Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Is Modern Society More or Less Violent?

Before the tragedy at Virginia Tech I was discussing with friends on whether society is more violent now or in the past. I am inclined to think that despite the violence we hear about and the violent movies and video games, we are a much more benign people today.

While our entertainment in movies and games can be violent, it is better than older forms. From the cultured French:

In 16th century Paris, a popular form of entertainment was cat-burning, in which a cat was hoisted on a stage and was slowly lowered into a fire. According to the historian Norman Davies, "the spectators, including kings and queens, shrieked with laughter as the animals, howling with pain, were singed, roasted, and finally carbonized."

Not to be out done, the British engaged in bear baiting. Bears were chained in a pit, and hunting dogs would be set on it until it was killed. A variation on this was whipping a blinded bear. A Spanish nobleman was taken to a show where an ape was tied to the back of a pony. He commented "to see the animal kicking amongst the dogs, with the screaming of the ape, beholding the curs hanging from the ears and neck of the pony, is very laughable."

More primitive societies today seem to be more violent. If you think football, boxing and cock fighting are violent, you should avoid kok-boru. This game is popular in Central Asia. A goat is decapitated and the legs are cut off at the knee. Eight players ride on horses and try to grab the goat and toss it through a stone ring. Whipping and punching other players are part of the game, and the only protective gear are World War II Soviet tank helmets. China, Kazakhstan, Russia, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan all have national teams.

Edward Miguel of Berkeley did a fascinating study on modern witches in Tanzania. Families take care of the older relatives. When extreme rainfall is experienced (drought or flood) it becomes more expensive to feed the family. When these extreme events occur, older women are accused of being witches and killed by family members. In other words, when it gets to expensive to take care of the elderly they are branded as witches so as to justify their murder.

The Economist recently ran an article on honour killings in Turkey. The opening story was of a man who killed his sister because she eloped. He resisted killing her for three months because he loved her, "but then neighbours stopped talking to him, the grocer refused to sell him bread, the local imam said he was disobeying Allah, and his mother threatened to curse the milk she had breast-fed him." And so he put 7 bullets in her. A report that came out last August found that almost 1,100 honor killings happened in the previous five years, over four a week. Fifty-one of the killers were interviewed, and only three expressed regret.

While modern society is far from perfect, I feel that things are getting better. Though some of our entertainment is violent, it is fake. We don’t have social norms to kill family members if they do something disgraceful. If it becomes expensive to take care of someone, we don’t murder them in the name of witchery. While incidents such as Virginia Tech are tragic, the fact that it is so tragic shows how far our society has progressed.

1 comment:

Adam said...

You may be interested in this presentation by Steven Pinker on "the Myth of Violence"

Although, I agree for the most part with Pinker, I'd argue that our violence has only become more subtle and more concentrated. Just think about the violence against the world's culture's and wildlife over the last several hundred years under colonialism and imperialism. Today we face the sixth great mass extinction and most of the world's cultures and language over the past two centuries are near extinct because of Western politics.

More significant, violence against nonhuman animals has NEVER been higher. Although you indicated "cat-burning," "bear baiting," and "kok-boru" as untimely violent and cruel, the way animals are raised for food today is no less violent, cruel, or necessary.

Perhaps, 1,000,000 animals were burned and fought on Earth in the 18th century, but today nearly 60,000,000,000 land animals are raised and slaughtered for food. 90% of these animals have their genitals mutilated without anesthetics, confined to small cages with little room to move, kept in filthy indoor sheds with little or no light, are transported hundreds of miles without food and water, many of them sexually assaulted and tortured once they arrive at a slaughterhouse.
To see for yourself: