Q&A: Steven Pinker’s Case for Why the World Is Heading Toward Peace

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So if things actually are getting better, why do we always think they’re getting worse and that “these kids today” are disgraceful thugs?

It’s partly because we care more. More and more categories of behaviors that weren’t even considered examples of violence in the past are considered heinous now.

My favorite example is the recent campaign to stamp out bullying. No one less than the President of the United States gave a speech against the horrors of bullying. Twenty years ago, this would have been considered a joke. Bullying was a part of growing up. Boys will be boys. It’s necessary to toughen them up; you don’t want a whole generation of sissies, etc.

Now we see life from the point of view of a bullied child. We’ve now moved bullying from the category of ordinary childhood experience into a category of violence, and targeted it for elimination.

We care more and more about the human race. If there is a dreadful war in Africa, it’s no longer just natives just killing each other, but we consider them to be inside the human family and deaths in any part of the world are a part of our moral concern now. It’s a very good thing. [We’ve even expanded this concern to] animals.

So we’ve been expanding our circle of sympathy and our standards have risen. What used to be counted as unexceptionable, we now count as violence.

MORE: How Not to Raise a Bully: The Early Roots of Empathy

What about those who say that violent video games and pornography will doom this generation to more violence?

The era of when video games became an enormous industry is also the era in which real-life crime plummeted. Since 1992, violent crime in the United States and most other Western countries has dropped, by a lot. From a peak of about 10 homicides per 100,000 people per year, now down to about 4.8. That was just in the era in which video games exploded.

I tend to think that various moral panics about violent entertainment are misdirected. Human violence is not just a question of, If you have a weapon, you have to use it. If you see other people do it, you do it. People have reasons to commit violence. Their reasons may be that they have something to gain. It might be that they have someone to punish. But generally, for one reason or another, they want harm to come to someone. It’s not simply that they have the means to do it, they have to want it to happen for violence to break out in significant quantities.

How about the current clash over the economy and the sense of betrayal felt by so many?

Yeah, I think there are all kinds of possibilities of how violence could return, although I don’t see it happening anytime soon. Even the political anger that we are witnessing in this country now, from both sides of the spectrum — the Tea Party movement, the Occupy Wall Street movement —

— which is having a big march right now.

As we speak. A nonviolent march. By the standards of history, whenever the price of bread went up, you would murder some Jews, burn down a section of town, ransack businesses, drag noblemen out of their homes and cut their throats —

— get the pitchforks out.

Exactly. So, we take it for granted. The Tea Party Movement has not been setting off any bombs. The Occupy Wall Street movement has not been lynching any bankers. So times have changed in a benevolent direction.

Do you think that this positive trend can continue indefinitely? Or will a vicious cycle of, say, lapsing trust due to economic failure and inequality, or fights over land due to climate change, lead to clashes?

I think it’s always a danger that there will be relapses. I don’t think that human nature has changed. I think that when it comes to violence on some scales like war, there is a big random factor that goes into it; a lot wars were unpredictable. So it would be rash to say that it can’t happen, although I think the probability could go down.

It would be foolish to say that the chances are zero, but I think you’d also be foolish to say, as so many people have said, that it is inevitable. Even if one nuclear weapon was exploded by a terrorist group, it’s very different from the fear that we grew up with of every city in the Soviet Union and the Western world being annihilated. The fear that we grew up with is no longer high on the list of probabilities.

See more of Healthland’s ‘Mind Reading’ series.

Maia Szalavitz is a health writer for TIME.com. Find her on Twitter at @maiasz. You can also continue the discussion on TIME Healthland‘s Facebook page and on Twitter at @TIMEHealthland.

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