Is Violence On The Decline?

Posted by on November 30, 2011 in Thoughts | 2 comments

I know Steven Pinker has been talking a lot about the topic of the decrease in violence at this time in history, when compared to the past, for some time now. He’s written a book about it and has given many talks and lectures on the subject. I am yet to read the book, but something I have picked up on in his many lectures is that, while violence on a large scale seems to be decreasing, this doesn’t mean that there are less acts of violence. Rather it is the scale of the acts and the definition of the word “violence” that have changed.

Reported domestic and civil violence now includes things that were historically considered just part of growing up, or part of a relationship. Bullying, spousal abuse and the odd bit of fisticuffs at the pub after one too many, were once considered par for the course, however these days not only are they unacceptable practices, but one can end up in jail for perpetrating these acts. This is not to say that our definition of violence is wrong, but that the types of violence we focus on is much closer to home. Once upon a time, it would seem, the violence we heard about were the great acts of violence; wars, civil unrest, social uprisings etc. Now, while we still hear about these same things, their scales have diminished and we are now in the privileged position to look at the so-called “smaller” acts of violence. This can only be a good thing, for if we’re not all involved in a war somewhere (as in the case of WWII), surely this means that cleaning up our own back yards is the next step toward becoming a better society.

This is not to say that these “smaller” acts of violence are any less important to focus on. If anything they are in fact more important. All of society’s actions come from our grassroots learnings, like respect for one another, not killing, raping or torturing, not stealing, tolerating ideas and religions, working together in cooperation. In societies where hatred for people who are different or feudal skirmishes over land are taught to children at a very young age, the cycle of violence perpetrates itself. We have to break this cycle in order to make change in regions where war is taught as the way of life.

The scale of the violence we are seeing reported has changed too. Most reported violence is on a much more intimate scale than it was in the 40s and 50s, much closer to home, and not in some far off land like Europe or South-East Asia. The violence comes from your own street, or the house around the corner. Again I am not suggesting that this kind of violence is more acceptable, rather we are in a position to really study what is happening to ourselves on a smaller and more personal level. There is much more that could be said about this topic, but I think it’s important to put this all into some sort of context.

I’ve heard many say that they can’t believe how much violence is on TV, that when they were younger there was never this much war, famine, civil unrest and dictatorship overthrows. And while our parents may be correct in saying that the amount of violence reported in the news has increased, the reason for this is not an increase in violence, rather an increase in our ability to capture and report the news as it happens. We are so heavily connected to the goings-on on the other side of the world in a way that we have never before been. Seeing the Occupy movement as it happens is something that only these generations have witnessed, and the Arab Spring in full force as the streets were overtaken and the dictators were ousted, all live in my twitter feed, unprecedented. This has the effect of not only delivering the bad news as it comes in, but the distance between us and the events is shortened, we become much more involved in the events, and in some cases can even become a part of them. This is the shrunken world we live in, an the acts of violence become amplified and compressed, making them seem much more common. In addition to this, news sources have only one thing in mind when making reports, and that is to make it interesting and compelling. But we are yet to see the effects that social media will have on the news media, that is a story that is just beginning.

Going back to my first point, one final factor to take into account is this: people are more willing these days to report acts of violence against individuals, because the stigma of spousal rape and abuse has been quashed. It’s no longer shameful to report abuse and violence of this kind because we now have means and pathways for people to take action. I’d even hazard a guess that these cases are decreasing, even if the reported cases are on the rise. It may seem surprising, but education about what is acceptable in a home or social situation also has a lot to do with this. Where once, for instance in Biblical times, it was acceptable, maybe even expected, for a man to keep his wife in line with the occasional slap, we now teach that this is not only unacceptable, but just plain wrong. In addition to this, a fight at a pub may once have just been swept under the rug, but people are no longer willing to tolerate such thuggish behavior, and we are taught that this too is the wrong thing to do. If it seems strange that there was a shooting yesterday at my local shopping centre, consider how much similar violence may have taken place on times where communication took days to become public knowledge.

I see social morality as an evolving creature. While the acts themselves may have always been considered to be wrong, we are now teaching that hear violent acts go against our own moralities. Hopefully people can see that objective morality is something of a misunderstanding of what morals really are, and that we are taught them by our parents and teachers, not born with them.

Call me an optimist, but I think Pinker’s case is sound. As to the reasons for this? Well I’d like to think it’s because, not only are we held much more accountable for our actions, but that the effect of this has been that we are being forced to grow up a little, and take responsibility for our own actions.

What do you think?

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