Violence is ubiquitous in our society. Although Calgary’s murder rate is shockingly low for this year, some 300 km away in Edmonton, it is shockingly high. Why? Everyone who watches sports or partakes in culture would agree there are big differences between these two Alberta-bound cities. Different psyche means different societal responses to violence. Or maybe Edmonton is more of a reflection of our global thirst for violence?
Enter Steven Pinker and the myth of violence. According to Pinker, the idea we are a more violent society is just dead wrong. Historically and statistically, in the Middle Ages, we experienced more deaths by warfare, more deaths by punishment, more deaths for entertainment, and a much higher murder rate than we do now. Why so wrong? Better press coverage for one. Today, we hear more about violence and murder. Cognitive illusion is another reason. Humans tend to better remember the gory and the violent.
What implications are there for criminal law? Statistics can be meaningful in a sentencing hearing. Often, the Crown, and even the Judge, will refer to the increase of a specific crime in a particular area as an aggravating factor on sentence. This statistic can translate into a greater need for general deterrence, and typically, a greater sentence for the accused. The myth of violence may blunt this kind of argument.
Better yet, I urge you to go full-circle on this connection between ideas and law and read Robert Cover’s journal article entitled, Violence and The Word. Cover, an American legal scholar, wrote unbelievably creative and compelling articles on jurisprudence and constitutional law. Violence and The Word, which opens with the sentence, “Legal interpretation takes place in a field of pain and death,” dissects the relationship between a criminal judge’s imposition of sentence, the accused who receives it, and the legal structures, which make it possible.
In a society where the reality of violence and the idea of violence are so disparate, Cover and Pink may help us understand why.