Ed McCurdy’s dream may be coming true. In 1950 he penned the lyrics for a song that inspired the peace movement. The lines that galvanized those who heard and sang “Last Night I Had the Strangest Dream” were:
“I dreamed the world had all agreed
To put an end to war.”
The dream is in sight, and mainstream media may look pretty foolish when historians look back from the 22nd century. With crime and violence at historic lows, the astonishing spread of peace still gets little coverage. Writing about the global decline in violence, Globe and Mail columnist Doug Saunders writes:
“Violent crime has become a rarity, rather than a part of daily life, almost everywhere.
“I realize this. Yet I am also guilty of helping create the opposite perception. I have reported on dozens of murders, more than one mass slaying, and I have done much reporting from Afghanistan, Libya, Bosnia, Kosovo and other places stricken with violence. I offer no apology: We need to know about these things. But the totality of all these front pages does create a false perception of the state of the world.”
The Most Peaceful Era Ever
Harvard University Professor Steven Pinker has been studying the decline of violence and says, “We may be living in the most peaceful time in our species’ existence.” He has the numbers to prove it and presented them in an Edge Master Class on September 27th.
During the lecture he presented a graph comparing violent deaths in ancient societies with those in the modern era. For the former he looked at research from 20 archaeological sites where skeletons had been analyzed for rates of violence - “bashed-in skulls, decapitated skeletons, femurs with bronze arrowheads embedded in them, and mummies found with ropes around their necks”. For the latter he picked the 20th century, often considered the most violent century on record, with its wars, genocides and manmade famines.
What he found turns a lot of current thinking on its head. The average number of violent deaths per 100,000 in societies considered pre-historic was 15 percent. In the 20th century the odds of dying violently dropped to three percent. In this century the rate barely registers on the graph.
What’s Behind the Decline?
Pinker cites a lot of reasons for the decline. One is a shift from tribalism to states. Canada’s Conservatives and America’s Republican and Tea Parties may be disappointed to learn that government is an important contributor to the decrease in violence. When the state takes over the process of meting out justice, ordinary people do not have to take revenge. Criminal justice is less biased and more humane than retaliation by someone who figures he or she has been wronged.
Among the violent acts Pinker says we have a lot less of are warlords feuding, piracy, witch hunts, religious persecution, dueling, debtors prisons, and blood sports. The last country to allow slavery, Mauritania, abolished it in 1980. In spite of exceptions, state-sponsored torture and capital punishment have declined. The U.S. is the last western democracy that kills violent criminals, but even there the number of executions has dropped.
As literacy expands and people become more educated and cosmopolitan, attitudes change. Pinker sees a worldwide decline in racism, misogyny, homophobia, domestic violence, and child abuse. Hanging onto prejudice is harder when we know the stories of those we dismiss or despise.
Dream of a Peaceful Global Village
In 1795 Immanuel Kant wrote “Perpetual Peace”. Pinker says the essay “suggested that democracy, trade and an international community were pacifying forces.”
That sentence caught my attention. Democracy is spreading, as citizens around the globe push for more open and inclusive government. International trade has been part of human history for a long time, but now it is enshrined in multi-national trade agreements (with their benefits and shadow sides). Both reflect a growing international community. Pinker points to examples of intergovernmental organizations, international peace-keeping missions and international peace keepers.
Then there is the electronic global village, which offers more potential for peace than division. Wherever access to the Web is uncensored, people can connect without the mediation of official channels. Mainstream media are still critical to our understanding of events. Editing, fact checking and other supports allow journalists some measure of assurance they are reporting accurately. But social media make it possible for anyone to report on the events they witness, and ordinary citizens can judge whether what they observe is being reported accurately.
People in Cairo and New York can connect via Skype. They can Tweet each other and post links on Facebook. They can upload photos and videos. They can get their news from the New York Times or Globe and Mail, but they can also read New Nation (South Africa), The Tyee (Canada), YES! (U.S.), Inter Press Service (international) Times of India, Al Jazeera (Arabic) or dozens of others.
Access to information does not, by itself, bring peace. War and violence are still part of the world we live in. But all those divergent opinions open our minds to other ways of viewing the world.
Pinker’s assessment should make us think about what we focus on, whether we are journalists, politicians, business leaders, teachers or parents. We want the trend toward peace to continue. So while we continue efforts to right the world’s wrongs, let’s spend more time examining and sharing what is right with the world.
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Photo from katerha via Flickr Creative Commons