IT SEEMS COUNTERINTUITIVE, BUT IT’S REAL. Despite the overriding sense that violence and bloodshed have extended their grip of fear globally, statistics reveal we have never been closer to establishing international peace. Despite the Paris and San Bernardino attacks, the terror that is ISIS, and the bloodshed emanating from Syria, the reality is that they stagger us because in fact they are becoming more rare.
Go deeper into the statistics and we discover that tragedies like murder, domestic violence, torture, and capital punishment have been steadily on the decline. Just ask Steven Pinker, a Harvard psychologist, and best-selling author. He wrote a book in 2011, titled The Better Angels of Our Nature, in which he made the following staggering statement: “The decline in violence in the world is the most significant and least appreciated in the history of our species.” This is nothing to sneeze at and provides a needed perspective as we look back over the past year, which Pinker maintains has been one of the most relatively peaceful since the end of the Second World War.
It is becoming increasingly clear that the long downward trend is steadily moving forward. Our problem is, of course, that it doesn’t appear that way. Why is that? Pinker, among others, thinks that the constant follow-up of media following violent events gets us into a mode where we think that world is in trouble. That could very well be on issues like climate change or financial inequality, but violence doesn’t fit into that model.
“Rampage shootings generate a huge amount of media publicity but account for a relatively tiny number of deaths – that’s why they carry them out. Killing a few innocent people at once is the only surefire way to attract publicity for yourself or your cause … The news is a systemically misleading way to understand the world.”
He uses European history as an example, reminding readers that more people were killed by Marxist, nationalist, and secessionist groups in the 1970s and 1980s than have been killed by Islamic militants in the 2000s and 2010s.
There is sense in the research Pinker has compiled, especially after considering war itself as an example. For 500 years, Western European countries started, on average, two new wars a year, but following World War Two there have been none. Most of the conflicts going on around the world in the present age are civil wars and even these are slowly in decline. And we need to remember that World War Two resulted in some 60 million refugees, as opposed to the roughly one million Europe is facing at the moment.
As global citizens we have been through a tough year – terrorism, climate disaster, refugees, economic turbulence, and political decline – and each of these issues are of vital importance. But as we move into 2016 we must take hope where it is offered, and when it comes to human violence, history seems to be on the side of progress, even when it doesn’t feel like it. This is an important message for the coming year, for nothing troubles us as much as senseless slaughter. But such travesties are in decline. Naturally each new attack threatens our sense of security and vulnerability, but if this coming year continues the trend, we are working our way towards a less violent future, and have been for decades.
For some perspective, take some time to view the following video and the declining death rate in the modern era. Some of the numbers are staggering, while others are hopeful. “There is a crack in everything; that’s how the light gets in,” songwriter Leonard Cohen states, and it is true in this case. Perspective is important to progress and 2016 could well see us travelling in the same direction. We must refrain from overtly fretting over the issues that aren’t as damaging as we think while overlooking those challenges, like climate change, that are, in reality, far more foreboding than we realize. 2016 could prove a pivotal year if we can better discern between the two.