“The arc of the moral universe is long but it bends towards justice.” Fuzzy idealism? Steven Pinker in his new book The Better Angels of Our Nature has stats and graphs to prove Martin Luther King’s statement is true. Pinker’s key points: first, our perception that we live in extremely violent times, second, the actual fact that there is less violence between individuals than ever before in human history, and finally the reasons why violence has declined. I rejoice; there is hope for us humans.
Most people, living in an age of terrorism, would say we live in extremely violent times. Why do we have this perception of living in violent times? First, because we remember events that happened more recently, such as the slaughter of 76 people in Norway in July 2011. But only historians recall much about the Hundred Years War from 1337-1453, when the population of France shrank by about one-half.
Second, we have better reporting that extends world wide. Associated Press staff are better reporters than medieval monks. Third, our standards rise faster than our accomplishments. We get upset over executing tens of murderers in Texas by lethal injection, forgetting the millions who were burned at the stake. Fourth, it’s fashionable to romanticize non western European cultures; we don’t want to denigrate aboriginal peoples by calling them barbaric savages. (Note that the words “barbaric” and “savage” connote cruelty which we will see is a property of pre-state societies.) However, it’s not the people, it’s how they treat each other we’re opposing. Finally, no activist ever recruited volunteers or collected money by saying things are getting better.
But the facts say we have become less violent. Homicide used to be how we settled differences. The murder rate was forty times greater in medieval Europe than present day. Torture was routine to get confessions and you always got a confession even if you didn’t get the truth. Mutilation, as well as corporal punishments like flogging, stocks, and the pillory were standard punishments for infractions that today would only warrant a fine. Many more crimes were punishable by gruesome means of execution. Slavery with its concomitant violence was a labor saving device. Cruelty to animals and children was how you taught them something. Yes, 100 million people died in the two world wars of the 20th century, but if the same proportion died as die in hunter gatherer wars, we would have lost two billion people, twenty times as many.