Is violence actually declining?

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The phrase “some viewers may find images in this report disturbing” has become an unhappy accompaniment of the nightly news. Images of the aftermath of bombings – whether suicidal or carefully calibrated – mass executions, to say nothing of “normal” warfare, have become the stomach-churning staples of everyday life. It might seem an odd time, then, to be arguing that violence is actually in decline.

And yet that is the central claim of one of the most provocative and mildly optimism-inducing books of the last couple of years. Steven Pinker’s The Better Angels of Our Nature makes the highly counter-intuitive argument that the world is an increasingly less violent place.

True, Pinker’s book was published before the Islamic State burst into popular consciousness, but even their efforts are unlikely to overturn the overall picture – as long as they don’t manage to get hold of weapons of mass destruction, of course.

The most noteworthy contribution to this remarkable reality has been the dramatic decline in interstate warfare. War between individual nation states is thankfully rare. It’s worth remembering that even the conflict in Ukraine is – at this stage, at least – still a civil war, albeit one fomented and supported by outside influences.

When we remember just how “efficient” the Europeans came to be at warfare during the 20th century, this helps to explain why the evidence has changed so profoundly. Something like 80 million people may have died during the Second World War, more than half of whom were civilians. Recent conflicts in Korea and Vietnam accounted for “only” a couple of million human lives, by contrast. Even when there is a war these days, they tend to generate relatively low numbers of deaths.

But it is not only at the level of international conflict that violence and its effects have become less prominent. Within societies there has also been a dramatic decrease in the level of violence. Even in the US, which is an aberrant outlier in many ways, the number of homicides has been in steady decline, despite a political incapacity to limit the ready availability of firearms.

There are other, albeit less dramatic, examples of a growing aversion to violence. Domestic violence may still be a problem, but it is one that is no longer tolerated or indulged. Corporal punishment and the “disciplining” of children have either been outlawed or are subject to powerful social norms that discourage their use. The most unambiguous expression of our collective rejection of violence, perhaps, is the growing rarity of capital punishment.

How do we account for this surprising and highly desirable state of affairs? According to Pinker:

For all their foolishness, modern societies have been getting smarter, and all things being equal, a smarter world is a less violent world.

Sounds simple enough, perhaps, but as we know, access to education remains uneven, especially in some of the most violent and unstable parts of the world. We also know that educating women and girls is the most effective way of achieving a whole range of desirable outcomes from increasing productivity, improving child mortality and generally encouraging gender equality.

The trick, it seems, is to create social environments where things such as female emancipation can be encouraged and achieved. One of the reasons wife-beating has gone out of fashion in the west is that women not only don’t think it’s a good idea, but also have the capacity to discourage it. In other parts of the world, female emancipation plainly has a good deal further to go.

Unless we believe in cultural relativism, or the idea cultures should be judged by their own, rather than universal standards, some notion of “progress” seems inescapable in human history. Societies that are less violent, and which encourage female emancipation really do look better than those that don’t – don’t they?

Which bring us back to what is actually the surprising persistence – perhaps even the increase – of violence in some parts of the world. While it may be too much to say there is a greater acceptance of violence in some parts of the world, perhaps it is not too contentious to claim that violence can flourish more easily in some parts of the world than others because of the social structures and norms that prevail there.

For Pinker, there is a relationship between the decline in violence and the existence of democratic rule. He argues that:

The recent failure of democracy to take hold in many African and Islamic states is a reminder that a change in the norms surrounding violence has to precede a change in the nuts and bolts of governance.

This is not a happy conclusion. It is, however, one that we need to take seriously if we are interested in thinking about the conditions under which violence is likely to decline. It is becoming uncomfortably clear that addressing the problem of violence at home is not enough to guarantee a non-violent future.

At a minimum in a globalised world we must confront the image of suffering. A failure to respond to this may mean we will eventually have to confront the reality as well.