Pro-Russia militants near the eastern Ukrainian city of Starobeshevo. Photo: Vasily Maximov / AFP / Getty Images

By John Gray
13 March 2015

(The Guardian) – For an influential group of advanced thinkers, violence is a type of backwardness. In the most modern parts of the world, these thinkers tell us, war has practically disappeared. The world’s great powers are neither internally divided nor inclined to go to war with one another, and with the spread of democracy, the increase of wealth and the diffusion of enlightened values these states preside over an era of improvement the like of which has never been known. For those who lived through it, the last century may have seemed peculiarly violent, but that, it is argued, is mere subjective experience and not much more than anecdote. Scientifically assessed, the number of those killed in violent conflicts was steadily dropping. The numbers are still falling, and there is reason to think they will fall further. A shift is under way, not strictly inevitable but enormously powerful. After millennia of slaughter, humankind is entering the Long Peace.

This has proved to be a popular message. The Harvard psychologist and linguist Steven Pinker’s The Better Angels of Our Nature: a history of violence and humanity (2011) has not only been an international bestseller – more than a thousand pages long and containing a formidable array of graphs and statistics, the book has established something akin to a contemporary orthodoxy. It is now not uncommon to find it stated, as though it were a matter of fact, that human beings are becoming less violent and more altruistic. Ranging freely from human pre-history to the present day, Pinker presents his case with voluminous erudition. Part of his argument consists in showing that the past was more violent than we tend to imagine. Tribal peoples that have been praised by anthropologists for their peaceful ways, such as the Kalahari !Kung and the Arctic Inuit, in fact have rates of death by violence not unlike those of contemporary Detroit; while the risk of violent death in Europe is a fraction of what it was five centuries ago. Not only have violent deaths declined in number. Barbaric practices such as human sacrifice and execution by torture have been abolished, while cruelty towards women, children and animals is, Pinker claims, in steady decline. This “civilising process” – a term Pinker borrows from the sociologist Norbert Elias – has come about largely as a result of the increasing power of the state, which in the most advanced countries has secured a near-monopoly of force. Other causes of the decline in violence include the invention of printing, the empowerment of women, enhanced powers of reasoning and expanding capacities for empathy in modern populations, and the growing influence of Enlightenment ideals.

Pinker was not the first to promote this new orthodoxy. Co-authoring an article with Pinker in the New York Times (“War Really Is Going Out of Style”), the scholar of international relations Joshua L Goldstein presented a similar view in Winning the War on War: the Decline of Armed Conflict Worldwide (2011). Earlier, the political scientist John E Mueller (whose work Pinker and Goldstein reference) argued in Retreat from Doomsday: The Obsolescence of Major War (1989) that the institution of war was disappearing, with the civil wars of recent times being more like conflicts among criminal gangs. Pronounced in the summer of 1989 when liberal democracy seemed to be triumphant, Francis Fukuyama’s declaration of “the end of history” – the disappearance of large-scale violent conflict between rival political systems – was a version of the same message.

Another proponent of the Long Peace is the well-known utilitarian philosopher Peter Singer, who has praised The Better Angels of Our Nature as “a supremely important book … a masterly achievement. Pinker convincingly demonstrates that there has been a dramatic decline in violence, and he is persuasive about the causes of that decline.” In a forthcoming book, The Most Good You Can Do, Singer describes altruism as “an emerging movement” with the potential to fundamentally alter the way humans live.

Among the causes of the outbreak of altruism, Pinker and Singer attach particular importance to the ascendancy of Enlightenment thinking. Reviewing Pinker, Singer writes: “During the Enlightenment, in 17th- and 18th-century Europe and countries under European influence, an important change occurred. People began to look askance at forms of violence that had previously been taken for granted: slavery, torture, despotism, duelling and extreme forms of punishment … Pinker refers to this as ‘the humanitarian revolution’.” Here too Pinker and Singer belong in a contemporary orthodoxy. With other beliefs crumbling, many seek to return to what they piously describe as “Enlightenment values”. But these values were not as unambiguously benign as is nowadays commonly supposed. John Locke denied America’s indigenous peoples any legal claim to the country’s “wild woods and uncultivated wastes”; Voltaire promoted the “pre-Adamite” theory of human development according to which Jews were remnants of an earlier and inferior humanoid species; Kant maintained that Africans were innately inclined to the practice of slavery; the utilitarian Jeremy Bentham developed the project of an ideal penitentiary, the Panopticon, where inmates would be kept in solitary confinement under constant surveillance. None of these views is discussed by Singer or Pinker. More generally, there is no mention of the powerful illiberal current in Enlightenment thinking, expressed in the Jacobins and the Bolsheviks, which advocated and practised methodical violence as a means of improving society.

Like many others today, Pinker’s response when confronted with such evidence is to define the dark side of the Enlightenment out of existence. How could a philosophy of reason and toleration be implicated in mass murder? The cause can only be the sinister influence of counter-Enlightenment ideas. Discussing the “Hemoclysm” – the tide of 20th-century mass murder in which he includes the Holocaust – Pinker writes: “There was a common denominator of counter-Enlightenment utopianism behind the ideologies of nazism and communism.” You would never know, from reading Pinker, that Nazi “scientific racism” was based in theories whose intellectual pedigree goes back to Enlightenment thinkers such as the prominent Victorian psychologist and eugenicist Francis Galton. Such links between Enlightenment thinking and 20th-century barbarism are, for Pinker, merely aberrations, distortions of a pristine teaching that is innocent of any crime: the atrocities that have been carried out in its name come from misinterpreting the true gospel, or its corruption by alien influences. The childish simplicity of this way of thinking is reminiscent of Christians who ask how a religion of love could possibly be involved in the Inquisition. In each case it is pointless to argue the point, since what is at stake is an article of faith. […]

The picture of declining violence presented by this new orthodoxy is not all it seems to be. As some critics, notably John Arquilla, have pointed out, it’s a mistake to focus too heavily on declining fatalities on the battlefield. If these deaths have been falling, one reason is the balance of terror: nuclear weapons have so far prevented industrial-style warfare between great powers. Pinker dismisses the role of nuclear weapons on the grounds that the use of other weapons of mass destruction such as poison gas has not prevented war in the past; but nuclear bombs are incomparably more destructive. No serious military historian doubts that fear of their use has been a major factor in preventing conflict between great powers. Moreover deaths of non-combatants have been steadily rising. Around a million of the 10 million deaths due to the first world war were of non‑combatants, whereas around half of the more than 50 million casualties of the second world war and over 90% of the millions who have perished in the violence that has wracked the Congo for decades belong in that category. [more]

John Gray: Steven Pinker is wrong about violence and war

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