08/08/2016 04:37 pm ET

The World Is Not As Bad As We Think, Says Harvard Psychologist

Steven Pinker tells the Berggruen Institute that despite the rise in terror and mass shootings, global violence is declining.

"Wars were fought over religion, over nationalism, over what script systems to use. Now, each country has their own land and their own language," Pinker said. 

The scientist, psychologist and linguist Steven Pinker recently spoke with the Berggruen Institute’s Alex Gorlach at Harvard University, where Pinker teaches in the department of psychology. He is most well-known for his 2011 book The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined. His forthcoming book is on “the new enlightenment.” In the following interview, Pinker discusses how global violence continues to fall despite the recent wave of terror attacks and mass shootings.  

You have argued that overall violence is on a downward trend, despite recent high-profile terrorist events and mass shootings. What, or who, is responsible for the decrease?

To start with, there are factors such as globalization –- countries are more enmeshed, so their welfare is directly impacted by the welfare of another state. The incentives for conquest and invasion have been outnumbered by the incentives to make business -– what that means is that a person alive is worth more to me than a dead one, or buying a good is easier than stealing one. 

'A shift in the summum bonum, or the highest good, towards loose humanism, where life is better than death, education better than ignorance, health better than sickness, is what I believe we are seeing currently.'

Another factor is the change in value systems. Wars were fought over religion, over nationalism, over what script systems to use. Now, each country has their own land and their own language. Also, there has been a global trend toward humanism, where the ultimate goal is achieving health for women and children.

When I say global though, it does not mean that it has taken over the entire planet. Since we are tribal creatures, there is always a temptation to backslide. Comparing the two halves of the 20th century, though, shows you that there is a clear trend toward humanism –- why else would we have strived so energetically towards signing a Universal Declaration of Human Rights? And the Millennium Development Goals, the Sustainable Development Goals or all those state programs that seek to protect and support human life as the ultimate good? 

Another contributor to the decline of international violence has been a changing set of norms in institutions. The United Nations and NATO, the African Union and European Union emit soft power, they communicate a certain level of expectation. These norms are toothless -– whether that’s good or bad is a different question -– but they serve as a restraining force. These norms include that you don’t change borders by force anymore and you don’t conquer other countries. This, of course, isn’t always followed, as we have seen with the annexation of Crimea by Russia. But by and large this has been a great contributor to a more peaceful coexistence amongst nations.

Even Russian President Vladimir Putin will not admit that he violated these norms because it is one of the core principals of the post-World War II world. He insists residents of Crimea voted to join Russia voluntarily.

Yes -– there is the fiction of Putin satisfying the will of the Crimean people. That the rest of the industrialized world teamed up to condemn Russia’s actions and impose sanctions shows you that the norm is still in existence, even though it may not always be observed. But we need to remember that when we talk about the decline of international violence, the extent is threefold. We have wars, but there is also ordinary crime and institutional violence. If you don’t live in a war zone, it is far more likely that you will be killed by homicide than through any other way. So, all discussion about violence must keep ordinary crime in mind. Here, there has also been a crass decline -– the rate of crimes committed has dropped significantly ever since the Middle Ages, saw a spark again around the 1960s, but since 1990 has been dropping and dropping. The third area is institutionalized violence –- corporal punishment, capital punishment, the criminalization of homosexuality, just to name a few examples. In the West, this has declined significantly.

Let me go back to the point of trading and the related drop in incentives to commit crime against others – a very utilitarian point. Can we only have peace if we maintain trade? In other words, would it be possible to have peace for peace’s sake, simply because it is the moral thing to do? This was Immanuel Kant’s in his famous book, Perpetual Peace.

'In terms of everyday terrorism, the harm is the reaction.'

Ironically, Kant’s writing was very utilitarian. He said that if trade exists between two countries, it is less likely that they will attack each other. His embrace on republicanism -– or arguably democracy nowadays -– was also utilitarian. It would keep the peace.

There is a difference, though, between the historical and the actual question. I look into why the rate of violence has dropped, and the moral question -– what values ought we teach people to live by? Certainly, I agree with the principles, but it may be a bit unrealistic to think that every person on this Earth abides by a value such as that every life is equally sacrosanct. Looking back to explain to what we can attribute our increasingly humane development, part of it is the utilitarian calculation –- if there is incentive, regardless of morals, to stop fighting, then so be it.

But what we are witnessing is more than that. A shift in the summum bonum, or the highest good, towards loose humanism, where life is better than death, education better than ignorance, health better than sickness, is what I believe we are seeing currently. 

