This is a summary of Panel One from the WPF sponsored conference, Unlearning Violence, held February 13 & 14, 2014.
Are humans more peaceful? Do we face a future largely devoid of the endemic violence that has plagued our race for millions of years? In the opening panel of the World Peace Foundation’s Unlearning Violence conference, Dr. Steven Pinker and Dr. Daniel Dennett debated this point. Pinker, the author of The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Decline, argued that all measurable indicators of violence have been steadily declining. According to Pinker, this trend has been driven by several factors. First, global literacy and access to information has increased. With these resources, the public is better able to educate itself, and an educated public is generally a more peaceful one. Second, we are increasing our capacity to extend access to proper nutrition and medicine every day, which decreases the probability of spontaneous violence spurred by lack of basic needs. While millions still die of preventable disease and hunger, the overall trend is positive.
Though he concurred with the premise that global violence is decreasing, Dennett reminded the audience that we have a tendency to overlook the fragility of our modern system. Pointing to the Internet as a prime example, Dennett noted that many of the systems that manage our everyday lives are inextricably linked to the Internet. Were something to happen to our Internet networks, he warned, there is no saying what manner of chaos would be unleashed. Speaking on the idea of global transparency, Dennett saw two outcomes. First, he noted that global organizations that have structured themselves around secrecy must now evolve or go extinct. While this reality is likely to improve the terms of human interaction, it is likely to be a turbulent process. Further, he warned of the dangers of cultural imperialism through the use of a hypothetical situation: Imagine a race of benign aliens visits Earth, and we engage in cultural exchange. Young humans begin to latch on to this alien culture, preferring it to our own. As they abandon their human culture, Dennett postulated, the human race would almost certainly begin to see the aliens as a threat, and react accordingly. What, then, do we expect other cultures to do when threatened by Western cultural hegemony?
Despite Dennett’s skepticism about future levels of violence, both speakers were optimistic overall. They stressed the importance of education and transparency to the future prospects for peace. Pinker noted that societies that exhibit high levels of equality and education are significantly less violent. As literacy rates climb and the standard of living improves, the cost of violence becomes much higher. Though. Dennett outlined his fears concerning our reliance on the Internet, he also pointed to its ability to inform the populace, allowing individuals to counter propaganda and diminish the fear associated with ignorance. The transparency offered by global communications networks can also spur empathy, allowing all humans to understand the suffering of our race in a vivid and immediate fashion. Pinker concluded by noting that genetics is not playing a significant role in the unlearning of violence. Rather, he argues that our ability to progress technologically is allowing us to create systems and institutions that make violence unnecessary. If this advancement marches on, we have nowhere to go but up.
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