Why preventing violence might not prevent violence

“Arma virumque cano”, says Vergil in the first line of his Aeneis[1]. Like him, I want to talk of men and arms today – or: Of mankind and war, of human beings and conflict, and of men of mind and their methods. Concretely: A recent article by Pasquale Cirillo and Nassim Nicholas Taleb, “On the tail risk of violent conflict and its underestimation”[2], has (re-)ignited a discussion first sparked by Taleb’s earlier criticism towards the hypotheses regarding the decline of violence put forward by Steven Pinker in his book “The Better Angels of our Nature”, first published 2011[3]. Is there – this is the question on the table – less violence today than in the past of mankind as we know it?

In a nutshell, Pinker – relying on (a lot of) anecdotal evidence and (a fair amount of) quantitative analyses – claims that, over time, violence in our world has declined and, as mankind, we’re now in a period (and possibly also moving into a future) of more peace and less war[4]. And, in another nutshell, Cirillo/Taleb – using (a lot of) statistical analysis to come to (a small number of) far-reaching conclusions – claim that there’s no indication that the risk of violent conflict has been decreasing over time, neither with regard to simple occurrence, nor with regard to casualties implicated in any single instance of conflict.

Read in a naive way, this controversy could be framed as a debate between optimists (who believe that we’re headed towards a blissful world where all is order, beauty, luxury, peace, and pleasure[5]) and pessimists (who believe that men are wolves to men[6]). I disagree with this (or, for that matter, any other dualistic) interpretation of the debate[7]. I believe it does not do the combatants justice and it underestimates the weapons they bring into the fight. Instead, I want to suggest there’s value in taking both sides seriously and thinking about the implications of this – for mankind and violence as well as for men and their arms. If you have a moment, bear with me as I take you down the road of my thoughts[8].

Basically, as a starting point, the points brought forward by Cirillo/Taleb and by Pinker can be condensed into two observations about mankind and violent conflict:

1. There is no statistical indication that, on a global level, violent conflict decreased over time, neither in number of occurrences nor in intensity (i.e. number of casualties) – the conclusion supported by the recent Cirillo/Taleb paper.

2. There are innumerable examples of specific applications of violence (small scale, such as homicide, or duelling, as well as large scale, such as slavery) being abolished or publicly abdicated in a broad range of societies over time and across the world[9] – the summary of the case studies and analyses brought forward in Pinker’s work.

If – and if only for a moment[10] – we accept both observations as valid[11], there are only two possible interpretations to reconcile their implications without alleging that either party is wrong:

Interpretation A or The world is different from its parts: The Cirillo/Taleb conclusion is correct on a global level, but the results would look different if analysed for specific regions, countries, or societies – and these are the regions, countries, or societies that Pinker focused on in his examples. In other words: While violent conflict does not decrease on an aggregate, worldwide level, its times and places “rotate” around the globe so that we do see niches of decreasing violence (and, as a complement, niches of increasing violence).

Interpretation B or There’s more conflict, not less: Combining the Cirillo/Taleb conclusion with Pinker’s observations actually means that there is more overall conflict in the world, as a growing portion is settled in non-violent ways (so it does not even show up in the Cirillo/Taleb sample). In other words: As violent conflict stays roughly at the same levels around the globe while, at the same time, mechanisms to channel conflict away from violent “solutions” are being brought into place and applied, the overall amount of conflict (of which violent conflict is but a subset) has to be significantly higher today than it was in the past.

For A – while the humanistically enlightened European dreamer in me would love to see this proven, ideally as a corollary to the beliefs in freedom, equality and similar virtues that our cherished continent nourished since the 17th century (at least) – I’m painfully aware of the practical limitations (e.g., in terms of finding historical population numbers for different regions) as well as of its statistical unlikelihood (of the smaller sample being different from the larger one). Still, it might be worth a try (if only to prove the hypothesis wrong)[12]. Because if, against all odds, this interpretation was right, we could actually proceed to learn more about the causes, conditions, and circumstances that contribute to peaceful places and periods. What bliss would that be?

