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Aug
10th
Fri
permalink

God and the Ivory Tower. What we don’t understand about religion just might kill us

                   
(Illustration: Medieval miniature painting of the Siege of Antioch (1490). The Crusades were a series of a military campaigns fought mainly between Christian Europe and Muslims. Shown here is a battle scene from the First Crusade.)

"The era of world struggle between the great secular ideological -isms that began with the French Revolution and lasted through the Cold War (republicanism, anarchism, socialism, fascism, communism, liberalism) is passing on to a religious stage. Across the Middle East and North Africa, religious movements are gaining social and political ground, with election victories by avowedly Islamic parties in Turkey, Palestine, Egypt, Tunisia, and Morocco. As Israel’s National Security Council chief, Gen. Yaakov Amidror (a religious man himself), told me on the eve of Tunisia’s elections last October, “We expect Islamist parties to soon dominate all governments in the region, from Afghanistan to Morocco, except for Israel.”

On a global scale, Protestant evangelical churches (together with Pentacostalists) continue to proliferate, especially in Latin America, but also keep pace with the expansion of fundamentalist Islam in southern Africa and eastern and southern Asia. In Russia, a clear majority of the population remains religious despite decades of forcibly imposed atheism. Even in China, where the government’s commission on atheism has the Sisyphean job of making that country religion-free, religious agitation is on the rise. And in the United States, a majority says it wants less religion in politics, but an equal majority still will not vote for an atheist as president.

But if reams of social scientific analysis have been produced on religion’s less celestial cousins — from the nature of perception and speech to how we rationalize and shop — faith is not a matter that rigorous science has taken seriously. To be sure, social scientists have long studied how religious practices correlate with a wide range of economic, social, and political issues. Yet, for nearly a century after Harvard University psychologist William James’s 1902 masterwork, The Varieties of Religious Experience, there was little serious investigation of the psychological structure or neurological and biological underpinnings of religious belief that determine how religion actually causes behavior. And that’s a problem if science aims to produce knowledge that improves the human condition, including a lessening of cultural conflict and war.

Religion molds a nation in which it thrives, sometimes producing solidarity and sacred causes so powerful that citizens are willing to kill or die for a common good (as when Judea’s Jews around the time of Christ persisted in rebellion unto political annihilation in the face of the Roman Empire’s overwhelmingly military might). But religion can also hinder a society’s ability to work out differences with others, especially if those others don’t understand what religion is all about. That’s the mess we find ourselves in today, not only among different groups of Americans in the so-called culture wars, but between secular and Judeo-Christian America and many Muslim countries.

Time and again, countries go to war without understanding the transcendent drives and dreams of adversaries who see a very different world. Yet we needn’t fly blindly into the storm.

Science can help us understand religion and the sacred just as it can help us understand the genome or the structure of the universe. This, in turn, can make policy better informed.

Fortunately, the last few years show progress in scientific studies of religion and the sacred, though headwinds remain strong. Across history and cultures, religion has often knit communities together under the rule of sentient, but immaterial deities — that is, spiritual beings whose description is logically contradictory and empirically unfalsifiable. Cross-cultural studies pioneered by anthropologist Pascal Boyer show that these miraculous features — talking bushes, horses that leap into the sky — make lasting impressions on people and thereby increase the likelihood that they will be passed down to the next generation. Implausibility also facilitates cultural transmission in a more subtle manner — fostering adaptability of religious beliefs by opening the door to multiple interpretations (as with metaphors or weekly sermons).

And the greater the investment in outlandishness, the better. This is because adherence to apparently absurd beliefs means incurring costs — surviving without electricity, for example, if you are Amish — which help identify members who are committed to the survival of a group and cannot be lured away. The ease of identifying true believers, in turn, builds trust and galvanizes group solidarity for common defense.

To test this hypothesis, anthropologist Richard Sosis and his colleagues studied 200 communes founded in the United States in the 19th century. If shared religious beliefs really did foster loyalty, they reasoned, then communes formed out of religious conviction should survive longer than those motivated by secular ideologies such as socialism. Their findings were striking: Just 6 percent of the secular communes were still functioning 20 years after their founding, compared with 39 percent of the religious communes.

It is not difficult to see why groups formed for purely rational reasons can be more vulnerable to collapse: Background conditions change, and it might make sense to abandon one group in favor of another. Interestingly, recent research echoes the findings of 14th-century historian Ibn Khaldun, who argued that long-term differences among North African Muslim dynasties with comparable military might “have their origin in religion … [and] group feeling [wherein] mutual cooperation and support flourish.” The more religious societies, he argued, endured the longest.

For this reason, even ostensibly secular countries and transnational movements usually contain important quasi-religious rituals and beliefs. Think of sacred songs and ceremonies, or postulations that “providence” or “nature” bestows equality and inalienable rights (though, for about 99.9 percent of our species’ existence, slavery, and oppression of minorities were more standard fare). These sacred values act as moral imperatives that inspire nonrational sacrifices in cooperative endeavors such as war.

Insurgents, revolutionaries, and terrorists all make use of this logic, generating outsized commitment that allows them to resist and often prevail against materially stronger foes. Consider the American revolutionaries who defied the greatest empire of their age by pledging “our Lives, our Fortunes and our sacred Honor” for the cause of “liberty or death.” Surely they were aware of how unlikely they were to succeed, given the vast disparities in material resources, manpower, and training. As Osama Hamdan, the ranking Hamas politburo member for external affairs, put it to me in Damascus, Syria, “George Washington was fighting the strongest military in the world, beyond all reason. That’s what we’re doing. Exactly.”

But the same logic that makes religious and sacred beliefs more likely to endure can make them impervious to compromise. Based on interviews, experiments, and surveys with Palestinians, Israelis, Indonesians, Indians, Afghans, and Iranians, my research with psychologists Jeremy Ginges, Douglas Medin, and others demonstrates that offering people material incentives (large amounts of money, guarantees for a life free of political violence) to compromise sacred values can backfire, increasing stated willingness to use violence. Such backfire effects occur both for convictions with clear religious investment (Jerusalem, sharia law) and for those that are at least initially nonreligious (Iran’s right to a nuclear capability, Palestinian refugees’ right of return).

According to a 2010 study, for example, most Iranians think there is nothing sacred about their government’s nuclear program. But for a sizable minority — 13 percent of the population — the quest for a nuclear capability (more focused on energy than weapons) had, through religious rhetoric, become a sacred subject. This group, which tends to be close to the regime, now believes a nuclear program is bound up with national identity and with Islam itself. As a result, offering material rewards or punishments to abandon the program only increases anger and support for it.

Although this sacralization of initially secular issues confounds standard “business-like” negotiation tactics, my work with political scientist Robert Axelrod interviewing political leaders in the Middle East and elsewhere indicates that strong symbolic gestures (sincere apologies, demonstrating respect for the other’s values) generate surprising flexibility, even among militants, and may enable subsequent material negotiations. Thus, we find that Palestinian leaders and their supporting populations are generally willing to accept Israeli offers of economic improvement only after issues of recognition are addressed. Even purely symbolic statements accompanied by no material action, such as “we recognize your suffering” or “we respect your rights in Jerusalem,” diminish support for violence, including suicide terrorism. This is particularly promising because symbolic gestures tied to religious notions that are open to interpretation might potentially be reframed without compromising their absolute “truth.” For example, Jerusalem might be reconceived less as a place than portal to heaven, where earthly access to the portal suffices.

If these things are worth knowing, why do scientists still shun religion?

Part of the reason is that most scientists are staunchly nonreligious. If you look at the prestigious U.S. National Academy of Sciences or Britain’s Royal Society, well over 90 percent of members are non-religious. That may help explain why some of the bestselling books by scientists about religion aren’t about the science of religion as much as the reasons that it’s no longer necessary to believe. “New Atheists” have aggressively sought to discredit religion as the chief cause of much human misery, militating for its demise. They contend that science has now answered questions about humans’ origins and place in the world that only religion sought to answer in the days before evolutionary science, and that humankind no longer needs the broken crutch of faith.

But the idea that we can simply argue away religion has little factual support. Although a recent study by psychologists Will Gervais and Ara Norenzayan indicates that people are less prone to think religiously when they think analytically, other studies suggest that seemingly contrary evidence rarely undermines religious belief, especially among groups welded by ritualized sacrifice in the face of outside threats. Norenzayan and others also find that belief in gods and miracles intensifies when people are primed with awareness of death or when facing danger, as in wartime.

Moreover, the chief complaint against religion — that it is history’s prime instigator of intergroup conflict — does not withstand scrutiny. Religious issues motivate only a small minority of recorded wars. The Encyclopedia of Wars surveyed 1,763 violent conflicts across history; only 123 (7 percent) were religious. A BBC-sponsored “God and War" audit, which evaluated major conflicts over 3,500 years and rated them on a 0-to-5 scale for religious motivation (Punic Wars = 0, Crusades = 5), found that more than 60 percent had no religious motivation. Less than 7 percent earned a rating greater than 3. There was little religious motivation for the internecine Russian and Chinese conflicts or the world wars responsible for history’s most lethal century of international bloodshed.

Indeed, inclusive concepts such as “humanity” arguably emerged with the rise of universal religions. Sociologist Rodney Stark reveals that early Christianity became the Roman Empire’s majority religion not through conquest, but through a social process grounded in trust. Repeated acts of altruism, such as caring for non-Christians during epidemics, facilitated the expansion of social networks that were invested in the religion. Likewise, studies by behavioral economist Joseph Henrich and colleagues on contemporary foragers, farmers, and herders show that professing a world religion is correlated with greater fairness toward passing strangers. This research helps explain what’s going on in sub-Saharan Africa, where Islam is spreading rapidly. In Rwanda, for example, people began converting to Islam in droves after Muslims systematically risked their lives to protect Christians and animists from genocide when few others cared.

