Monday, April 29, 2013

Death and statistics

I have come across a couple of recent writings promoting the absurd idea that one of the side-effects of civilization is that it leads to a dramatic reduction in violence.

The argument goes something like this: because a smaller proportion of the population dies a violent death today than happens in a typical traditional (non-civilized) society, we (meaning the denizens of civilization) are less violent than we (meaning our ignorant savage ancestors) used to be. And we have modern technology—and especially the organized police state with its effective technologies of social control—to thank for it.

There are several interesting things about this argument. First, although it appears to be more sophisticated, it is just a modern reworking of Hobbes and his "red in tooth and claw" and "war of all against all" notions. 

Second, it (like its Hobbesian predecessor) assumes that the pacification of the human spirit—the domestication of the human animal—is a good and desirable thing. Aggression and violence is seen as somehow a bad thing in and of itself. The distinction between violence intentionally directed at expanding the capacity to exercise power over others against their will and the violent response triggered in those on the receiving end of such violence is not seen as relevant: violence is violence, and all violence is bad. It also assumes that perpetual threat is not a kind of violence, that a slave who has had the will to fight scared out of her so that she no longer harbors any hopes of liberation is not a victim of violence, that the violence perpetrated by the functionaries of modern post-industrial civilization, because it operates largely at a psychological level, does not count as violence.

Third, the argument is framed entirely in a factory-production perspective that reduces unique and individual human beings to homogenized and interchangeable units in an abstract technological calculus.

This third thing is what bothers me most. And, just so I am clear about this, it’s the fact that I frequently fall into this factory-production frame myself that bothers me—clear evidence of just how far my own thought process has been metabolized.

In a widget factory, where each unit that comes off the assembly line is cloned from a prototype, the individual unit is not important. Its fabrication adds nothing unique to the world, nothing that wasn’t there just a few moments earlier and won’t be there again and again as identical units are squirted into their packaging. What’s important in a widget factory isn’t any specific individual widget, it’s the number of widgets that can be produced and sold in a given unit of time. It’s the ratio of production cost to unit sale price. It’s return on investment. Individual widgets are abstracted out of existence, absorbed as data points in statistical metrics. A bizarre mental schematic emerges from this, a conceptual frame based on ideas of production efficiency that have no real pre-industrial equivalent.   

In post-industrial civilization, where it’s not just widgets but unique individual human beings who are abstracted out of existence, converted into consumer units and absorbed as data points in statistical metrics, ideas of production efficiency find easy application to the social world.  Proportions, percentages, and averages—statistical abstractions—take the place of actual persons.  

So the evidence that civilization reduces violence is that the proportion of the population who die violent deaths has been dropping over the last decade (century, millennium) as a direct result of the global spread of civilization with its (violent) capacity to repress violence. And the fact that the “spread” of civilization itself is a direct result of violence and genocide on a massive scale is not enough to off-set overall violence reduction as measured in relative statistical terms.

For example, the proportion of the population of Japan who died during the entire course of WWII is orders of magnitude smaller than the proportion of traditional New Guinea tribesmen killed during “wars” with neighboring tribes over the same time period. Of course, the fact that the population sizes are orders of magnitude different gets lost inside the simplifying statistics.  A typical New Guinean skirmish could result in one or two deaths (if the fighting was particularly ferocious). But there were 2.7 million Japanese killed during the second world war, 140,000 with just two bombs. 

And we are talking human beings here, not widgets. Each of those deaths—New Guinean and Japanese—represented the destruction of a one-of-a-kind, never-to-exist-again, human presence.

Within global civilization’s production-efficiency mind set, there are no actual persons. Death is just a number. An individual life is just a statistical data point. There are only consumers and potential consumers, homogenized consumer units modeled on a prototype and being squirted into their packaging as they roll off the assembly line.

No comments:

Post a Comment