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A History of (Non)Violence

Why humans are becoming more peaceful.

The annals of human violence include enough kinds of victims to fill a page of a rhyming dictionary: homicide, democide, genocide, ethnocide, politicide, regicide, infanticide, neonaticide, filicide, siblicide, gynecide, uxoricide, mariticide, and terrorism by suicide. Violence is found throughout the history and prehistory of our species and shows no signs of having been invented in one place and spread to the others.

At the same time, the quantitative study of history provides some pleasant surprises. Abominable customs such as human sacrifice, chattel slavery, and torture-executions for victimless crimes have been abolished. Homicide rates have plunged since the Middle Ages, and rates of battle death in armed conflict are at an all-time low. Whatever causes violence, it is not a perennial urge like hunger, sex, or the need to sleep. The historical decline of violence thereby allows us to dispatch a dichotomy that has stood in the way of understanding the roots of violence for millennia: whether humankind is basically bad or basically good, an ape or an angel, a hawk or a dove, the nasty brute of textbook Hobbes or the noble savage of textbook Rousseau. Left to their own devices, humans will not fall into a state of peaceful cooperation, but nor do they have a thirst for blood that must regularly be slaked. Human nature accommodates motives that impel us to violence, like predation, dominance, and vengeance, but also motives that -- under the right circumstances -- impel us toward peace, like compassion, fairness, self-control, and reason.

Contests for dominance, even when nothing tangible is at stake, are among the deadliest forms of human quarrel. At one end of the magnitude scale, many destructive wars have been fought over nebulous claims to national preeminence, including World War I. At the other end of the scale, the single largest motive for homicide on police blotters are "altercation of relatively trivial origin; insult, curse, jostling, etc."

There really is a commodity at stake in contests for dominance, namely information: a shared understanding of who will not back down. The socially constructed nature of dominance can help explain which individuals take risks to defend it. Perhaps the most extraordinary popular delusion about violence of the past quarter-century is that it is caused by low self-esteem. Self-esteem can be measured, and surveys show that it is the psychopaths, street toughs, bullies, abusive husbands, serial rapists, and hate-crime perpetrators who are off the scale. Psychopaths and other violent people are narcissistic: They think well of themselves not in proportion to their accomplishments but out of a congenital sense of entitlement. When reality intrudes, as it inevitably will, they treat the bad news as a personal affront, and its bearer, who is endangering their fragile reputation, as a malicious slanderer.

Violence-prone personality traits are even more consequential when they infect political rulers, because their hang-ups can affect hundreds of millions of people rather than just the unlucky few who live with them or cross their paths. Unimaginable amounts of suffering have been caused by tyrants who callously presided over the immiseration of their peoples or launched destructive wars of conquest. The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) of the American Psychiatric Association defines narcissistic personality disorder as "a pervasive pattern of grandiosity, need for admiration, and a lack of empathy." The trio of symptoms at narcissism's core -- grandiosity, need for admiration, and lack of empathy -- fits tyrants to a T. It is most obvious in their vainglorious monuments, hagiographic iconography, and obsequious mass rallies. And with armies and police forces at their disposal, narcissistic rulers leave their mark in more than statuary; they can authorize vast outlays of violence. As with garden-variety bullies and toughs, the unearned self-regard of tyrants is eternally vulnerable to being popped, so any opposition to their rule is treated not as a criticism but as a heinous crime. At the same time, their lack of empathy imposes no brake on the punishment they mete out to real or imagined opponents. Nor does it allow any consideration of the human costs of another of their DSM symptoms: their "fantasies of unlimited success, power, brilliance, beauty, or ideal love," which may be realized in rapacious conquest, pharaonic construction projects, or utopian master plans.

Among the pacifying features of democracies is that their leadership-selection procedure penalizes an utter lack of empathy, and their checks and balances limit the damage that a grandiose leader can do.

The drive for dominance isn't just found in narcissistic individuals, however. It can also be manifested in a narcissistic allegiance to a group, such as a gang, tribe, team, ethnic group, religion, or nation, and the drive for that group to be dominant over its rivals. A part of an individual's personal identity is melded with the identity of the groups that he or she affiliates with. Loyalty to groups in competition, such as sports teams or political parties, encourages us to play out our instinct for dominance vicariously. Jerry Seinfeld once remarked that today's athletes churn through the rosters of sports teams so rapidly that a fan can no longer support a group of players. He is reduced to rooting for their team logo and uniforms: "You are standing and cheering and yelling for your clothes to beat the clothes from another city." But stand and cheer we do: The mood of a sports fan rises and falls with the fortunes of his team.

Nationalism, Albert Einstein said, is "the measles of the human race." That isn't always true -- sometimes it's just a head cold -- but nationalism can get virulent when it is comorbid with the group equivalent of narcissism in the psychiatric sense, namely a big but fragile ego with an unearned claim to preeminence. Recall that narcissism can trigger violence when the narcissist is enraged by an insolent signal from reality. Combine narcissism with nationalism, and you get a deadly phenomenon of ressentiment: conviction that one's nation or civilization has a historical right to greatness despite its lowly status, which can only be explained by the malevolence of an internal or external foe.

