Tag Archives: Enlightenment Now

Violence, Ends and Means: Is the world getting more peaceful? Then why all the contempt?

According to The New Yorker’s Adam Gopnik, violence has decreased in a big way in urban settings. In 2016, 385 were killed in New York, compared with 2000 in a typical year in the 1970s. Other major cities have followed this trend.

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Maya Soetoro-Ng, director of the Matsunaga Institute for Peace and Conflict Resolution at UH Mānoa (my supervisor there and, incidentally, sister of Barack Obama) noted in a presentation to my students that there are currently 37 armed conflicts in the world. This is a 33% decrease from the 55 armed conflicts of just 15-20 years ago. Both then and now, the vast majority of these conflicts are civil wars. According to Francis Fukuyama (of “the end of history” fame), Civil wars occurred roughly every 50 years in England from 1066 until the late 1600s (about 1685).

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Since then, inter-state wars raged, especially in the 20th century, but that gave way to more and more peace between states (that is, countries). The decrease of war in general, coupled with the rise (but only relative rise) of civil wars tell us two things: the nation-state as we know it may be in its twilight, and at the same time the world is getting safer and more peaceful.

All of this supports the seemingly outlandish claim of Stephen Pinker, author of The Better Angels of Our Nature (and more recently Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism and Progress), that violence is declining worldwide. So why does it seem that the opposite is happening? Could it be, as Michael Moore asserts in Bowling for Columbine, that it is simply the fear of violence that’s increasing?

In a talk at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, Arthur Brooks argued that the problem in politics today is not opposing views – that in itself is healthy in a democracy – the problem is an epidemic of contempt, which Merriam-Webster’s dictionary defines as:

  • : the act of despising : the state of mind of one who despises : disdain glared at him in contempt

  • : lack of respect or reverence for something acting with contempt for public safety

  • : the state of being despised

Through their contempt, the two sides are so entrenched now that each has vilified the “Other,” in a way, dehumanizing them.

In the 1990s, I remember having a remarkably cordial conversation with a conservative (not conservative by today’s ludicrous standards perhaps, but no bleeding heart), middle-aged man from upstate New York, and being struck by how, on the topic of outcomes, we were in near total agreement. We all, it seems, want the same ends; dignity, opportunity for ourselves and our children, in short, a decent life. Where we differed was on the means to achieve these ends.

 

Jonathan Haidt’s The Righteous Mind: How Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion offers a bridge over the impasse, one that many, if not all sides of the debate find intriguing (the “New Atheists” in particular singly seem to despise the argument). Haidt:

goes about demonstrating why [mutual understanding] is such a difficult thing for us to achieve, and what the tools are that could make it possible. It’s a difficult read, not because of the style, but because the content may challenge you to accept that the ‘other side’ isn’t so bad after all, and that perhaps your own moralistic mind could do with a shake up.

London School of Economics Review of Books (UK). Review by Rebecca Litchfield.

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