11 September 2011

Ending Violence: A Deluded Fantasy

I realise that given the day that's in it it's probably obligatory to say what I was doing when I first heard of the 9/11 attacks ten years ago. Well, if you're interested, I was in a pub.

I wasn't drinking, mind; I was working, serving drinks and soup and sandwiches to a crowd who'd come in from a funeral. Edel, the loungegirl who was working with me, had asked if she could turn on the telly, down at the far end of the counter where she was washing glasses and crockery, and I'd said no. I could hear customers murmuring and muttering about plane crashes, but I carried on with my work.

My phone rang, to my surprise, as I never had the phone on during work. I have no idea why I'd forgotten to turn it off. It was Heinrich, a German friend of mine, calling from Greece, where he was living at the time.
-- Have you heard the news?
-- No, I said, did a plane crash or something? I've heard some of the customers talking...
-- Worse than that.
-- Have two planes crashed?
-- Two plans have crashed into the World Trade Centre.
-- Do they think it's terrorism?
-- Well, it's hardly an accident.

And after a minute or more of chatting I hung up, and turned around.
-- Edel, I called. Turn the telly on.
And the towers fell.

It's weird to think that for so many people I know and love, this must have been the defining world moment of their adolescence and early adulthood. I remember the Hungarians allowing people to cross the Iron Curtain into the West, the fall of the Berlin Wall, the release of Nelson Mandela, and the prospect of the world getting better.

A History of Violence
Of course, there are people out there who still think the world is getting better. I read an absurd article by Stephen Pinker this evening, entitled 'A History of Violence', in which he argues that:
'Violence has been in decline over long stretches of history, and today we are probably living in the most peaceful moment of our species' time on earth.'
The whole argument is historically ignorant, reliant on cavalier speculation and colossal assumptions, devoid of any meaningful evidence whatsoever and taking no account of so much that we do know. It is, frankly, a heroic demonstration of why for some people it is best to stick to the knitting. Or maybe to learn to knit.

Words from the Wise
I came across the article after seeing it linked to, with contempt, on the Twitter feed of one Benjamin Gray, a barrister who'd previously studied war studies. Describing it as the 'biggest pile of nonsense I've read in a long time', Benjamin went on to challenge Pinker's claims in a serious of thirteen points and a closing observation.
1. Violence is cyclical, shifting between cataclysmic conflicts and minor imperial tussles.
2. Violence has obviously declined since 1945 as that was the most lethal war in history.
3. Criminal punishments have become less "sadistic" as we've been able to replace them with graded forms of imprisonment and state justice.
4. Interstate warfare has declined in a significant part because the great powers have military power so great it can obliterate everyone.
5. Pinker's writing on Biblical massacres betrays his prejudices. Most of them didn't happen but were later literary inventions written in times of immense persecution (if the Bible were written in Auschwitz you can bet it would prescribe the genocide of Germans).
6. Modernity, starting with the French Revolution, unleashed the most violent, cataclysmic and destructive wars mankind has ever seen; the wars of the medieval and classical eras were much less bloody.
7. The Church and Christian military ethics were significant restraining factors in continental warfare (if not the Crusades).
8. Soldiers today are considerably more violent than in earlier eras. In WWII around 40% of infantrymen would shoot to hit people, now it's around 90%.
9. In every era some academic twit proclaims the decline of violence, and they are always proved wrong.
10. If it happens that this trend continues, it will only be because we are now so well-armed that we can extinguish ourselves
11. We may not burn cats, but we hunt foxes, gore bulls, and fight cocks, dogs etc.
12. Some of the main reasons fewer people die in war is because we have better armour, we fight at longer ranges and and medicine can now save people who only 20 years ago would have been T4s.
13. While we may not torture so many people, we are still horrifically exploitative of the third world. We just inflict our suffering through indifference, consumerism and selfishness.

At any rate, on the 10th anniversary of 9/11 with MidEast in turmoil, upcoming Palestine vote, borderline-nuclear Iran w/ regional ambitions, eurozone crisis, nuclear North Korea, nuclear Pakistan sliding to civil war, global economic downturn and American decline I find the idea that we are in a uniquely non-violent era a massively naïve hostage to fortune.
While I'd quibble with some of these, the general thrust of the analysis is absolutely spot-on. Pinker is talking complete gibberish, and it doesn't take a genius to work out where and why he's wrong. 

