Is the world really falling apart at it seams? Does disaster loom just over the horizon? Well, according to Steven Pinker: maybe, but probably not. It might seem that we are slowly etching our way towards 'doom' and 'catastrophe', but this is only because the media inflates every damned problem to high heaven. Ivanka Trumps fancy silver dress may not inspire confidence in her ability to recognise good taste, but its unlikely that her choice of attire will lead to nuclear fallout. Neither will her father's decision to fire Comey. Given the climate of eminent threat that is being forever flushed out the backsides of dominant news outlets, I think it is about time to get a fix on reality. So I've decided to write a guide to Pinkers: Better Angels of our Nature.
So why should we stop worrying so much? Well, because we are currently living in the most peaceful time in human history. In his book, Pinker describes 6 processes that have individually contributed to humanities historically low rates of violence. The first he calls the Pacifying Process. Until 5,000 years ago, humans lived in anarchy – “a state of nature”. But this changed with the rise and expansion of states. According to Pinker, Overlords created states not to protect the people, but to protect their own interests. Tribal raiding and feuding is a nuisance: It is better to just set your people to work. Get them to pay taxes, man your armies and sustain your way of life.
The second is called The Civilizing Process which started in 1200 and continues to this day. In 1200, Europe saw a homicide rate of nearly 1000 per 100,000 per year. These numbers dropped precipitously to almost 1 per 100,000 per year by 2000; many orders of magnitude smaller. Central states consolidated their powers: criminal justice was nationalized and feuding warlords (knights) suddenly saw their actions penalized – sometimes called the “Kings justice”. Growing commerce infrastructure lead to: more money and finance, better transportation systems and a trend away from zero sum plunder towards positive sum trade.
The third trend is called The Humanitarian process. Here, we see an almost universal abolition of: judicial torture, slavery, debtor’s prisons and many more. 18th century England had 222 capital offenses including: poaching, counterfeiting and being in the company of Gypsies. But by 1861, capital offenses had dropped to just 4. Pinker thinks this process was triggered by 2 things: a change in affluence and an improvement in literacy. In 1475, the number of books published per decade was near zero. By 1800, this had increased to 7000 per decade. In England, literacy went from an average of 25 percent in 1625 to almost 100 percent by 1925. This is important because literacy rates were improving about the same time that knowledge began to replace ignorance and superstition. But why should this matter? Pinker says it is because reading allows one to inhabit the minds of others; which leads to more empathy and less cruelty.
The fourth and fifth processes are bundled together; they are called the Long Peace and New Peace respectively. This describes the world since 1945. The Long Peace saw an historically unprecedented decline in war. From 1945, there have been 0 wars between US and USSA, 0 nuclear weapons used, 0 wars between Great Powers (since 1953), 0 wars between Western European countries and 0 wars between developed countries. This particular claim is highly controversial since American colonial aggression has managed to scrape by successfully without being labeled War. However, even when we do consider this fact, as we have seen, there has still been much moral progress. Then there is the New Peace, which saw a rise in the number of civil wars. This trend, however, does not make much difference. Even though the total number of civil wars has increased, the number of battle deaths per 100,000 per year is still decreasing. So what has caused this unprecedented decline in war? Pinker thinks Immanuel Kant was right. The cause is: Democracy, Trade and the emergence of an International Community.
The last trend is called The Rights Movement, characterized by the introduction of: civil rights, women’s rights, minority rights and many more. The number of lynching’s, hate crimes and discrimination against minorities have all dropped. Rape, domestic violence, matricide, child abuse and school violence all continue to nose dive. Even violence towards animals is now almost unthinkable; another unprecedented development in public morality. Further, according to The World Bank, homicide rate per 100,000 per year has dropped to just over 1, an all time low.
So what has caused this overall decline? One possibility is that human nature has changed: we have simply lost our inclinations towards violence. But this is very unlikely. A more likely explanation is that historical circumstances increasingly favor our more peaceable inclinations. Human nature consists of propensities that drive us towards violence, but also consists of propensities that drive us towards empathy, compassion and cooperation. History has seen vast improvements in education, literacy and public discourse. We tend to think more abstractly and universally now than ever before, which means we can rise above our parochial vantage point. The morality of tribalism, authority and puritanism has been replaced with the morality of fairness and universal rules. We now recognize the futility of cycles of violence and thus see violence as a problem to be solved, not a contest to be won.
In summary, the world is actually getting more peaceful. Although it is tempting to think that the world is a more dangerous place than ever, it is not. Violence is not on the rise, its declining. And there is no indication that it will stop. So please, calm down. And for goodness stakes, stop taking the media so seriously.
Danger! The world is falling apart!
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