New evidence that violence, or at least its impact, isn’t declining

Back in 2011, social scientist Steven Pinker wrote a book called The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined, wherein he argued that we’re living in the most peaceful time in human history thanks to humanity’s general embrace of a more empathetic, reason-centric, moral view of the world. He won a lot of praise for the book, and given humanity’s historic proclivity for violence it is certainly plausible that we’re living in the least violent time in history despite lots of anecdotal evidence to the contrary. But Pinker also came in for a fair amount of criticism, as you might expect, from people who argued that he was pushing a comforting theory to his mostly Enlightenment Western audience, and shaping the statistics he used around that theory. In response to his critics, and to some of the major new violence the world has seen since 2011, Pinker co-authored a piece for Slate last year that reiterated his argument that things are less violent now than they’ve ever been.

One of the biggest criticisms of Pinker’s work centered on his reliance on “violent deaths per capita” as his proxy for “violence.” Death is certainly one outcome of violence, but it is not the only one, and, moreover, large scale episodes of violence (like wars, my focus here) tend to produce long-lasting effects that can cause seemingly “non-violent” deaths (a war that ruins a country’s arable land or destroys its healthcare infrastructure will ultimately be responsible for lots of deaths by starvation and disease that likely won’t be considered “violent deaths” by the folks who compile those kinds of statistics). A related problem is how you define “violence.” Sanctions can also cause plenty of deaths due to malnutrition and illness, and it’s not clear that they would be considered violent at all, since sanctions and embargoes (where one nation elects not to trade with another) are not generally considered acts of war. This is complicated by the fact that some modern sanctions may, like the US/EU decision to bar Iranian banks from the SWIFT network, act more like blockades — which are an act of war — in that they prevent all nations from trading with the embargoed nation (collective sanctions implemented through an international body like the UN can have similar impacts).

Complicating Pinker’s analysis of the contemporary period is that how we conduct warfare has changed quite a bit from the days of the World Wars, in ways that may mask some of the devastation they cause. While Great Powers tend to shy away from going toe-to-toe with one another in an age where such a conflict could result in a nuclear exchange, they’ve instead channeled their military efforts into clobbering smaller, weaker enemies, sometimes in a proxy scenario against another power but frequently for their own ends. It’s hard enough to determine casualties in a slug-fest between evenly matched European powers, but it may actually be harder to determine them when a Great Power invades, destroys, and occupies a weaker nation. Are we sure we’ve counted all the violent deaths wrought by the war in Afghanistan, a country with vast hinterlands that have been outside the government’s control for, well, maybe ever? Are we sure that we’re counting all the deaths due to the Iraq War, which completely shattered Iraq’s infrastructure and may in fact still be killing people there, both from America’s parting depleted uranium gifts and from the societal forces that the war eventually unleashed? It’s no easier when those weaker countries, often ruled by authoritarian governments, go to war with each other, or devolve into civil war, because they may lack the capacity and/or the independent media necessary to accurately report death tolls and the like.

Anyway, this has all been a long run up to this revelation:

A new report has found that 38 million people have been displaced within their own country by conflict or violence, with at least 11 million newly displaced in 2014 alone.

The global overview report, released on Wednesday by the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre (IDMC) of the Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC) recorded a 15 percent increase, stating that the figures were a record high for a third year in a row.

Jan Egeland, the secretary-general of the NRC described the report as a wake up call for international diplomacy, reiterating that the figures are distinct from refugees who are forced to leave their countries.

The plight of the internally displaced is something that wasn’t given as much consideration in the 20th century (or even four years ago when Pinker published his book), when the focus tended to be on deaths and after that on refugees (which means you’d be right to be slightly skeptical of the “record high” bit above). But the internally displaced are just as cut off from their lives and means of survival as refugees, and may in fact be in more dire circumstances, seeing as how they’re uprooted but still stuck in or close to the war zone, and lack the refugees’ theoretically easier access to international aid. Granted, some of these 38 million may be displaced for reasons that aren’t violent — Nepal’s recent earthquake has left potentially tens of thousands of people homeless — but the bulk of the internally displaced have been displaced by conflict, in places like Syria, Iraq, Ukraine, South Sudan, Libya, Nigeria, the Central African Republic, the Congo region, and so on. These people will suffer, and many will die, because of violence, even if their deaths won’t be “violent” per se. I’m not sure if these figures invalidate Pinker’s argument, but they definitely highlight its biggest weakness and also make it clear that we humans can do better.

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One thought on “New evidence that violence, or at least its impact, isn’t declining

  1. I have to say that I have never been fond of Pinker and his ilk, purveyors of self congratulatory nonsense for the amusement of the smug and self satisfied. Their pretensions to intellectual heft have been especially galling.

    Anyway, thanks for engaging.

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