to another does not need to hire a set of bodyguards –  that we assume it must have ever been so. The violence of today appears as a new and disturbing violation of the normal.

Story lines

The Fall, Sistine Chapel

Sistine Chapel

Insisting on seeing today’s violence as a descent from an early age of peace might also be understood as one more manifestation of a classical “plot” or “trope” in American culture. (See historian Hayden White’s Metahistory on the archetypal plots of western thought.) A common American trope is a New World version of the “fall from grace.” In a reprise of “The Fall,” we once lived in a harmonious, Edenic world. But we have sinned and been cast out. Puritan ministers over 300 years ago were already chastising their congregants by bemoaning their “declension” from the sounders’ age. Secular versions of the declension story have proliferated to our times. Pinker’s history of violence directly challenges that trope.

Whatever the possible sources of the resistance to the news that violence has been in long-term decline, the frequent reactions to this piece of social science illustrates (again) the way we see history through tinted, distorting glasses.

Cross-posted from Claude Fischer’s blog, Made in America: Notes on American life from American history.