Is the world going crazy? Are we in the end times? In the news the images we see are frightening. We are afraid when we say goodbye to our loved ones. Are they going to walk into the wrong building? Drive down the wrong street? Travel to the wrong country? The world has became a dangerous place, many feel things are out of control. It is easy to despair – can this be fixed?
Some preach that we are in the end times prophesied in the Bible. We have floods, famine and wars. But violence is nothing new. We have to remind ourselves that things have been like this ever since there were humans. Clay tablets excavated in 1949 reveal that some 5000 years ago the Assyrians (2800 BCE) had similar feelings: “Our earth is degenerate in these latter days. There are signs that the world is speedily coming to an end. Bribery and corruption are common.”
In his book, “The better angels of our nature: why violence has declined” cognitive scientist Steven Pinker shows that things were much worse by quantifying historical violence. In fact, we may be living in humanity’s most peaceful era. History has always been bloody: genocides, crucifixions, monarchs beheaded their relatives and American founders dueled, and native people almost exterminated.
So are we more violent? According to Pinker ancient warfare was nine times as deadly as in the 20th century. The murder rate in medieval Europe was more than thirty times today’s rate. Slavery, sadistic punishments and executions were features of life. Wars are less frequent and kill a fraction of the people they did decades ago.
Rape, battery, hate crime, riots, child abuse, animal cruelty — are all down substantially. If human nature has not changed, how could this have happened? What led people to stop using violence as a form of entertainment? Was it reading novels, cultivating table manners, civil government, or turning their energies to making money? Pinker argues that to explain the decline of violence is to understand the inner demons that incline us toward violence (such as revenge, sadism, and tribalism) and the better angels that steer us away. Thanks to the spread of government, literacy, trade, and cosmopolitanism, we increasingly control our impulses, through empathy, bargaining, debunking toxic ideologies and reasoning.
The world is getting safer; there is evidence to be optimistic that we can improve further. So why doesn’t it feel that way? There are different reasons. First, we have become less tolerant of cruelty. Today is better because the Paris and the Brussels incidents are the anomaly and not the norm. Second, there is the social media. If something happened in a distant part of the world it took years to find out. Now we can find out in seconds. Therefore the emotional content is amplified.
If we look around, for every act of violence there are thousands of acts of kindness. Many people are trying to make a positive impact in the world. We can celebrate those who are helping to make the world a better place, like Medicine Sans Frontier, Doctors without Borders, whose motto is:
“we find out where conditions are the worst, the places where others are not going, and that is where we want to be”.