Reflections on Violence, Law, and Humanitarianism


Talal Asad in Critical Inquiry:

Steven Pinker has recently argued that the modern world has become far less violent (“more civilized”) than at any time in history. True, there may have been massive destructions of human beings in the twentieth century butproportionately these were less significant than the violence of premodern times when human populations were less dense on the globe. He explains this decline in human violence in terms of the growth in refined feelings attributable to the Enlightenment’s commitment to reason and to the gradual development of bodily and emotional self-control—to what Norbert Elias called “the civilizing process”—as well as to the emergence of the state. Thus the modern state is seen not only as the crowning achievement of liberal democracy but also as the basis of a wealthy civilization founded on capitalism in which general concern for human well-being can flourish. This is consistent with a widespread belief that, since the end of the eighteenth century, peoples in Euro-America have become increasingly free and humane because freedom and humanity naturally reinforce each other.

But the conditions of benevolence are more complicated than this story would suggest. Take the modern US prison system, for instance. What are we to make of the fact that US correctional system, with all its cruelty, contains a far higher proportion of prisoners to the total US population than it ever did before? Pinker thinks the very high rate of African-Americans in prison is evidence of a “decivilizing” process (the felons come largely from dysfunctional families) and sees the prison system as the necessary incarceration of actual and potential perpetrators of violence. The legal historian James Whitman has, however, a provocatively different view: It is precisely the political culture of liberal democracy, he declares, by which this modern statist form of violence is to be explained. Democratic politics enters more directly into the shaping of criminal legislation in America than it does in Europe largely because politicians who seek election want to be seen as being “tough on crime.” By contrast, democratic politics don’t permeate the European criminal justice systems, both because framing the law is largely a bureaucratic expertise and because judges and prosecutors are not publicly elected in European countries as they are in the United States. Hence the paradox: the more pervasive the principle and practice of political freedom in liberal democratic society, the greater the probability of punitive vindictiveness.

In sum: it may not be the benevolent values of “our moral culture” that matter but the contrary work done by legal disciplines and political structures.

More here.