“Violence has been in decline over long stretches of time”, says Harvard professor Steven Pinker, “and we may be living in the most peaceful time in our species’ existence.”
Although violence (rates of physical assault and violent death) has declined steadily over the last past 600 years, from the end of the late 1300s through today, during this time we still witnessed pockets of violent turmoil. For example, during the 1500s the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade was booming. During this time we witnessed violent usurpation of rights by groups with more power and resources over less powerful smaller groups with little or no resources. We also witnessed the first German Crusade against the Jews in Germany. We witnessed the Salem Witch Trials. We witnessed apartheid in Africa and the Holocaust of World War II. This information comes from recorded records in which less powerful groups were targeted by groups possessing more power and resources.
The most radical part of the 18th century is this idea of “equality” because during this time, human beings are living in an incredibly hierarchical society in which everybody is supposed to be differential to their betters, and in society there is an incredibly rigid social division among groups in which people are most decidedly NOT EQUAL.
The idea of “equality,” while at first reserved for a small group of people, was believed to have come from the printing press and the written word when people began to learn how to read. Although the printing press was invented in 1440 by Johannes Gutenburg mandatory education in the United States wasn’t established until Massachusetts passed the first compulsory school laws in 1852. New York followed the next year, and by 1918, all American children were required to attend at least elementary school. Literacy had a tremendous impact. It is also at this same time we see a shift in the attitude towards physical assault and violent death. We know this because of the Old Bailey court archive which is a Central London database of past court records.
The very first signs of wanting to learn how to read came in Europe during the 17th and 18th centuries, and wanting to know how to read came from a desire for wanting to know how to read the Bible. Knowing how to read, of course, comes in handy for more than just knowing how to read the bible. You can read other works such as the newspaper. In reading the various newspapers people realize they are not isolated and that there are other groups out there suffering from similar problems that they themselves are experiencing. People were able to read a vast array of different works and this introduced the Novel. Print and newspapers are incredibly important for creating this broader sense of reality. With the Novel, it allowed the reader to get inside the mind of the characters. This allowed the reader to be motivated by political action. Movements like the Slave Movement which was boasted by slave narratives, “Life Among The Lowly” by Harriet Beecher Stowe, popularized by a single novel and novels like “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” allowed the entrance of people into a world that allowed for the development of felt empathy for the plight of the slave. The idea of “equality” started the notion that slaves are deserving of freedom. And reading novels made people more empathetic.
Reading fiction can build empathy in an individual and help build understanding among different people. Psychological test “Reading the Eyes in the Mind” test. Scientific test to test a subject’s level of empathy is designed to measure individual levels of empathy. A test subject is shown a series of photographs of just eyes and is asked what type of emotion the pair of eyes is displaying; for example, upset, terrified, arrogant, annoyed. Readers of literary fiction score consistently higher. Reading a novel is kinda like going to the empathy gym. Things didn’t just stop with the novel.
The enlightenment which encouraged men to think about philosophy and topics like “equality” is one of the reasons we witnessed the expansion of civil and human rights following this time period. However, the idea that “all men are created equal” is anything but accurate. The only “equality” that men are born into is their shared human condition. That is, that they are born from a female, live for a certain span of years, of which they are susceptible to disease, and then die. Everything in the middle, your parent’s level of wealth, your parent’s social status, your parent’s level of education, your parent’s religion, where your parents live, what schools you attend, are the very things that create social division. And these social divisions have a tendency to create hostility and animosity among groups.
Rethinking social arrangements from the ground up. It made everybody think about “equality.” “Financial equality” still remains reserved for certain privileged groups. If you are a group without political power, economic power, literary power (knowledge or know-how), networks of business power (and these groups tend to make up the lower social classes and the disadvantaged which have historically been women, blacks, prison inmates, mentally ill, mentally retarded, children, the aged and elderly) than the notion of “equality” can begin to fall apart fairly quickly. It can for all intense purposes fail to exist unless you have ADVOCACY for these underprivileged groups. When we talk about “power” we also have to talk about “control” and the use of “coercive control” like for example mass incarceration that is used over less powerful groups.
