Steven Pinker: A brief history of violence

In a preview of his next book, Steven Pinker takes on violence. We live in violent times, an era of heightened warfare, genocide and senseless crime. Or so we’ve come to believe. Pinker charts a history of violence from Biblical times through the present, and says modern society has a little less to feel guilty about.

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2 thoughts on “Steven Pinker: A brief history of violence

  1. There are two separate issues here, really:

    • Whether our lives are characterised genocide, warfare and senseless violence. This seems true and indeed has been true for most of human history for most groups. And it is possibly true that a good part of humankind correctly believes this to be the case. Which is good!
    • Whether these conditions are worse in our times. This may or may not be true depending on how we quantify them — and perhaps that is what Pinker does in his book. I do not know. However, I am not sure if “we” have come to believe this to be true. I do not. And I know a lot of people who do not. Perhaps Pinker documents why, contrary to my experience, this is indeed the majority opinion?
  2. Pinker’s views seem to be in accord with those like philosopher Peter Singer and economist Amartya Sen that the “circle” to which we allow equal rights with ourselves has expanded greatly over the centuries, particularly in modern times i.e. since the Enlightenment. We now include people who do not share language, gender, religion, culture, state or skin colour with us. Some (less-than-human) rights are even exended to animals.Conditions may appear to be worse in out time simply because the flow of information can be almost instantaneous in our own time. News of a genocide in a central African state would have taken months, maybe years, to reach the outside world in at the end of the 19th century and then it would have been only a small column in a newspaper. After the Rwanda genocide, the TV was full of bodies floating down rivers within days.

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