Although surprisingly few wars are started by religions, once they start, religion — and the values it imposes — can play a critical role. When competing interests are framed in terms of religious and sacred values, conflict may persist for decades, even centuries. Disputes over otherwise mundane phenomena then become existential struggles, as when land becomes “Holy Land.” Secular issues become sacralized and nonnegotiable, regardless of material rewards or punishments. In a multiyear study, our research group found that Palestinian adolescents who perceived strong threats to their communities and were highly involved in religious ritual were most likely to see political issues, like the right of refugees to return to homes in Israel, as absolute moral imperatives. These individuals were thus opposed to compromise, regardless of the costs. It turns out there may be a neurological component to such behavior: Our work with Gregory Berns and his neuroeconomics team suggests that such values are processed in the brain as duties rather than utilitarian calculations; neuroimaging reveals that violations of sacred values trigger emotional responses consistent with sentiments of moral outrage.

Historical and experimental studies suggest that the more antagonistic a group’s neighborhood, the more tightly that group will cling to its sacred values and rituals. The result is enhanced solidarity, but also increased potential for conflict toward other groups. Investigation of 60 small-scale societies reveals that groups that experience the highest rates of conflict (warfare) endure the costliest rites (genital mutilation, scarification, etc.). Likewise, research in India, Mexico, Britain, Russia, and Indonesia indicates that greater participation in religious ritual in large-scale societies is associated with greater parochial altruism — that is, willingness to sacrifice for one’s own group, such as Muslims or Christians, but not for outsiders — and, in relevant contexts, support for suicide attacks. This dynamic is behind the paradoxical reality that the world finds itself in today: Modern global multiculturalism is increasingly challenged by fundamentalist movements aimed at reviving group loyalty through greater ritual commitments to ideological purity.

So why does it matter that we have moved past the -isms and into an era of greater religiosity? In an age where religious and sacred causes are resurgent, there is urgent need for scientific effort to understand them. Now that humankind has acquired through science the power to destroy itself with nuclear weapons, we cannot afford to let science ignore religion and the sacred, or let scientists simply try to reason them away. Policymakers should leverage scientific understanding of what makes religion so potent a force for both cooperation and conflict, to help increase the one and lessen the other.

Scott Atran, American and French anthropologist at France’s National Center for Scientific Research, the University of Michigan, John Jay College, and ARTIS Research who has studied violence and interviewed terrorists, God and the Ivory Tower, Foreign Policy, Aug 6, 2012.

See also:

Scott Atran on Why War Is Never Really Rational
‘We’ vs ‘Others’: Russell Jacoby on why we should fear our neighbors more than strangers
The Psychology of Violence (a modern rethink of the psychology of shame and honour in preventing it), Lapidarium notes
Religion tag on Lapidarium notes

Sep
20th
Tue
permalink

Human Nature. Sapolsky, Maté, Wilkinson, Gilligan, discuss on human behavior and the nature vs. nurture debate

In this part of Peter Joseph's documentary Zeitgeist: Moving Forward “The discussion turns to human behavior and the nature vs. nurture debate. This portion begins with a small clip with Robert Sapolsky summing up the nature vs. nurture debate which he essentially refers it as a “false dichotomy.” After which he states that “it is virtually impossible to understand how biology works outside the context of environment.”

During which time the film then goes onto describe that it is neither Nature or Nurture that shapes human behavior but both are supposed to influence behavior. The interviewed pundits state that even with genetic predispositions to diseases the expression and manifestation of disease is largely determined by environmental stressors. Disease criminal activity and addictions are also placed in the same light. One study discussed showed that newly born babies are more likely to die if they are not touched. Another study which was mentioned claimed to show how stressed women were more likely to have children with addiction disorders. A reference is made to the unborn children who were in utero during the Dutch famine of 1944. The “Dutch Famine Birth Cohort Study" is mentioned to have shown that obesity and other health complications became common problems later in life due to prolonged starvation of their mother during pregnancy.

Comparisons are made by sociologists of criminals in different parts of the world and how different cultures with different values can often have more peaceful inhabitants. An Anabaptist sect called the Hutterites are mentioned to have never reported a homicide in any of their societies. The overall conclusion is that social environment and cultural conditioning play a large part in shaping human behavior.”

Zeitgeist Moving Forward I Human Nature

Dr. Gabor Maté: “Nothing is genetically programmed. There are very rare diseases, a small handful, extremely sparsely represented in the population, that are truly genetically determined. Most complex conditions might have a predisposition that has a genetic component. But a predisposition is not the same as a predetermination. The whole search for the source of diseases in the genome was doomed to failure before anybody even thought of it, because most diseases are not genetically predetermined. Heart disease, cancer, strokes, rheumatoid conditions, autoimmune conditions in general, mental health conditions, addictions, none of them are genetically determined. (…)

That’s an epigenetic effect. “Epi” means on top of, so that the epigenetic influence is what happens environmentally to either activate or deactivate certain genes. (…)

So, the genetic argument is simply a cop-out which allows us to ignore the social and economic and political factors that, in fact, underlie many troublesome behaviors. (…)

If we wish to understand what then makes some people susceptible we actually have to look at the life experience. The old idea, although it’s old but it’s still broadly held, that addictions are due to some genetic cause is simply scientifically untenable. What the case is actually is that certain life experiences make people susceptible. Life experiences that not only shape the person’s personality and psychological needs but also their very brains in certain ways. And that process begins in utero.

It has been shown, for example that if you stress mothers during pregnancy their children are more likely to have traits that predispose them to addictions and that’s because development is shaped by the psychological and social environment. So the biology of human beings is very much affected by and programmed by the life experiences beginning in utero.”

Dr. Robert Sapolsky: “Environment does not begin at birth. Environment begins as soon as you have an environment. As soon as you are a fetus, you are subject to whatever information is coming through mom’s circulations. Hormones levels of nutrients. (…) Be a Dutch Hunger Winter fetus and half a century later, everything else being equal, you are more likely to have high blood pressure, obesity or metabolic syndrome. That is environment coming in a very unexpected place. (…)”

GM: “The point about human development and specifically human brain development is that it occurs mostly under the impact of the environment and mostly after birth. (…)

The concept of Neural Darwinism simply means that the circuits that get the appropriate input from the environment will develop optimally and the ones that don’t will either not develop optimally or perhaps not at all. (…)

There is a significant way in which early experiences shape adult behavior and even and especially early experiences for which there is no recall memory. It turns out that there are two kinds of memory: there is explicit memory which is recall; this is when you can call back facts, details, episodes, circumstances. But the structure in the brain which is called the hippocampus which encodes recall memory doesn’t even begin to develop fully until a year and a half and it is not fully developed until much later, which is why hardly anybody has any recall memory prior to 18 months.

But there is another kind of memory which is called implicit memory which is, in fact, an emotional memory where the emotional impact and the interpretation the child makes of those emotional experiences are ingrained in the brain in the form of nerve circuits ready to fire without specific recall.  So to give you a clear example, people who are adopted have a lifelong sense of rejection very often. They can’t recall the adoption. They can’t recall the separation of the birth mother because there’s nothing there to recall with. But the emotional memory of separation and rejection is deeply embedded in their brains. Hence, they are much more likely to experience a sense of rejection and a great emotional upset when they perceive themselves as being rejected by other people. That’s not unique to people who are adopted but it is particularly strong in them because of this function of implicit memory. (…)

The great British child psychiatrist, D.W. Winnicott, said that fundamentally, two things can go wrong in childhood. One is when things happen that shouldn’t happen and then things that should happen but don’t. (…)

The Buddha argued that everything depends on everything else. He says ‘The one contains the many and the many contains the one.’ That you can’t understand anything in isolation from its environment, the leaf contains the sun, the sky and the earth, obviously. This has now been shown to be true, of course all around and specifically when it comes to human development. The modern scientific term for it is the ‘bio-psycho-social’ nature of human development which says that the biology of human beings depends very much on their interaction with the social and psychological environment.

And specifically, the psychiatrist and researcher Daniel Siegel at the University of California, Los Angeles, UCLA has coined a phrase Interpersonal Neurobiology” which means to say that the way that our nervous system functions depends very much on our personal relationships,  in the first place with the parenting caregivers, and in the second place with other important attachment figures in our lives and in the third-place, with our entire culture. So that you can’t separate the neurological functioning of a human being from the environment in which he or she grew up in and continues to exist in. And this is true throughout the life cycle. It’s particularly true when you are dependent and helpless when your brain is developing but it’s true even in adults and even at the end of life. (…)”

Dr. James Gilligan: “Violence is not universal. It is not symmetrically distributed throughout the human race. There is a huge variation in the amount of violence in different societies. There are some societies that have virtually no violence. There are others that destroy themselves. Some of the Anabaptist religious groups that are complete strict pacifists like the Amish, the Mennonites, the Hutterites, among some of these groups, the Hutterites - there are no recorded cases of homicide.

During our major wars, like World War II where people were being drafted they would refuse to serve in the military. They would go to prison rather than serve in the military. In the Kibbutzim in Israel the level of violence is so low that the criminal courts there will often send violent offenders - people who have committed crimes - to live on the Kibbutzim in order to learn how to live a non-violent life. Because that’s the way people live there. 

RS: So, we are amply shaped by society. Our societies, in the broader sense, including our theological, our metaphysical, our linguistic influences, etc, our societies help shape us as to whether or not we think life is basically about sin or about beauty; whether the afterlife will carry a price for how we live our lives or if it’s irrelevant. (…)

So, this brings us to a total impossible juncture which is to try to make sense in perspective science as to what that nature is of human nature. You know, on a certain level the nature of our nature is not to be particularly constrained by our nature. We come up with more social variability than any species out there. More systems of belief, of styles, of family structures, of ways of raising children. The capacity for variety that we have is extraordinary. (…)

GM: In a society which is predicated on competition and really, very often, the ruthless exploitation of one human being by another, the profiteering off of other people’s problems and very often the creation of problems for the purpose of profiteering, the ruling ideology will very often justify that behavior by appeals to some fundamental and unalterable human nature. So the myth in our society is that people are competitive by nature and that they are individualistic and that they’re selfish. The real reality is quite the opposite. We have certain human needs. The only way that you can talk about human nature concretely is by recognizing that there are certain human needs. We have a human need for companionship and for close contact, to be loved, to be attached to, to be accepted, to be seen, to be received for who we are. If those needs are met, we develop into people who are compassionate and cooperative and who have empathy for other people.

