Violence: beyond statistics

By Zubeida Mustafa

A NEW book that is making waves in the West these days is The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined.

Written by Harvard’s professor of psychology Steven Pinker, the book argues that “violence has declined over long stretches of time, and today we may be living in the most ‘peaceable era in our species’ existence”.

Pinker draws upon a wealth of statistics (mainly from western sources relating to the West) to establish his point. He also explains the sociological, biological, political and historical factors and the endogenous and exogenous variables that have led man to resort less and less to violent means to achieve his goals.

Many of us who live through violent times may find it difficult to accept Pinker’s hypothesis. Statistically he may be correct — though percentages can be deceptive. Besides, it amounts to looking at events in terms of numbers with the focus being on physical violence. That data is obviously easier to identify and collect in societies where records are meticulously kept. Does that mean if a child who is spared corporal punishment, but is subjected to psychological torture by being taunted, bullied or teased and for which no numerical records are kept has not been a victim of violence?

We should be more concerned about the impact of violence on the human mind and its effect on our lives. Unfortunately, that has definitely been intensified over the years even though the actual incidents of violence may have fallen as argued by Pinker. It is the perception that the world is experiencing more violence today than the actual fact of violence that is more worrying. This illusion is created by the quick dissemination of the news of violence by the electronic media — television, Internet, cellphones, social networking and so on.

One may well ask why should we have this (false?) perception? Personally, I hold the media responsible for creating this impression. As Pinker very correctly points out, “Our cognitive faculties predispose us to believe that we live in violent times, especially when they are stoked by the media that follow the watchword ‘If it bleeds, it leads’.”

The electronic media, especially the 24/7 variety that now universally dominates the world of infotainment, has unlimited capacity to focus on violence, disasters and all that is brutal — after all, brutality has not been eliminated entirely. It employs all the technology at its command to convey all this through graphic images. This has proved to be lethal. Pinker admits that the media sears pictures of death, mutilation and destruction in our memory.

The negative images have a negative impact on the viewers. Small wonder depression, anxiety and other mental disorders are on the rise all over the world. It is worse in our society because viewing the idiot box is a more popular pastime for us in the absence of any other form of entertainment.

Hence every incident of violence does not count as one incident. It must be multiplied with the number of times it is viewed and the number of viewers who watch it on television.

After all, it triggers off the same emotions and reactions in a person as he would experience if the event was happening before him, especially when he is told that the event has occurred very recently. The report of violence also provokes fear, anger, disgust, sorrow and anxiety as much as the actual incident does. The viewer imagines himself in a similar situation and a sense of insecurity and panic is created.

Another problem with the technology-driven media is that it is instant. Something happens thousands of miles away and within minutes the images are flashed in people’s sitting rooms on their TV screens. Hence all the reactions are instantaneous and the actions that follow may also be immediate giving no time to a person to absorb the knowledge he receives. In the case of violence, that may result in its snowballing into a chain reaction with dire consequences.

Obviously, it would be politically difficult for the government to impose any checks on the media. It would be regarded as a regressive move. Besides in times when the people have won their right to information after a hard struggle it would be the height of folly to attempt to reverse this trend and block information from the people.

However, the moot point is: does the information necessarily have to be graphic? Does it have to be sensationalised? Do the images have to show maximum violence? And above all, do the media have to idealise violence and its perpetrators especially when the killing is in the name of an extreme cause?

Given this prevalent trend in our society Steve Pinker should not be surprised if many people reject his hypothesis about the better angels altogether. True, the ratio of violence in terms of the total population may have declined, but the absolute number is so huge that it provides enough grist to the television mill to magnify and create a global impact all over the world.

Another question that we can ask is whether external factors in our society have really produced a change in human nature which Pinker links with moral progress? It is no coincidence that this moral progress has come with physical prosperity. Will the better angels emerge at a time when the distribution of wealth is skewed and there exist small islands of affluence in an ocean of poverty?

