Human Violence and the News, Part 1

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Perhaps when distant people on other planets pick up some wave-length of ours all they hear is a continuous scream. 

 •  Iris Murdoch, The Message to the Planet (1989)

As I browsed through the news on Twitter and Facebook and the New York Times this morning, Murdoch’s statement felt profoundly apt.  The Syrian government attacks and murders and pursues its people across borders while the U.S. refuses to call for its dictator/president to “step down.” Robert Mugabe’s forces in Zimbabwe systematically brutalize and torture citizens rather than cede the power he was voted out of three years ago. Northern Sudanese paramilitary forces maraud and burn towns and crops along the infamous Tenth Parallel, anxious to grab as much territory as possible prior to the South’s vote for secession.   Libyans live with the cruelty of both chaos and violence while Quaddafi’s government hangs on by its fingernails.  Somalia is in trouble, as always.  We have simply become accustomed to our wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.  And in truth, we cannot point to any spot on the globe that lacks deep experience with human violence and cruelty.

It’s hard to believe that a continuous scream is not rising up from our planet.

However, Harvard professor and psycholinguist Steven Pinker makes claims to the contrary. Pinker’s argument (made originally at a TED Conference in 2007[1] and widely presented in various venues since that time) is that human violence is at the lowest level it has ever been in the entire history of our species. Twitter evidence and our own intuition to the contrary, Pinker has statistics and specific history[2] demonstrating that over the millennia of our existence, we have become measurably kinder and progressively less violent.

So, why are our perceptions about violence and the facts about violence so dramatically different?  While Pinker points to both our cognitive limitations and our own moral psychology, he also suggests a more basic reason:  the “news media,” he says, “has the unprecedented ability to send cameramen to places in the world where violence takes place and beam them back to our laptop screens or television. Moreover, they have the programming philosophy ‘If it bleeds, it leads.’”

All of which is true.   But does it make any difference in broaching the subject of evil?  And why don’t I feel more comforted?

To be continued…


[1] TED stands for “Technology, Entertainment, Design.”  TED is a non-profit organization started in 1984 and committed to sharing “Ideas Worth Spreading.”  The organization holds one conference each year in the U.S. and Europe, bringing together, in their words, “the world’s most fascinating thinkers and doers, who are challenged to give the talk of their lives (in 18 minutes or less).”  For more information, see www.ted.com.

[2] The substance of Pinker’s presentation at TED and elsewhere can be read here: A History of Violence The New Republic, Mar. 19, 2007 (downloadable PDF) or at:  Edge, online here.