“A gradual shift in sensibilities is often incapable of changing actual practices until the change is implemented by the stroke of a pen,” writes Steven Pinker in The Better Angels of Our Nature. What Pinker explains is that governance, at least in WEIRD (western, educated, industrialized, rich, democratic) countries, relies on feedback from the people. Support for a given policy or position must build before a policy or position will be enacted into law or change existing law.
Pinker’s view is similar to a punctuated equilibrium theory of public policy (or of any change). Slowly, our attitudes, views, and opinions change and we then see sudden shifts in the law. For a few decades in the United States, views toward marijuana slowly shifted until sufficient support enabled a rapid change in laws around marijuana. Over a few decades people’s fear of gay people and gay marriage changed until the point where many states suddenly began to approve gay marriage. Opinions slowly shift and build until sudden large shifts in policy occur to align laws with our new views.
Pinker argues that this theory can also be seen on a global scale in the way that humans relate to and think about violence. Moral agitators and debates changed people’s sensibilities around slavery, public hangings, and head first football tackles. The first two were outlawed as public sensibilities changed and now are unthinkable in the United States. What once was common place is now seen as barbaric. Head fist football tackles are moving in the same direction. No one alive today remembers the effects and the violence of American chattel slavery first hand, nor does anyone remember witnessing public hangings first hand (this a broad generalization – someone may still be living who attended a public lynching). As a result, we couldn’t even imagine living in a world with chattel slavery or public hangings. The argument is that head first football tackles will also eventually be unimaginable once no one playing the game remembers a time when they were the norm.
Pinker’s argument is a good way to look at our changing views, opinions, and laws surrounding violence. His thoughts on people forgetting about violent practices and having those practices become unimaginable is also a helpful way to look at historical shifts in our relationships and understandings of violence. But they are not the only public policy theories that can be applied to the use and opinions of violence in our country. This view doesn’t factor in windows of opportunity for changing our relationships and views toward violence. His views don’t address the multiple streams of public opinion that include policies, problems, and politics. For each specific violent issue that could make its way to the agenda, there is a host of reasons why society may focus on that one area, why our sensibilities may change, and why policy may change to reflect those sensibilities. Pinker does seem to be correct in saying that all of these factors are moving us in a less violent direction, with periods of equilibrium punctuated by changes followed by periods where we forget that violent practices used to be common place.