From Thursday’s Daily Telegraph: Even though murder and mayhem dominate the news, violence is rarer than ever before
We live in the safest time ever to be a human being. You might find that hard to believe, as the Boston bombs still echo, but we live in a golden age of peace and non-violence. It’s especially true in Britain: a study by the Institute for Economics and Peace (IEP) found that violent crime here has dropped dramatically in the past few years. Last year, murder rates were barely half of what they were in 2003. Overall, violent crime has dropped by a quarter. Even in London, violence has gone down significantly; it is a safer place to live than Brussels or Amsterdam. Britain has seen the fastest decline in violence of any European country.
And this pleasing news is part of a trend. Violence has been declining – in fits and starts – for all of recorded human history. So says Steven Pinker, the Harvard scientist and author of The Better Angels of our Nature, a history of violence in human societies. We tend to think of our times as dangerous, and the past as more peaceable, but in fact, we’re dozens of times less likely to die violently than our medieval ancestors, and in ancient tribal societies, violent deaths were several times more common still. What’s more, this tendency is worldwide, if patchy, and not just limited to violent crime: deaths in war, too, have become less common, even including the horrible conflicts of the first half of the 20th century.
The causes of Britain’s latest, local drop are up for debate. The IEP suggests that an ageing population is part of the reason – violence is a young man’s game. They also mention improved policing techniques and a drop in alcohol consumption. My colleague Philip Johnston points to a correlation between low violence and increased incarceration rates.
Whatever the reason, though, the longer-term forces that led to a hundreds-fold collapse in the chances of you being bludgeoned to death are surely more interesting. Pinker points to a variety of factors. Trade and commerce have made you far more valuable to me alive than dead. Marriage tamed young, violent men. Literacy and communication have widened our worldview, making it harder to demonise the outsider: if you prick me, do I not bleed?
The most interesting reason he points to, though, is simple: we started suppressing our emotions. “The idea that a strong man should react to great personal and national calamities by a slight compression of the lips and by silently throwing his cigarette into the fireplace is of very recent origin,” as Dorothy Sayers put it. A culture of dignity, in which we gain respect for standing firm in the face of the world’s trials, replaced a culture of honour, in which we gain respect by avenging the wrongs done to us. It grew, in a complicated way, out of the nation state: we no longer had to threaten vengeful violence as a deterrent, because we outsourced our revenge to a disinterested third party, which wanted us all alive and working so we could pay our taxes. The sociologist Norbert Elias called this the “civilising process”, and credits it with a large part of our modern safety. Self-control saves lives.
This fact helps explain another phenomenon in our recent history: the worldwide reversal, in the Sixties, of the downward trend in violence: suddenly, violent crime doubled. Partly, that was the coming of age of millions of young men born in the baby boom, but partly it was the countercultural revolution, which targeted exactly the norms that the civilising process had built, especially self-control. If it feels good, as the slogan said, do it.
But even at its worst, post-Sixties violence remained at a fraction of earlier times, and in the following decades it dropped again: by 2010, in the US and most of the Western world, it had just about reached the level it was at in 1950, although Britain is not back there yet. The decline, as unexpected as the spike, was unaffected by unemployment levels, by rates of inequality, or by events such as September 11. We are once again living in a time of peace unimaginable to the overwhelming majority of our ancestors. These latest IEP figures are another step along the same meandering path we’ve been on for millennia. It’s a path that could deviate at any moment – no one can know the future – but right now, we are, historically speaking, extraordinarily safe.
The trouble is that no one believes it: as the IEP points out, while only one Briton in 25 will actually be the victim of crime, a quarter of us think we will be. We can’t change what we see and read in the media; bombs and murders are newsworthy. But perhaps we can see that as a positive thing. As Bruce Schneier, a security expert, said after Boston: “I tell people if it’s in the news, don’t worry about it. By definition, news is something that almost never happens.” When violence doesn’t get in the news, you need to worry. At the moment, when it is, we should breathe easy.