The temptation to despair over the state of the nation, even the state of the world, is strong. I share the concerns, and our collective dread may be warranted. The daily news headlines certainly paint a grim portrait. But the headlines don’t tell the whole story. The news actually is biased, but not the way most may suspect. It is biased towards bad news, violence and sensation. “If it bleeds it leads,” drives editorial policy. Unfortunately, daily events provide ample dreadful stories to fill broadcast news segments and the requisite column inches of newspapers and magazines.
The daily news can be depressing and dispiriting, and if the world is exploding, why bother trying to fix it? Yet, viewed through a longer and wider lens, we are living in the most peaceful, healthy and prosperous period in human history. From that perspective, we should be happy and optimistic. Stephen Pinker’s remarkable book The Better Angels of Our Nature documents, in great detail, the dramatic decline in violence over the centuries. Data from the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute as well as the Global Peace Index indicate a troubling uptick in violent conflicts over the past decade (driven by violent extremism), but casualty levels remain a tiny fraction of the historical norm. Violent crime in America makes headlines, but overall the Brookings Institute reports that it has fallen by 51 percent since 1991.
Global progress on hunger, poverty and disease over the past few decades has been astonishing. The Millennium Project’s State of the Future 19.0 notes that “extreme poverty fell from 51% in 1981 to 13% in 2012 and to less than 10% today.” Few people know that fact, but it is worth celebrating.
Data on bullying, ridicule and violence in schools in the U.S. and worldwide is less than adequate, but it also indicates progress. The Department of Education indicates that more than one out of every five (20.8 percent) students report being bullied, but it was higher ― 28 percent ― when the federal government began collecting the data in 2005. Furthermore, a study published by the Congressional Research Center found that school-based bullying prevention programs decrease bullying by up to 25 percent (McCallion & Feder, 2013). When Operation Respect began in 2000 there were few such programs. Now they are ubiquitous.
The remarkable progress of humanity to reduce violence, hunger and disease over the centuries and decades is no reason to declare victory and cut the programs that produce the results. Too much pain and suffering remains. Rather, the progress is reason to believe in the value of humanitarian policies and initiatives, to learn from those that work best, and redouble the commitment.
Likewise, the emergence of multiple programs to overcome bullying, ridicule and violence in schools and the modest progress to date is reason to learn from what works best, improve our programs, and renew our commitment and investment.
This is no time for despair. George Bernard Shaw famously said. “Some see things as they are and say, why? I dream things that never were and say, why not?” Why not aspire to and help build a better world? The challenge may seem daunting, but our predecessors didn’t give up, and nor should we.