Where are our better angels?
Harvard Professor Steven Pinker has written a book that can change our perception of violence and give us a rare insight and a reason to smile about in this age of revolutions, cruel deposition of dictators, wars, civil strife, terrorism, and arms race. In his book, The Better Angels of our Nature, he tells us in our face, jolting our common sense, that we are living in the most peaceful period in the history of our species and that human beings have become less violent and nicer, more empathetic and caring about one another. Sounds like a crazy idea, isn't it?
This hypothesis of people becoming more serene goes against our gut feeling. If you turn on the TV, you will see news channels flashing images of terrorist attacks, bomb explosions, murders, rape and all sorts of violent crimes against women, children, minorities, animals and nature. Our newspapers are filled not with the triumphant declaration of truce, but with diktat for economic blockades with implied threats of violence to whoever not heeding it, never mind the worst affected are the helpless common people who just happen to be earning their livelihood and trying to keep the hearth in their kitchen warm. Hand grenades are easier to find than one gallon of petrol. And a dead body is cheaper than a detonator. I rest my case.
Not yet. Prof. Pinker contends that we are suffering from presentism bias, the impression that recent events are more significant and because of it, bigger incidents in the past are likely to be overlooked or belittled. Genghis Khan, the Mongol invader who lived in the 13th century, killed more people than the number of fatalities from September/9 and the America led war in Irag and Afghanistan put together. Our own June/18 is nothing compared to the number of people who got martyred during the Seven Years Devastation during 1819-26. Yet the more recent the incidents are, the stronger is the impression in our mind of their being grander in magnitude in terms of their sinisterness and outrageousness. The explosion of media and the traditional approach of media to focus on and magnify negative news have also given rise to this false impression. (Few had won an award or a grant for reporting the positive news).
Due to this notion, we have forgotten that violence was a way of life in the past and not just freak incidents like fake encounters. Digging into the statistics and data culled from the prehistory till the modern time, Prof. Pinker concludes that a person in the olden times was more prone to violence and more likely to die of it at the hands of another human being. Savagery was not a part of the cultural menu, it was the only menu.
"Cruelty as entertainment, human sacrifice to indulge superstition, slavery as a labour-saving device, conquest as the mission statement of government, genocide as a means of acquiring real estate, torture and mutilation as routine punishment, the death penalty for misdemeanors and differences of opinion, assassination as the mechanism of political succession, rape as the spoils of war, pogroms as outlets for frustration, homicide as the major form of conflict resolution--all were unexceptionable features of life for most of human history," Prof. Pinker writes.
There are four major factors that have led men towards the peaceful path. The first is the monopolization of violence by the State which has had the effect of obviating the necessity of taking pre-emptive strikes by individuals against real or potential opponents and the vicious cycle that perpetuates it. It is now taken for granted that the State exists to protect the life and property of the citizens.
Second is the increasing lifespan of Homo sapiens due to better healthcare. Life is seen to be more precious and valuable now then in the Middle Ages when the life expectancy at birth was just 30 years or so. We can expect to live longer and enjoy life with the evolving marvels of modern technology. So, gratuitous violence that can end or hurt this prospect of an amazing life ahead is best avoided.
Third, societies have realized that symbiotic coexistence and reaping the peace dividends through trade and commerce is more beneficial then waging wars and destroying the scarce resources. The collateral damage of wars is too high, and if wars are won they are most likely to be pyrrhic victories.
Fourth is the growing general revulsion against violence and discrimination of any kind directed at people because of their nationality, race, colour, gender, political beliefs, religion, sexual orientation or physical characteristics. In short, the Rights Movement has changed our attitudes. Our moral compass has never been on a higher pedestal and has moved beyond human rights to include rights of animals and natural resources. Violence has lost its cowboy allure. It is a taboo.
Because of all the above factors, world has become more peaceful and even our neighbouring States have enjoyed its fruits and taken strides in development. Yet we remain an island unaffected by the global trend towards a conflict-free existence. Manipuri society is deeply embroiled in a culture of violence and it is getting more pronounced, which begs the question: What's wrong with us, the Manipuris? Why can't we abjure violence and adopt a more humane approach to address our grievances? Is the trigger for violence built into us from birth?
There's nothing wrong with us at the physiological level. We have not descended from the African cannibals. Our chromosomes are still normal. Our frontal cortex has not shrunk. Our testosterone levels are well under limits.
The problem with us, as Prof. Pinker might diagnose, is that none has been able to exercise monopoly on violence. There are too many dispensers of violence. Violence has been democratized and the number of its franchisees has exploded in this strife-torn State.
Ideally, the State should exercise all the coercive powers to ensure that no extra-state authority has an incentive to commit acts of violence. Sadly, the existence of the State forces has not deterred the non-state players, and they have struck at will. Where a strong State should be the sole arbiter of violence by concentrating all the powers of meting out violence in its hand to enforce rule of law, what exists on ground is a competition for domination of the violence landscape in which the State is just another contestant.
The State has become too soft and its writ has been compromised by bandhs and blockades, bomb blasts, kidnappings for ransom, shootings and killings which it has not been able to stop.
If the spiral of violence has to end, then it is to be thwarted by the threat of a greater violence upon the perpetrators by a Supreme Authority enjoying a monopoly on violence. The State should reclaim the position of that Supreme Authority. It should be quite obvious that people resort to violence when it seems the better bet. They resist it when it seems riskier than the alternative.
The trick is to make violence too risky and counterproductive for a person to even contemplate it by projecting the overarching specter of a punitive and invincible State force that can decimate the potential sources of violence at their roots.
Having said this, concerns remain of the State becoming too powerful with its monopoly of administering violence, in which case institutions must exist to apply checks and balances. The democratic institutions must rap on the knuckles of the State at the slightest hint of it committing excesses intoxicated by its own might.
As Mao Zedong said, "power comes from the barrel of gun". The statement is still true and the only common language the world knows is love-and ironically violence. As one study found out, 80 per cent of people have fantasized about killing someone they don't like. When stripped of all our basic inhibitions, we are still the hunter-gatherers in Armani, grappling with the constant internal battle between our id and ego.
The happy news is: comparing data across millennia, violence has unmistakably declined in its degree of brutality and quantitatively by its occurrences in proportion to the size of the population. But apparently because of some adverse planetary configuration at the time of our racial origin, peace seems elusive for the Manipuris. Our inner demons are strangulating the better angels, while the State is too soft and has not been able to contain and defeat our dark urges.
This gloomy situation can turn around for the better without waiting for an external Messiah to save us. The key to peace resides in each of us and to find it we should bring forth and act on our inner values of empathy rather than schadenfreude, love rather than enmity and harmony rather than discord-the better angels in our nature.
And that's why I say, ladies and gentlemen, let's give wings to these angels.
(The Better Angels of our Nature is published by Allen Lane (Penguin Books) and can be ordered from flipkart.com. Price: Rs. 550).