In The Better Angels of Our Nature, Steven Pinker writes about German sociologist Norbert Elias and his theory of civilization. Over time, people became less impulsive, less disgusting, and more civilized, and this trend toward civilization among people corresponded with declines in violence between people. For Elias, a decline in violence was a result of increased civility among human beings.
But Elias was writing in the 1930s and 1940s in Germany, a country controlled by a political power that launched some of the greatest violence the world has ever seen. Elias had to explain how humans became more civil and less violent and how his own country managed to be so awful. Pinker writes, “he documented the persistence of a militaristic culture of honor among its elites, the breakdown of a state monopoly on violence with the rise of communist and fascist militias, and a resulting contraction of empathy for groups perceived to be outsiders…” Pinker goes on to explain that homicide rates and other rates of violence did continue to decline in Nazi Germany while violence toward outsiders and the rest of the world spiked. Pinker affirms that violence and civility continued their inverse relationship through WWII despite German violence and aggression.
I find Pinker’s analysis of the explanations that Elias provides for why Nazi Germany could be so violent at a time of declining violence very interesting. Throughout the book Pinker supports the idea that a militaristic culture of honor can lead to increased violence. When people feel a need to protect their honor via force or equal punishment for slights against their honor, then violence can escalate. When the state loses its control on the use of violence and force, individual vigilantes and armed militias can become dangerously prominent. When people begin to dehumanize other groups and justify violence against them, then pockets of violence can easily erupt. These factors still promote violence in the world today.
Ahmaud Arbery was shot in Georgia, a state in the Southern United States where honor cultures have always persisted to a greater extent than elsewhere in the United States. Perhaps he was in a place he shouldn’t have been, perhaps he had stolen something in the past. But the violence inflicted upon him was a result of a culture of honor that has long persisted and encouraged a sense of vigilantism among Southern Whites. Across 2020 and 2021 in the United States the breakdown of the state monopoly on violence factored into a lot of violence and death. Armed militias killed Black Lives Matter protesters and stormed the Nation’s Capital. These groups certainly appeared to be in part fueled by a lack of empathy for people they perceived as different and other, as somehow wrong and less deserving than themselves. The diagnosis from Elias on why Nazi Germany became so violent seems to be echoed in the recent uptick of violence within the United States.
(Please note that I am not saying the United States today or in the last few years is Nazi Germany. I am simply identifying some factors that explained Nazi Germany violence and asking if they also explain some trends observed today in very different places, times, and settings.)