Francois Lenoir / Reuters
"The United Nations and NATO ... emit soft power, they communicate a certain level of expectation," Pinker said.

Do you think this process is reversible, though? Are we experiencing a golden age and have dark years ahead, or are these standards and values here for good?

The honest answer is: I don’t know. Threats [from groups] such as Boko Haram and the [self-proclaimed] Islamic State can [be], and they are, exaggerated. The human toll of civil war has increased over the past year, but it is merely taking us back to the casualty count of the year 2000. The progress we made in the 1970s, ‘80s and ‘90s has not been wiped out, and although there have [b]een threats to democracy, democratization has not been wiped out as such.

The civil wars we see are mainly in an area that spans from western Sub-Saharan Africa to Pakistan. Of course the standards we have set are reversible – diseases can come back, religion can, and has already, led back to war. What we need to do is figure out how to best deal with them, and have confidence that given the progress we have made, further progress is possible.

'If people think that the only way to say the truth is to be Donald Trump or Marine Le Pen, that is a dangerous temptation.'

If you are in Syria right now, it does you no good to know that the overall number of civil wars has gone down. And, could one single act – for example 9/11 – unravel and maybe even topple this model?

Firstly, the experience of violence to an individual is irrelevant to policymaking. If we were to go down that path, we could deny global warming just because it is cold out today. But what effect does this have on third party observers?

It has been proven that we are asymmetrically influenced by singular events. This has been exploited by terrorists ― terrorism being the cause of death is very unlikely in anyone’s life. However, due to the publicity that terrorist attacks generate, it seems completely rational to be afraid of a terrorist attack when in reality we should not be. It is a mistake to allow terrorism to dominate foreign policy on a global agenda. In terms of everyday terrorism, the harm is the reaction. Keep in mind that 97 percent of all terrorist agendas end in failure, so it isn’t even a successful mode of achievement.

Anadolu Agency via Getty Images
Civilians flee from ISIS-controlled territories due to clashes in Aleppo, Syria on July 4, 2016.

How do you see conflicts arising in Europe as a result of the increasing Muslim population?

We have seen that if centrist parties pretend like there is no problem -– as the coalition government in Germany has done to some extent -– they are implicitly creating a space that gives right-wing parties the opportunity to increase their votes. There are risks of lack of assimilation, misogyny, potentially a higher risk of terrorism. If centrist parties don’t openly state that, someone else will and thus will attract voters. The hegemony of politically correct views in major political fora has come back to bite us all. If people think that the only way to say the truth is to be Donald Trump or Marine Le Pen, that is a dangerous temptation.

Isn’t there a difference between Europe and the U.S.? Europe today is still shaped by the “tribal” influence of religion and nation, divided by borders drawn centuries ago. America is one nation with a history of religious tolerance.

Yes, it is one of the differences. Partially, that’s why I believe there is so much less radical Islamization in the United States -– it’s easier to become an American than it is to become a Spaniard, a Frenchman or a German.

'We need to keep in mind that generalization, especially in the context of Islam, is very dangerous.'

One of the arguments of the right in Europe is that Islam is not peaceful and not compatible with the Western way of life. At the same time, you mentioned that the majority of conflicts still happen between West Africa and Pakistan, an area that has almost exclusively Muslim countries. Are you saying that Muslim countries are more prone to violence than in the world of Christian heritage.

It is estimated that most wars today have radical Islamist forces on one side. It is not so much that the rate of war in the Islamic world has gone up, but the rate of war in every corner of the world has gone down apart from in the Islamic world.

Historically, there has been an awful conquest of Christian nations –- the British, Spanish, French, Germans and so on, so making an argument of that is difficult keeping in mind the atrocities committed by, say, [those in] the Crusades. Though one can argue that many of the beneficial trends over the past century have not yet penetrated the Islamic world.

Darren Whiteside / Reuters
A woman takes a photograph following Eid al-Fitr prayers to mark the end of the holy fasting month of Ramadan in Jakarta, Indonesia July 6, 2016.

We need to keep in mind that generalization, especially in the context of Islam, is very dangerous. Look at countries such as Malaysia or Indonesia. They are democracies to some extent, are peaceful and do not have any kinds of problems that Syria or Mali are dealing with currently.

Furthermore, the combination of dogma and identity claims intensify any conflict because they foster an unwillingness to compromise. Also, jihad in the way radical Islamists cast it sees death merely as a transition to an even better life. So, during conflicts, fighters act in a completely different way than in any other conflict where earthly interests matter. I agree that wars aren’t purely religious, but religious views within a conflict don’t help contain a conflict, and never have.

This interview has been edited for clarity and appeared in a slightly different form in The European.


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