The case for optimism, cont’d: The decline of violence and war

Steven Pinker makes the case that, despite the bloodbaths of the 20th and early 21st centuries, we are actually enjoying more peace and less violence than at any other time in human history:

An essay based on his talk is here. It’s fascinating and heartening to consider the general increase of empathy in the world, as people continue to expand their moral circles and cultivate, Pinker speculates, a more cosmopolitan attitude — “in which journalism, memoir, and realistic fiction make the inner lives of other people, and the contingent nature of one’s own station, more palpable — the feeling that ‘there but for fortune go I’.” (Sociologist Sam Richards, in his own compelling TED talk, explains how he conducts a radical experiment in empathy with his students, and demonstrates just how crucial this process is for cross-cultural understanding and for peace.)

Elsewhere, Charli Carpenter alerts us to a forthcoming book by Joshua Goldstein that similarly explores the decline of violence, Winning the War on War. Goldstein writes in the prologue:

This book asks readers to break out of a dominant way of thinking about world affairs that focuses on negativity and drowns out progress. If we turn off the screech of alarmist “news” and overblown political rhetoric for a moment and look at hard evidence objectively, we find that many people in the world are working hard for peace and in fact the world is becoming more peaceful. For this shocking idea to sink in requires either a paradigm shift or at least a broken TV set. […] it is easy to assume that war is getting worse, and can never get better, because everyone knows that war is inevitable. But if we look past the heat and smoke, a radical notion emerges in this book. War among human beings is not inevitable. Rather, the end of war, though also not inevitable, is possible. The possibility of an end to war is not something to be ridiculed, but to be pursued.

You can read the first chapter here.

We should, of course, deplore every armed conflict, every act of brutality and hatred, every single violent loss of life, no matter how rare. But we should also recognize the counterintuitive fact that violence is statistically rare, and getting rarer — a fact that should be noted, shouted out, celebrated, and added to the list of reasons to be optimistic.


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