A Fundamental Ignorance of the Facts
He starts with a description of the torturing of cats in sixteenth-century France, says we'd never do this now, and argues that this is just one example of what he calls 'the most important and most underappreciated trend in the human saga', this being the decline of violence. Aside from the fact that I don't think there's been any such trend, I think this is merely an example of a heightened respect for animals, at least in the West. If that's seriously to be taken as evidence that we're less violent than we were, I think it needs to be held in sharp contrast with our increased willingness to kill humans who've not yet been born.

A false distinction? I don't think so. I'm not sure there's any sense in saying -- as we would surely do -- that it was violent of, say, the ancient Spartans to expose babies who looked frail or deformed, or of the wealthy Carthaginians to kill their babies -- assuming they really did so -- in the belief that doing so would make their lives better, but that it's not violent of us to kill our babies before they can see daylight, just because they're weak or inconvenient or girls. At the very least we must surely at least recognise that we'd need to agree on a definition of 'violence' before engaging seriously in this discussion. Me, I think 'deliberately killing other human beings' surely falls into any reasonable definition of such.

Admitting that it may seem crazy to claim that violence has been declining, in the decade of Darfur and Iraq and the century -- not shortly after the century, Stephen -- of Stalin, Hitler, and Mao, Pinker insists that these are the facts:
'Conventional history has long shown that, in many ways, we have been getting kinder and gentler. Cruelty as entertainment, human sacrifice to indulge superstition, slavery as a labor-saving device, conquest as the mission statement of government, genocide as a means of acquiring real estate, torture and mutilation as routine punishment, the death penalty for misdemeanors and differences of opinion, assassination as the mechanism of political succession, rape as the spoils of war, pogroms as outlets for frustration, homicide as the major form of conflict resolution—all were unexceptionable features of life for most of human history. But, today, they are rare to nonexistent in the West, far less common elsewhere than they used to be, concealed when they do occur, and widely condemned when they are brought to light.'
This, frankly, is preposterous, flaunting an ignorance of both recent and less-than-recent history. 

Was human sacrifice to appease superstition ever an unexceptional feature of life in human history? Look at what we know of European history: the Greeks didn't do it at all, the Romans seem to have done it just a couple of times, and it never happened in the Christian era; yes, it seems the Vikings and others did do it, but we simply don't have the data to say how often they did so. There's not a lot of archaeological evidence -- certainly not enough to make any statistical claims -- and what we know about them seems to have been written either long later or by their enemies. It's crucial to understand that: it's a common trope of historical and anthropological writing to accuse one's enemies of human sacrifice, cannibalism, incest, and so forth.

As for the rest, and leaving aside the absurdity of trying to maintain that the Second World War was an eternity ago, rather than, in general historical terms, yesterday, it strikes me as staggering that claims such as these could be made less than a decade after the end of the Great African War and within twenty years of the Rwandan Genocide and the Bosnian War.

Particular obscene is Pinker's claim that the notion of rape as one of the spoils of war is something that's rare to nonexistent in the West and infrequent and concealed elsewhere: try telling that to the two million or so German victims of the Red Army, who'd replied to the Nazi atrocities in a manner wholly condoned by Stalin;  try telling that to the 500 or so girls raped each week by the American forces liberating France and occupying Germany; try telling that to those who claim that rape was all too often, in effect, standard operating procedure among GI's in Vietnam; try telling that to the victims of the Serbian rape camps in Bosnia.

And that's just the West, where Pinker seems to think rape is allegedly rare or non-existent in wartime, and where mass rape was one of the signature features of the biggest western war since the Second World War; it's not even getting into the use of rape as a weapon in the Great African War, something that was neither infrequent nor concealed.

The Thirty Years' War happened in the Age of Reason? Really?
Pinker's thesis is that the Rousseauist fantasy of the noble savage is wrong, not because it blinds itself to the reality of human nature, but because it gets things the wrong way round:
'But, now that social scientists have started to count bodies in different historical periods, they have discovered that the romantic theory gets it backward: Far from causing us to become more violent, something in modernity and its cultural institutions has made us nobler.'
He gives a nod to the problems in our evidence, admitting that we simply have no evidence at all for huge chunks of human history and across vast expanses of the planet, but it's a shockingly inadequate nod and one that doesn't stop him maintaining that a picture can be discerned, with a decline of violence being visible at the scale of millennia, centuries, decades, and years, the leading edge in this having been in England and the Netherlands, and with the tipping point having been the onset of the so-called 'Age of Reason' in the early seventeenth century.

