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Pinker: Well, millions died in centuries before the 20th. People confuse a data point with the trend. They remember the horrific episodes of violence in the 20th century, but one occurrence is not a trend. And despite universal predictions that World War I to World War II was just the beginning of a sequence where World War III would be even worse, World War III didn’t happen. And in fact, from the spike of the Second World War, there’s been a historically unusual period of peace among developed countries.
reason: Let’s go through some of the reasons and processes by which the world became less violent. It began with what you call the pacification process, which involved the creation of states.
Pinker: The first states seemed to have in their wake a massive reduction of death in tribal raiding and feuding, basically because it’s a nuisance to the overlords. So you have things like the Pax Romana, the Pax Islamica, the Pax Sinica, in China, where the emperors would much rather have the peasants alive to stock their tax rolls and armies, and be slaves or serfs. So they had a selfish interest in preventing too much internecine feuding among their subject peoples and basically kept them from each other’s throats. Not that it was a life that we would consider particularly pleasant. You’re substituting a lot of violence among tribes and villages and clans for a lesser amount—but still a brutal form of violence—from the state against its citizens.
The next transition, after you have the government preventing people from committing violence against each other, you now have the problem of preventing the government from committing violence against its own peoples. And that was, basically, the advent of democracy and the various reforms of the Enlightenment.
reason: The next reduction in violence occurred as a result of what you call the civilizing process.
Pinker: It’s a term that I borrowed from the German sociologist Norbert Elias, in his book by that name, where he figured out—even in the absence of quantitative data —that Europe had become a less violent place in the transition from the Middle Ages to modernity. We now know that he was right, now that historical criminologists have gathered the quantitative data. But he had noticed it just from narrative accounts of what daily life was like. Just people cutting off each other’s noses, stabbing each other over the dinner table in response to an insult—there seems to be less now than there was then. He had an immediate explanation and an ultimate explanation. The immediate explanation was a psychological change. Namely that people exercise more self-control and more empathy. They counted to 10 and swallowed their pride rather than lashing out with a dagger when they’d been insulted. They tried to get inside the heads of other people in general, to figure out what they wanted.
Now that just begs the question of why would there have been this psychological change. He identified two exogenous factors, his first being the consolidation of kingdoms. Instead of a patchwork of little fiefdoms and duchies and principalities and baronies, you had kingdoms where criminal justice was nationalized, and that allows justice to be reckoned by a more disinterested third party, and it keeps warlords from cycles of vendetta and feuding. [This occurred] together with the expansion of the infrastructure of commerce, both the physical infrastructure in the form of roads and wagons and carts and mills, and also a financial infrastructure: currency that could be recognized throughout a kingdom once the king had established control, and enforceable contracts, tilting the incentive structure from conquest to exchange.
The intermediate link was that in order to get ahead during this transition, you no longer had to be the baddest knight in the land. You had to basically take a trip to the king’s court and kiss up to his various minions and bureaucrats. That required inhibiting various impulses—not blowing your nose into your hand and then shaking someone else’s hand, or not gnawing on a bone and putting it back into the serving dish—that weren’t appropriate to the king’s court. So there was a whole set of manners involving self-control that we call courtesy, from the word for court. According to Elias, this habit of self-control—and also empathy, because in an economy based on commerce, you’ve got to keep the customer satisfied, you’ve got to anticipate demand of your clients and customers—[meant that] people exercised what psychologists call today “theory of mind,” an ability to get into other people’s heads. The whole causal chain is government and commerce, [which lead] to self-control and empathy, [which lead] to less impulsive violence.
reason: But with regard to violence, government has been a big problem. It was the solution to tribal warfare, but governments have developed their own more efficient ways of killing people.
Pinker: Yes. Although probably in fewer numbers, because in no period of history would you have, say, 25 percent of the population killed by their government, which you could easily have in tribal warfare in hunter-horticulturists.
(Interview continues below video.)
reason: What accounts for what you call the “humanitarian revolution” in the 17th and 18th centuries?
Pinker: My best guess was that it was because of literacy. The first industry to show advances in productivity prior to the Industrial Revolution was bookmaking. Paper got cheaper. Printing is cheaper than handwriting, both because it’s faster and because you can squeeze more text on a given amount of paper. Bookbinding, distribution, all of that increased in the 17th century. There were also ships that could move people around as well as ideas. The first post office.
So you have the republic of letters. You have pamphlets going viral. You have many more books being published. You have higher literacy, so more people can read them. Once you don’t live in a pokey little village, where all of your ideas come from the priest or from the elders, you’re exposed to a whole world of ideas. And you’re allowed to talk about them; you’re not burned at the stake for talking about them. You can get together in pubs and coffeehouses and salons, and hash things out. The discussion’s going to go in some directions rather than others. It’s unlikely that everyone’s going to be persuaded, “Hey, the kings rule by divine right. Isn’t that obviously true?” It’s more likely that a bunch of minds exchanging ideas will maybe see a wee problem in that doctrine.