“We’ve Never Lived in Such Peaceful Times”

4 Jan

Time allowed(Image by H. Kopp-Delaney used under CC 2.0 license via)

 

“Is the world becoming a more dangerous place?” This is not a subjective question, but it is all too often answered by entirely subjective findings. Do you watch the local news and listen to a police scanner? Do you see graffiti as street art, or cause to clutch your valuables and not make eye contact with anyone? Do you know someone personally who has been robbed, attacked, or murdered?

The objective answer to the original question, however, is no. The world is in fact safer than it has ever been in human history because we humans have become drastically less violent. Never before has there ever been a place of such high life expectancy and such low levels of violence as Western Europe today. Around the globe, there are lower rates of war and lower rates of spankings. There is no guarantee that the decline in violence will continue. But most of us have a hard time even believing that it exists at all.

In his book The Better Angels of Our Nature, Harvard psychologist Stephen Pinker proves that the human emotional response to perceived danger—especially danger towards ourselves or someone with whom we can easily empathize—always risks distorting our perceptions of safety. One of the problems of empathy, he argues, is that we more readily feel for those we perceive to be more similar to us. This results in our investing more time, money and emotion toward helping a single girl fighting cancer if she speaks our language and lives in a house that looks like our own than toward helping 1,000 foreign children fighting malaria. We are more likely to disbelieve a victim of abuse if we can more quickly identify with the accused, and the same is true for the reverse scenario. And if you have been the victim of a horrendous crime or are struggling to survive in any one of the countries ravaged by war this year, you may become angry at any suggestion that the world is getting better, lest the world ignore the injustices you have suffered.

Those of us working in human rights must beware these problems whenever we trumpet a cause. Every activist’s greatest enemy is apathy, and fear of it can lead us to underscore threats while downplaying success stories in order to keep the masses mobilized. But any method founded on the claim that we have never lived in such a dangerous time is spreading lies.

As Pinker and Andrew Mack report in a recent article:

The only sound way to appraise the state of the world is to count. How many violent acts has the world seen compared with the number of opportunities? And is that number going up or down? … We will see that the trend lines are more encouraging than a news junkie would guess.

To be sure, adding up corpses and comparing the tallies across different times and places can seem callous, as if it minimized the tragedy of the victims in less violent decades and regions. But a quantitative mindset is in fact the morally enlightened one. It treats every human life as having equal value, rather than privileging the people who are closest to us or most photogenic. And it holds out the hope that we might identify the causes of violence and thereby implement the measures that are most likely to reduce it.

There is a risk that some will see the decline in violence as reason for denying crime (“Rape hardly ever happens!”), dismissing others’ pain (“Quit whining!”), and justifying their disengagement (“See? We don’t need to do anything about it!”). Pinker and Mack, however, claim the decline can be attributed in the modern era to the efforts of those in the human rights movements. In the example of violence against women:

The intense media coverage of famous athletes who have assaulted their wives or girlfriends, and of episodes of rape on college campuses, have suggested to many pundits that we are undergoing a surge of violence against women. But the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics’ victimization surveys (which circumvent the problem of underreporting to the police) show the opposite: Rates of rape or sexual assault and of violence against intimate partners have been sinking for decades, and are now a quarter or less of their peaks in the past. Far too many of these horrendous crimes still take place, but we should be encouraged by the fact that a heightened concern about violence against women is not futile moralizing but has brought about measurable progress—and that continuing this concern can lead to greater progress still…

Global shaming campaigns, even when they start out as purely aspirational, have led in the past to dramatic reductions of practices such as slavery, dueling, whaling, foot binding, piracy, privateering, chemical warfare, apartheid, and atmospheric nuclear testing.

The decline of violence undermines the arguments of those who invest their energy in fear-mongering (“People are evil and out to get you!”), self-martyrdom (“I’ve tried for so long—I give up!”) or indifference (“There’s no point to even trying.”). In his excellent book, which is well worth your time, Pinker demonstrates that all humans are tempted to use violence when we are motivated by feelings of greed, domination, revenge, sadism, or ideology (i.e., violence for a greater good), but we have proven that we can overcome these temptations with our capacity for reason, self-control, sympathetic concern for others and the willingness to adhere to social rules for the sake of getting along. There is much work to be done, but the decline is ultimately cause for hope. 

Happy New Year!

 

 

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