Group-level ambition also determines the fate of ethnic neighbors. Experts on ethnicity dismiss the conventional wisdom that ancient hatreds inevitably keep neighboring peoples at each other's throats. After all, there are some 6,000 languages spoken on the planet, at least 600 of which have substantial numbers of speakers. By any reckoning, the number of deadly ethnic conflicts that actually break out is a tiny fraction of the number that could break out. Neighboring ethnic groups may get on each other's nerves, but they don't necessarily kill each other. Nor should this be surprising. Even if ethnic groups are like people and constantly jockey for status, most of the time people don't come to blows either.

Political scientist Stephen Van Evera suggests that a major cause of ethnic conflict is ideology. Things get ugly when intermingled ethnic groups long for states of their own, hope to unite with their diasporas in other countries, keep long memories of harms committed by their neighbors' ancestors while being unrepentant for harms committed by their own, and live under inept governments that mythologize one group's glorious history while excluding others from the social contract.

Many peaceable countries today are in the process of redefining the nation-state by purging it of tribal psychology: India, Canada, New Zealand, South Africa, and the Netherlands spring to mind as examples. The government no longer defines itself as a crystallization of the yearning of the soul of a particular ethnic group, but as a compact that embraces all the people and groups that happen to find themselves on a contiguous plot of land. The machinery of government is often Rube Goldbergian, with complex arrangements of devolution, special status, power sharing, and affirmative action; and the contraption is held together by a few national symbols such as a rugby team. People root for clothing instead of blood and soil. It is a messiness appropriate to the messiness of people's divided selves.

SIMON MAINA/AFP/Getty Images

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John Stuart Mill, Dead Thinker of the Year

The 19th century thinker still has much to teach us on liberty.

Fundamentally, the past year has been about grappling with the most profound question in political philosophy: how to create legitimate central authority. In one Arab country after another -- Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Yemen, Syria -- populations have taken to the streets to demand the downfall of their rulers, even as it is unclear what will follow in their wake.

And the question applies not only to the Arab world. It is unclear, for example, whether Iran's quasi-clerical system of revolutionary rule has a long-term future, given the intense infighting within the regime and the intense dislike it stirs within significant swaths of the population. Can China's one-party system of control last indefinitely? Can Burma's? Whereas the United States basically inherited its democratic system from the British, and its main drama over more than two centuries has been about limiting central authority, the challenge in too many other places is the opposite: how to erect responsive government in the first place.

No thinker has tackled these questions as painstakingly and as eloquently as the 19th-century English philosopher John Stuart Mill, which is why he is such an appropriate guide for these complicated times. Mill asserts, in On Liberty, and especially in Considerations on Representative Government, that while democratic government is surely to be preferred in theory, it is incredibly problematic in its particulars. This, of course, is part of Mill's larger exploration of liberty, and why ultimately the only justification a government has to curtail that liberty is when a person's behavior impinges on the rights of others. Despotism may work better in some instances, if only as a temporary measure, he writes; democracy is not suited for each and every society during significant periods of its development. I am crudely simplifying Mill, who is so clear while being so incredibly nuanced, and thus immensely readable.

"Progress includes Order," Mill writes in Considerations, "but Order does not include Progress." Tyranny may be the political building block of all human societies, but if they don't get beyond tyranny, the result is moral chaos and stagnation. Middle Eastern despots of our day too often supplied only Order; Asian ones have brought Progress, too. Thus China's rulers, who must retire at a certain point, who bring technical expertise to their rule, and who govern in a collegial style, are much to be preferred over the North African variety, to say nothing of those in Syria or Yemen. Yet even in those cases, the prospect of a collapse of central authority indicates that, pace Mill, there may be no alternative to some sort of dictatorship, at least in the very short term.

Mill's philosophy actually builds on that of his 17th-century compatriot, Thomas Hobbes, another thinker all too relevant for our times. Hobbes is often regarded as a preacher of doom and gloom. In fact, he wasn't. He stared into the abyss of anarchy and realized there was, indeed, a solution that could lead to order and progress. That solution was the state. Hobbes extols the moral benefits of fear and sees violent anarchy as the chief threat to society. For Hobbes -- best known for observing that the lives of men are "nasty, brutish, and short" -- fear of violent death is the cornerstone of enlightened self-interest. By establishing a state, men replace the fear of violent death with the fear that only those who break the law need face. So while Hobbes made the case for central authority, Mill built on him to help us understand how humanity must get beyond mere authority in order to erect a liberal regime.

Such concepts are sometimes difficult to grasp for today's urban middle class, which has long since lost any contact with man's natural condition. But the horrific violence of a disintegrating Iraq, or this year's fears of state collapse in places such as Yemen and Syria, have allowed many of us to imagine man's original state. In fact, as more and more nondemocratic systems find it harder and harder to survive in this age of instant electronic communications, Mill and Hobbes will top the dead thinkers list for years to come. Iraq, with its mixture of democracy, creeping authoritarianism, and anarchy, is a place made for Mill and Hobbes, while Afghanistan is pure Hobbes. Imagine the relevance of Hobbes in the event of a regime collapse in North Korea; or of Mill as Egypt struggles for years to transform a military dictatorship into a civil democracy. These men may be long dead, but their philosophy is a sure guide to today's headlines. The need for order -- even as order must be made free from tyranny -- is precisely the issue that hangs over the Greater Middle East.

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