This, as Benjamin Gray had pointed out, is balderdash, and not least because nobody in their right mind defines the 'Age of Reason' as beginning in the early seventeenth century. Indeed, the Enlightenment basically happened in reaction to the phenomenal levels of bloodshed during the first half of the seventeenth century, epitomised by the Thirty Years War and Cromwell's massacres in Ireland. 

The carnage of the first half of the seventeenth century, it needs to be stressed, was highly unusual. European warfare during the Middle Ages and the Renaissance had been constrained by all manner of limitations, both those imposed by the Catholic Church through Just War theory and the Peace of God and Truce of God movements, and those imposed by economic and social realities. The so-called wars of religion, epitomised by the Thirty Years War, represented a vast escalation of slaughter, fuelled by new economic models and the breakdown of the Christian consensus, and were precisely what Pinker should recognise as a 'spike of horrific bloodletting'. 

If we flatten out the spike, as Pinker holds that we should, the general pattern of European warfare consists of several centuries of relatively low levels of military bloodshed up to the late eighteenth century, when everything changes as the French Revolution heralds the intertwined era of mass armies and mass democracy, this being amplified by the mechanisation of warfare, as railways and machine guns made carnage possible on a level hitherto unimaginable, and as whole economies were enlisted into war efforts in such a way that civilians became legitimate targets in a way they never would have been before.

And such a naive handling of evidence...
Insofar as Pinker wants to talk of warfare before his new age of peace, he throws science and basic statistical principles out the window by talking of how the proportion of prehistoric skeletons we have showing evidence of trauma caused by violence is such as to suggest that pre-state societies were far more violent than our own. Leaving aside the question of how there are hardly enough such skeletons to be deemed statistically representative, he ignores the fact that members of warrior elites and those who die in battle are often buried in special ways, such that their graves are more easily discovered than the graves of those who died less violently, thus massively skewing the sample.

Onward then he cruises to claim that:
'It is true that raids and battles killed a tiny percentage of the numbers that die in modern warfare. But, in tribal violence, the clashes are more frequent, the percentage of men in the population who fight is greater, and the rates of death per battle are higher.'
Well, this is obviously true, because all tribes everywhere are and have always been the same, because no tribal societies have ever been stratified so as to restrict combat to warrior elites, because tribal societies have never tried to limit casualties through champion combat or symbolic warfare. Ridiculous. Just as an example, here's John Keegan, for instance, talking in his A History of Warfare of how the Zulus fought before Shaka and the lads changed everything:
'Battles tended to be ritualised, conducted under the gaze of old and young, begun with an exchange of insults and finished when casualties were inflicted. There were natural as well as customary limitations on the level of violence: because metals were scarce, weapons were made of fire-hardened wood, thrown rather than used hand-to-hand; and should a warrior happen to kill an opponent, he was obliged at once to leave the field and undergo purification, since the spirit of his victim would certainly otherwise bring fatal illness to him and his family,'
I'm not saying tribal warfare was always like this, just that to describe it as always like anything is historically naive to a dazzling degree. But if that weren't bad enough, on Pinker goes to say this:
'Political correctness from the other end of the ideological spectrum has also distorted many people's conception of violence in early civilizations—namely, those featured in the Bible. This supposed source of moral values contains many celebrations of genocide, in which the Hebrews, egged on by God, slaughter every last resident of an invaded city. The Bible also prescribes death by stoning as the penalty for a long list of nonviolent infractions, including idolatry, blasphemy, homosexuality, adultery, disrespecting one's parents, and picking up sticks on the Sabbath. The Hebrews, of course, were no more murderous than other tribes; one also finds frequent boasts of torture and genocide in the early histories of the Hindus, Christians, Muslims, and Chinese.'
It's hard to decide where to start with this, save to point out that Benjamin Gray hits the nail on the head in saying that Pinker betrays his prejudices here. The celebrations of genocide, so damned by the likes of Steven Pinker, are clearly literary creations written centuries after the events they describe supposedly happened. And no, this doesn't mean I'm denying Biblical inspiration in any sense -- I'm just pointing out that the Bible is a library, rather than a book, and that individual books represent distinct literary genres.