For B, things look different. In order to make an attempt at statistically approaching even the smallest proof of a small part of this interpretation, there would have to be accessible data about conflicts in general – which, for most of our history is an utterly unreasonable request[13]. Lack of analytically exploitable data, however, should not keep us from at least thinking about how such an interpretation could make sense. How, then could it make sense? It makes sense on the basis of the following assumptions:

  • As human beings, we have an inherent propensity to conflict, born from our tendencies to like (or dislike) things, like (or dislike) people (and, as a consequence the things those people like or dislike), and develop value systems in which our likes (and dislikes) converge and cohere: Whatever we are we are (also) because we are not something else. Or, in other words: As soon as there’s a “me” and a “you” there’s a potential for conflict[14] – about resources, preferences, attention, relationships, or being right[15].
  • There are infinite methods of dealing with conflicts, peaceful inner (such as renunciation, discipline, understanding, or self-reflection) as well as peaceful outer (such as tit-for-tat, negotiations, constitutions, or codes of conduct), aggressive inner (such as anger, jealousy, righteousness, or denial) as well as  aggressive outer (such as verbal abuse, physical reenforcement, outright refusal, or denunciation).
  • On a system level, (physical) violence as a means to address (let alone solve) conflicts is structurally inferior to many (if not all) alternatives, as – compared with possible alternatives – the (unpredictable) collateral damage of violence cannot be “managed” and is potentially a lot more harmful than its advantages (think, among many other effects, physical destruction of people and things, emotional damage to victims and aggressors alike, and mental legacies of atrocities witnessed or executed)[16].
  • On an individual level, everyone of us has the innate ability to resort to (physical) violence, in particular (but not only) when feeling threatened by unexpected circumstances. Of course, thresholds (and skills) for using violence might differ between cultures, groups, and individuals, but the human being who would never cast a stone (or a sand shovel) whatever the circumstances is yet to be born (or wouldn’t qualify as a human being anymore).

Now, if there were only points two and three of these four, Pinker’s story could actually be not only accurate, but sufficient: As we as mankind grow and develop, we notice that it is advisable to replace (physical) violence with other means of solving our disagreements and getting what we want, so we set up all kinds of mechanisms that help diminish applications of violence (and maybe even make certain types of conflict completely extinct). There’s not even a need to invoke (inner or outer) demons or angels in order to make this happen – it would just emerge out of evolutionary intelligence doing its job. End of story, paradise gained, happiness ever after.

However, if there’s the slightest chance that points one and four are also true (and even if only for a subset of humanity), we’ll have to imagine that there might be no heaven: Even in a world where all previously encountered types of conflict have been regulated by elegant arrangements channeling them towards peaceful solutions, there’ll be a human being experiencing a (previously unencountered type of[17]) conflict, having a violent reaction to it – and, the more unexpected and the more threatening that conflict is, the more likely it is to be met with violence. And the chain reaction begins, gains momentum, and spirals out of control[18].

If this happens (and is accompanied by certain circumstances aligning around the individual), a new, previously unexperienced paradigm can suddenly become a trigger for violent conflict[19]. So there’s a new type of violent conflict that (by its nature) nobody had anticipated, and therefore there are no means to channel it in any of the ways cleverly devised for others types of conflict. So there’s people who fight and hurt others, people who kill and people who run away, people who suffer and people who die. There’s war. Again. Maybe bigger and more brutal than before. And, in a way, the very fact that violent conflict has been contained in so many areas might actually increase the likelihood of violence erupting in unexpected places, with more casualties and more pain.

If such a development could be analytically assessed over time, observing it would give us both Pinker’s examples of violence being contained and Cirillo/Taleb’s conclusions about the continuous re-occurrence of violent conflict – without contradictions. This might not be a satisfying insight to the peace loving selves most of us prefer to be – but it might be a good reminder to our sanity to watch out for when we notice our own tendencies towards violence raising their heads so we can inwardly fight them with the weapons of self-awareness, while outwardly never trusting a man-made truce to prevent what it wasn’t set up to prevent.

Or, to borrow another immortal poet’s words[20]:

A maggior forza e a miglior natura
liberi soggiacete; e quella cria
la mente in voi, che ‘l ciel non ha in sua cura.
Però, se ‘l mondo presente disvia,
in voi è la cagione, in voi si cheggia.


