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A history of violence

  • Published at 09:02 pm July 31st, 2016
  • Last updated at 03:32 pm August 21st, 2016

No doubt, the grim shadow of the terrorist attack at Dhaka still has all of us reeling. Many will see this event as the latest chapter of a much grander narrative of moral decadence which so far chronicled the harrowing tale of 9/11, the brutal story of armed conflicts in Afghanistan, Iraq, Gaza, and lately Syria, and the terror attack episodes that recently scarred Istanbul, Ankara, Beirut, and Brussels. Not to forget the Orlando mass shooting, the Ataturk airport attack, the truck incident in Nice, France, and many others. In addition, the violent saga of the last century is still not quite forgotten, and the bloodshed over two devastating world wars has forever stained the pages of history. Even at the exclusion of real world cases of violence, many have to confront it in its graphic depictions, and at times what seems like celebrations in books, TV shows, video games, and other media products. In the face of all these, many have expressed the sentiment that we live in violent times, and things must have been better off in the past. This is by no means an unsubstantiated statement -- a survey conducted by Bennett Haselton and the esteemed Steven Pinker presented 265 Internet users with five pairs of historical periods and asked them which they thought had higher rates of violent death. In each case, the respondents identified the latest period present -- 20th century England rather than 14th century England, warfare in the 2000s rather than the 1950s, homicide in the US in the 2000s rather than the 1970s, and modern Western societies instead of the days of hunter-gatherer groups as the more violent epochs, whereas the reverse turned out to be true. I am here to say that this is nothing but a fallacy, and when one gets rid of the rose-tinted lenses, one can see that there is very little to idealise about the distant past. Prior to the sprinkling of numbers and stats, perhaps it is for the best if a cursory analysis of cultural products -- both of past and present -- are presented. These cultural products can provide some insights into society’s mindset as they often serve as mirrors in which cultural values and ideals are reflected. Take Game of Thrones for instance. The work of epic high fantasy penned by the now-fabled George RR Martin, along with its HBO adaption, has proven to be controversial at times, with its overdose of gore and explicit content. Yet, people fail to realise that its unsavoury plot elements do not solely owe their origin to modern societal norms of freedom of expression, or Martin’s creative prowess. Rather they can be attributed to the inspiration Martin took right of the pages of history (fun fact: Martin is a history buff). Let us juxtapose two similar literary or fictional figures from the past and the present. One can argue that Hercules was to the Greeks what Superman is to us. Both are men of extraordinary strength and have been conferred the status of a hero. Yet, with our modern day sensibilities and attitudes, it is hard to justify the status of hero in the former’s case. A man who happens to be so short-tempered that he clubbed his music teacher, Linus, dead for reprimanding him -- can he really be a hero? More disturbing yet is that this act was only mentioned in passing, and has no moral significance whatsoever. Even the most celebrated acts of Hercules -- the twelve labours -- are not heroic in nature. They were nigh impossible tasks thought up by the divinely inspired and sadistic king Eurystheus that Hercules had to complete in order to repent for killing his own family in a fit of induced rage. The jealous Hera was behind it. If the completion of the task brought any benefit to the innocents and advocated justice, it was purely out of happenstance. Hercules’s ordeals mostly showcased his prodigious strength. His modern counterpoint though, the last son of Krypton, not only possesses greater strength, but adheres to a strict code of honour founded on the sanctity of life, evident in his refusal to kill even his arch-enemies, and in the fact that he lives a life of unwavering dedication to people. Indeed, in Snyder’s darker film adaptation Man of Steel, Superman is visibly traumatised in being forced to kill General Zod, and the large-scale destruction he wrought presented a moral drama, not to mention a backlash from the fans. Interestingly, Siegel and Shuster’s original take on this cultural icon depicted him as overly aggressive, and in the 1930s comics, he had no qualms over the harm caused by his unparalleled strength, being illustrated in throwing villainous characters in such a rough manner that it was only natural to presume that fatalities occurred. It was only in the later versions that Superman shows consideration and care in the use of his powers. Our preliminary analysis -- a generous term, I am aware -- in the light of all these imply that far from being more tolerant to violence, we have grown averse to it, and when we do incorporate it into works of fiction, it is in a nuanced and complex manner, done mostly to frame ethical questions rather than to glorify it. Sometimes, violence is used for the sake of historical realism. That’s quite telling. Moving past fiction, a brief glance through history does resonate with the central thesis here. Starting off in the prehistoric era, we come across numerous cases of archaeological discoveries of well-preserved bodies that seem to have met a macabre demise. A more famous example would be Lindow Man, his body dated between 2AD and 199AD. The body even retained the doomed soul’s brain and last