So the opposite, that we often see in our society, is in fact, a distortion of human nature precisely because so few people have their needs met. So, yes, you can talk about human nature but only in the sense of basic human needs that are instinctively evoked or I should say certain human needs that lead to certain traits if they are met and a different set of traits if they are denied.”

— Zeitgeist: Moving Forward - full transcript

Robert Sapolsky - American scientist and author. He is currently professor of Biological Sciences, and Professor of Neurology and Neurological Sciences and, by courtesy, Neurosurgery, at Stanford University.

Gabor Maté, Hungarian-born Canadian physician who specializes in the study and treatment of addiction and is also widely recognized for his unique perspective on Attention Deficit Disorder.

Richard Wilkinson - British researcher in social inequalities in health and the social determinants of health. He is Professor Emeritus of social epidemiology at the University of Nottingham.

James Gilligan - American psychiatrist and author, best known for his series of books entitled Violence, where he draws on 25 years of work in the American prison system to describe the motivation and causes behind violent behaviour. He now lectures at the Department of Psychiatry, New York University.

See also:

Zeitgeist: Moving Forward by Peter Joseph, 2011 (full documentary) (transcript)

Sep
19th
Mon
permalink

Steven Pinker on the History and decline of Violence

 

                                          Raphael, The Judgment of Solomon, (1518)

"Drawing on the work of the archaeologist Lawrence Keeley, Steven Pinker recently concluded that the chance of our ancient hunter-gatherer ancestors meeting a bloody end was somewhere between 15% and 60%. In the 20th century, which included two world wars and the mass killers Stalin and Hitler, the likelihood of a European or American dying a violent death was less than 1%.

Pinker shows that, with notable exceptions, the long-term trend for murder and violence has been going down since humans first developed agriculture 10,000 years ago. And it has dropped steeply since the Middle Ages. It may come as a surprise to fans of Inspector Morse but Oxford in the 1300s, Pinker tells us, was 110 times more murderous than it is today. With a nod to the German sociologist Norbert Elias, Pinker calls this movement away from killing the “civilising process”.”

Andrew Anthony, journalist, author, Steven Pinker: the optimistic voice of science, The Observer, 18 Sept 2011

"In sixteenth-century Paris, a popular form of entertainment was cat-burning, in which a cat was hoisted in a sling on a stage and slowly lowered into a fire. According to historian Norman Davies, "The spectators, including kings and queens, shrieked with laughter as the animals, howling with pain, were singed, roasted, and finally carbonized." Today, such sadism would be unthinkable in most of the world. This change in sensibilities is just one example of perhaps the most important and most underappreciated trend in the human saga: Violence has been in decline over long stretches of history, and today we are probably living in the most peaceful moment of our species’ time on earth.

In the decade of Darfur and Iraq, and shortly after the century of Stalin, Hitler, and Mao, the claim that violence has been diminishing may seem somewhere between hallucinatory and obscene. Yet recent studies that seek to quantify the historical ebb and flow of violence point to exactly that conclusion.

Some of the evidence has been under our nose all along. Conventional history has long shown that, in many ways, we have been getting kinder and gentler. Cruelty as entertainment, human sacrifice to indulge superstition, slavery as a labor-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. But, today, they are rare to nonexistent in the West, far less common elsewhere than they used to be, concealed when they do occur, and widely condemned when they are brought to light. (…)

The decline of violence is a fractal phenomenon, visible at the scale of millennia, centuries, decades, and years. It applies over several orders of magnitude of violence, from genocide to war to rioting to homicide to the treatment of children and animals. And it appears to be a worldwide trend, though not a homogeneous one. The leading edge has been in Western societies, especially England and Holland, and there seems to have been a tipping point at the onset of the Age of Reason in the early seventeenth century.

At the widest-angle view, one can see a whopping difference across the millennia that separate us from our pre-state ancestors. Contra leftist anthropologists who celebrate the noble savage, quantitative body-counts—such as the proportion of prehistoric skeletons with axemarks and embedded arrowheads or the proportion of men in a contemporary foraging tribe who die at the hands of other men—suggest that pre-state societies were far more violent than our own.

It is true that raids and battles killed a tiny percentage of the numbers that die in modern warfare. But, in tribal violence, the clashes are more frequent, the percentage of men in the population who fight is greater, and the rates of death per battle are higher. According to anthropologists like Lawrence Keeley, Stephen LeBlanc, Phillip Walker, and Bruce Knauft, these factors combine to yield population-wide rates of death in tribal warfare that dwarf those of modern times. If the wars of the twentieth century had killed the same proportion of the population that die in the wars of a typical tribal society, there would have been two billion deaths, not 100 million.

Political correctness from the other end of the ideological spectrum has also distorted many people’s conception of violence in early civilizations—namely, those featured in the Bible. This supposed source of moral values contains many celebrations of genocide, in which the Hebrews, egged on by God, slaughter every last resident of an invaded city. The Bible also prescribes death by stoning as the penalty for a long list of nonviolent infractions, including idolatry, blasphemy, homosexuality, adultery, disrespecting one’s parents, and picking up sticks on the Sabbath. The Hebrews, of course, were no more murderous than other tribes; one also finds frequent boasts of torture and genocide in the early histories of the Hindus, Christians, Muslims, and Chinese.

At the century scale, it is hard to find quantitative studies of deaths in warfare spanning medieval and modern times. Several historians have suggested that there has been an increase in the number of recorded wars across the centuries to the present, but, as political scientist James Payne has noted, this may show only that “the Associated Press is a more comprehensive source of information about battles around the world than were sixteenth-century monks.” Social histories of the West provide evidence of numerous barbaric practices that became obsolete in the last five centuries, such as slavery, amputation, blinding, branding, flaying, disembowelment, burning at the stake, breaking on the wheel, and so on. Meanwhile, for another kind of violence—homicide—the data are abundant and striking.

The criminologist Manuel Eisner has assembled hundreds of homicide estimates from Western European localities that kept records at some point between 1200 and the mid-1990s. In every country he analyzed, murder rates declined steeply—for example, from 24 homicides per 100,000 Englishmen in the fourteenth century to 0.6 per 100,000 by the early 1960s.

On the scale of decades, comprehensive data again paint a shockingly happy picture: Global violence has fallen steadily since the middle of the twentieth century. According to the Human Security Brief 2006, the number of battle deaths in interstate wars has declined from more than 65,000 per year in the 1950s to less than 2,000 per year in this decade. In Western Europe and the Americas, the second half of the century saw a steep decline in the number of wars, military coups, and deadly ethnic riots.

Zooming in by a further power of ten exposes yet another reduction. After the cold war, every part of the world saw a steep drop-off in state-based conflicts, and those that do occur are more likely to end in negotiated settlements rather than being fought to the bitter end. Meanwhile, according to political scientist Barbara Harff, between 1989 and 2005 the number of campaigns of mass killing of civilians decreased by 90 percent.

The decline of killing and cruelty poses several challenges to our ability to make sense of the world. To begin with, how could so many people be so wrong about something so important? Partly, it’s because of a cognitive illusion: We estimate the probability of an event from how easy it is to recall examples. Scenes of carnage are more likely to be relayed to our living rooms and burned into our memories than footage of people dying of old age. Partly, it’s an intellectual culture that is loath to admit that there could be anything good about the institutions of civilization and Western society. Partly, it’s the incentive structure of the activism and opinion markets: No one ever attracted followers and donations by announcing that things keep getting better. And part of the explanation lies in the phenomenon itself. The decline of violent behavior has been paralleled by a decline in attitudes that tolerate or glorify violence, and often the attitudes are in the lead. As deplorable as they are, the abuses at Abu Ghraib and the lethal injections of a few murderers in Texas are mild by the standards of atrocities in human history. But, from a contemporary vantage point, we see them as signs of how low our behavior can sink, not of how high our standards have risen.

The other major challenge posed by the decline of violence is how to explain it. A force that pushes in the same direction across many epochs, continents, and scales of social organization mocks our standard tools of causal explanation. The usual suspects—guns, drugs, the press, American culture—aren’t nearly up to the job. Nor could it possibly be explained by evolution in the biologist’s sense: Even if the meek could inherit the earth, natural selection could not favor the genes for meekness quickly enough. In any case, human nature has not changed so much as to have lost its taste for violence. Social psychologists find that at least 80 percent of people have fantasized about killing someone they don’t like. And modern humans still take pleasure in viewing violence, if we are to judge by the popularity of murder mysteries, Shakespearean dramas, Mel Gibson movies, video games, and hockey.

What has changed, of course, is people’s willingness to act on these fantasies. The sociologist Norbert Elias suggested that European modernity accelerated a “civilizing process” marked by increases in self-control, long-term planning, and sensitivity to the thoughts and feelings of others. These are precisely the functions that today’s cognitive neuroscientists attribute to the prefrontal cortex. But this only raises the question of why humans have increasingly exercised that part of their brains. No one knows why our behavior has come under the control of the better angels of our nature, but there are four plausible suggestions.

