In his book The Better Angels of Our Nature, Steven Pinker demonstrates that many of the ways in which we think about violence are inadequate for actually understanding violence. Often, our views toward violence are more dogmatic than evidence based. We have ideas, views, and beliefs of violence that seem to fit, but that don’t actually have much historical backing and don’t really take full context into consideration. Pinker’s book pushes back against such dogmas to help us better understand what is happening in world-wide violence trends. His argument is that by better understanding the causes and underlying factors contributing to violence, we can better understand actual trends in violence and shape our responses accordingly.
Regarding some dogmas that people hold about violence he writes, “on the contrary, violence is often caused by a surfeit of morality and justice, at least as they are conceived in the minds of the perpetrators.” Morality doesn’t necessarily seem to be a key to stopping violence. Pinker demonstrates that many religious wars, such as The Crusades, were fought by people who believed they were very moral. In fact, their morality was at the center of their conflict. Morality today is still used to justify violence, such as when we tie capital punishment to a sense of justice. The idea is that someone who killed another deserves to have the same violence inflected upon themselves. Our moral sense is that more violence is a worthy response to violence.
Pinker continues, “a Third dubious belief about violence is that lower-class people engage in it because they are financially needy … or because they are expressing rage against society.” What Pinker found is that this isn’t necessarily true. People in the lowest socioeconomic levels, Pinker argues, tend to be “effectively stateless.” At a certain point, legal recourse to address crimes is just not possible for people in the lowest economic spheres. People may be dependent on government aid and assistance, but they may be locked out of some of the protections that government and institutions afford more affluent people. Violence is better than trying to resolve conflicts legally for these individuals.
From a middle class perspective, impulse control more important for future success and security than it is for lower class individuals. Being impulsive and using violence against another person could lead to a job loss, a financial loss, the loss of friends, and the loss of familial assistance. If you have already lost those things, then the cost of violence falls. Approaches to address violence that are designed for the middle and upper classes literally are ineffective because they don’t operate on the proper incentive structure facing people in the lowest socioeconomic classes. And when those approaches fail, it can lead to a positive feedback loop where the poorest people are simply blamed for being impulsive and violent. We miss the importance of larger institutions and incentives.
Understanding these dogmas and the reality of violence helps us better understand why people are violent. Taking a long view of humanity allows us to more clearly see how these dogmas are built from limited perspectives of our current moment and current socioeconomic situations. To get beyond these dogmas requires that we think differently about the systems, structures, institutions, and incentives in people’s lives and how those factors can influence violent behavior.