Yes you heard it - we do. Despite what you might think. I am unwaveringly hopeful in the goodness of humanity. And yet, it’s hard to imagine peace in the midst of such violence. On our own soil, it’s hard to imagine the goodwill of people in the face of such bigotry and hatred. But the truth is that the 21st century is one of the most peaceful periods in human history. When compared with any period from the past, our recent wars are not nearly as violent or devastating, nor as frequent.
The problem is media bias and exposure to crime and violence on a daily basis. It creates the illusion of a world in decline, when in reality it is tolerance for crime that has steadily diminished. The numbers tell the story. We should internalize them and change our perspective accordingly; lest we keep the fear and dread that often ignites violence alive in our hearts.
Look to History for Perspective
Let’s compare what’s occurring today with the period between 1914 and 1989. It was a particularly war torn time across the globe. That span saw multiple world wars, some of the worst crimes against humanity imaginable, and the ascent of ideological warfare comparable to the inquisition in breadth and conviction.
I recently finished reading Bertrand Russell’s (1872–1970) masterpiece from 1914, Our Knowledge of the External World. Bertrand Russell was an influential British philosopher, logician, mathematician, and political activist. In 1950, he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature, in recognition of his many books.
What caught my eye other than Russell’s writing itself was the Editor’s note in the book’s introduction. “This topic was his second choice,” wrote the Editor. His first, “the place of good and evil in the universe,” was rejected by the Lowell Institute on the grounds that “the terms of the trust do not allow lecturers to question the authority of Scripture.” I found that peculiar and wondered if he managed to work in the thoughts, without the terms.
In the book, Russell questions the very relevance and legitimacy of philosophy and illustrates instances where the claims of philosophers have been excessive, examining why their achievements have not been greater.
On page 10 of this book, I came across a thought-provoking paragraph. It took me a few attempts at reading and re-reading, to really gather what the laureate was trying to say:
I think what Betrand Russell is getting at here is that sometimes we overindulge ourselves in apocalyptic rhetoric to lend force to our worldview. And this is made easier by the safety that some people enjoy. When you are in the midst of true violence and terror, exaggeration is unnecessary, offensive even. Whereas for those who enjoy relative peace, it is easy to dramatize even the most heinous of acts.
Recall the famous lines from that poem The Passing of Arthur by the great poet Alfred Tennyson that you can only truly appreciate the profundity of with the passing of time.
In the poem, at line 47, a fading Lord Arthur, lying on a boat [barge] beseeches his crowned knight, Sir Bedivere, to let the boat go:
“And slowly answer’d Arthur from the barge: ‘The old order changeth, yielding place to new, And God fulfills himself in many ways, Lest one good custom should corrupt the world’”
I think this is a lesson that we would do well to take to heart. It is imperative that pernicious political foundations constructed in the 20th century not serve as the starting point for politics in the 21st. Those were violence inducing philosophies and instruments of chaos (collectivism, socialism, marxism, leninism, maoism, trotskyism and communism) that have no place in contemporary society. They contradict a culture of tolerance, relativism, and plurality that is growing worldwide. Today there is greater respect for diversity, greater intolerance for hate, and a craving for connectivity.
Look to the Future with Optimistic Skepticism
Indeed, it is impossible to foresee what will present itself a century from now. At least to a science revering artist like me, a multi-planetary Earth-Mars society as advocated by Elon Musk does not sound like such a bad idea after all. I, for one, agree with Professor Stephen Hawking’s thoughts on enhancing humankind’s overall safety, even if it means moving beyond this great, green Earth.
In the first paragraph I mentioned that we are doubtlessly in the most peaceful period of recorded human history. Yes, that takes into account current and past violence by terrorist organizations. It takes into account the reprehensible onslaught of mass shootings occurring in the United States. It takes into account the poverty-induced maladies around the world. I take all these things into account with a dose of healthy, optimistic skepticism. I do not need utopia to believe that humanity is improving. It is my antidote against the pessimism that violence and the media can inspire.
That isn’t to say that I condone the violence nor belittle its consequences. Surely, a world without senseless violence would be far better than this one. However, we must be realistic and learn to appreciate the battles that we win, rather than fester in our losses.
The media can make this brand of optimism appear trivial or fanciful.
The media reports so often on just about every crime that it creates the impression of more criminality and violence worldwide than there comparatively is. Rest assured that the world is not falling apart.