The first is that Thomas Hobbes got it right. Life in a state of nature is nasty, brutish, and short, not because of a primal thirst for blood but because of the inescapable logic of anarchy. Any beings with a modicum of self-interest may be tempted to invade their neighbors to steal their resources. The resulting fear of attack will tempt the neighbors to strike first in preemptive self-defense, which will in turn tempt the first group to strike against them preemptively, and so on. This danger can be defused by a policy of deterrence—don’t strike first, retaliate if struck—but, to guarantee its credibility, parties must avenge all insults and settle all scores, leading to cycles of bloody vendetta. These tragedies can be averted by a state with a monopoly on violence, because it can inflict disinterested penalties that eliminate the incentives for aggression, thereby defusing anxieties about preemptive attack and obviating the need to maintain a hair-trigger propensity for retaliation. Indeed, Eisner and Elias attribute the decline in European homicide to the transition from knightly warrior societies to the centralized governments of early modernity. And, today, violence continues to fester in zones of anarchy, such as frontier regions, failed states, collapsed empires, and territories contested by mafias, gangs, and other dealers of contraband.

Payne suggests another possibility: that the critical variable in the indulgence of violence is an overarching sense that life is cheap. When pain and early death are everyday features of one’s own life, one feels fewer compunctions about inflicting them on others. As technology and economic efficiency lengthen and improve our lives, we place a higher value on life in general.

A third theory, championed by Robert Wright, invokes the logic of non-zero-sum games: scenarios in which two agents can each come out ahead if they cooperate, such as trading goods, dividing up labor, or sharing the peace dividend that comes from laying down their arms. As people acquire know-how that they can share cheaply with others and develop technologies that allow them to spread their goods and ideas over larger territories at lower cost, their incentive to cooperate steadily increases, because other people become more valuable alive than dead.

Then there is the scenario sketched by philosopher Peter Singer. Evolution, he suggests, bequeathed people a small kernel of empathy, which by default they apply only within a narrow circle of friends and relations. Over the millennia, people’s moral circles have expanded to encompass larger and larger polities: the clan, the tribe, the nation, both sexes, other races, and even animals. The circle may have been pushed outward by expanding networks of reciprocity, à la Wright, but it might also be inflated by the inexorable logic of the golden rule: The more one knows and thinks about other living things, the harder it is to privilege one’s own interests over theirs. The empathy escalator may also be powered by cosmopolitanism, in which journalism, memoir, and realistic fiction make the inner lives of other people, and the contingent nature of one’s own station, more palpable—the feeling that “there but for fortune go I”.

Whatever its causes, the decline of violence has profound implications. It is not a license for complacency: We enjoy the peace we find today because people in past generations were appalled by the violence in their time and worked to end it, and so we should work to end the appalling violence in our time. Nor is it necessarily grounds for optimism about the immediate future, since the world has never before had national leaders who combine pre-modern sensibilities with modern weapons.

But the phenomenon does force us to rethink our understanding of violence. Man’s inhumanity to man has long been a subject for moralization. With the knowledge that something has driven it dramatically down, we can also treat it as a matter of cause and effect. Instead of asking, “Why is there war?” we might ask, “Why is there peace?” From the likelihood that states will commit genocide to the way that people treat cats, we must have been doing something right. And it would be nice to know what, exactly, it is.”

Steven Pinker, Canadian-American experimental psychologist, cognitive scientist, linguist and popular science author, Harvard College Professor, A History Of Violence, Edge, March 27, 2007 (First published in The New Republic, 3.19.2007)

Steven Pinker on the myth of violence

Steven Pinker charts the decline of violence from Biblical times to the present, and argues that, though it may seem illogical and even obscene, given Iraq and Darfur, we are living in the most peaceful time in our species’ existence.

Steven Pinker on the myth of violence, TED.com, Mar 2007

See also:

☞ Steven Pinker, A History of Violence Edge Master Class 2011, Edge, Sept 27, 2011
The Psychology of Violence - a fascinating look at a violent act and a modern rethink of the psychology of shame and honour in preventing it
☞ David Runciman, The Better Angels of Our Nature by Steven Pinker - review, The Guardian, Sept 22, 2011
Violence tag on Lapidarium notes

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The Psychology of Violence - a fascinating look at a violent act and a modern rethink of the psychology of shame and honour in preventing it


Thomas Jones, King’s Colledge To Wit, (the famous duel between the Duke of Wellington and the Earl of Winchilsea), 1829

Mercutio: Will you pluck your dagger from his pitcher? Make haste, lest mine be about you ere it be out.
Tybalt: I am for you.
Romeo: Gentle Mercutio, put thy weapon up.
Mercutio: Come, sir, your passado!

— (W. Shakespeare, Romeo and Juliet)

James Gilligan: “Violence itself is a form of communication, it’s a way of sending a message and it does that through symbolic means through damaging the body. But if people can express themselves and communicate verbally they don’t need violence and they are much less likely to use their fists or weapons as their means of communication. They are much more likely to use words. I’m saying this on the basis of clinical experience, working with violent people. (…)

I could point out there’s as much violence in the greatest literature in history, the Greek tragedies, Shakespeare’s tragedies and so on, as there is in popular entertainment. The difference is in the great literature violence is depicted realistically for what it really is, namely a tragedy. It’s tragic, it’s not entertainment, it’s not fun, it’s not exciting, it’s a tragedy. (…)

Mercutio: I am hurt.
Romeo: The hurt cannot be much.
Mercutio: No, no tis not so deep as a well nor so wide as a church door, but ‘tis enough: twill serve. A plague o’ both your houses.

— (W. Shakespeare, Romeo and Juliet)

Q: When Shakespeare wrote the tragedy Romeo and Juliet people were at each others’ throats, murder rates were at the highest in Europe’s history and murder took on a different meaning then. For men it was a case of kill or be killed in order to save face.

Pieter Spierenburg: It was basically seen so differently because of the idea of personal honour—specifically male honour—which depended on being prepared for violence.

JG: For example in virtually every language the words for masculinity are the same as the words for courage in Greek andrea, in Latin vir(?), vir is the word that means man but it also means soldier, to be a man is to be a soldier and it’s related to the Latin word for courage, virtus, which is the root of our word virtue but in that warlike culture courage was the prime virtue.

[From Romeo and Juliet]
Benvolio: Oh Romeo, Romeo, brave Mercutio’s dead.

PS: Murder which occurred when the conflict was about people’s reputations, that was easily understandable; the people around it, or the community regarded it as something that could happen. The authorities—and these were basically urban patricians who would be enmeshed in conflicts themselves—they understood especially that revenge; revenge was often officially legal and the first homicides in a conflict, an honourable conflict, would be at least treated leniently or punished with a fine or something.

Q: And killings that were carried out in defence of honour, were those killings seen as murder as we would conceptualise it?

PS: They would usually be regarded as honourable killings so at least excusable as something that perhaps should not have happened. But they could easily happen when two people who had a quarrel and a fight resulting from that quarrel. Murder in order to rob someone for material gain, that was viewed as dishonourable.

Q: What kinds of punishments were there for these two kinds of murder—an honourable one and a dishonourable one—were they very different?

PS: Yes, they were very different. Originally around 1300 the regular punishment for an honourable killing would be a fine or perhaps a banishment, whereas punishment for a treacherous murder would be execution.

Q: Was it a period do you think where the value of the human life was less than now?

PS: I think they still placed value on life but of course it was also a period when all people believed in an afterlife. But in terms of the worldly views they would indeed value honour, personal honour, they would value it more than life. Not only in the European Middle Ages but in many societies where you have open violence and ideas of male honour, your honour is worth more than your life. If you would have to choose

[From Romeo and Juliet]
Lady Capulet: I beg for justice which thou prince must give. Romeo slew Tybalt, Romeo must not live.
Prince: Romeo slew him, he slew Mercutio. Who now the price of this dear blood doth owe…?

Q: In this period of history that you’re talking about the conceptualisation of honour was firmly associated with the body, you suggest. What does that mean?

PS: Yes, the body or the physical person—it was anthropologists who first discovered the vestiges of that in Mediterranean societies, it was tied up with a kind of physical imagery and especially for men that strong men are associated with fierce animals and the like. Or that certain parts or the body symbolically play a big role in honour—your testicles, or your nose, because your nose is the first thing that goes into the world, it goes in front of you as it were.

Q: We’ve all heard the phrases ‘kiss and make up’ or ‘sealed with a kiss’; in fact these come from mediaeval legal ceremonies, elaborate affairs for two warring families to end a murderous feud.

Pieter Spierenburg: There existed rituals of reconciliation, and homicide was not really criminalised, but there was also the possibility of making peace between families who had been in a conflict or to reconcile after a single homicide so as to prevent events from occurring. The two parties, the killer and the most close relative of the victim, would kiss each other on the mouth and then other family members would also kiss each other on the mouth.

Q: These are parties to a vendetta?

Pieter Spierenburg: Yes, and that would seal the reconciliation. But it could also be done with a handshake. The reconciliation had clearly religious overtones and it was often done in a church or in a monastery. The family of the perpetrator would not only pay money but also pay for masses being said for the killed person, which again was also a very material thing because that benefited his soul, and they believed that he would be away from purgatory and into heaven more quickly if these masses were said or if he was made posthumously a monk. (…)

Q: So all of this shifts in the 16th century with an internal process that you call the spiritualisation of honour. Now what do you mean by that?

PS: Basically it means that honour moves away from being based on the body, being tied to the body, being based on preparedness to defend yourself and your dependants, and that you get other sources of honour that for example economic success or that even in a later period what they called sexual purity is a source of honour, being a good husband, a good head of the family, things that people take pride in and that becomes a source of honour— a man can be honourable without being violent.

Q: What was it that triggered that shift in the internal landscape of Europe that changed the way people thought about and conducted violence?

PS: Basically it’s triggered by a broad social change of which processes of state formation, the development of modern states, the establishment of monopolies of violence or monopolies of force, which means that stronger rulers are able to pacify a larger territory and establish a more or less stable government there. You get these monopolies of force with stronger rulers who established courts and then they assemble elite groups, aristocrats around them at courts and people at courts are obliged to behave in a more civilised way which includes a renunciation of personal violence. So they are prestigious people, elites, who still have a peaceful lifestyle and that becomes a kind of cultural model that is eventually within a few centuries also imitated by broader groups in society.

