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Things Are Getting Better...Still

(To read the rest of "On Violence’s Most Thought Provoking Foreign Affairs Event of 2011", please click here and scroll to the bottom.

Also, though many don’t want to believe it, the world is getting safer. There will be an end to war, someday, if the world works towards it. To read the rest of our posts on “The World is Getting Safer”, click here.))

Since about July, Eric C and I have been debating with the question, “Will Humans Ever Stop Fighting Wars?” Before that discussion started, we were already strong advocates of Stephen Pinker’s assertion--via TED lecture (this is probably our fifteenth link to it)--that humanity is getting less violent. (Follow up books by Pinker, John Horgan and Joshua S. Goldstein have only strengthened our belief in the idea. We have a much longer article coming.)

Then the Arab Spring happened.

For Yemen, this meant drone strikes, bombings and assassination attempts. For Egypt, this meant Hosni Mubarak’s ouster, then military trials, with torture, and eventually protests met by gun fire--including the beating of the girl in the blue bra. And in Syria, this has meant the killing of several thousand protesters as Bashar al-Assad clings to power.

Despite the Arab Spring, we believe the world is getting less violent. We believe this for two reasons:

1. Violence, in revolutions, has decreased, like it has in war.

In the Russian Revolution, millions died. The French Revolution saw hundreds of thousands killed in especially horrific fashion, and tens of thousands more killed in the the subsequent revolutions of 1830 and 1848. The American Revolution was the second bloodiest conflict in American history, measured in per capita terms. The American Civil War, a failed revolution, killed the most Americans in per capita and real terms.

In short, the outrage we feel over the deaths of a few hundred or few thousand protesters or insurgents is a good thing. The non-stop media coverage helps keep autocratic regimes from massacring their populations, and revolutionaries from killing the entire ruling class. That too is a good thing. If wars are getting less violent, and revolutions less violent, and crime is decreasing, that means things are generally getting better.

2. It’s hard to believe, after the events of the Arab Spring, that democracy isn’t inevitable, or at least the direction the world is heading in.

Look at the Economist’s list of countries holding elections in 2012. Sure some of the countries are hardly the exemplars of democracy and human rights--Russia and Venezuela--but it has to mean something that they still go through the charade. The Economist Intelligence Unit currently describes half the countries of the world as democracies or flawed democracies. Will the Arab Spring push make every Arab or north African state a democracy? No, but at least a few will become more democratic. Does this mean every country in the world eventually be democratic? Obviously not. Will most? At some point, especially if the world’s most populous country succumbs as its per capita income creeps up. (We’re aware this is a prediction, at least it is vague.)

A final caveat: this process isn’t linear. If another interstate war breaks out, and kills a million people with it, it will seem that violence is again on the march. If the civil war in Syria turns that country into a second Somalia, then violence could reach very high levels. And for every democracy being created (Tunisia) a military dictatorship will hold on (Egypt). Who knows how Libya, Yemen, Syria, etc. will turn out?

The point is the trend lines are for less violence, and more democracy. The big question is, how can the U.S. stay on the right side of history? That’s what will write about on Monday.

seven comments

I still disagree. Every argument and link and article so far mentioned as contributing to your thesis contains huge philosophical assumptions. Most often occurring is some sort of false comparison.

It is impossible to compare the Russian Revolution, the French Revolution, the American Revolution, and the Arab Spring. They are so vastly different, and you make a mistake to plug them into a timeline and claim decreasing violent revolutions. Even worse is the comparison of “just violence.” A Hunter-Gatherer clan skirmish, murder in Medieval France, battles in World War I, gang violence in America, these can’t be aggregated. Not all violence is equal.

My question would be, then, what can we compare to the French, Russian and etc revolutions? Or is revolution, mass protest in the streets with dramatic violence, a thing of the past?

I haven’t read an adequate debunking of the Pinker/Goldstein/Horgan argument that our times are more violent than they were in the past. Since I consider revolutions a form of political violence—so something akin to war, but not exactly—its hard to argue that these wars are less violent. In short, we can still disagree over why violence is decreasing, but its hard to deny that it is.

Dennis is wrong. Michael C, y’all just keep right on keeping on. People are people, and they’ve been rebelling for the same reasons for ages b/c human nature doesn’t change.

I wouldn’t compare them to anything. Each stand alone as different events, each happened for different reasons. That’s the point: a comparison of these events (assigning the same value X for each one and graphing them) is a false comparison. Our times are neither more or less violent. Think about how many assumptions you have to make just to have the data to come up with this. Like this one: that violence = one violent death. We need to discuss this idea. What about violence that doesn’t end in death, maybe just injury? Or refugees? Or incarceration? Or how can we measure violence after the Atomic Bomb? Or how violent was the Cold War? And what about pollution? Is that a form of violence?

Before we all celebrate (and I imagine a celebration of the end of violence would look a lot like the end of The Return of the Jedi, where Luke ceremonially burns the remains of his Jungian Shadow) I think we need to more closely examine the claims made by these authors. That’s my concern

I’ll say this Dennis, your point in your first paragraph is probably the best counter to this argument I have read yet. Most editorials/op-eds basically just said, “What are you talking about Pinker/Goldstein? Tons of people die! What about 9/11? Or Iraq or Afghanistan?”. This basically ignores the underlying argument.

You, however, brought up a point I hadn’t thought about yet. What if less people die in war simply because medical technology has improved? What if war is less violent, but more people are displaced? Or if crime has gone down simply because America incarcerates more people. Summarized, you are basically saying, perhaps you are only measuring one metric, when a true argument would require multiple metrics.

I dont’ have an answer, but this is probably a good area for future research. I am trying to write a longer review of those books, I might incorporate that idea into it.

PS I am a sucker for a good Star Wars reference too.

Also, my biggest criticism of the reasons Pinker and Goldstein put forward is the atomic bomb. I think the threat of nuclear annhilation made nuclear war unfathomable. It is one thing to wage a war where 1 of every 100 males dies (as in WWII, or the Civil War), and another for entire countries.

I look at trend lines because you have to. I haven’t read Pinker’s book, but based on interviews and lectures, the case he makes in pretty airtight.

More coming on this debate.