mardi 25 octobre 2011

Violent times?

I happened to catch part of Steven Pinker's interview on KUOW yesterday. He was in town for a lecture on the history of violence. Pinker, a psychology professor at Harvard and notable science writer, argues that the human species is less violent today than it has ever been. Not surprisingly, his point of departure is the Hobbesian view of man in the state of nature, as opposed to the more benign - some might say naive - view most famously put forth by Rousseau. For humans, life in the state of nature was, according to Hobbes, "solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short". Whenever I think of that phrase, I always mentally add the word "thankfully" just before short: solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and thankfully short.

Pinker makes a forceful case (which you can read by clicking on the title above) for the civilizing effect of, well, civilization. If we think the world is more violent today, this is partly because violent incidents are blown out of proportion by the media, or so Pinker believes. He says we are basically fed a steady diet of gruesome news (perhaps because we ask for it?) and that, as a result, we have come to believe that we live in the worst of times when, in fact, compared with the past, we live in the best of times.

For many people, though, his panglossian thesis is counterintuitive, partly because, like it or not, we live in the present. And the present looks scary and violent, especially if you happen to live in America, where outlaws are not the only ones who have guns. Everyone seems to have them and be prepared to use them to enact vigilante justice as required. On my own facebook page, I happened to see a wall post praising gun ownership, which got many "likes" and elicited many comments, most of them of the "by the time the police arrive, I will have put any attacker away with my handgun" variety. Many of those posting were women. Go ahead, make my day! In the world they live in, danger is lurking around every corner and the best response is to shoot first and ask questions later if at all.

Get out yer knives

Has violence always been as random - everywhere and nowhere in particular - as it seems to be today? After listening to the well-spoken and mild-mannered Professor Pinker, I read an article in the Seattle Times about an unprovoked, girl-on-girls stabbing at Snohomish High School (north of Seattle) yesterday. A sophomore, described in today's paper as a "nice" and "quiet" girl, went after two freshmen girls with a butcher knife as they applied makeup and chatted before class in the restroom. One was in critical condition (today she is reported to be in serious condition, after six hours of surgery). She had been stabbed twice, once in the chest and once in the neck. Her friend was also stabbed, but was released from the hospital with no life-threatening injuries. Kids at the school told the Seattle Times that neither of the female victims is the type to get in fights or trouble. Another knife attack was carried out on October 11, 2011, by a young female perpetrator who chose her two female victims at random. One of the two died. The knife wielder apparently stole the knife used in one of the stabbings from a nearby butcher shop. This happened in England.

Are young women suddenly picking up knives and using them on their peers? Apparently, some girls carry knives as a matter of course or a fashion accessory these days.