Decivilization in the 1960s

Friday, April 14th, 2017

Steven Pinker discusses decivilization in the 1960s:

After a three-decade free fall that spanned the Great Depression, World War II, and the Cold War, Americans multiplied their homicide rate by more than two and a half, from a low of 4.0 in 1957 to a high of 10.2 in 1980 (U.S. Bureau of Statistics; Fox and Zawitz: 2007). The upsurge included every other category of major crime as well, including rape, assault, robbery, and theft, and lasted (with ups and downs) for three decades. The cities got particularly dangerous, especially New York, which became a symbol of the new criminality. Though the surge in violence affected all the races and both genders, it was most dramatic among black men, whose annual homicide rate had shot up by the mid-1980s to 72 per 100,000.


The rebounding of violence in the 1960s defied every expectation. The decade was a time of unprecedented economic growth, nearly full employment, levels of economic equality for which people today are nostalgic, historic racial progress, and the blossoming of government social programs, not to mention medical advances that made victims more likely to survive being shot or knifed. Social theorists in 1962 would have happily bet that these fortunate conditions would lead to a continuing era of low crime. And they would have lost their shirts.


When rock music burst onto the scene in the 1950s, politicians and clergymen vilified it for corrupting morals and encouraging lawlessness. (An amusing video reel of fulminating fogies can be seen in Cleveland’s Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum.) Do we now have to – gulp – admit they were right? Can we connect the values of 1960s popular culture to the actual rise in violent crimes that accompanied them? Not directly, of course. Correlation is not causation, and a third factor, the pushback against the values of the Civilizing Process, presumably caused both the changes in popular culture and the increase in violent behavior. Also, the overwhelming majority of baby boomers committed no violence whatsoever. Still, attitudes and popular culture surely reinforce each other, and at the margins, where susceptible individuals and subcultures can be buffeted one way or another, there are plausible causal arrows from the decivilizing mindset to the facilitation of actual violence.

One of them was a self-handicapping of the criminal justice Leviathan. Though rock musicians seldom influence public policy directly, writers and intellectuals do, and they got caught up in the zeitgeist and began to rationalize the new licentiousness. Marxism made violent class conflict seem like a route to a better world. Influential thinkers like Herbert Marcuse and Paul Goodman tried to merge Marxism or anarchism with a new interpretation of Freud that connected sexual and emotional repression to political repression and championed a release from inhibitions as part of the revolutionary struggle. Troublemakers were increasingly seen as rebels and nonconformists, or as victims of racism, poverty, and bad parenting. Graffiti vandals were now ‘artists,’ thieves were ‘class warriors,’ and neighborhood hooligans were ‘community leaders.’ Many smart people, intoxicated by radical chic, did incredibly stupid things. Graduates of elite universities built bombs to be set off at army social functions, or drove getaway cars while ‘radicals’ shot guards during armed robberies. New York intellectuals were conned by Marxobabble-spouting psychopaths into lobbying for their release from prison (Pinker 2002: 261–262).

Read the whole thing. (It’s an excerpt from The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined.)


  1. Andreas says:

    Occam’s Razor suggests a far simpler explanation: testosterone. That period gave us a far larger population of young men. In NY, for all the publicity that initiatives like police commissioner Bratton instituted to address crime (which I consider honest attempts to address the problem), I believe one will find that the demographics of the decline in the population of young men supply most trackable explanation.

  2. Isegoria says:

    He addresses demographics in the original piece. It explains some, but nowhere near all, of the spike in crime.

  3. Crosbie says:

    Another stat I’d like to see is the rural / urban crime rate. My assumption is that rural reported crime is lower, and so urbanization would push up the crime rate, perhaps with a generational lag.

  4. Crosbie says:

    The notions of ‘informalizing’ and ‘webs of dependency’ make sense. I guess urbanization is an additional factor promoting the former, and, at least initially, damaging the latter.

  5. Jehu says:

    One has to consider also the medical technology of the era. The conversion of aggravated assaults to murders has fallen substantially over the years (although it seems to have largely stopped falling in recent years, I suspect gaming of recording has increased). That 4.0 back in the 50s was 4.0 when a lot of aggravated assaults that wouldn’t become murders (because the victim wouldn’t die) now became homicides.

  6. Lucklucky says:

    Well that makes the uptick worse.

    I think that Marxism was certainly a big factor.

    Journalists are the priests of modern world. Since they build the morals — the Overton Window — they say what is acceptable and what is not. And they are Marxists most of them.

  7. Lu An Li says:

    A certain demographic (or perhaps two demographics) alone responsible for the violence in American society. Nothing further to add.

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