In The Better Angels of Our Nature, Harvard professor Steven Pinker argues that, despite the violence saturating our media, we are actually living in a time of unprecedented peace for humanity. We have inner motives towards violence, he explains, but also towards peacefulness, and society has been arranging itself in ways that allow the latter to prevail more and more often. The book has been one of this fall’s biggest, and its surprising argument has led it to be reviewed and debated widely.
Judging by the FAQ posted to Pinker’s website, a common concern among people engaging with The Better Angels of Our Nature is Pinker’s definition of violence. His explanation:
I use the term in its standard sense, more or less the one you’d find in a dictionary (such as The American Heritage Dictionary Fifth Edition: “Behavior or treatment in which physical force is exerted for the purpose of causing damage or injury.”) In particular, I focus on violence against sentient beings: homicide, assault, rape, robbery, and kidnapping, whether committed by individuals, groups, or institutions. Violence by institutions naturally includes war, genocide, corporal and capital punishment, and deliberate famines.
Another refrain among readers: what about more abstract forms of violence, like economic or environmental? Pinker responds:
The fact that Bill Gates has a bigger house than I do may be deplorable, but to lump it together with rape and genocide is to confuse moralization with understanding. Ditto for underpaying workers, undermining cultural traditions, polluting the ecosystem, and other practices that moralists want to stigmatize by metaphorically extending the term violence to them. It’s not that these aren’t bad things, but you can’t write a coherent book on the topic of “bad things.”
To which we say: fair enough. And yet some of the critique of Pinker’s book has put us in mind of Rob Nixon’s Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor, a book we published earlier this year. Nixon’s book is driven by his conviction that we need to politically, imaginatively, and theoretically “rethink” what he calls “slow violence,” a class of violence that doesn’t align with what Pinker refers to as the “standard sense.” From Nixon’s book:
By slow violence I mean a violence that occurs gradually and out of sight, a violence of delayed destruction that is dispersed across time and space, an attritional violence that is typically not viewed as violence at all. Violence is customarily conceived as an event or action that is immediate in time, explosive and spectacular in space, and as erupting into instant sensational visibility. We need, I believe, to engage a different kind of violence, a violence that is neither spectacular nor instantaneous, but rather incremental and accretive, its calamitous repercussions playing out across a range of temporal scales. In so doing, we also need to engage the representational, narrative, and strategic challenges posed by the relative invisibility of slow violence. Climate change, the thawing cryosphere, toxic drift, biomagnification, deforestation, the radioactive aftermaths of wars, acidifying oceans, and a host of other slowly unfolding environmental catastrophes present formidable representational obstacles that can hinder our efforts to mobilize and act decisively. The long dyings—the staggered and staggeringly discounted casualties, both human and ecological that result from war’s toxic aftermaths or climate change—are underrepresented in strategic planning as well as in human memory.
Pinker’s violence is one dependent on intention to do harm, and one may argue that an absence of intention distinguishes Nixon’s slow violence from Pinker’s more traditionally understood forms. But Nixon begins his book by quoting from a confidential World Bank memo written in 1991 by Larry Summers that indicates that we’d be mistaken to assume that these slower forms of violence are free from malevolence:
I think the economic logic behind dumping a load of toxic waste in the lowest-wage country is impeccable and we should face up to that. . . . I’ve always thought that countries in Africa are vastly under polluted; their air quality is probably vastly inefficiently low compared to Los Angeles. . . . Just between you and me, shouldn’t the World Bank be encouraging more migration of the dirty industries to the Least Developed Countries?