Source: Dawn

7 thoughts on “Violence: beyond statistics

  1. " Will the better angels emerge at a time when the distribution of wealth is skewed and there exist small islands of affluence in an ocean of poverty? "

    The article in Dawn 19/10/11 " Designed to Fail " says :

    " Poverty persists in the developing regions; the gap between the haves and the have-nots has in fact widened in the wake of globalisation over the last two decades. Despite substantial growth in GDP, those on the lower economic rungs in these nations (India, Bangladesh, Pakistan and many countries of Africa and South America) have seen their lifestyle parameters worsen. "

    When we address the problem of distributive justice as a priority, we might have * a developed society*

    Next one has to think of : " —- whether external factors in our society have really produced a change in human nature which Pinker links with moral progress? "

    More than 30% of the population of South ASIA live way below the viable poverty line !!! Do the " haves" possess the needed * moral responsibility* , in our part of the world, to uplift the wretched lives of those who earn less than $2/= per day.
    Lets think about what these * external factors* are ; the magic which will impart some compassion in the hearts and minds and in the behaviour of the *well to do* towards our utterly helpless * have nots* .
    Obviously , a religious orientation is not doing this trick_____so this *internal factor* is not working .

    Its the DILEMMA of our age !!!

  2. No it has not declined ,it has increased. If one takes a static position that the incident of violence is the same as ,let us say a hundred years ago,the information of the incident goes beyond any comparable limits. So one incident creates hundred times more effected individuals, because the media spreads the news so far beyond the limited areas.
    It is true that the incident of violence is proportional to the poverty in the world. If one accepts the view that poverty is the one of the significant cause.
    We know of societies where the language bears the evidence of virtual violence in it. In many of the areas of the Punjab, Pakistan, it is a common place occurrence where a mother frequently uses the phrase, "Marron ge" when addressing a child , when the child is not complying with the even minor instructions. It may not follow that the child is punished as a result of the threat. The threat of violence is violence, if one takes note of the great Freud . In one of his books, "Reflections on Violence" he maintains that the threat of violence is violence perpetrated .
    The impact of violence in poor societies is a routine occurrence . Even in "regular" schools it is just under a thin veil and the presence of Mullah in a class room is a perpetual threat, where no self respecting Mullah walks about without a stick in his hand. The frequency of the use of a stick followed by a kick and a slap is common place. It does impact the pupils, in a major way. When the children play teachers and schools in their play ,usually a high "status child" takes the role of a teacher and the presence of a stick symbolizes his teacher status.
    The psychological impact is hidden from ones view but there are a number of studies which demonstrate the impact of violence on the social norms of a society. In the first place it dulls the sensitivity of this brutal form of human behaviour. Most of the people brought up in such societies do not register such demeaning and degrading occurrences.
    In the UK "taking a belt " to a child was a norm in times in the living memory. Only the European influence has reduced the incidence.
    Up to the time the this punishment was made illegal it prevailed in the education system. Even today you often hear some people argue for it to make it legal with the adage," it never did me any harm". These individual are never high achievers and can not see the impact it had on them.
    If one looks at it in a democratic societies the question of the equal worth of individuals, one is faced with the dilemma: If all human beings are of equal worth, then what place such punishment has in that society.
    Then the impact of punishment on the person inflicting such punishment: What does it say about the mental make up that individual? Do they belong to the same society ?

  3. For a start one could (a) ban Mullah's from strutting about with their batons (b) ban corporeal and psychological illtreatment patterns in our schools, across the board and (c) inculcate in our Mullahs a sense of gentle approach to the short comings of their flock, based on genuine religious precepts . They are not God's policemen but His shepherds on earth !! The smock is meant to guide not to batter.

  4. Violence is on the increase throughout the world like and epidemic and contagious disease. It is the primary responsibility of the parents to bring up their children and instil and imbue in them the moral vales. Besides, the state and educational institutions are also equally responsible to share the blame as they must provide education, with character building on moral religious values and the state should have the will to suppress the mischief with an iron hand to prevent injustice.

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