TED : Steven Pinker, The Myth of Violence

Whaddaya know, it’s TED Talk talk time again. Saw this one just a few minutes ago and loved it so much that I just had to share it will you nice people, and share what I thought about it, and see what you think about it once you have seen it.

So wrap your brains around this hot truth enema, chillun. This is the truth about what is really going on in the world and how bad things really have gotten. This is the truth without all the media bias and preconceived notions making it fit in our tiny little brains.

So like, dig it!

See? Things are not nearly as bad as we have been led to believe, and in fact we are living in the most peaceful, nonviolent, and civilized era ever known to the species Homo sapiens.

And I would add that it only looks to get better and better in the future.

Or did I just blow your mind?

Now our lecturer Stephen Pinker (pinker than what?) does an admirable job of covering all the major points as to why this decline in violence has happened and why we seems to have no clue that it happened and often, in fact, seem to believe exactly the opposite of what is known to be true.

He did such a good job of covering all the bases, in fact, that at first I had no idea where to begin to comment upon it. All the things that I thought of to say in my commentary while watching the talk, he eventually covered in the talk.

That is a rare feat indeed, and Mister Pinker should consider himself a potent theorist and communicator indeed if he can cover such a large subject so thoroughly that my ever questioning and nitpicking brain is not left with any unanswered questions.

But there are a few areas that overlap with my own theories on the matter and that I therefore would like to go over in more detail.

For instance, the cognitive bias created by the media feeding us a diet of crime, brutality, and violence, both real and fictional, all the time.

Pinker (what does he pink?) mentions the prime cognitive bias involved here : that we tend to think that things we can remember more easily are more probable than things that do not come to mind easily.

In others words, the easier it is to remember it, the more likely we think it is. This makes sense if we think of it in a pre-media world, where if you saw something happening, it was happening either to you or right in front of you.

In that sense, it makes sense to judge something as more likely if you have experienced it more often.

But since Gutenberg, we have been increasing the number and complexity of routes for having experiences that have nothing to do with what is actually happening to us.

And even though we know that what we are reading, watching, or hearing via media is not literally happening to us, our brains are not quite sophisticated enough to entirely dismiss these vivid fictional experiences, and still counts them on some level as if they had really happened.

And because a lot of these experiences revolve around violence in one way or another, and especially crime, they make us feel like the world is a dangerous, crime filled, violent place, when in truth, the world has never been safer.

And we, the media consumers, are not the passive victims of some malign media conspiracy in this process. Violence, even if it is just the emotional violence of interpersonal conflict, is what intrigues us. The essence of fiction is conflict, after all, and that is also what we seek in our media. As much as we might decry the news media’s thirst for blood and appetite for sensationalism, they would not do it if it did not work, and because we treat all media as entertainment, it is going to stay that way for a long time.

So it is actually a sick codependent relationship. And I am not sure how I would solve it. A “realistic” crime show would be very boring most of the time. A properly proportional news show would likely get zero ratings because it is, honestly, no fun. And so on.

The other thing I wanted to talk about from the talk was the idea that our moral expectations evolve far more rapidly than the moral reality. Our moral standards of what is acceptable have radically changed by many orders of magnitude since the sixteenth century. From the time when women (and men) of Dickensian London looked at the normal conditions of their world and cried out “This is not acceptable!”, there has been a strong pressure towards higher standards of what is acceptable for any human being to endure.

And this is a good thing, for the most part. It does cause the rather laughable phenomenon of generation after generation of passionate young progressives looking at the world and declaring that it is a horrible place, surely the worst place that has ever been!

But even this largely leads to them being motivated to go and fix things, so all is good.

In fact, it is this very renewal of outrage that moves society forward. It is, in fact, exactly how we got to such a good state of the world in the first place, and future social progress demands it.

In order to stride into an ever saner, more peaceful, more livable, more civilized future, we need people to continue to look at the world around them and say “This is not acceptable!”.

So what if the price we pay is a bit of a deficit in the historical perspective department. That seems a small price to pay for the kind of progress of which Pinker(no more jokes) speaks.

Perhaps we should just save this sort of perspective for when the people fighting the good fight begin to tire out, and wonder if they can ever win.

Then we can show them that people like them have been winning for five centuries at least, and that it shows no sign of stopping.

The tide is on our side!

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