Bending the Third Rail
Because We Should, We Can, We Do
Tuesday, April 10, 2007
A Gentler World
The latest issue of The New Republic features an article that caught my attention. Harvard professor Steven Pinker maintains that the levels of violence worldwide have fallen over the centuries. My first thought was, "Are you crazy?"
His article, A History of Violence, begins with this example:

In sixteenth-century Paris, a popular form of entertainment was cat-burning, in which a cat was hoisted in a sling on a stage and slowly lowered into a fire. According to historian Norman Davis, "[T]he spectators, including kings and queens, shrieked with laughter as the animals, howling with pain, were singed, roasted, and finally carbonized." Today such sadism would be unthinkable in most of the world.

Indeed it would. We live in an age in which every atrocity is fed live and in full color directly into our living rooms. We tend to remember the violence we see, store it up, and draw conclusions based on these pictures and stories. The news is not full of people dying of old age nor are the cameras covering the normal routines of peaceful nations. How much news coverage have you seen recently of events in Sweden, Switzerland, Norway, Denmark, etc.?

No one really knows why humans are becoming less violent but it appears to be a worldwide trend. Pinker states, "The leading edge has been in Western societies, especially England and Holland, and there seems to have been a tipping point at the onset of the Age of Reason in the early seventeenth century."

I have long suspected that reason and secular societies are the beacons that will light our way toward a kindler and gentler world. Phil Zuckerman, associate professor of sociology at Pitzer College in California, questions whether religious societies are safer and more stable than secular nations. He writes
In reality, the most secular countries—those with the highest proportion of atheists and agnostics—are among the most stable, peaceful, free, wealthy, and healthy societies. And the most religious nations—wherein worship of God is in abundance—are among the most unstable, violent, oppressive, poor, and destitute.
Morality is not dependent on religion. In fact, it is observed in the animal world. A recent New York Times article begins:
Some animals are surprisingly sensitive to the plight of others. Chimpanzees, who cannot swim, have drowned in zoo moats trying to save others. Given the chance to get food by pulling a chain that would also deliver an electric shock to a companion, rhesus monkeys will starve themselves for several days.
Regardless of what is changing, we should not give up hope when we see all of the violence in the news. Pinker ends his article with this thought:
Whatever its causes, the decline of violence has profound implications. It is not a license for complacency: We enjoy the peace we find today because people in past generations were appalled by the violence in their time and worked to end it, and so we should work to end the appalling violence in our time.

Keep fighting the good fight.