I attended a debate at the New School last night with Steve Pinker and Robert Jay Lifton. The subject was on violence and whether or not we live in more or less violent times. Both speakers gave compelling arguments, although they were similarly based: that is they were both inductive arguments. I suppose this is a necessary position as none of us are clairvoyants, but it was interesting to hear two opposing arguments that stem from the same source.
Pinker is a data and statistics man arguing that violence has markedly decreased (look the line goes DOWN!) Lifton is a qualitative sort whom impressed upon the audience that violence rears its ugly head with predictable regularity – damn the curve! As an audience member I wish that they had not run such relentless parallel line arguments and actually engaged and answered each other more coherently. In Pinker’s defense I can report that he tried at several points – asking Lifton if it would matter to him what the actual data reported. If the line goes up (more violence) Lifton wins, if the line goes down, he still “wins.” Does it make a difference to Lifton’s argument what the data suggests? We never got a clear answer.
Intuitively we believe that the world is going to hell in a hand basket, but if that is not supported by the data (all crimes, cruelties, laws and punishments showing a clear and steady preference and trend towards….humanity) can we alter our presuppositions? Can we move toward an acceptance of a statistically clear deference to our better angels and possibly begin to consider how we can continue this obvious trend? Or should we worry about the inevitable spike, and worse than that (as Lifton convincingly articulated), a spike that has at its disposal new dehumanized and inarguably devastating potential for complete destruction? A few (and I am sorry to report it was only one or two) audience members asked interesting and on point questions which unfortunately did not get answered, namely: did the speakers see or consider that perhaps the parameters of violence should encompass environmental and subsequent human suffering in the violence matrix? And what of economic terrorism? Will that be the new and most devastating form of violence? How will future archeological evidence represent these forms of “violence?”
It was, for me, an evening well spent with my lovely daughter in tow. We enjoyed the content and spent time marveling at the (clearly more pressing) issue of the tendency for humans to gravitate toward similar cliques as displayed in the preponderance of “philosopher hairdos.” I wonder, do all men with marvelously full heads of gray specked wavy hair gravitate toward philosophy or vice versa? These are the questions that really weigh upon our minds…