Violence: beyond statistics

19 Oct 2011

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A NEW book that is making waves in the West these days is The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined.

Written by Harvard’s professor of psychology Steven Pinker, the book argues that “violence has declined over long stretches of time, and today we may be living in the most ‘peaceable era in our species’ existence”.

Pinker draws upon a wealth of statistics (mainly from western sources relating to the West) to establish his point. He also explains the sociological, biological, political and historical factors and the endogenous and exogenous variables that have led man to resort less and less to violent means to achieve his goals.

Many of us who live through violent times may find it difficult to accept Pinker’s hypothesis. Statistically he may be correct — though percentages can be deceptive. Besides, it amounts to looking at events in terms of numbers with the focus being on physical violence. That data is obviously easier to identify and collect in societies where records are meticulously kept. Does that mean if a child who is spared corporal punishment, but is subjected to psychological torture by being taunted, bullied or teased and for which no numerical records are kept has not been a victim of violence?

We should be more concerned about the impact of violence on the human mind and its effect on our lives. Unfortunately, that has definitely been intensified over the years even though the actual incidents of violence may have fallen as argued by Pinker. It is the perception that the world is experiencing more violence today than the actual fact of violence that is more worrying. This illusion is created by the quick dissemination of the news of violence by the electronic media — television, Internet, cellphones, social networking and so on.

One may well ask why should we have this (false?) perception? Personally, I hold the media responsible for creating this impression. As Pinker very correctly points out, “Our cognitive faculties predispose us to believe that we live in violent times, especially when they are stoked by the media that follow the watchword ‘If it bleeds, it leads’.”

The electronic media, especially the 24/7 variety that now universally dominates the world of infotainment, has unlimited capacity to focus on violence, disasters and all that is brutal — after all, brutality has not been eliminated entirely. It employs all the technology at its command to convey all this through graphic images. This has proved to be lethal. Pinker admits that the media sears pictures of death, mutilation and destruction in our memory.

The negative images have a negative impact on the viewers. Small wonder depression, anxiety and other mental disorders are on the rise all over the world. It is worse in our society because viewing the idiot box is a more popular pastime for us in the absence of any other form of entertainment.

Hence every incident of violence does not count as one incident. It must be multiplied with the number of times it is viewed and the number of viewers who watch it on television.

After all, it triggers off the same emotions and reactions in a person as he would experience if the event was happening before him, especially when he is told that the event has occurred very recently. The report of violence also provokes fear, anger, disgust, sorrow and anxiety as much as the actual incident does. The viewer imagines himself in a similar situation and a sense of insecurity and panic is created.

Another problem with the technology-driven media is that it is instant. Something happens thousands of miles away and within minutes the images are flashed in people’s sitting rooms on their TV screens. Hence all the reactions are instantaneous and the actions that follow may also be immediate giving no time to a person to absorb the knowledge he receives. In the case of violence, that may result in its snowballing into a chain reaction with dire consequences.

Obviously, it would be politically difficult for the government to impose any checks on the media. It would be regarded as a regressive move. Besides in times when the people have won their right to information after a hard struggle it would be the height of folly to attempt to reverse this trend and block information from the people.

However, the moot point is: does the information necessarily have to be graphic? Does it have to be sensationalised? Do the images have to show maximum violence? And above all, do the media have to idealise violence and its perpetrators especially when the killing is in the name of an extreme cause?

Given this prevalent trend in our society Steve Pinker should not be surprised if many people reject his hypothesis about the better angels altogether. True, the ratio of violence in terms of the total population may have declined, but the absolute number is so huge that it provides enough grist to the television mill to magnify and create a global impact all over the world.

Another question that we can ask is whether external factors in our society have really produced a change in human nature which Pinker links with moral progress? It is no coincidence that this moral progress has come with physical prosperity. Will the better angels emerge at a time when the distribution of wealth is skewed and there exist small islands of affluence in an ocean of poverty?

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