“Of all human collective activities,” writes Yuval Noah Harari in Sapiens, “the one most difficult to organize is violence.”
I generally think we have a lot of misunderstandings of violence. When it comes to violent crimes, catastrophic wars, or mass genocide, I think that most of us misunderstand what is at the heart of violence. I think we also misjudge how much violence and danger there is in the world and what is driving the actual trends that exist.
First, in the book The Better Angels of Our Nature, Steven Pinker argues the world is becoming less violent, even as most people believe the world to be more violent. In 2020 the trend reversed slightly, with violence picking up relative to the downward trend we had been seeing since the 1990s, but it is still to early to say if it is a small blip or the end of a downward trend in violence. We also don’t know exactly what caused the upward tick in violence in 2020 with great certainty yet. Nevertheless, Pinker’s argument that humans are becoming more civil, less impulsive, and less violent seems to violate our basic intuition on violence, and it hints at different causes of violence than what we typically believe.
Second, it is worth noting that when it comes to denouncing violence, we are often motivated by signaling more than by high minded ideas such as crime reduction, rehabilitation of dangerous individuals, or long-term reductions in recidivism. This perspective is in line with Robin Hanson and Kevin Simler’s view who suggest in The Elephant in the Brain that we are often doing things to make ourselves look better, to signal desirable traits about ourselves, and hiding our true intentions (even from ourselves) while we do so. Denouncing violence is a chance for us to demonstrate how much more moral, kind, and nice we are than dangerous, violent, and degenerate criminals. Heaping as much negativity and outrage on criminals as possible just shows how good we are in comparison. Moral outrage can be more about the outraged individual than the outrageous thing.
The end result is a misunderstanding of violence. We have trouble understanding crimes of convenience, even violent crimes of convenience. We fail to recognize that most crime and murder occurs between people who know each other, not complete strangers. We fail to consider the larger social and contextual factors which may drive people toward violent crime – such as age, levels of lead in the body, and other factors – and we tend to view bad guys as alternative, evil versions of ourselves. We are inundated with media reports and social media posts about random violent attacks, making us feel as though the violence is all around us.
But we don’t just misunderstand individual level violence. We also constantly fear that an evil regime (possibly an American regime led by the wrong political party) is going to drive a massive global war. But as Harari argues, large scale organized violence is difficult to maintain. “Why should the soldiers, jailors, judges, and police maintain an imagined order in which they do not believe?” writes Harari. To organize large scale violence takes a very compelling narrative and imagined order, one that few men or nations have been able to truly muster for long term wars – even though our history books like to focus on such wars. It is true that we can be incredibly violent and that violence can exist on massive scales, but it is harder to maintain and build than we like to believe, and it is also likely that violence of all forms is on a downward trend that we can work to understand and maintain into the future. Doing so will likely make it even less likely that large scale organized violence can occur.