Monday, September 28, 2009

War photography and violence

This New York Times piece on war photographers taking photos of dead or mortally wounded American soldiers ends with a "wholly unexpected" comment from photographer Don McCullin:

“I feel I totally wasted a large part of my life following war. I get more pleasure photographing the landscape around my house in my twilight years.

"Have we learned any lessons from the countless pictures of pain and suffering? I don't think we’ve learned anything. Every year, there’s more war and suffering."
But is that last statement true? Steven Pinker wrote this essay saying it's actually the opposite:
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. ...

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. ...

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.
Since McCullin purported to base his view that war photography is futile or counterproductive on empirical evidence, I hope he'd change his view if presented with this contrary evidence. But it wouldn't be surprising if he didn't. People reflexively refer to any kind of social problem as an "increasing" problem, and this tendency seems to be more powerful than statistics. Pinker lists a few factors that cause people to make this mistake:
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.
So, ironically, war photography itself feeds into the belief that war photography is ineffectual.

More from Pinker:
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.
Pinker's essay only observes that there has been a decline; he doesn't try to explain it. He ends by saying:
With the knowledge that something has driven [violence] 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.
There's no way war photography could be the main answer to Pinker's question, since he's talking about a trend that's been underway since long before photography existed. But the fact that people are willing to look at the reality of war in vivid detail might have played a small role in the progress we've made.


Jason (the commenter) said...

A photographer who can't see the big picture.

Ann Althouse said...

Every year there's more... true, for the photographer, who goes looking for it.

Anonymous said...

There have been so many suicides among war photographers (see for example: ) that one can’t help but wonder if Mr. McCullin’s “unexpected” observation could possibly be a plea for help rather than an objective analysis. Questioning the meaning of ones life’s work might possibly be an indication of depression. War photographers face an elevated risk of depression but are not any more likely to get assistance (see: ). I hope that if it is the case that Mr. McCullin would benefit from assistance, that he has loved ones who will encourage him to get it.

Anonymous said...

"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."

That's a pretty bold statement for a lot of reasons. Wouldn't it be more accurate to say that violence has increased and decreased at different times throughout history? Rather than to try and tease a consistent trend out of it? What about rampant ecocide and the destruction of our planets life systems? That seems to have been constantly increasing, right? How does that figure into his formulation of decreasing violence?

And what precisely does he mean by "violence"? In the essay Violence Unraveled, Ran Prieur writes:

"Violence" is a propaganda word that sneakily combines many different things, healthy and unhealthy, natural and unnatural. As long as we use the word "violence" in its present meaning, we will tend to either call "violence" wrong, and rule out behaviors without which we can never have a healthy society, or call "violence" acceptable, and permit behaviors with which we can never have a healthy society. We need to take the word apart.

There's also this attempt at a refutation of many of Pinker's points in this article.

I find it especially fresh that Pinker refers negatively to "the doctrine of the noble savage", while appealing to his own doctrine of "progress" and "modernity" in order to give his ideas more weight.

John Althouse Cohen said...

Anonymous (9/29/09): Several things:

- Pinker admits that his attempt to identify a clear trend throughout history is faulty:

"To be sure, any attempt to document changes in violence must be soaked in uncertainty. In much of the world, the distant past was a tree falling in the forest with no one to hear it, and, even for events in the historical record, statistics are spotty until recent periods. Long-term trends can be discerned only by smoothing out zigzags and spikes of horrific bloodletting. And the choice to focus on relative rather than absolute numbers brings up the moral imponderable of whether it is worse for 50 percent of a population of 100 to be killed or 1 percent in a population of one billion."

- Good point about how it's hard to define violence. As one example, Pinker mentions our "treatment of animals" a couple times. I can't blame him for focusing on people and only mentioning animals in passing; after all, it's hard enough to measure human-against-human violence. But it does raise the question how we can be so confident that our treatment of animals has become less "violent." Does he include factory farms as violence? If he doesn't include them and only includes more outrageous forms of torture, or only violence against certain animals (dogs, cats, and horses, but not chickens, pigs, or cows?), then he's guilty of the very bias he criticizes: only taking account of the most vivid or memorable forms of cruelty.

- The article you linked to that purports to refute Pinker's essay (your second link) is very problematic:

(1) They try to cast an extremely wide net in defining "violence" -- they mention car accidents, cigarettes, obesity, etc. I see their point that these are distinctively modern causes of death. But Pinker's essay isn't about causes of death.

(2) Much of the article is arguing for a certain theory of state-mandated violence as if this theory refuted Pinker. But Pinker's thesis is primarily quantitative: he's saying there's less violence in all sorts of forms. They don't refute this by asking questions like: "How does Pinker explain the fact that institutions do not reflect normal human behavior?"

(3) The article approvingly quotes Ward Churchill at length. Churchill is notorious as the professor who compared the victims of the September 11 attacks to the Nazi Adolf Eichmann, and the article quotes him drawing this comparison. The quote doesn't mention September 11, but it does compare ordinary Westerners to Eichmann, indirectly justifying the September 11 attacks. The fact that they'd use this passage to support their argument, with no trace of irony or hyperbole, seriously calls into question the article's credibility. (The article also speaks approvingly of "anarchists" and alludes to the need to "overthrow" the "system.")

Anonymous said...

Personally, I'm not really interested in proving one way or another whether violence has been increasing or decreasing. I wonder if that's even a meaningful statistic, at least if we limit "rate of violence" to mean numbers of killings or deaths.

The million dollar question is: How can we best measure the success of a society? Death statistics may play some part, but are not necessarily representative of the even bigger picture.