Perhaps I can be forgiven for my pessimism about ameliorating the violent side of human nature. Like everyone else, I am assaulted on a daily basis by stories of violence, including war, genocide, terrorism, homicide, rape and child abuse. Compounding this routine assault, I have specialized in psychological trauma, which entails professional immersion in suffering and illness associated with victimization by violence.
A decline in violence?
Given my pessimism, I was intrigued when I learned of Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker’s book, The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence has Declined.” I needed hope. Consider his conclusion:
“The decline of violence may be the most significant and least appreciated development in the history of our species.”
As Pinker states, the extensive research demonstrating “we are living in an unusually peaceful time” routinely elicits incredulity. We must take a long view, stretching over several millennia. Glossing over detail and variability, as well as intermingling different time frames, here is a sample of the kinds of violence that have declined dramatically over time: homicide, torture, capital punishment, slavery, war, genocide, terrorism, lynching, rape, domestic violence, child abuse, corporal punishment and abuse of animals.
Homicide rates are a broad indicator of cultural violence proneness. By this standard, Western and Central Europe have taken the lead in ameliorating violence, and the United States lags behind; yet there is great variability within the United States: The northern states are similar to Europe, compared to the relatively high rates in the southern and westerns states.
Taking the long view
Pinker’s book is not a dry catalog of statistics; it is an engrossing and informative—oftentimes horrifying—history of violence. He takes great pains to understand and articulate several broad social and political factors that have led to the taming of our species. This monumental synthesis of extensive research leaves no doubt: We have become far more civilized.
But Pinker elucidates our natural human propensities for violence, ranging from predation, dominance, revenge and sadism to falling prey to pernicious fundamentalist ideologies that abet intergroup conflict. Fortunately, these “demons” in our nature are offset to varying degrees by “angels,” such as empathy, altruism, self-control and reason.
To put our violence into perspective, we need a long view, and we need data—numbers. I read Pinker’s book in its 700-page entirety, and I became a believer. Yet my daily dose of exposure to violence through the media continually boggles my mind as I easily lose the historical perspective.
Ironically, as Pinker states, our horror at the daily violence is a reflection of our gradual civilization; we no longer take brutality for granted (much less, revel in it). I read Pinker’s book to buttress my hope. We must be realistic, and we have plenty of data regarding our continuing violence.
Cause for hope
But pessimism and gloom about our violent human nature is narrow minded, and it is self-defeating. We have become more civilized by virtue of dogged human effort over many centuries—the recent rights movements (e.g., civil rights, women’s rights, children’s rights, gay rights, animal rights), albeit works in progress, are inspiring examples of such effort.
No one in his or her right mind can be sanguine about violence. In our field of mental health—and psychological trauma especially—violence warrants keen attention. In his now-classic book, The Vital Balance, Dr. Karl Menninger and his colleagues defined hope as “the positive expectations in a studied situation which go beyond the visible facts.”
We need hope to motivate our efforts to continue the civilizing process—first and foremost in homes, which are the most dangerous place to be. We don’t know the future, but Pinker has given us a studied situation and reason for positive expectations.