[1] You’re not seriously looking for a reference for this, are you?BACK TO TEXT

[2] The article is online here [retrieved May 22, 2015] – be warned though, it’s written in the dialect of mathematics called statistics, and unless you’re a native speaker of that dialect, you might not get all subtleties of what’s being said. Disclaimer: I, also, do not claim that I got all subtleties of what’s being said. BACK TO TEXT

[3] Regarding the Taleb-Pinker controversy, there’s more to it than “just” their disagreement about this topic, as you can see by the collection of Taleb’s articles in response to Pinker here [retrieved May 22, 2015]. If you’re interested in reactions to the most recent article by Cirillo/Taleb, just go and hunt stuff on the web using the appropriate search terms.BACK TO TEXT

[4] I admit that, as a human being as well as as a historian, I have my own issues with a theory of mankind in which a sentence like: “But it was not just mundane physical comfort that our recent ancestors did without. It was also the higher and nobler things in life, such as knowledge, beauty, and human connection” is possible (quoted from the last chapter of Pinker’s book). So I admit that I’m a little biased, both against the specific assumption that knowledge, beauty, and human connections are very recent inventions and against the general gist of Pinker’s arguments. But then, where would be fun of it if there was no partiality in this world? BACK TO TEXT

[5] This, of course, is always true for poetry (when well written) – but we’re not talking about poetry here. Mostly, at least.BACK TO TEXT

[6] The quote, as you all most likely know, continues: “… not man, if he does not know who is the other”. I skip that here on behalf of simplicity.BACK TO TEXT

[7] And, for the record, I also have no aspiration to involve myself in the mathematical dimensions of the debate – it’s tempting, but my mathematical training happened long ago, and I don’t want to spend my time dusting it off right now.BACK TO TEXT

[8] For those who’re weary of logical arguments, there’s always a timeless, beautiful, and quick answer here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jhdFe3evXpk [retrieved May 26, 2015].BACK TO TEXT

[9] You’ll notice that I do not mention “war” here – I have my own history with the history of war, so I hesitate to follow others’ conclusions too lightly. For a glimpse into my thoughts around this, see Anja Hartmann, Beatrice Heuser (ed.), “War, Peace and World Orders in European History” (2001).BACK TO TEXT

[10] If you find this hard, you might want to try to use  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eAz-hX9MyhA as a soundtrack while you read on [retrieved May 16, 2015].BACK TO TEXT

[11] And if, for a moment, we give ourselves licence to ignore the fact that Cirillo/Taleb did not look at instances other than violent group conflict which of course is logically relevant but cannot be cured in the here and now.BACK TO TEXT

[12] So my request to Cirillo/Taleb would be: Can you do the same analysis for Europe alone, looking only at European conflicts, rescaling the numbers with regard to European population at each point in time? I’m happy to help with defining “European conflicts” in a manageable way. And I’m suggesting Europe as a focus because I’m assuming that available sources might be relatively more accessible than for other regions, not because of ideological preferences.BACK TO TEXT

[13] There are some possible exceptions, though: It might be interesting, for example, to make an attempt at analysing the number of conflicts legally settled for certain time periods and/or political entities. If the hypothesis holds, these should be going up over time.BACK TO TEXT

[14] I’m not denying that those very same tendencies might also create a potential for cooperation, commerce, compassion, or romantic union – that’s just not our focus right now.BACK TO TEXT

[15] Pinker actually acknowledges the presence of such propensities (that he calls “inner demons” in the homonymous chapter of his book); however, he than proceeds to expound that these demons are being tamed by what he calls the “better angels”.BACK TO TEXT

[16] In this respect, I would argue that (physical) violence is a perfect example of iatrogenics as masterfully described by Taleb in his book “Antifragile” (2012), in particular in chapter 21 (and also throughout the text). – With regard to war, by the way, all attempts to introduce rules for “acceptable” warfare (from systems of international law to the banning of certain practices, weapons, or methods of warfare) mirror this insight, trying to take a bit of its edge away. Sadly, with little effect.BACK TO TEXT

[17] For (poetic) illustrations of this, watch https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ekKoaGc97X4 or https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ma6-2CPt28A [retrieved May 26, 2015].BACK TO TEXT

[18] I’m adding this parenthesis for the sake of logical stringency; from a psychological point of view, of course, human beings are often more likely to react violently to (even the slightest hint of) previously encountered types of conflict, but that fact only makes the argument stronger.BACK TO TEXT

[19] This did happen in the past, e.g. with the invention of wars of religion, wars of nation states, or the war against terror. For examples and interpretations, see the contributions in the volume mentioned above in footnote 9.BACK TO TEXT

[20] To save you the search: This is taken from Dante Alighieri, “La Divina Commedia”, Canto XVI, 79-83.BACK TO TEXT

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