Text Patterns - by Alan Jacobs

Wednesday, January 25, 2017

rising up and rising down

Richard J. Evans summarizes Pankaj Mishra’s argument:

“After a long, uneasy equipoise since 1945,” Mishra says, “the old west-dominated world order is giving way to an apparent global disorder.” We have entered an “age of anger”, in which established forms of authority and legitimacy, already seriously weakened by the forces of globalisation, have been challenged by history’s losers. We are experiencing “endemic and uncontrollable” violence, fuelled by a range of hatreds – of “immigrants, minorities and various designated ‘others’” – that have now become part of the political mainstream. In response, there is “a global turn to authoritarianism and toxic forms of chauvinism”. Societies organised for the interplay of individual self-interest mediated by the state have plunged into tribalism and nihilistic violence. To Fukuyama’s Panglossian vision of the future, Mishra opposes a nightmare.

And yet Steven Pinker continues to argue that we are simply not “experiencing ‘endemic and uncontrollable’ violence,” that, globally, violence continues to decrease. The notion that violence is on the rise may well be one of those illusions I discussed the other day.

I don’t know, of course, but I’m inclined to suspect that physical violence is on the decline while verbal violence, especially on social media, is on the rise. It is indeed an age of anger, but perhaps people are largely content to express that anger online. Almost infinitely more people cheer the punching of Richard Spencer than would actually punch Richard Spencer. One or two acts of mild violence — videoed on smartphones and watched on loop — might be enough to slake most people’s bloodlust.

And so the anger dissipates, and “enterprises of great pitch and moment / With this regard their currents turn awry, / And lose the name of action.” Twitter is the opiate of the masses.


P.S. My post title.

3 comments:

  • If a nuclear war erupts in the next 20-50 years and hundreds of millions (billions?) of people die within a few years or months, that might throw off Pinker's numbers. Americans in the 60s and 70s were living in fear of literal annihilation, and that loaded gun hasn't being disarmed - more countries have nuclear weapons now.
    The increased threat we feel is an illusion in the sense that overt violence is down (per Pinker). This is good, but it shouldn't be our only concern*. Even if Mishra/Evans is only right on an intellectual level - that the ideas which underpin social democracy have given way to something angrier, more selfish, less coherent - that seems like a more dangerous trend than Pinker's trend is salutary.

    *How does death due to ecological disruption, which is already happening in Africa, factor in here?

  • Instead of physical vs. verbal violence, I framed the issue (elsewhere) in terms of behavioral vs. structural violence. The numbers would tend to suggest that behavioral violence (e.g., acting out) is indeed declining but that structural violence (e.g., withdrawal of civil liberties and economic opportunities) has risen precipitously. Pooling of wealth and power in ever few hands requires both falling and rising trends.

  • That's a useful distinction, brutus.

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