Our Tolerance for Violence Has Declined
You may not be aware that in France, a common form of theater in the 16th century was cat-burning:
“People would gather dozens of cats in a net and hoist them high into the air from a special bundle onto a bonfire. In the medieval and early modern periods, cats, which were associated with vanity and witchcraft, were sometimes burned as symbols of the Devil. The assembled people shrieked with laughter as the animals, howling with pain, were singed, roasted, and finally carbonized. It was the custom to burn a basket, barrel, or sack full of live cats, which was hung from a tall mast in the midst of the bonfire; sometimes a fox was burned. The people collected the embers and ashes of the fire and took them home, believing that they brought good luck. The French kings often witnessed these spectacles and even lit the bonfire with their own hands. In 1648 Louis XIV, crowned with a wreath of roses and carrying a bunch of roses in his hand, kindled the fire, danced at it and partook of the banquet afterwards in the town hall. At Metz midsummer fires were lighted with great pomp on the esplanade, and a dozen cats, enclosed in wicker cages, were burned alive in them, to the amusement of the people”.
Obviously, the above events are appalling to us today and such brutality would be impermissible in most regions of the world. That revulsion that you might be feeling chronicles one of the greatest yet under-appreciated advancements in our society: our growing intolerance for violence.
For so long brutality was an accepted form of amusement. In many cultures, human sacrifice to propitiate the gods was expected. Bondage and oppression as a means for saving on workforce costs (see: slavery) was considered economical. Mass killings for political expediency (see: The Inquisition) was strategic. Brutal persecution (see: genocides) and dismemberment as customs of sentence (see: torture tactics) was righteous. Slaying for minor crimes and transgressions (see: the punitive history of adultery) was social order. Assassination, massacres, manslaughter and duels were all commonplace. They were all acceptable if not reasonable courses of action. How else could you protect your honor than by doing battle?
Now, these actions are generally denounced around the world. We have entire global organizations devoted to suppressing, staving off, and condemning these sorts of acts. Those are steps in the right direction that shouldn’t be understated.
I realize my claim is counterintuitive. Again, we see so much violence in the media that it’s difficult to be optimistic, and it’s easy to lose hope in humanity. But let’s recognize that slipping into misandry would be to take steps back. If not optimism from a few good women and men, then what is it that has allowed us to better our lot and cultivate intolerance for violence?
It is the belief that we, as a society, can do better.
It Isn’t Easy to Recast Dominant Narratives
Not too long ago, war, genocide, conquests, reconquest, crusades, massacres and the like were mainstays of civilization, albeit undesirable ones. Although atrocities have happened in recent history, the fact is that far fewer people have perished as a result than in the past.
The population of the world has mushroomed, as have the number of smartphones, technology that has enabled incidents to be broadcasted, tweeted, inspected and dissected every possible way on the Internet and on television. This raises the stakes for all people involved and chases away the cover of darkness much faster than was the case before.
This is a double-edged sword, however, because we are now more mindful of violence; despite the fact that this violence is statistically less widespread or concentrated than it has been in the past.
It’s hard to say precisely what caused the reduction in violence. Whatever the cause, I believe a change in perspective that reflects the zeitgeist of our times is necessary.
I have read a number of authors on the subject that suggest we are looking at the matter from the wrong vantage entirely. That we need to change perspectives from the negative to the positive. For centuries people have asked, “Why is there war?”. Now, given the change in circumstances, we should ask “Why is there peace?” Relative peace, of course, but peace nonetheless.
It behooves us to identify what has caused this reduction in violence, harness it, and then amplify it.
What Would Peace-oriented Thinking Look Like?
In his book, A History of Force, author James L. Payne tends to think that on the whole, human life has now become much less dreadful than it once was. People globally are experiencing less agony and suffering, and living longer lives than before, so are less inclined to inflict suffering onto others.
Robert Wright, in his book, Non Zero, The Logic of Human Destiny, suggests that technology has been the conduit to people’s ability to communicate with each other and conduct reciprocal trade, making them more valuable alive than dead.
Peter Singer, in his book, The Expanding Circle, attributes the decline to the to the fact that the more we think, know, and are educated—as is the case now—the tougher it gets for us to impose our philosophies over other educated, emotional human beings.
Personally, I feel that the overall increase in human goodness and decline in “force” – the force of weapons, philosophies, ideals and ideas of one set of humans over the other, is the real marvel that has led to the overall decline in violence and an increase in peace.
Whatever the case, I hope we can reflect on these thoughts given recent events. Things are certainly not perfect but they are better, and we should rejoice. And we should persist.