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Why I Believe Things Are Getting Better: A Review of Rising Up and Rising Down's Premise

Back in college, a grad student from my co-op pointed out an interesting problem in mathematics and academia: some math proofs were so big now some professors could spend entire careers solving only one or two problems. Math is getting so large and complicated the human life span is limiting its growth.

Last month, on our one year anniversary, Michael C reviewed Hannah Arendt's On Violence, and he mentioned that she was one of two major thinkers to deal philosophically with the topic of violence. The other is William T. Vollman, author of Rising Up and Rising Down. As he mentioned at the time, the tome is the spiritual and physical opposite of Arendt's. Seven thick volumes long, we feel like a math professor deciding which proof he will spend his career researching. It is just too damn long and, practically speaking, unreviewable.

Still, Michael and I feel that On Violence needs to at least address some part of it, in lieu of reviewing the whole thing, and the part we've chosen is the premise. Put simply in the introduction's sub-heading, Vollman feels that "the world is not getting better."

I disagree. Violence, if anything, is going down.

First a clarification. Saying the world is not getting better is not saying the world is getting worse. As his clever title indicates, the world is going in both directions. (Which is another way of saying it isn't going any direction at all.) Nevertheless, the onus of proof is on Vollman to definitively show that Violence has remained at the same level, and I don't think he does.

But don't take my word that the world is getting better (or at least less violent), take Steven Pinker's. In a TED lecture on the subject, Pinker argues  that "In fact, our ancestors were far more violent than we are, that violence has been in decline for long stretches of time, and that today we are probably living in the most peaceful time of our species existence."

First, Pinker proves it with statistics. He shows that over millennium, centuries, decades and years, the rate of Violence has decreased. Vollman--at least in the introduction where he issues this premise--uses anecdotes over statistics to prove his premise.

I dislike many of these anecdotes. His goal is to point out that Violence maintains or changes, but is always present, the way "victories over the Confederacy, bring into being the Ku Klux Klan." This seems unfair. The institutionalized slavery of millions--and the wartime deaths of 600,000 Soldiers--pales in comparison to the violence of the Ku Klux Klan. I'd say Violence went down. Another example of Vollman's is that Robespierre's biographer in the mid-1800s brags that the French have stopped using torture, but of course a century later, they used torture in Algeria.

So why has Violence gone down? To inadequately paraphrase Stephen Pinker, mankind has become more (inter)connected. As we expand the circles to which we believe others belong, we become less violent. Pinker points out that from family to tribe to ethnicity to nation, mankind has slowly expanded the circles they belong to. This explains why the French tortured Algerians; they didn't consider them to be a part of their circle of white French. The French had stopped using torture, only against other Frenchmen.

Let me make something clear. This is just a critique of Vollman's premise and his motivation; it does not mean that his thesis is wrong. I haven't read his entire book--it will take a long time, which I don't have right now--but I felt we needed to address it in some way. The point is, statistics show that society is getting better. It may not feel like it at times, but it's true.

seven comments

This is an interesting post. When I read Vollmans book, I got the impression that he was primarily interested in developing an ethical system for deciding when it is appropriate engage in a violent act (i.e., to Rise Up), and not in answering the question “has violence increased.” He considers not only “levels of violence,” but also, for example, whether or not an act of political violence produces the desired political change.

I interpret the remark “victories over the Confederacy, bring into being the Ku Klux Klan” as meaning that Vollman believes that, in the ethical system developed in an earlier volume, Lincoln’s decision to go to war with the Confederacy (to Rise Up) was not an appropriate response to the political problems (slavery, state’s rights, ect) it was intended to address. He later contrasts this with Martin Luther King and the Civil Rights Movement, which is appropriate in the context of his system. These opinions are certainly debatable, but this is different from the issue of violence increasing or decreasing.


The book really does intimidate with size more than it does help with clarity.

As for Eric’s point, really check out the link to Stephen Pinker. It will make you look at violence and the media completely differently.


@ ljk – I agree with you that his central argument/concern is developing in ethical system to deal with Violence. Since I couldn’t address his entire book, I wanted to address his introduction, not his thesis.

He states pretty clearly in his introduction that the world is not getting better. That’s the premise the rest of the book stands on.

On the Confederacy example, he uses that example to prove violence changes faces, but persists. The sub-heading was something like the mutability of Violence. At least this was the case in the eight volume edition.


@Eric C, Thanks for the response! Concerning you comment “he uses that example to prove violence changes faces, but persists.” This raises an interesting point: what is “violence?” I am actually not entirely sure what Vollman means by the term. Certainly the death of hundreds of thousands of people in the American Civil War is violence, but I think that Vollman also considers the political disfranchisement of hundreds of thousands of African-Americans for roughly 50 years(?) to be an act of violence. The two acts (death versus political disfranchisement) are, certainly, of a very different nature, so this raises the issue of whether or not one can compare the two and, if so, how. Since the title of this blog is _On Violence), the question “what is violence” would be a great future topic!

Regarding your comment: “He pretty clearly in his introduction that the world is not getting better.” He certainly makes this comment, but I am not sure how seriously to take it. I kinda feel like this is a literary flourish. From reading Vollman’s work, I get the impression that Vollman is too pessimistic to believe that the world is getting better, but also too pessimistic to believe that the world was better in the distant past (especially considering his “Seven Dreams” books). In general, I felt Vollman’s training as a literary writer sometimes detracted from his goal of discussing the ethical issue of violent acts. I remember he has this digression about how it is disappointing that Martin Luther King plagiarized and that he wasn’t a more talented writer. This seemed a valid point (Vollman gives a better argument than I have stated), but somewhat inappropriate given the context (i.e., a discussion of racially motivated violence). Thanks for a thought provoking post!

@ljk – We’re definitely going to tackle the issue of “what is Violence” but just not yet. (Michael and I need more time!) I would agree, though, that any philosophical discussion on Violence has to begin at the point. I really want to feel researched and studied before I really give that topic its due. Also it might be better in book form.

Your comment on political disenfranchisement led me to something else: even if that is Violence, how are women, minorities, etc, not more enfranchised now than they have ever been in history? Democracy is as popular now as it has been in human history, and women and non-Caucasians and the lower classes have more stature/rights/political than they ever have before. Feudalism, monarchy are certainly lower than a thousand or 2,000 years ago.

On literary flourish, you nailed it. Vollman is too literary. I’m an English major guy, but an analytic—as opposed to Continental—philosopher. I like my philosophy defined, and precise. Literary flourish, as you point out, can get in the way.

Anyways, thanks for the discussion and kind words! It’s nice to know we get some people thinking, and responding, to what we write.


@Eric C, Regarding your comment “how are woman, minorities, ect not more enfranchised…”: you definitely keep reading the book because Vollman spends a lot of time on this issue (by analyzing the French Revolution, the Russian Revolution, ect).

The later volumes of the book are, I think, the best part of the work. Those volumes are journalistic reporting of interviews with people in different pats of the work who live with violence. In particular, there is a section about the Buraku minority in Japan that is intended to provoke thought about the issue of minority rights, ect.

Finally, if you think Rising Up and Rising Down is too long, I should assure that the situation is much worse in mathematicians. The definitive example is, perhaps, Grothendieck whose major work comproses two book series ( Éléments de géométrie algébrique and Séminaire de Géométrie Algébrique. The work is several thousands of pages of very dense French technical writing and is unfinished!


That last post was suppose to have hyperlinks, but they did not come out. To the curious: I’d suggest looking at the wikipedia article on ALexander Grothendieck.