Christian Long

Steven Pinker: The Myth of Violence

In TED Talks on April 25, 2010 at 10:53 pm

Reflection by KATHY B.

Original TED page w/ speaker bio, links, comments, etc:

Steven Pinker:  The Myth of Violence

It may be a fairly common assumption that violence is on the rise in the modern world. Not a century ago we had the horrors of the World Wars, with poison gas, atomic bombs, and the atrocities committed by Hitler and Stalin. We’ve had the Cold War, in which the United States and Soviet Union created enough collective nuclear weapons to blow up the Earth a hundred times over. We’ve had genocide in areas such as Serbia and Darfur. We have the current War on Terror going on in Iraq.

While all of these events are terrible and the magnitude of their violence and horror should not be downsized, their horrors are only so appalling in respect to our current mindset of violence.

While at first that may seem like a nearly offensive statement to those suffering from the world’s modern atrocities, to Steven Pinker that is truth, and I agree with him. Violence is on the decline.

When we take a look at our species’ history, we see cultures that thrived on the sport of violence, from the ancient Roman Coliseum in which gladiators and animals fought to the death for the entertainment of the spectators and Christians were stoned to death for their religious beliefs, to the Inquisition, during which thousands of Protestants were killed for their refusal to convert to Catholicism, to the Salem Witch Trials, in which innocent people were burned at the stake due to circumstantial evidence at best that they were “witches”. When we look back at these awful periods in our history we find ourselves wondering how anyone could possibly do that to other people and how the human species could sink so low.

So, if we recognize the fact that these acts that were normal in previous times would be unthinkable in modern times, is it not a fair argument to say that our modern culture is less violent than that of our ancestors?

Neither Pinker nor I are saying that violence has vanished from our lives-that is absolutely not true, and to assert as such would be disgraceful to our veterans, currently deployed soldiers, and people in such violent places as the Middle East, Africa, and Korea, to name a few. However, as Pinker pointed out, we do not burn cats for entertainment. Although it is not completely eradicated from the world, there are less areas of the modern world in which people are tortured or executed for such seemingly inconsequential things (to our Western culture) as speaking out against authority, stealing food for survival, adultery, blasphemy, etc, than ever before in history.

So, if it is true that we are now less violent than we have ever been in history, then why is it that many people still adamantly believe that modern society is more violent and horrific than that of previous generations and centuries?

In my opinion, this is mostly due to the media. Every day, on the news, we see people who have been murdered, soldiers killed in Iraq, suicide bombers killing dozens of people in the Middle East, and various other examples of all of the bad that takes place in modern society. It seems as if the media focuses much more on the bad in the world than the good-it makes for a better story, I suppose. When all we ever see when we take an hour of each day to watch the news in order to see what is going on in the world is violence and terror, it is only natural to assume that that is all that is truly going on.

I truly wish, for the good of our society, that we could be given a better look at the good that is going on in the world right now. If we saw as many benevolent acts as violent ones that happen every day (and there truly are as many or more benevolent acts as violent ones), people would probably be much less focused on violence and therefore much less paranoid about it. I believe that the true reason some people believe that today’s world is at the peak of human violence is due to paranoia-the more we see violence on the news, the more likely it seems that it will happen to us or our loved ones, and the higher the likelihood in our minds for violence to happen to ourselves or our loved ones, the more worried and paranoid we get and the more violence is placed at the forefront of our minds.

While the world is far from perfect, Steven Pinker has proven that it truly is improving. We have a long way to go, but we must not forget how far we have come and how much more forgiving our world is now than it has ever been in the past, which only inspires great hopes for the future.

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