December 4, 2011

Good tidings: Violence at all-time low

How does this sound for entertainment: Your date asks you out to the theater to watch a live cat slowly lowered into a fire and burned to death, howling with pain as it is singed, roasted, and finally carbonized?

If that isn't your idea of a good time, don't hop into the next time machine heading back to medieval Europe.

In 16th-century Paris, throngs –- including kings and queens -- flocked to watch such gruesome spectacles, shrieking with laughter as cats and other animals were tortured to death on stage.

"The Catherine Wheel"
Torture and violence were woven into the fabric of life, from the sexualized sadism of London, where elaborately designed and decorated torture devices were the pinnacle of artistic creativity, to the widespread practice of hacking off the nose of anyone who disrespected you (the source of the strange idiom, "to cut off your nose to spite your face").

In contrast, whether we know it or not, we are now enjoying the most peaceful period in all of human history. Indeed, the precipitous decline in violence of all types may be “the most significant and least appreciated development in the history of our species,” argues Steven Pinker, a renowned professor of psychology at Harvard University, in an epic tome, The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined.

"The Judas Cradle"
Given the tenor of the daily news headlines, Pinker knows his claim sounds far-fetched. But in 800 pages of research and analysis, augmented by hundreds of charts and tables, he convincingly establishes that violence is indeed heading in one direction: down.

The decline is drastic across-the-board, in both state-sanctioned and individual violence: International wars, civil wars, terrorism (an obsession far out of proportion to its prevalence), slavery, sexual violence, child abuse, infanticide....

Click HERE to read my full Amazon review of this recommended text. If you appreciate the review, please click on "yes."

1 comment:

Cavall de Quer said...

Pinker's book is indeed good news - at least for some species: unfortunately, violence towards nonhumans continues to grow at unprecedented rate: literally billions of nonhumans are killed every year to pander to human non-essential caprices like meat/dairy/egg consumption (v.American Dietetic Association); fur/leather/feather wearing; product testing and, yes, still today, entertainment, like the burnt cat: hunting, bullfighting, rodeos, horseracing, shows and breeding. In the "bad old days" there were voices lifted against torture (Montaigne's, for instance. He also spoke against killing animals: a combination found more often than many would like to admit), these days, there are, fortunately, thousands of voices lifted against violence towards humans and nonhumans alike: I can only hope the day will come when humans recognise that in their treatment of nonhumans today they resemble only too closely the kings, queens and commoners who flocked to the spectacle of massacre. How to hasten the removal of the rose-coloured spectacles of human behaviour to others ("I enjoy watching/eating/wearing it so it must be good") to bring on the growth of empathy in the equation? We'll hope Pinker has the answer.

(My own theory, for what it's worth, of why people enjoyed - and still, in various ways enjoy - the spectacle of torture, inflicting it and so forth is precisely because it's happening to someone else: every blow is one that one has avoided oneself: it removes the ever-present threat of harm: "While it's happening to them, it's not happening to me" the sensation of relief is pleasurable. Isn't laughter intimately associated with relief?)