James Gilligan: When people experience their moral universe as going between the polar opposites of shame versus honour, or we could also say shame versus pride, they are more likely to engage in serious violence.

The more people have a capacity for feelings of guilt and feelings of remorse after hurting other people, the less likely they are to kill others. I think in the history of Europe what one can see is a gradual increase in moral development from the shame/honour code to the guilt/innocence code.

PS: They did no longer accept that killings would be a part of life as it were, in the early modern period it was only certain groups, more lower class people of the time who still accepted that fights could be honourable like knife fights or whatever, and that if someone died in a knife fight if this was an accident that of course was regrettable, but that could happen.

Q: In his history of murder Pieter Spierenburg has tracked a big drop in homicides across Europe from the 17th to the 19th centuries as a result. But murder hasn’t left us; people continue to kill each other. And there are other constants across the centuries. Young men have always committed most murders, alcohol has been in the mix too and so has that ever-present ingredient—honour.

JG: Hitler came to power on the campaign promise to undo what he called the shame of Versailles, meaning the Versailles Peace Treaty at the end of World War 1, which he felt had dishonoured Germany, or subjected Germany to national dishonour. And of course his solution for that, the way to restore Germany’s honour and undo the shame was do almost limitless violence. Even if one goes back to the first recorded wars in western history the wars were fought because the side that became the aggressor felt it had been shamed and humiliated by the group that they were attacking.

In the Iliad Menelaus the Greek king felt shamed and humiliated because a Trojan prince by the name of Paris ran off with his wife Helen (who became Helen of Troy) so the Greek army, Menelaus’s friends and family and partners started a war against Troy and burned the city down and killed all the men and took the women into slavery and so on.

Q: And so from the honour of the collective, or national honour, to the deeply personal.

[From Rumble Fish]
Midget: Hey, Rusty James, Biff Wilcox is looking for you Rusty James.
Rusty James: I’m not hiding.
Midget: He says he’s going to kill you Rusty James.
Rusty James: Saying ain’t doing. Shit! So what’s he doing about this, what’s he doing about killing me?
Midget: The deal is man you’re supposed to meet him tonight under the arches behind the pet store at about 10 o’clock.
Rusty James: He’s comin’ alone?
BJ Jackson: I wouldn’t count on it, man.
Rusty James: Well if he’s bringin’ friends then I’m bringin’ friends, man.

JG: The emotional cause that I have found just universal among people who commit serious violence, lethal violence is the phenomenon of feeling overwhelmed by feelings of shame and humiliation. I’ve worked with the most violent people our society produces who tend to wind up in our prisons. I’ve been astonished by how almost always I get the same answer when I ask the question—why did you assault or even kill that person? And the answer I would get back in one set of words or another but almost always meaning exactly the same thing would be, ‘Because he disrespected me,’ or ‘He disrespected my mother,’ or my wife, my girlfriend, whatever.

They use that word ‘disrespect ‘so often that they’ve abbreviated it into the slang term ‘he dissed me’, and it struck me that any time a word is used so often people start abbreviating it, it tells you something about how central that is in their moral and emotional vocabulary. (…)

Nazi Germany. After Hitler came to power millions of German citizens who had never been violent before became murderers. The widespread potential for homicidal behaviour became very clear after the Nazis came to power. To me what that shows empirically is that the potential for homicide is perhaps not totally universal. Certainly there are some people who would rather go to their own death than to kill somebody else, but certainly the potential for homicide is much, much wider than we customarily think. I say that not to be cynical about human nature, but simply because I think it’s important for us to be aware of that, so that we will not inadvertently engage in behaviours that will bring out the potential for violence.

When people feel ashamed or inferior to other people, they feel first of all a threat to the self, because we frequently call shame a feeling, but it’s actually the absence of a feeling. Namely the feeling of self love or pride and yet that absence of a feeling is actually one of the most painful experiences that human beings can undergo. In order to wipe out feelings of shame people can become desperate enough to kill others or to kill themselves. So what is important here is to find ways not only to reduce the intensity and frequency with which people are shamed or feel shamed, but also to increase their capacity to tolerate feelings of shame—you know, without acting out violently as a means of reducing those feelings.

Q: Our traditional response to a violent or murderous crime has been partly to remove the problem by imprisoning a person and removing them from society but this is also a form of punishment, in other words a form of shaming the individual. Is that an effective way of responding to a violent action?

JG: Well let me say first of all I do believe that if anybody is going around killing or committing other forms of violence, going around raping or whatever, that we do have to lock them up at least for as long as they are likely to behave in that way in the future. We do have to protect the public. But I would say that’s a tragic necessity and it is not cost-free and you put your finger on one of the problems, that it can shame a person even further. However, I think that the situation can be understood slightly differently if we understand that it’s vitally important how we treat people after we’ve locked them up. We don’t need to shame them.

Q: There would be the argument that would be made that if someone has committed a violent crime they serve a term of punishment for that crime.

JG: Well my experience and, as I said, there’s a lot of evidence to support this, is that punishment far from inhibiting violence is actually the most powerful stimulant of violence that we’ve discovered yet. For example the prisoners that I have known, the most violent of them had already been punished as seriously as it is possible to punish somebody without actually killing them. I’m talking about the degree of child abuse that these men had suffered. The most violent prisoners were the survivors of their own attempted murder, usually at the hands of their own parents or the survivors of the actual murders of their closest relatives.

Now if punishment would prevent or inhibit violence these should have been the most non-violent people on earth, instead they were the most violent. And I would say that the more we punish people in prisons, as opposed to simply restraining them, the more we stimulate violence, which is why prisons have always been called schools for crime.

Q: You’ve suggested based on this thinking that the best way to respond to and reduce violence is to see it as a symptom, and in that case that the disease is shame, is humiliation—how do you treat that disease?

JG: One of the most important I found working with violent criminals in prisons is to first of all treat everybody with respect, regardless of who they are or what they’ve done. The second thing though is to provide the resources that people need in order to gain self-respect and self-esteem or in other words pride, and feelings of self worth. When I was directing the mental health services for the Commonwealth of Massachusetts in the United States we did a study to find out what program in the prisons had been most effective in preventing re-offending or recidivism after prisoners left the prison. And we found one program that had been 100% successful over a 25-year period with not one of these individuals returning to prison because of a new crime.

And that program was the prisoners getting a college degree while in prison. The professors from Boston University had been donating their time to teach college credit courses and several hundred inmates had gotten a college degree while in prison, then left, went back into the community and did not return because of a new crime. I mean I think there are many reasons why that would have that effect but the most important I think emotionally is that education is one of the most direct ways by which people raise their level of self-esteem and feelings of self worth. When you gain knowledge and skills that you can respect in yourself and that other people respect you’re more likely to be treated with honour by other people and to have the feelings of pride or self worth that protect you against being overwhelmed by shame to the degree that stimulates violence.

Bandy Lee: We at one point felt that human nature was not malleable and that somehow the legacy of our ancestors left us with a nature that is inevitably violence prone and something that we cannot easily correct. The conception has been that there must be something fixed in the brain, that they must have been born with this condition, that it was either a genetic or neurological defect or some kind of faulty wiring that has caused individuals to become violent. What we’re finding is that a lot of the genetics and the neurobiology that even has a remote association to violence is actually shaped largely by environment.

Q: Some people are obviously more prone to violence because they have a personality disorder or neurological affliction that makes them impulsive and that’s really a subject for another show but the brain always sits in a social environment, and that was the focus of an innovative project called Resolve to Stop the Violence led by Yale University psychiatrists Professor Bandy Lee and James Gilligan.

BL: Because the public health approach is to look at things from the very basic level of prevention. In fact we’re going very far upstream in just the way that cleaning up the sewage system and personal hygiene habits would take care of a lot of the diseases as it did over the course of a large part of the 19th century. We are finding that preventive measures are far more effective than trying to treat the problems after their occurrence which a lot of physicians have done or even to try to prevent suicides or homicides immediately before it happens turns out to be very difficult to do. (…)

JG: One of the more interesting ones was a program that was designed to deconstruct and reconstruct what we call the male role belief system. That is the whole set of assumptions and beliefs and definitions, to which almost all men in our society are exposed in the course of growing up, as to how you define masculinity, what men have a right to expect from women, even what they have a right to expect from other men, and what they need to do to prove that they are men. (…)

BL: (…) So at this moment of fatal peril, instead of reacting violently in order to defend and re-affirm this hit man, they would give themselves a moment to take a breather and to engage in social ways. And having the experience of a pro-social way of interacting, of not having to fear one’s peers—and actually they had a mentor system whereby those who were in the program for longer periods would act as mentors to those who were just coming in to the program, were able to teach newcomers that they didn’t have to act violently in order to be accepted, in order to be safe, and this was quite a surprise for those entering into the program.

JG: What came out of this was they’re gaining an awareness that they had been making the assumption that the human world is divided into people who were superior and people who were inferior, and in that distinction men were supposed to be superior and women were supposed to be inferior. And not only that, a real man would be superior to other men.

Now this is a recipe for violence. But the moment they would fight against it, the individual would feel his masculinity was being challenged and to defend his masculinity he would have to resort to violence. What was amazing to me was how quickly they realised and got the point, felt they had been brainwashed by society and immediately wanted to start educating the new inmates who were coming in after them. We trained them to lead these groups themselves, you know sort of like as in Alcoholics Anonymous where people who have the problem sometimes turn out to be the best therapists for others who have the problem.

Q: And what about recidivism rates, were those reduced?

