By Jay Fidell
James Koshiba warned in Monday’s paper that the duty of the citizen is greater than just voting – these days we have other civic duties to perform to protect our democracy and way of life. Part of that way of life is freedom from crime and violence.
The day before, the paper had written up three books on the decline of violence, the most notable being The Better Angels of our Nature; Why Violence has Declined by Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker, which had been reviewed a week ago on NPR. All these books and there must be something to the proposition that violence has declined.
The NPR piece was so interesting I downloaded Pinker’s book from Amazon into my desktop Kindle. It’s very provocative, making the case that violence is declining because “a smarter more educated world is becoming more peaceful.” That’s a great thought, but it raises many other questions. Note that the secondary effect of a smarter world is a world where most people get fed and have decent QOL.
If you have a decent QOL, you’re likely to appreciate it. And the better it is and the more you appreciate it the less likely you are to risk everything by engaging in violence. It doesn’t take a rocket surgeon to avoid the danger of violence. It has a way of coming back on you, as in Gaddafi.
Note also, however, that lots of violent acts, if not most of them, are irrational, whether drug-induced, cultural or hormonal. Remember at the end of the day, we’re all mammals. If we're more likely to be rational, however, we're less likely to be violent.
We know that the miracle of information technology makes our lives better, it educates us and presumably makes us more rational. So the advent of today’s technology and all the good things that flow from it have got to be a factor in the decline in violence, no matter what the Waldorf School says.
But information technology can work for or against the betterment of mankind, and for or against violence. It’s easy to find examples of how technology can damage mankind, seriously, not only by weapons but also by instruments and processes that spread hate and incite violence.
On balance, technology probably helps us more than hurts us. Don’t you think the tool of technology helps most people and societies lead a better life, be more rational and engage in conduct that is less rather than more violent?
There is the old bugaboo that seeing violence on the screen makes us want to emulate it. But perhaps it’s the other way around – perhaps seeing violence shows us that it is undesirable and discourages us from violent inclinations. We don’t know for sure, yet.
Assuming violent images are presented in a way to help people get violence out of their systems rather than engage in it, perhaps we can say that violence on the media actually supports the proposition that violence is declining.
For the moment, I would agree with Pinker, but I would add that this phenomenon is not static. While violence may be declining today, it could pop up again later with a vengeance, as it has so many times in the past. After all, we’re still mammals, and carnivorous.
We could find that technology goes to a new tipping point and engenders new levels of violence, even more atrocious than before. If that happens, is it the fault of technology or those who use technology? Should we see ourselves and mad inventors or as victims?
All things considered, it seems to me that technology is mostly an instrument of peace and that is most likely to improve QOL for all of us. This all assumes that mankind is basically rational and can avoid slipping bank into old more violent habits. No guaranty on that, of course.
Alexander Stille wrote in Sunday’s Times that more minority groups in this country are now accepted and can play the game. At the same time, he said social mobility is declining, as reflected perhaps in the recent Wall Street protests. What does this mean, and how is it related to the decline of violence?
These days, we have access and mobility to power and wealth that promise success. This takes the edge off social and political disappointment, even if we haven’t actually made it yet. But if things get bogged down, and they could, we won’t feel that gemutlichkeit anymore. Would violence rise?
It’s a moving target, and we happen to be at a low point of the curve right now. But as our world changes, as it must, we’re affected by new endogenous and exogenous influences, and we may find that we’re on the way back to where we were or worse.
Enjoy it while ye may, since with the current recession and credit and banking crises, gemutlichkeit cannot be taken for granted. Don’t assume that the government or technology will be able to keep a lid on things, and don’t be too surprised when QOL drops, and with it personal security.
Want some advice, well here it is: care about the efficiency of government; care about the financial health of government and the economy; and vote with those concerns in mind. A healthy society is a non-violent one. If we ignore these things, we’ll get what we deserve for failing to be good citizens, and we’ll be battling old demons in the state of nature.