On a day when hundreds of Syrians are reported cold-bloodedly gassed by their government, it might seem almost obscene to post a quote celebrating modernity’s declining level of violence, but read on…
“A common misconception often quoted by media, politicians, activists is that violence is on the rise and has historically been much lower. Similarly, the trend in post-colonial anthropology has been to regard historically indigenous and tribal societies as more peaceful than contemporary Western society. However, archaeological evidence shows that previous societies had very high level of violence. Likewise, modern tribal societies typically too have extremely high rates of violence, with more than half of deaths being violence related in some cases. Ancient and medieval empires had lower rates of violence, and the violence decreased further as empires became more organized. Modern societies saw still lower rates of violence from the medieval period onwards, with significant decreases after World War II. This trend is general across all categories of violence, from large-scale warfare to murder and animal cruelty, and the trend is discernible on both millennium, century and decade scale, making modern societies the most peaceful the world has even seen.” (Source and references here.)
Hat tip for the quotation to Stephen Hicks, who says, “Take that, shades of Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Karl Marx. And props to the Capitalist Peace and Democratic Peace theses. We are making progress.”
Except, as recent headlines affirm, in the Middle East.
The source of much of that quote above is Steven Pinker, who recognises the problem.
In a century that began with 9/ 11, Iraq, and Darfur, the claim that we are living in an unusually peaceful time may strike you as somewhere between hallucinatory and obscene.
And it does. But he does make his case, with both dates and data, that for the most part mass violence in the west today is the aberration rather than the norm. Even the martial impulse is dulled. “In the West today public places are no longer named after military victories. Our war memorials depict not proud commanders on horseback but weeping mothers, weary soldiers, or exhaustive lists of names of the dead.” Neither Norman Schwarzkopf, Colin Powell nor David Petraeus are ever likely to get themselves a mainstreet statue.
I suspect his response to the slaughters in Cairo and Syria would be that the wholesale violence we see today, especially against their own citizens, is predominantly in those places that most enthusiastically reject the secular and the individualistic modern, and most thoroughly embrace the tribal and religious past.
And “if the past is a foreign country, it is a shockingly violent one.”