Steven Pinker - The Decline of Violence in History and its Causes

I will confess right from the start that I have not read Steven Pinker's latest book, The Better Angels of Our Nature: The Decline of Violence in History and its Causes. Personally, I don't need 800 pages and some thorough statistical analysis to convince me that I am less likely to have violence inflicted upon me today than at any other time in mankind's history. I am quite willing to accept it.

The author describes in a nutshell the premise of the book this way:
Believe it or not, violence has been in decline for long stretches of time, and we may be living in the most peaceful era in our species' existence. The decline has not been steady; it has not brought violence down to zero; and it is not guaranteed to continue. But it is a persistent historical development, visible on scales from millennia to years, from world wars and genocides to the spanking of children and the treatment of animals.

My problem is that when he says "we may be living in the most peaceful era in our species existence," I am not filled with an overwhelming urge to stand up and applaud. I don't even feel a wave of relief wash over me. It is all very intellectually interesting and such, but all I can think is, "So what?"

A study like this offers no solace. So what if the levels of death from violence have declined? It has not lifted the threat of violence from this planet. The thick gloom that consumes mankind, etched on to their faces in a set grimace of pressure. What is so comforting about a level of violence being held in check by a system of authority, like a dam being built to hold back the waters? Everybody still knows someone that has been the victim of some sort of crime. My own children are not yet eight and four and they have already been on the receiving end of theft and vandalism.

Having read several interviews, and listened to his lecture while following along on the transcript, one cannot help but be struck by the notion that it is all about the haves and the have-nots. Those who have power, and those who have not; those who have wealth, and those who do not; those who have intelligence, and those who lack it.

In a Q&A over at Freakonomics, he had this to say:
Q Other than writing best-selling books what can people do to help society at large resist the urge to think things are worse and worse and the world is less and less safe when this is manifestly not the case? –Joshua Northey

A A small portion of the population is willing to be reasoned with, but when I tell my reasonably intelligent sister that “children are probably safer today than at any time in human history” she scoffs at me as if I am telling her that cigarettes have nothing to do with lung cancer. She is so dismissive she won’t even read the few things I have given her about it, and her attitude is not uncommon.
The author refers to his own sister as "reasonably intelligent"; She "scoffs" at him; she is "so dismissive". Perhaps she has made the mistake of lamenting the dire condition of the world, that you can't let your children out of your sight these days. Her brother, Steven, helpfully comes back with statistics to prove that she has no need to be so alarmed. Great! What is she supposed to do with that information even if she did take the time to read it?

"Oh, so it's alright to send my kids to the park unattended, then?"

"Well, no, you still want to be careful..."

Then, it's not good enough. Reassurance can't even be offered that this is a trend set to continue, until one day we will see a time when we have brought violence down to zero. From his lecture, found over at The Edge:
The decline of violence, to be sure, has not been steady; it has not brought violence down to zero (to put it mildly); and it is not guaranteed to continue.
"To put it mildly," he quantifies, because, of course, violence is still rife. It could break out again, given the right circumstances, because all we are doing, it seems, is holding back a force of nature.

Among others who have their intelligence questioned are Christian fundamentalists. In The Guardian, John Naughton guesses that the author's portrayal of the Holy Book will get him in to trouble in parts of the US:
SP: No doubt – though American evangelical Protestants are pretty un-intellectual, and are unlikely to read the book,
There seems to be a strata among society who are completely without vision, determined to view the Bible as nothing more than a fool's book.

Such is the tenor of the conversation that Naughton feels free to use the expression "the chattering classes".

Asked how it is hoped this study this will affect others, the author replies,
It's a rising tide that lifts all the boats. It sounds elitist to say this, but attitudes toward women, homosexuals, and racial minorities, and the tolerant attitudes that we celebrate of not beating up your kids, tend to start among the most educated strata, and you can see the rest of the country being dragged behind. With a lot of these statistics, the red states today have attitudes that the blue states had 30 years ago—toward women, towards spanking, towards homosexuals, towards animal rights, and so on.
Perhaps it sounds elitist because it is elitist, so that in the end this becomes the main criticism of this study: It is a celebration of the ruling classes. He says that we need to ask, "What have we been doing right?" We have found a way to keep the violence in check rather than address the root cause. Hey, the system works! Thank heavens for the "haves" for they shall keep the "have-nots" in check.

It is a study undertaken in response to those who decry the deplorable conditions we see in the world. "Things aren't as bad as all that," it says. But surely, in more than enough ways, they are.