Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Violence in Its Context

We often talk about violence as an epidemic. Should you believe the news, our society is now ultraviolent. Murders are always on the incline, as are other violent crimes. Sexual assault and rape are constants. We have become desensitized to all of it because of violence on the internet, television, or in video games. I don't disregard most of this, usually, but an alternate viewpoint is always interesting to contemplate.

This TED talk by Steven Pinker presents a drastically different perspective. I will add to his analysis that I once learned a very interesting fact in grad school. The class focused on the English Civil War of the Seventeenth Century. My professor asserted that violence was actually far more prevalent then. She stated that, in those days, the water supply was filthy and spread disease. As a result, alcohol consumption was far higher than today. In addition, men regularly carried weapons on their person both for protection and to assist them in their daily chores.

The idea that we might be evolving towards a less violent society I find quite comforting. This doesn't mean that we still don't have work to do, but perhaps we can see our challenges as less daunting. Still, what I learned in my (since discarded) training to be a historian is that the record of the past is far more subjective than we might think. Perception is a tricky thing. We can only go off of what we are told or taught. I had to take an entire class on historian's craft, full of strategies to work around embedded bias. And even then, as we consult primary and secondary sources, we still have to take their word for it.

It helps me to think of history as being present in a state of evolution. Everyone brings his or her own subjective perspective to a retelling of the past. What we think today may not be what we think tomorrow. We're often indebted to the bias of current trends in scholarship. One movement of scholars works around a set of assumptions. Years later, another group challenges these assumptions and comes up with an entirely new set. As individuals, we have the right to be critical, in the hopes that new theories might improve the way we view the past.

Here I must register my own personal grievances. What bothers me a little is the nature of Pinker's assertions as to why people act less violently now. Few of them are based in altruism. Instead, they are often purely selfish manifestations of human nature. I'd like to believe that we don't act violently based on the presence of conscience or morality, not because it benefits us more to resist the violent impulse.

Pinker is a non-theist, and this informs his scholarship, plus explains why during the talk he gets a small dig in at religion's expense. Time has proven how easy it is for Theists and Non-Theists to begin arguing and I don't want to start it up again. I guess I took a little offense to it. And even so, I do have Quaker F/friends who are non-theist and I try to respect their beliefs. It isn't easy, because a judgmental side of me can always show if I'm not careful. Aside from that, I have no objections to Pinker's scholarship and recognize that it is well-reasoned.

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