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If We Are So Civilized, Why Are We So Violent?

Today is the 67th anniversary of the world’s first atomic bomb attack on Hiroshima.  It’s an event that I’ve always been fascinated by.  I had studied it like the WWII geek that I am, but when I went to Hiroshima to see for myself………?  It was a life changing experience to actually feel the ghosts of the past and hear their accounts of horror as they were subjugated to one of the worst acts of violence ever perpetrated.

Of course, yesterday was a horrific day too.  The shooting at the Sikh temple in Wisconsin was tragic.  This follows on the heels of the atrocious movie theater shooting in Aurora, CO.  Add to that reports of places like Chicago, where, over the weekend, four people died and at least 25 peoplen were wounded in acts of violence, and it just led me back to that original question I had in Hiroshima.

…If We Are So Civilized, Why Are We So Violent?

So I decided to research what was leading to the increase in violence.  And guess what i found?  Violent crime was actually decreasing according to the statistics.  What was going on?  I was very confused.

So I searched more.  I ran into theories of abortion leading to lower crimes.  Other theories that higher incarceration and policing, combined with social programs and demographic shifts to an older culture contributed to the recent decline in violence.  Others, such as Steven Pinkner, make the case that a shift to nation states (read: civilization), with less political actors was resulting in less violent crime as well as casualties from war.

At the same time though, I had just started reading a book that identified the beginning of large scale organized violence (i.e., war) to the origins of agriculture.  This is fairly consistent with some of those that critique Pinkner and others for having too short of a time frame.  According to anthropologists Brian Ferguson and Douglas Fry, it was not until 10,000 years ago that humans began to be increasingly violent.  And while Pinkner posits that hunter-gatherers had higher incidences of death by warfare (15%), Ferguson and Fry dispute his archeological data and ethnographic studies and estimate the rates to be much lower…lower than modern day civilization in fact.

There are other problematic issues with the Pinkner theory (which, for what it’s worth, derives from a Hobbesian theory).  First, we may not have a decrease in violent impulses, but instead treat them differently.  This can take the form of literal treatment.  According to historian Randolph Roth:

…the history of manners does not take into account that four of five people who died before 1850 of physical trauma would probably be saved by modern medical practice.

Or it can take the form of treatment of data.  For instance, the US, with the highest incarceration rate in the world, does not include prison crimes in its national crime statistics.  So we can pat ourselves on the backs for our safer streets, but we are neglecting to factor in crime within prisons into our discussions of whether our society is more or less violent than in the past.  If we did so, the success story might look very different.  As stated in an article from earlier this year in the Harvard Law and Policy Review titled Start Counting Prison Crime in National Crime Statistics:

paper published in 2010 analyzing data from the National Inmate Survey reported that “An estimated 4.4% of prison inmates and 3.1% of jail inmates reported experiencing one or more incidents of sexual victimization by another inmate or facility staff…it’s important to note that this implies there were over 94,000 victims, without factoring in how many victims were…subject to multiple violations.

Finally, the theory that we are less violent depends on the definition of “violence” in the first place.  If one limits “violence” to mean physical violence, it tells a very different story than if violence is defined more broadly (i.e., as any act to harm another).  Slavery was created in modern times, but if slaves weren’t killed, is that not counted as violence?  Similarly, and ironically, the idea that higher incarceration today has led to lower rates of violent crime neglects that incarcerating someone (especially without rehabilitation) is, by it’s very nature, an act of violence.  This is what is called “structural violence.” And as Fry argues:

structural violence exists at very high levels in the twenty-first century. This brand of violence extends beyond the formal organization of war making; it stems from unjust political and economic social structures that inflict pain and suffering through extreme poverty, malnutrition, the lack of safe drinking water, the degradation of the planet’s biosphere…Structural violence translates into untold human misery, suffering, and shortened life spans. To adopt Pinker’s focus on physical forms of violence to the exclusion of structural violence of epic proportions is to miss the big picture.

So…while I may concede that (physical) violence is lower now than in the recent past, there are questions about how much modernity leads to decreases in violence versus the effects of better medical care, exclusion of data, and a limited definition of what violence is.  Not to mention whether the comparison of the recent past to now is even the right time frame given that prior to that (i.e., 10,000+ years ago), we may have been much more peaceful beings.

Alas…my question remains: If We Are So Civilized, Why Are We So Violent?



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