JG: The level of re-committing a violent crime was 83% lower in this group than in the control group. The rate of in-house violence actually dropped to zero in the experimental group. And what we were especially interested in was that reduction in violence continued not at 100% level but close to it, once they left the goal. (…)

I think we need to educate our children and our adults that violence is trivialised when it’s treated simply as entertainment. I call that the pornography of violence. If violence is understood for what it really is, which is the deepest human tragedy, then I think people might become more sympathetic to supporting the changes in our culture that actually would succeed in reducing the amount of violence that we experience. I think that we’re all becoming much more sensitised to the importance of social, and political and economic and cultural factors as factors the either stimulate violence or inhibit it and prevent it.”

Murder in mind, All In The Mind, ABC Radio National, 9 April 2011.

James Gilligan, clinical Professor of Psychiatry, Adjunct Professor in the School of Law, Collegiate Professor in the School of Arts and Science New York University

Pieter Spierenburg, Professor of Historical Criminology Erasumus University,
The Netherlands. He has published on executions, prisons, violence, and the culture of early modern Europe.

Bandy Lee, Assistant Clinical Professor of Psychiatry Yale University, USA

See also:

☞ Charles K. Bellinger, Theories on the Psychology of Violence: An Address to the Association of Muslim Social Scientists, University of Texas at Arlington
Scott Atran on Why War Is Never Really Rational, Lapidarium
The Philosophy of War, Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy
Steven Pinker on the myth of violence, TED video, 2007
☞ Pauline Grosjean, A History of Violence: The Culture of Honor as a Determinant of Homicide in the US South, The University of New South Wales, August 25, 2011
Emiliano Salinas: A civil response to violence, TED.com, Nov 2010 (video)
Colman McCarthy, Teaching Peace, Hobart and William Smith Colleges, August 30, 2011
Steven Pinker on the History and decline of Violence
Violence tag on Lapidarium notes

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Scott Atran on Why War Is Never Really Rational

 
                       Jacques-Louis David, The Intervention of the Sabine Women, (1799)

"The art of war," Adam Smith wrote in The Wealth of Nations, “is certainly the noblest of all arts.” In every culture, war is considered society’s most noble endeavor (recent threat of nuclear war and mass annihilation has made a slight dent in this universal passion), although what is considered good and noble in one society may well be considered evil and bad in others. War is usually much better than peace at defining who is the group, what are its boundaries, and what it stands for. War is also more compelling and effective in generating solidarity with something larger and more lasting than ourselves. War compresses history and dramatically changes its course. There is urgency, excitement, ecstasy, and altruistic exaltation in war, a mystic feeling of solidarity with something greater than oneself: a tribe, a nation, a movement, Humanity. That’s also why cable news so loves it.

War is what most clearly defines who we are, for better or worse. And it has always been that way.

The key justification that President Obama evoked in going to war in Libya, and anywhere else around the globe where America’s survival and safety are not directly threatened, is that failure to act “would have been a betrayal of who we are.” The message, to remind ourselves and the world, is that America protects people who are menaced with annihilation for wanting freedom.

Obama’s erstwhile presidential rival, Senator John McCain, countered that while this moral imperative may be laudable, “the reason why we wage wars is to achieve the results of the policy that we state.” And that policy, as the president himself proclaimed, is that “Gaddafi must go.”

Politicians and pundits across the ideological spectrum intone that the military mission remains murky, even contradictory, because as Adm. Mike Mullen, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, put it: “the goals of this [military] campaign aren’t… about seeing [Gaddafi] go. It’s about eliminating his ability to kill his own people.” So what is the sense of fighting to prevent Gaddafi from massacring his people if, as Adm. Mullen conceded, “certainly, potentially, one outcome” is that the dictator remain in power, potentially to kill again?

Yet the inconsistency between war as a moral imperative versus political policy runs way wider and deeper than the Libya conflict. It goes to the heart of human nature and the character of society. For despite the popular delusion that war is, or ought to be, primarily a matter of political strategy and pragmatic execution, it almost never is. Squaring the circle of war and politics, morality and material interests, is not just Obama’s or America’s quandary, it is a species-wide dilemma that results from wanting to believe with Aristotle that we humans are fundamentally rational beings, when in fact recent advances in psychology and neuroscience strongly indicate that Enlightenment philosopher David Hume was right to say that “Reason is, and ought only to be, the slave of the passions.”

Models of rational behavior predict many of society’s patterns, such as favored strategies for maximizing profit or likelihood for criminal behavior in terms of “opportunity costs.” But seemingly irrational behaviors like war — in which the measurable costs often far outweigh the measurable benefits — have stumped thinkers for centuries. The prospect of crippling economic burdens and huge numbers of deaths doesn’t necessarily sway people from their positions on whether going to war is the right or wrong choice. One possible explanation is that people are not weighing the pros and cons for advancing material interests at all, but rather using a moral logic of “sacred values” — convictions that trump all other considerations — that cannot be quantified.

As Darwin noted in The Descent of Man, and Sun Tzu millennia before in The Art of War, the brave person is the one who is often intensely moral, undismayed by danger and demonstrably willing to kill and die for his beliefs. In the competition between groups of genetic strangers, such as empires and nations or transnational movements and ideologies, the society with greater bravery will win, all things being equal. Consider the American revolutionaries who, defying the greatest empire of the age, pledged “our lives, our fortunes, our sacred honor” in the cause of “Liberty or Death,” where the desired outcome was highly doubtful.

How many lives should a leader be willing to sacrifice to remove a murderous dictator like Muammar Gaddafi or Saddam Hussein? Most of the theories and models that researchers use to study conflicts like the Libyan or Iraq wars assume that civilians and leaders make a rational calculation: If the total cost of the war is less than the cost of the alternatives, they will support war. But recent studies by psychologist Jeremy Ginges and myself, carried out with the support of the National Science Foundation and the Defense Department, suggest those models are insufficient. Our surveys of people confronted with violent situations in the US, Middle East and Africa suggest that people consistently ignore quantifiable costs and benefits, relying instead on “sacred values.”

In one study, we asked 656 Israeli settlers in the West Bank about the dismantlement of their settlement as part of a peace agreement with Palestinians. Some subjects were asked about their willingness to engage in nonviolent protests, whereas others were asked about violence. Besides their willingness to violently resist eviction, the subjects rated how effective they thought the action would be and how morally right the decision was. If the settlers are making the decision rationally, in line with mainstream models, their willingness to engage in a particular form of protest should depend mostly on their estimation of its effectiveness. But if sacred values come into play, that calculus should be clouded.

When it came to nonviolent options such as picketing and blocking streets, the rational behavior model predicted settlers’ decisions. But in deciding whether to engage in violence, the settlers defied the rational behavior models. Rather than how effective they thought violence would be in saving their homes, the settlers’ willingness to engage in violent protest depended only on how morally correct they considered that option to be. We found similar patterns of “principled” resistance to peace settlements and support for violence, including suicide bombings, among Palestinian refugees who felt “sacred values” were at stake, such as the recognizing their moral right of return to homes in Israel even if they expressed no material or practical interest in actually resettling.

In a series of follow-up surveys among U.S. and Nigerian participants, we confronted subjects with hypothetical hostage situations and asked them if they would approve of a solution — which was either diplomatic or violent — for freeing the prisoners. The chance of success varied in terms of the number of hostages who might die. For example, in one version of the survey, when told that their action would result in all hostages being saved, both groups endorsed the plan presented to them. Told that one hostage would die, however, most “diplomats” became reluctant to endorse the proposed response. Those opting for military action had no such qualms. In fact, the most common response suggested that they would support military action even if 99 of 100 hostages died as a consequence.

These and other studies suggest that most societies have “sacred rules” for which their people would fight and risk serious loss and even die rather than compromise. If people perceive one such rule to have been violated, they may feel morally obliged to retaliate against the wrongdoers — even if the retaliation does more harm than good.

Ongoing neuroimaging studies by our research group led by Gregory Berns and his neuroeconomics team at Emory University indicates that sacred values are processed in those parts of the brains that deal with rule-governed behavior (rather than cost-benefit analyses), and are associated with greater emotional activity consistent with sentiments of “moral outrage” when participants perceive a violation of sacred values. In the hostage situation, the abductors were threatening to violate the sacred rule against killing innocent people. That rule was so strong for the participants that they felt morally obliged to meet violence with violence, regardless of the outcome. This is little different from Mr. Obama’s seemingly heartfelt sentiment that “as president, I refused to wait for the images of slaughter and mass graves before taking action.”

Every military strategist understands that even the most thought out military plan usually dissolves upon contact with the enemy, and that war generally carries a high measure of uncertainty and likelihood of “unintended consequences.” But even the decision to go to war is never just a product of reason and rational calculation, and thus never just “politics by other means,” despite what von Clausewitz famously stated in his classic study On War. This, the sentiment of a Prussian regimental officer in the post-Napoleonic era of state interests and strategies to rearrange “the balance of power,” disastrously misguided European elites into believing that wars could be started and pursued to a desired end by careful planning (while granting that in the fog of war events sometimes spin out of control). Many of our political and military leaders still believe in this Clausewitz delusion: it’s a mainstay in the curricula of U.S. war colleges and the international relations departments of top U.S. universities, and of most military and foreign affairs staffs in the world.

In truth, war is almost always an emotional matter of status and pride, of shedding blood and tearing the flesh of others held dear, of dread and awe and of the instinctual needs to escape from fear, to dominate and to avenge. But war is most profoundly an expression of that peculiar aspect of human nature that expresses our animal origins but which also distinguishes our species from all others that struggle and fight for survival: it defines “who we are” in the search for significance in an otherwise uncaring universe.

