Is Violence Really Declining?

Is Violence Really Declining?

Our daily newspapers continually carry stories of wars in distant lands: we read of armed conflicts in Afghanistan, Colombia, Somalia, Sudan, Syria and Yemen. We are reminded of ongoing struggles in Israel and the Congo and hear about the effects of the Mexican drug war. At home we hear about murders, abductions, domestic violence, break-ins and muggings. Surely we live a most dangerous age. But Stephen Pinker would beg to differ.

In his recent book, The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined. (New York: Viking, 2011), Pinker insists that we take a longer view, and in many cases a much longer view. Much as we may deplore the amount of violence in our contemporary world, in ages past the situation was far, far worse.

We think about the number of contemporary wars because they are constantly brought to our attention on radio, television and newspapers. But to measure current violence against that of earlier ages we need to compare actual numbers. When we examine the number of conflicts in Europe over a 600-year period, the duration and frequency of wars in Europe over a 500-year period, as well as the number of deaths brought about by those wars, the number of territorial wars resulting in the redistribution of land: all of these cases show an overall decline.

What about personal violence? Once again, a study of the numbers tells the story. When we look at homicide rates in England over an 800-year period, homicide rates in the northeastern United States (for which records exist over a long period), or rape and homicide rates in the United States over all over a recent 30-year period: all of these numbers show a decline.

Similar trends can be observed in the way society as a whole treats individuals. We see an overall decline in number of executions in the U.S., the number of lynchings, and instances of corporal punishment. The approval of spanking has also gone down. Acceptance of segregation, intolerance of interracial marriage, intolerance of homosexuality all show reductions.

One may inquire why these changes have come about. Historical forces have had major impact on our behavior: we no longer tolerate bear-baiting or public hangings; the process of globalization has enabled us to take the perspective of peoples unlike ourselves and expand our circle of sympathy to embrace them.

Pinker also points out changes in our human psychology over the ages that have extended our sense of empathy from family to tribe to nation and eventually to all humans. Our moral sense has expanded in ways that lead us away from violence and toward cooperation.

No one would portray the current world as utopian, but a long historical view reveals trends away from violence and toward altruism.