These silent encroachments and usurpations of individual and group power by more powerful individuals are where man’s proclivity towards violence and predation is received with favor and become established as “civilized” and “socially acceptable” when it is utilized in the name of PROGRESS and INNOVATION. The same progress and innovation we witnessed in the European expansion and U.S. expansion based on the commodity of black indigenous slave ownership. Human experiments and unethical, inhumane medical experiments carried out on people have primarily been the people of the lower classes. These unethical, inhumane medical experiments have historically been performed on black women, black slaves, poor black share croppers, prison inmates, the mentally ill, the mentally retarded, the aged and elderly, and children. Violence hasn’t been reduced, it has just shifted in how we understand and perceive it. We need to look at the commodity of HUMAN COMMODITIES and HUMAN CARGO. I argue that the levels of violent death and physical assault against people are actually higher than what is being reported because it only takes into account recorded rates of violent death and murder. Were all deaths due to unconsented, inhumane medical experiments accounted for? While these numbers may still make the over all picture of violent deaths lower, it is my belief that man hides his violent predation structured around utilitarian reasons and socially acceptable acts of violence in the name of innovation and progress. What are the clandestinely hidden advanced technologies that can silently usurp individual and group power? Many of the CIA top secret documents that involved mind control experiments were destroyed. We only know the names of few top secret mind control projects that came under the project of MKULTRA and since physical assault and violent death are not the only modes of violence perpetrated by man, we need to address and look at all violence.
The Old Bailey proceeding is the largest body of recorded speech in the world. It covers the years from 1674-1913 and 197,745 digitally converted court trials. Researchers digitized these records into a cohesive computer database and computer scientist from Carnegie Mellon, using “data sets” to organize the data to cohesively, systematized it so man could analyze and understand the various trials by transforming them into data that can be read and evaluated. He did this by using Rochette’s Thesaurus, assigning “data sets,” groups of words like hit, punch, stab, shot, cut, thrust, etc. and making them all mean an example of an “attack“.
The scientists looked at the way in which the city of London assigned crime and punished it. They discovered that it changed from decade to decade, and the important piece of information coming from this project was the analysis of the various court records in how the data set of words used to mean “assault” began to evolve. That is, they began to look at physical assault and physical violence more seriously. For example, in the 1700s if a person assaulted a man by “hitting” “punching” “stabbing” “kicking” him over the head and stealing his property, this was defined as “Theft.” But this act of physical violence evolved and came to be defined as “Physical Assault“, and by 1909 (the same time mandatory education was being established in the United States) these words became associated with cases of physical assault. Quite simply society began to change its attitude towards violence and physical assault, making it a much more serious offense rather than focusing the offense on the simple aspect of theft of property. Which if a man stole from another man, without physically assaulting him this would be considered a much “lesser offense” in the eyes of the court. Here is a link to London’s Central Criminal Court from 1674 to 1913. The Old Bailey Court Archive
By the beginning of the 20th century, people were expected to settle their disputes more civilly, rather than by busting out teeth, shooting each other, or hitting one another. During this time period, disagreement or conflict was expected to be handled in more civilized terms. Thus, a cultural shift in attitudes, to ones that reflected a more dignified, civilized, socially acceptable means to conflict resolution, began to emerge.
Can we draw a cultural universal based on one European country like England? Agustin Fuentes of the University of Notre Dame says Yes and No. No, because England is a small backwater compared to the larger world, and yes because major social, political and cultural beliefs spread around the world and have had a major impact like the American and French Revolutions. While Steven Pinter says yes based on the recorded numbers of death rates during warfare, that is, comparing the death toll against the population. When we do this World War II falls to number 8. The worst was the Mogel conquest by Gangis Kahn which rose to Number 1. During the reign of Gangis Kahn, 10% of the world population was killed off, and when you consider the number of wars waged directly between the major powers since 1953, since the Korean war, has fallen to ZERO, zero becomes a number that represents the declining attitude that War isn’t the only answer. The big national armies are not fighting with one another today. Why? Could this be due to cost-effectiveness? Of course, major powers have invaded smaller countries like Vietnam but no Major World Wars have taken place since the Korean War. This is a premise Pinker bases his thesis on in his theory of “the historical decline violence.” Here is a link to Pinker’s PowerPoint demonstration.
The feeling that war was like a cancer that was spreading and spreading and is now entering into a possible remission is one that focuses on major warfare. The tumors are getting smaller and smaller, but the tumors are still there. They just aren’t as big as they used to be. I expect the reason to be due to financial cost and ineffective cost stability over the duration of major wars. Man seems to be choosing smaller wars, ones he can cost-effectively carry out. Except when we talk about “war”, war is rooted in the individual psyche of every man. We see the individual effects of an ego in mental conflict with itself, especially when that ego feels threatened. We witness pockets of violent aggression in major cities like Baltimore, Detroit, and Chicago. We also witness forms of violent predation in acts of random mass shootings, but the heading “violence” includes passive-aggressive covert violence and coercive control as well. People with personality disorders use forms of passive-aggressive, covert violence as well as overt violence. Where once men were formally evaluated on their fighting prowess and physical combat skills, man is now expected to control his temper and base his problem-solving strategies in terms of ethics and morals. A shift that began to occur as early as the Medieval time period but became fully manifest by the early 1900s. Here is a link to a 1 hour and 53-minute educational program discussing Steven Pinker’s theory on declining rates of war and violence.