Cogito ergo…I have lovely curls


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…

19 responses to “Cogito ergo…I have lovely curls

  1. Or are they wearing wigs to make them seem clever like Einstein? This thing about violence is a hard one, because so much of it is based on guesswork. And if we are more violent, is it to fill the vacuum of living in safer times – how many people really do dangerous jobs any more? Farmers, fishermen, miners, anyone in snowy places… hmm. Sounds like it was a good night.

  2. It must be guesswork. Every now and then, literally over the past two decades, I’ve heard a number of people engage in this debate with such conviction of their views. I; however, can never find out what and how many metrics are presumably used to help their arguments.

    Is it how many people are violently killed each year and/or just kicked in the crotch? Is it based on civilian violence and/or war? Does the technological method have anything to with it? For example, over years, Gaius Julius Ceasar slaughtered thousands by deploying the Roman army but a single bomb dropped or launched today can wipe out the equivalent in a timeframe of seconds to 16 hours.

    What was the basis of their arguments?

  3. Pinker began with archeological evidence (bodies with obvious violence, missing parts, ropes around their necks that sort of thing), and then it was all sorts of records (rapes, murders, laws, punishments). His point was exactly that: although the methods are so much more devastating, the numbers still go down. Maybe because they are so devastating (mutual assured destruction as a staying hand)…and also with drone type attacks there is less “collateral” damage than daisy cutters for instance. But ALL of his data (and he was thorough) showed a marked decrease. That is why I was particularly interested in other less…tangible types of violence such as economic and environmental which will have the familiar devastating effects, just no smoking guns as it were…
    Pinker’s book is called The End of Violence (the better angles of our nature) something like that, that may not be exact, but all his sources and data are in there. It was very interesting, Lifton really just feels that because we’ve gotten so good at it, when it happens (and it will) it’s going to be real bad. But that is nothing more than a prediction, and Pinker’s arguments are nothing more than inductive logic which has no bearing on the future…we’ll just have to wait and see I suppose.

  4. Population was also a big factor. In a world where everyone knows each other it is largely self policing. People think Britain was crime ridden before the police, but they were invented largely for the capital where people tended not to know their neighbours. There was a famous case here of an arsonist called john the painter, allegedly an agent for the Americans in the war of independence. He set fire to a couple of boats in the harbour and ads were placed in the paper asking for strangers who had been buying paper and flammable materials. They found him.

  5. I remember reading years ago that people are very disinclined to kill others whether they know them or not. The shoot to kill levels were so abysmally low in WWI that a lot of effort has subsequently gone into correcting this obvious flaw by dehumanizing the enemy so that the average person will in fact kill the “enemy.” I’m speaking of normal people, not nut jobs, but it seems we normal people are far more worried about having to kill others than even getting killed ourselves.

    There has always been a need for policing (self or otherwise) though, that is the human condition I guess.

  6. killing people has to be the ultimate taboo – otherwise how could society function on any level? there is a story about somewhre where everyone was a thief, they all stole from each other so it was ok, but then a non theif arrived and chaos broke out. a bit like extreme absence of gun control i guess.

  7. There was a fascinating chart in the Times last fall showing the deadliest events–man-made–in our history, and it may be based on what you wrote about here. Fascinating, things were quite deadly in the days of Ghengis Khan, for instance. And yes, we seem to be less barbaric overall, though I think we have pretty serious lapses. Still, there is hope, look at the model societies of Scandinavia (my opinion), yet descendents of Viking.

    • Former Vikings led the way! Valhalla on earth.

    • There’s a lot of rewriting of Viking history – rather than mass raping and pillaging, there’s a lot of evidence they coexisted with the saxons here – but as newbys they got the poorer land. They did ransack a few monasteries, and since the history was written by monks, that was a bit of a PR disaster at the time, I love the names of some of the Orkney Vikings = Thorfin skullsplitter, Harold Barelegs, maybe thorfin was a bit of a piece of work.well, probably.

  8. As I always say – There’s no excuse for rudeness.

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