Unlike other creatures, humans define the groups to which they belong in abstract terms. Often they kill and die not in order to preserve their own lives or those of the people they love, but for the sake of an idea — the conception they have formed of themselves. Call it love of group or God, it matters little in the end. This is the “the privilege of absurdity; to which no living creature is subject, but man only’” of which Thomas Hobbes wrote in Leviathan. It is a human trait that likely will not change, and which political leaders must learn to manage — however inescapably murky — so that their people will endure in a world where an end to war is no more likely than unending day. But to insist that war make perfect rational sense, where means cost effectively lead to clear and practical political ends, may impose an inhuman task that any leader can only sidestep or fudge.”

Scott Atran, an American and French anthropologist at France’s National Center for Scientific Research, the University of Michigan and John Jay College, is the author of Talking to the Enemy, Why War Is Never Really Rational, Huffpost, March 29, 2011.

See also:

☞ Scott Atran, God and the Ivory Tower. What we don’t understand about religion just might kill us, Foreign Policy, Aug 6, 2012.
‘We’ vs ‘Others’: Russell Jacoby on why we should fear our neighbors more than strangers
Stephen M. Walt on What Does Social Science Tell Us about Intervention in Libya
The Psychology of Violence (a modern rethink of the psychology of shame and honour in preventing it), Lapidarium notes
The Philosophy of War, Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy
☞ Jacek Żakowski, How to live with evil - dilemmas in politics (google translation)
Colman McCarthy, Teaching Peace, Hobart and William Smith Colleges, August 30, 2011
Steven Pinker on the History and decline of Violence
Violence tag on Lapidarium notes

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'We' vs 'Others': Russell Jacoby on why we should fear our neighbors more than strangers

         
                                         Titian, “Cain and Abel”, Venice

"Orientalism was ultimately a political vision of reality whose structure promoted the difference between the familiar (Europe, the West, ‘us’) and the strange (the Orient, the East, ‘them’)"Edward Said, Orientalism (1978)

"Academics are thrilled with the "other" and the vagaries of how we represent the foreign. By profession, anthropologists are visitors from afar. We are outsiders, writes an anthropologist, "seeking to understand unfamiliar cultures." Humanists and social theorists also have fallen in love with the "other." A recent paper by the literary critic Toril Moi is titled "Literature, Philosophy, and the Question of the Other." In a recent issue of Signs, a philosopher writes about “Occidental Dreams: Orientalism and History in ‘The Second Sex.’”

The romance with the “other,” the Orient, and the stranger, however, diverts attention from something less sexy: the familiar. For those concerned with strife and violence in the world, like Said, the latter may, in fact, be more critical than the strange and the foreign. If the Lebanese Civil War, which lasted 15 years, can highlight something about how the West represents the East, it can also foreground a neglected truth: The most decisive antagonisms and misunderstandings take place within a community. The history of hatred and violence is, to a surprising degree, a history of brother against brother, not brother against stranger. From Cain and Abel to the religious wars of the 16th and 17th centuries and the civil wars of our own age, it is not so often strangers who elicit hatred, but neighbors.

This observation contradicts both common sense and the collective wisdom of teachers and preachers, who declaim that we fear—sometimes for good reason—the unknown and dangerous stranger. Citizens and scholars alike believe that enemies lurk in the street and beyond the street, where we confront a “clash of civilizations” with foreigners who challenge our way of life.

The truth is more unsettling. From assault to genocide, from assassination to massacre, violence usually emerges from inside the fold rather than outside it. (…)

We may obsess about strangers piloting airplanes into our buildings, but in the United States in any year, roughly five times the number of those killed in the World Trade Center are murdered on the streets or inside their own homes and offices. These regular losses remind us that most criminal violence takes place between people who know each other. Cautious citizens may push for better street lighting, but they are much more likely to be assaulted, even killed, in the light of the kitchen by someone familiar than in a parking garage by a stranger. Like, not unlike, prompts violence.

Civil wars are generally more savage, and bear more lasting consequences, than wars between countries. Many more people died in the American Civil War—at a time when the population was a tenth of what it is today—than in any other American conflict, and its long-term effects probably surpass those of the others. Major bloodlettings of the 20th century—hundreds of thousands to millions of deaths—occurred in civil wars such as the Russian Civil War, the Chinese Civil Wars of 1927-37 and 1945-49, and the Spanish Civil War. More Russian lives were lost in the Russian Civil War that followed World War I than in the Great War itself, for instance.

But who cares about the Russian Civil War? A thousand books and courses dwell on World War I, but few on the Russian Civil War that emerged from it. That war, with its fluid battle lines, uncertain alliances, and clouded beginning, seems too murky. The stew of hostilities is typical of civil wars, however. With some notable exceptions, modern civil wars resist the clear categories of interstate wars. The edges are blurred. Revenge often trumps ideology and politics.

Yet civil strife increasingly characterizes the contemporary world. “Most wars are now civil wars,” announces the first sentence of a World Bank publication. Not only are there more civil wars, but they last longer. The conflicts in southern Sudan have been going on for decades. Lengthy battles between states are rare nowadays. And when states do attack, the fighting generally doesn’t last long (for example, Israel’s monthlong incursion into Lebanon in 2006). The recent wars waged by the United States in Iraq and Afghanistan are notable exceptions.

We live in an era of ethnic, national, and religious fratricide. A new two-volume reference work on “the most severe civil wars since World War II” has 41 entries, from Afghanistan and Algeria to Yemen and Zimbabwe. Over the last 50 years, the number of casualties of intrastate conflicts is roughly five times that of interstate wars. The number of refugees from these conflicts similarly dwarfs those from traditional state-versus-state wars. “Cases such as Afghanistan, Somalia, and Lebanon testify to the economic devastation that civil wars can produce,” note two political scientists. By the indexes of deaths, numbers of refugees, and extent of destruction, they conclude that "civil war has been a far greater scourge than interstate war" in recent decades. In Iraq today—putting aside blame and cause—more Iraqis are killed by their countrymen than by the American military.

"Not surprisingly, there is no treatise on civil war on the order of Carl von Clausewitz's On War,” writes the historian Arno Mayer, “civil wars being essentially wild and savage.”

The iconic book by Carl von Clausewitz, the Prussian military thinker, evokes the spirit of Immanuel Kant, whose writings he studied. Subheadings such as “The Knowledge in War Is Very Simple, but Not, at the Same Time, Very Easy” suggest its philosophical structure. Clausewitz subordinated war to policy, which entailed a rational evaluation of goals and methods. He compared the state to an individual. “Policy” is “the product of its brain,” and war is an option. “No one starts a war—or rather, no one in his senses ought to do so—without first being clear in his mind what he intends to achieve by that war and how he intends to conduct it.” If civilized nations at war “do not put their prisoners to death” or “devastate cities,” he writes, it is because “intelligence plays a larger part in their methods of warfare … than the crude expressions of instinct.”

In civil wars, by contrast, prisoners are put to death and cities destroyed as a matter of course. The ancient Greeks had already characterized civil strife as more violent than traditional war. Plato distinguishes war against outsiders from what he calls factionalized struggles, that is, civil wars. He posits that Greeks practice war against foreigners (“barbarians”), a conflict marked by “enmity and hatred,” but not against one another. When Greeks fight Greeks, he believes, they should temper their violence in anticipation of reconciliation. “They will not, being Greeks, ravage Greek territory nor burn habitations,” nor “lay waste the soil,” nor treat all “men, women, and children” as their enemies. Such, at least, was his hope in the Republic, but the real world often contradicted it, as he knew. His proposition that Greeks should not ravage Greeks challenged the reality in which Greeks did exactly that.

Plato did not have to look further than Thucydides' account of the Peloponnesian War to find confirmation of the brutality of Greek-on-Greek strife. In a passage often commented on, Thucydides wrote of the seesaw battle in Corcyra (Corfu) in 433 BC, which prefigured the larger war. When the Athenians approached the island in force, the faction they supported seized the occasion to settle accounts with its adversaries. In Thucydides’ telling, this was a “savage” civil war of Corcyrean against Corcyrean. For the seven days the Athenians stayed in the harbor, Corcyreans “continued to massacre those of their own citizens” they considered enemies. “There was death in every shape and form,” writes Thucydides. “People went to every extreme and beyond it. There were fathers who killed their sons; men were dragged from the temples or butchered on the very altars.” Families turned on families. “Blood ties became more foreign than factional ones.” Loyalty to the faction overrode loyalty to family members, who became the enemy.

Nearly 2,500 years after Thucydides, the presiding judge at a United Nations trial invoked the Greek historian. The judge reflected on what had occurred in the former Yugoslavia. One Duško Tadić stood accused of the torture and murder of Muslims in his hometown in Bosnia-Herzegovina. His actions exemplified a war of ethnic cleansing fueled by resentment and hatred. “Some time ago, yet not far from where the events in this case happened,” something similar occurred, stated a judge in his 1999 opinion. He cited Thucydides’ description of the Corcyrean civil war as one of “savage and pitiless actions.” Then as today, the judge reminded us, men “were swept away into an internecine struggle” in which vengeance supplanted justice.

Today’s principal global conflicts are fratricidal struggles—regional, ethnic, and religious: Iraqi Sunni vs. Iraqi Shiite, Rwandan Tutsi vs. Rwandan Hutu, Bosnian Muslim vs. Balkan Christians, Sudanese southerners vs. Sudanese northerners, perhaps Libyan vs. Libyan. As a Rwandan minister declared about the genocide in which Hutus slaughtered Tutsis: “Your neighbors killed you.” A reporter in northeastern Congo wrote that in seven months of fighting there, several thousand people were killed and more than 100,000 driven from their homes. He commented, "Like ethnic conflicts around the globe, this is fundamentally a fight between brothers: The two tribes—the Hema and the Lendu—speak the same language, marry each other, and compete for the same remote and thickly populated land.”

Somalia is perhaps the signal example of this ubiquitous fratricidal strife. As a Somalian-American professor observed, Somalia can claim a “homogeneity rarely known elsewhere in Africa.” The Somalian people “share a common language (Somali), a religion (Islam), physical characteristics, and pastoral and agropastoral customs and traditions.” This has not tempered violence. On the contrary.