meal, hence providing the archaeologist with the chance to conduct an extensive study. Forensic reports indicated that the poor man was struck viciously on the head resulting in bone fracture, strangled so violently that his neck was broken, and, for additional measure, his throat was slit. While experts are divided on whether it was plain murder or ritualistic sacrifice, I am fairly certain that consensus can be reached that this barbarity was nothing less, if not more, than what see on the evening news. Even though it should be more disturbing to know that ritualistic human sacrifice is a plausible scenario. In fact, human sacrifice was practiced in many different cultures on different occasions with the purpose, usually, to appease the gods. The Aztec, Maya, and ancient Egyptian civilisations, to name a few, have partaken in this inhumane act. Moving to the more recent medieval era, we could still see our ancestors’ moral depravity. Some of the more memorable features of this era were knights. They have become, ironically, the symbol of valiance and the righteous warrior. Terms such as “chivalry” and “gallantry” originated from them. Yet, those who are acquainted with history know them for the hypocrites they were. Their order shamelessly massacred in the Crusades, in feudal Europe they would kill peasants without much reservation, and they fought each other for women -- the victor could take another knight’s lady in any manner deemed fit, and promised to woo their ladies by pledging to rape beautiful women along their exploits. In keeping up with the immoral attitudes of the time, torture was another celebrated orgy of violence. In the modern era, torture is used increasingly by despotic governments, mostly in a clandestine fashion, and carried out in the most extreme cases as means of extorting sensitive information. It is usually condemned nowadays. In the medieval era, it was carried out very matter-of-factly, administrated for absurd trivial infractions, and often shown as public spectacle. The men who conceived of the instruments of torture were foremost experts in human anatomy and psychology, and not only utilised the latest that technology had on offer, but indulged in their artistic side too, as evident in the intricate details and ornamentation that went in their makings. The naming scheme itself reflected the fact that these people did not see the process as solemn and an ugly necessity. A few examples would include Judas’ Cradle, The Spanish Tickler, and Heretic’s Fork. It is best if the gruesome details are spared. This cursory review does drive home the point that gruesome violence is not only a modern invention, but rather, was omnipresent in our history. But perhaps this does not prove we are any more peaceful than we used to be. Yes, it seems violence did exist in the past. Yes, we have become more sensitive to it. But perhaps violence has found only new ways to be expressed. Worse yet, recent technological advances allow us to carry out war on an unprecedented scale. My readers will no doubt want to remind me of the nuclear stockpile hoarded up by Uncle Sam and his arch-nemesis. But we ought to stop thinking in absolute numbers. Granted, more people die in recent conflicts, but then again, our population has risen considerably. The intelligent approach is to see what fraction of people succumb to violent death. And here, let’s resort to some stats. Steven Pinker, in his book The Better Angels of Ourselves, which has provided me with the bulk of factual information so far, did crunch some numbers. Here are some of the results: His estimate of violent death rates for skeletons dug out of archaeological sites from a sample of pre-state societies yielded an average of 15%. In comparison, the death toll of warfare in the US in the year 2005 accounted for 0.0004% of the population. If we were to throw in domestic homicide, the figure would rise up to 0.008%, which is a substantial increase but nowhere near 15%. Now, if we are to zoom out to include the whole world, then the Human Security Report Project estimates that, in the same year, political violence -- terrorism, genocide, and such barbarity -- claimed 0.0003% of the populace. While this only took into account direct death, a 20-fold increase to factor in indirect death such as due to famine, disease, etc, would not bring the number even close to the 1% mark, let alone the 15% mark. Should we glance at the last century -- a century that has witnessed two war worlds, the Korean War, the plight of Vietnam, and even more disturbingly, the ever-increasing applications of technology in the affairs of war -- the death rate would be around 0.7%. To put matters on even footing, it is best to resort to estimates of past sate societies. Estimates listed in the book for the Mexican empires of Aztec and Maya prior to Columbus, lists a figure of 5%. In the 17th century, with its bloody wars of religion, violent warfare-related deaths accounted for 2% of the death toll. The pattern so far seen is a reduction in violence. Of course, a more thorough look is required to set forth a rigorous numerical analysis, and there are inherent risks in trying to establish a trend with so little data. Those who demand a more thorough look are recommended to give Steven Pinker’s book a read. I reckon the facts quoted so far provide a compelling case. Hence, far from spiralling irreversibly into a vicious cycle of violence, it seems we have enjoyed its overall decline. Though there is no guarantee this will continue indefinitely, it does no harm to merely acknowledge this. Nor should this acknowledgment trivialise the deplorable barbarity society faces, but rather, should bolster our spirit in addressing them.