Day By Day

Thursday, September 29, 2011

Pinker and the Progression of Peace

Something I have been blogging about for several years now  -- the progressive decline in violence -- has finally hit the mainstream. World-class self promoter, Steven Pinker, has started to publicize it, so expect to see a lot of commentary on the phenomenon in coming months. Pinker writes:
Believe it or not—and I know most people do not—violence has been in decline over long stretches of time, and we may be living in the most peaceful time in our species' existence. The decline of violence, to be sure, has not been steady; it has not brought violence down to zero (to put it mildly); and it is not guaranteed to continue. But I hope to convince you that it's a persistent historical development, visible on scales from millennia to years, from the waging of wars and perpetration of genocides to the spanking of children and the treatment of animals.
Pinker identifies six major periods [actually processes] that promoted pacification:

-- The rise of hegemonic states that suppressed tribal warfare.
-- The centralization of power in national states, which suppressed brigandage, feudal conflict, and feuds by establishing an effective monopoly on violence
-- From the eighteenth century on centralized states have gradually abjured various violent practices [torture, slavery, death penalty, etc.]. Pinker attributes this humanitarian imperative to a rise in literacy which promoted an "enlightened" attitude first in Europe, then elsewhere.
-- The dramatic rise in world population associated with the industrial revolution which meant that even huge death tolls, such as were seen in the world wars,  only affected a relatively small proportion of the total population.
-- The "long peace" that emerged after the world wars during which there have been no wars between major states. Pinker attributes this to the rise in the number of democratic regimes, the swelling of global trade and economic interdependence, and the influence of international organizations. I would cite other causes -- the balance of nuclear terror, the collapse of Soviet subversion efforts, and the expansion of American power -- but agree that recent decades have been perhaps the most peaceful in the human experience.
-- finally Pinker points to the "rights revolution" of recent decades that resulted in a decline of violence directed against ethnic minorities, women, children, sexual deviants, etc. [although I would see this more as a consequence and extension of the "enlightenment" process he outlined earlier, rather than a new development].

Pinker then identifies what he considers to be the causes of the long trend toward peace, both international and domestic. They are the rise of the leviathan state; the expansion of free trade; and the development of popular cosmopolitanism associated with the rise of literacy and global communication.

It's an interesting piece, one with which I largely agree. Take some time to read it, or listen to Pinker's lecture here.

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