The proposition that violence derives from kith and kin overturns a core liberal belief that we assault and are assaulted by those who are strangers to us. If that were so, the solution would be at hand: Get to know the stranger. Talk with the stranger. Reach out. The cure for violence is better communication, perhaps better education. Study foreign cultures and peoples. Unfortunately, however, our brother, our neighbor, enrages us precisely because we understand him. Cain knew his brother—he “talked with Abel his brother”—and slew him afterward.

We don’t like this truth. We prefer to fear strangers. We like to believe that fundamental differences pit people against one another, that world hostilities are driven by antagonistic principles about how society should be constituted. To think that scale—economic deprivation, for instance—rather than substance divides the world seems to trivialize the stakes. We opt instead for a scenario of clashing civilizations, such as the hostility between Western and Islamic cultures. The notion of colliding worlds is more appealing than the opposite: conflicts hinging on small differences. A “clash” implies that fundamental principles about human rights and life are at risk.

Samuel Huntington took the phrase “clash of civilizations" from the Princeton University historian Bernard Lewis, who was referring to a threat from the Islamic world. “We are facing a mood and a movement far transcending the level of issues and policies,” Lewis wrote in 1990. “This is no less than a clash of civilizations” and a challenge to “our Judeo-Christian heritage.” For Huntington, “the underlying problem for the West is not Islamic fundamentalism. It is Islam, a different civilization.” (…)

Or consider the words of a Hindu nationalist who addressed the conflict with Indian Muslims. How is unity to come about, she asks? “The Hindu faces this way, the Muslim the other. The Hindu writes from left to right, the Muslim from right to left. The Hindu prays to the rising sun, the Muslim faces the setting sun when praying. If the Hindu eats with the right hand, the Muslim with the left. … The Hindu worships the cow, the Muslim attains paradise by eating beef. The Hindu keeps a mustache, the Muslim always shaves the upper lip.”

Yet the preachers, porte-paroles, and proselytizers may mislead; it is in their interest to do so. What divided the Protestants and Catholics in 16th-century France, the Germans and Jews in 20th-century Europe, and the Shia and Sunni today may be small, not large. But minor differences rankle more than large differences. Indeed, in today’s world, it may be not so much differences but their diminution that provokes antagonism. Here it can be useful to attend the literary critic René Girard, who also bucks conventional wisdom by signaling the danger in similitude, not difference: “In human relationships, words like ‘sameness and ‘similarity evoke an image of harmony. If we have the same tastes and like the same things, surely we are bound to get along. But what will happen when we share the same desires?” However, for Girard, “a single principle” pervades religion and literature. “Order, peace, and fecundity depend on cultural distinctions; it is not these distinctions but the loss of them that gives birth to fierce rivalries and sets members of the same family or social group at one another’s throats.”

Likeness does not necessarily lead to harmony. It may elicit jealousy and anger. Inasmuch as identity rests on what makes an individual unique, similitude threatens the self. The mechanism also operates on social terrain. As cultural groups get absorbed into larger or stronger collectives, they become more anxious—and more prone to defend their dwindling identity. French Canadians—living as they do amid an ocean of English speakers—are more testy about their language than the French in France. Language, however, is just one feature of cultural identification.

Assimilation becomes a threat, not a promise. It spells homogenization, not diversity. The assimilated express bitterness as they register the loss of an identity they wish to retain. Their ambivalence transforms their anger into resentment. They desire what they reject and are consequently unhappy with themselves as well as their interlocutor. Resentment feeds protest and sometimes violence. Insofar as the extreme Islamists sense their world imitating the West, they respond with increased enmity. It is not so much the “other” as it is the absence of otherness that spurs anger. They fear losing themselves by mimicking the West. A Miss World beauty pageant in Nigeria spurred widespread riots by Muslims that left hundreds dead. This could be considered a violent rejection of imitation.

We hate the neighbor we are enjoined to love. Why? Why do small disparities between people provoke greater hatred than the large ones? Perhaps the work of Freud helps chart the underground sources of fratricidal violence. Freud introduced the phrase the narcissism of minor differences" to describe this phenomenon. He noted that "it is precisely the little dissimilarities in persons who are otherwise alike that arouse feelings of strangeness and enmity between them.

Freud first broached the narcissism of minor differences in The Taboo of Virginity,” an essay in which he also took up the “dread of woman.” Is it possible that these two notions are linked? That the narcissism of minor differences, the instigator of enmity, arises from differences between the sexes and, more exactly, man’s fear of woman? What do men fear? “Perhaps,” Freud hazards, the dread is “founded on the difference of woman from man.” More precisely, “man fears that his strength will be taken from him by woman, dreads becoming infected with her femininity” and that he will show himself to be a “weakling.” Might this be a root of violence, man’s fear of being unmanned?

The sources of hatred and violence are many, not singular. There is room for the findings of biologists, sociobiologists, and other scientists. For too long, however, social and literary scholars have dwelled on the “other” and its representation. It is interesting, even uplifting, to talk about how we see and don’t see the stranger. It is less pleasant, however, to tackle the divisiveness and rancor of countrymen and kin. We still have not caught up to Montaigne, with his famous remarks about Brazilian cannibals. He reminded his 16th-century readers not only that the mutual slaughter of Huguenots and Catholics eclipsed the violence of New World denizens—it was enacted on the living, and not on the dead—but that its agents were “our fellow citizens and neighbors.”

Russell Jacoby, professor of history at the University of California Los Angeles (UCLA). This essay is adapted from his book Bloodlust: On the Roots of Violence From Cain and Abel to the Present, Bloodlust. Why we should fear our neighbors more than strangers, The Chronicle Review, March 27, 2011.

See also:

Roger Dale Petersen, Understanding Ethnic Violence: fear, hatred, and resentment in twentieth-century Eastern Europe, Cambridge University Press, 2002.
Stephen M. Walt on What Does Social Science Tell Us about Intervention in Libya
Scott Atran on Why War Is Never Really Rational
Steven Pinker on the History and decline of Violence
Violence tag on Lapidarium notes

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Stephen M. Walt on What Does Social Science Tell Us about Intervention in Libya

"Recent research suggests that we are likely to be disappointed by the outcome. A 2006 study by Jeffrey Pickering and Mark Peceny found that military intervention by liberal states (i.e., states like Britain, France and the United States) “has only very rarely played a role in democratization since 1945.”Similarly, George Downs, and Bruce Bueno de Mesquita of New York University found that U.S. interventions since World War II led to stable democracies within ten years less than 3 percent of the time, and a separate study by their NYU colleague William Easterly and several associates found that both U.S and Soviet interventions during the Cold War generally led to “significant declines in democracy." Finally, a 2010 article by Goran Piec and Daniel Reiter examines forty-two “foreign imposed regime changes” since 1920 and finds that when interventions “damage state infrastructural power” they also increase the risk of subsequent civil war.

The best and most relevant study I have yet read on this question is an as-yet unpublished working paper by Alexander Downes of Duke University, which you can find on his website here. Using a more sophisticated research design, Downes examined 100 cases of “foreign imposed regime change” going all the way back to 1816. In particular, his analysis takes into account “selection effects” (i.e., the fact that foreign powers are more likely to intervene in states that already have lots of problems, so you would expect these states to have more problems afterwards too). He finds that foreign intervention tends to promote stability when the intervening powers are seeking to restore a previously deposed ruler. But when foreign interveners oust an existing ruler and impose a wholly new government (which is what we are trying to do in Libya), the likelihood of civil war more than triples.

Why? According to Downes, because deposing an existing regime and bringing new leaders to power “disrupts state power and foments grievances and resentments.” To make matter worse, the probability of civil war in the aftermath of foreign imposed regime change increases even more when it is accompanied by defeat in inter-state war, and when it occurs in poor and ethnically heterogeneous countries.” This isn’t reassuring either, given that Libya’s is still a poor society (because the Qaddafi family monopolizes the oil revenues) and it remains divided into potentially fractious tribes.

Here’s the bottom line:

"[Foreign imposed regime change] is likely to spur resistance and civil war in those countries where the United States and other advanced democracies are most likely to undertake such intervention [i.e., poor, weak states]; the situation is made even bleaker if war is needed to overthrow the existing regime…  [O]verthrowing other governments (and bringing new leaders to power rather than restoring previous rulers) is a policy instrument with limited utility because of its potential to ignite civil wars. These conflicts may in turn result in the imposed regime’s ouster or draw interveners into costly occupations.” 

By the way, Downes also has another paper (co-authored with Jonathan Monten of the LSE) which finds that "states that have their governments removed by a democracy gain no significant democratic benefit compared to similar states that do not experience intervention." Democratic intervention does have positive effects (on average) in relatively wealthy and homogeneous societies, but "evidence from past experience suggests that imposed regime change by democratic states is unlikely to be an effective means of spreading democracy," especially when one factors in the costs.

We should all hope that Libya proves to be an exception to this tendency, but these various scholarly studies suggest that the probability that our intervention will yield a stable democracy is low, and that our decision to intervene has increased the likelihood of civil war. Heading off that possibility is likely to require a costly and extended international commitment, which is precisely what the people who launched this operation promised they would not do. We’ll see.”

Stephen M. Walt, professor of international affairs at Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government. Among his most prominent works are Origins of Alliances and Revolution and War, Social science and the Libyan adventure, Foreign Policy, March 24, 2011.

See also:
‘We’ vs ‘Others’: Russell Jacoby on why we should fear our neighbors more than strangers
Scott Atran on Why War Is Never Really Rational

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What’s All the Fighting For | Heidelberg Institute for International Conflict Research

What’s All the Fighting For | Heidelberg Institute for International Conflict Research

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Glass half empty. The coming water wars | United Nations, UNESCO, NYT

Glass half empty. The coming water wars | United Nations, UNESCO, NYT

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