28 April 2014

Humanist Debate: The Decline in Violence

The monthly debates at organised by the South West London Humanists Group have quickly established themselves in my calendar as they are proving to be very interesting and thought provoking.

April's meeting was no different when we packed in to the upstairs room of the Old Ship in Richmond to discuss the decline in violence. This is a theory from Steven Pinker that has had much coverage in recent years thanks to his talks at TED and the RSA etc. We used one of his videos to spark our debate.

Pinker's talk was wide-ranging and delivered quickly so there was little time to understand, much less challenge, any of his points.

I was happy to accept his general theory that our chances of dying a violent death are now much less than they ever have been but less convinced on some of the reasons that he gave.

I think that there are three possible reasons why violence has reduced:
  1. We have got nicer (enlightened) and no longer accept violence as the means to solve conflicts.
  2. We have better policemen, including the UN, who stop us from being violent.
  3. It is just an accident arising from other changes, e.g. better trade has reduced the need for wars.
It is important to understand the causes for reduced violence if we wish to keep the peace. It is hard to undue enlightenment, though people like Hitler have had a good go at it, but it would be a simple matter to remove global policing.

In our discussion we also looked at what was meant by "violence". Pinker's focus was rather narrow in that he was taking about violent deaths but there are other ways to threaten, subjugate and defeat people. These include bullying at the individual level up to cyber wars at the national level.

Violence may have reduced but that does not mean that conflict has.

I suspect that violence has reduced because we have found better, not nicer, ways of fighting our battles, e.g. an internet troll can abuse somebody with virtual impunity.

There must be a risk that as we plug the holes that allow other forms of conflict, e.g. financial sanctions, that we will return to violence as the best (or least-worst) option for resolving disputes.

The example that most tables came up with was Crimea with Russia seemingly impervious to the sanctions imposed on it which may force the West to consider some for of military engagement. Incidentally most tables also thought that Russia was not as guilty on Ukraine as the West is claiming.

And being Humanists we had to consider the role of religion in this. One argument is that most religions tell us to be nice and that has led to a fall in violence but all the major religions are centuries old and and we are becoming less religious so that does not explain the continued fall since they were established.

A more worrying thought was religious fanaticism (from any religion) could create more conflicts and the promise of life after death could reduce the fear of using violence to resolve those conflicts. Many religions have martyrs.

Or, is religion, like war, a solution to a problem that is now being solved in other more enlightened ways?

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