Until the Greek invention of history as a discipline, the ancients seem to have felt free to emboider, embellish, and even fabricate their histories in order to make what they regarded as deeper truths.* That was the nature of the genre. Indeed, this tendency never quite went away, even after Herodotus changed the game and Thucydides changed the rules. Hellenistic, Roman, and especially medieval writers all had a tendency to treat numbers, for instance, in a rather symbolic way. Pinker shows no awareness of this fact, and treats Biblical claims of massacres as though they're historically accurate accounts of historical events. The fact that nobody's found corroborative evidence for those events, and there seems to be no evidence of massacres inspired by the Biblical 'celebrations of violence' should be a clue that the ancient Hebrews weren't particularly violent at all.

There's something deeply disingenuous about Pinker's admission that the Hebrews, who he clearly regards as deeply violent, were 'no more murderous than other tribes'; he compares them with the Hindus, Christians, and Muslims, as well as with the Chinese, none of which could ever be described accurately as 'tribes'. Talk of the early histories of the Muslims seems particularly misplaced, given how long after the Muslim wars of conquest they were written, such that the evidence as we have it was written in a relatively peaceful era, romanticising the 'heroic' deeds of their ancestors.

So what is his point?
The subtext of the whole article is sharply revealed by this paragraph: people used to be savage and religious, but then along came the Age of Reason, and violence went into a sharp decline with the English and the Dutch leading the way. 

If anything, of course, the opposite seems to have been the case. The French Revolution was the child of the Age of Reason; it fetishised Reason, setting it up on one throne and Madame Guillotine on another as it unleashed an era of mass armies that ravaged the world until the middle of the twentieth century, when a war people claimed would end all wars was succeeded by the greatest slaughter mankind had ever seen, this being unleashed by those who that maintained that 'God is dead' and those who held among other things that it was necessary to work to abolish the opiate of the masses they believed religion to be.

Have things been quieter since the Second World War? In a sense, yes, but that's the natural of statistical outliers. They're the kind of spikes that Pinker thinks we should smooth out. Things aren't going to be quite as bad as that again until the nukes start flying and our mutual destruction is assured. Please God, that'll be a long way off.

In the meantime, we conduct our wars from afar, we kill our enemies from afar, we engage in slavery from afar, and we kill our children before we can look at them or they can look at us.

We haven't got more kind. We've just got more squeamish.

* As indeed do some moderns, unfortunately.

Update: Sadly, there have been no shortage of people lauding Pinker's work, though I'm having trouble finding many with any historical training who've done so. In a way, this is hardly surprising, since it's clear that Pinker's historical research on this has been extraordinarily shallow. A book as large as this, with a thesis as comprehensive as this, is the kind of book that really only happens as a the fruit of decades of historical work, rather than, well, a year or so.

Just as sad, but fully understandable, is the fact that many would-be critics simply don't want to waste time writing about the book, or even reading it. It's clear from the points Pinker makes in his articles summarising and flogging the book that his methodology is as risible as his knowledge is shallow.

Of those who've challenged Pinker's thesis on the basis of his articles, one on Crooked Timber by Chris Bertram taking issue with Pinker's methodology raises a crucial point. It's beyond ludicrous for Pinker to contrast the roughly 1300-year-long “Middle East slave trade” with the six-year-long “Second World War” on a "scale of evil", with the former "event" being classed as worse than the latter. It shouldn't take a serious statistical thinker to see that Pinker's not comparing like with like here.

Of those who have grappled with this book and then written about it, it's worth reading John Gray, David Bentley Hart, and Ben Laws.


courtney said...

you might be interested by the book "The First Total War: Napoleon's Europe and the Birth of Warfare as We Know It" by D.Bell.


Argues along similar lines as you use. It discusses the impact of the enlightenment and advances the idea that in earlier times war was just considered a fact of life and the result of mans fallen nature, that the enemy was not irretrievably evil etc.

However with the enlightenment the idea of the perfectibility of man came along and ultimately all wars became wars to end all war and therefore needed to waged in their totality. The enemy was demonised as evil because he obstructed the advance of man etc....

laBiscuitnapper said...

We haven't got more kind. We've just got more squeamish.

THIS. I haven't read the book yet, so I don't think it's fair for me to critique it too harshly, but it struck me that Pinker might have been right about the timing, but wrong about what was actually changing.

From historians such as Amanda Vickery, it seems that accompanying the industrialisation of society and increased wealth, came new modes of thinking eg. the idea of 'taste' and it's importance, the cult of sentiment and so on. This culture of manners is what we're seeing rather than an increase in kindness.

I'm no John Gray, however as I do think things have generally got better, just perhaps for different reasons and to a lesser extent.