The Null Device

2010/10/5

Sometime around the 17th and 18th centuries, in Europe, the rate of homicide dropped sharply; before then, violent death was a lot more common than afterward. Historians are still discussing why this may have happened:

''In the 14th century people are concerned with whether someone is of good or ill repute; it's a collective, community judgment. When you get into the 15th century, the question is about someone's 'governance.' There is a shift from community reputation to an emphasis on internal control.'' A proliferation of tracts and manuals on proper behavior trickle down to common, illiterate folks in the form of rhymes and ditties.
One theory is that that the decline in resolving matters of honour through violent means was a result of the rising power of monarchs and states, and the ability of the state to enforce its laws more uniformly, removing the impetus for communities to take matters into their own hands. Others claim cultural shifts for the change:
Mr. Muir describes how the Republic of Venice tried to put an end to violent feuding among unruly nobles as it extended its influence into remote rural areas in the 17th century. The wars fought over generations by the area's leading families left the region vulnerable to foreign invasion. Venice reacted by first meting out stiff punishment, then by drawing the rural noble families into Venetian aristocratic life. Here they learned to replace the clan feud with the individual duel, an important shift from collective violence to individual responsibility and violence. Finally, the feuding clans, who now prided themselves on their courtly behavior, fought it out through the publication of dueling pamphlets, trying to best their rivals through elegant put-downs and masterly argument.
''Both the Protestant Reformation and the Catholic Counter-Reformation put a lot of emphasis on individual conscience,'' said Tom Cohen, who teaches history at York University in Toronto. ''The conscience becomes the internal gyroscope. There is the growth of introspection -- the diary, the novel, the personal essay. Along with the kind of personal self-control that Norbert Elias describes.''
Conversely, Mr. Roth noted, one sees significant increases in violence at times of political tension when the legitimacy of government is under serious attack, before and after the Civil War, as well as after World War I in Europe. The fact that murder rates did not go down in Italy and Greece until the 19th centuries, when each country won its political independence and formed a modern national state, suggests that the decline may have had more to do with state formation than with the trickling down of court culture.

crime culture europe history 2

The City of London Police are prosecuting a teenager for calling the Church of Scientology a "cult" during a demonstration:

The incident happened during a protest against the Church of Scientology on May 10. Demonstrators from the anti-Scientology group, Anonymous, who were outside the church's £23m headquarters near St Paul's cathedral, were banned by police from describing Scientology as a cult by police because it was "abusive and insulting".
The teenager refused to back down, quoting a 1984 high court ruling from Mr Justice Latey, in which he described the Church of Scientology as a "cult" which was "corrupt, sinister and dangerous".
The City of London police came under fire two years ago when it emerged that more than 20 officers, ranging from constable to chief superintendent, had accepted gifts worth thousands of pounds from the Church of Scientology. The City of London Chief Superintendent, Kevin Hurley, praised Scientology for "raising the spiritual wealth of society" during the opening of its headquarters in 2006.
Liberty director, Shami Chakrabarti, said: "This barmy prosecution makes a mockery of Britain's free speech traditions. "After criminalising the use of the word 'cult', perhaps the next step is to ban the words 'war' and 'tax' from peaceful demonstrations?"
And Charlie Stross weighs in:
I don't care whether Scientology is a "cult" or a "religion", however you slice or dice those terms. Personally, I think the two are interchangeable; your respectable religion is that other guy's cult, and vice versa.
But I am now officially fed up with this public bending-over-backwards to be respectful and sincere towards superstitionists of every stripe, to the point that religion trumps freedom of speech, as this case demonstrates so clearly. And the religious still aren't satisfied — they're out for more. I see no distinction between Christianity, Islam, and Scientology, in this respect: if you give them an inch they'll try and take a mile, as witness the ambush vote on lowering the age limit for abortion that the god botherers have tacked onto the current embryology bill.
We need to kick the bishops out of the House of Lords, ban the Police and judiciary from taking donations from religious organizations, and get religion out of politics by any means necessary.
I pretty much agree. The difference between a "cult" like Scientology and a "respectable" religion such as Christianity is not in the plausibility of their beliefs. (Christian doctrines such as the Virgin Birth and Noah's Ark aren't any more rational or less weird than the tenets of Scientology; they only seem that way to us because they're part of the cultural wallpaper of Western civilisation.) IMHO, religions and their believers should be judged on their actions, rather than on the respectability of their particular brand of mythology. (As Voltaire wrote, there is nothing more respectable than an ancient evil.) And religions shouldn't be automatically entitled to be handled with kid gloves and reverential deference, or, indeed, to impose restrictions on those who do not adhere to them (such as the proposed bans on embryo research), just because their organisations are founded on supernatural or unprovable beliefs.

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