Friday, December 14, 2012

Venting on Violence

A thing of the Dark Ages?

There is a view popular today among the likes of Steven Pinker and optimists in left-wing coffee houses which asserts that we live in a far more enlightened, less violent time than those past eras, which were fraught with hatred, superstition, animal instincts, and more basic compulsions. By contrast, today we are aided by the "light of science," which guides us towards a new and luminous Elysium, one often populated by artificial intelligences and humans who move from fleeting sensation to fleeting sensation without every considering the possibility of violence. What crap!

Let us consider some very basic data. According to the Population Reference Bureau about 108 billion people have lived on this planet since the commencement of the human populace. About 6 billion people were alive at the end of the twentieth century. Roughly 7-7.5 billion live now, 6.5% of the historical total. By combining the "births between benchmarks" for 1950 and 1995 we can discover a [very] high-end estimate for the total number of people who lived in the twentieth century, about 8,817,503,215, or about 8.2% of the people who have every lived. For generosity, I will even include those born between 1850 and 1900, many of whom may have lived to see the twentieth century, some 2,900,237,856 people, upping the total to 11,717,741,071, or 10.8% of people to have every lived.

An excellent resource for historical deaths is, which documents its sources in the left hand column. In a chart given for the "Twenty (or so) Worst Things People Have Done to Each Other" the site lists about 390.5 million violent deaths, which comprise the 20 or so most brutal phenomena in human history. Of those, 157 million occurred in the twentieth century, or 40.2% of the total. Moreover, the top two are of the twentieth century, and three of the top ten are of the twentieth century. Indeed, six of the twenty entries either reside in or touch the last century. Additionally, the nineteenth century, another era of materialism, anti-clericalism, nationalism, "reason," "science," and enlightenment also rings in not a few times on that list. Another interesting feature of the list is that violence seems sporadic outside of these two centuries. The thirteenth century pops up here, the seventeenth appears there etc.

These statistics do not account for smaller scale violence, such or mugging-murders so prevalent in Renaissance Rome or name-your-Middle-Eastern-city back street, which has certainly declined with the advent of better law enforcement and more excess wealth, which allows certain groups of would-be criminals to enjoy a degree of abundance and succor which dissuades them from the need for desperate crimes.

Nothing violent about this. Besides, it's not that common, either.
Still, the previous set of statistics is astounding. About a tenth of the historical population lived last decade, yet of the most brutal instances in human history, 40% of them, including the two worst, happened during this period. I am also being generous with these statistics in another way: as a Catholic I am quite tempted to add 500 million abortions to the twentieth century statistic, but for the sake of argument I will not. So why the optimism about our era of commonality, brotherhood, enlightenment, and [what purports to be] science?

Perhaps some odd blend of secular humanism and university culture. Modernity, or post-modernity, needs results, as those who push it claim to be empirical people. For instance, Pinker often cites the lower death rates in wars now as opposed to several centuries ago. This misses certain vital points:
  • Technology has made war safer for the better equipped side, and also more remote.
  • In previous eras the size of an army mattered more than its equipment, which only occasionally varied from army to army. This meant that large scale deaths were a certainty for combatants on either side.
  • Wars in the last few decades have been fought on a smaller scale and act as satellite venues of combat between political adversaries who, in my opinion, are delaying rather than avoiding inevitable direct conflict.
Notice, none of these have to do with greater inner-knowledge, "reason," or university-driven notions of "progress." They are technological and political circumstances that may or may not last. Consider how many times the empire, the nation, and the city-state have gone in and out of fashion since the era of Moses.

I would also posit that, as violence has clearly not decreased, violence has become more remote. We see violence in the Middle East and in Africa on television or newspapers with regularity without every encountering it ourselves. When violence does hit our segment of the world we often do not know how to react, as we have been dulled by viewing imitation violence for years.

This does not mean violence has vanished in the West and only exists in third world dictatorships. The Holocaust is still in living memory for many in Europe, who would rightly smack you with their canes and walkers for suggesting that we have progressed away from past eras of un-civility and embraced a humanist paradise.

Moreover, the phenomenon of abortion, crushing a fetus's head and vacuuming it out of the mother's uterus, is a striking example of violence remaining in our midst although remote and unrecognized to us. Few in the era of the Roman Empire or of Genghis Khan could have conceived or a more brutal way to eventuating death.

No, modern culture has not eliminated, or even slackened, brutality and violence, but modern circumstances have managed to improve a few statistics which some will use giddily. One only needs to watch two brawling children to know that the violent instinct will never rest, it will merely express itself with more discretion.

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