People on a field standing in the shape of a peace sign, photographed from above.

Global Peace Index on #internationaldayofpeace

With the headlines filled with news of record-breaking numbers of refugees from war and civil violence, it seems counter-intuitive to state that for the most part, violence is actually declining. However, it seems to be true, and by certain measures has been for some time now, both in the U.S. and globally.

Back in 2014, the Human Security Report Project at Simon Fraser University released a report indicating a significant decline in the frequency and deadliness of armed conflict since World War II.  While the report noted that the total number of armed conflict types  increased 300% from the 1950s to the end of the Cold War, most of those conflicts were low-intensity civil wars with comparatively low fatality counts.  In general, international wars between countries are responsible for more deaths, so a decline in this type of conflict led to a decline in deaths from violence.

According to the researchers at the Institute for Economics and Peace (IEP), the Syrian Civil War and terrorism in the Middle East and Southwest Asia are the exceptions that have proved the rule.  The IEP’s Global Peace Index for 2016 measures 23 indicators including incidents of violent crime, countries’ levels of militarization, and weapons imports.  The Syrian conflict and other escalating conflicts in the Middle East (Iraq, Yemen, Libya, etc.) have increased the level of global violence as a total, even as the rest of the world becomes more peaceful.  The researchers also found significant  improvement in resources devoted to peacekeeping and away from military spending.

Here in the U.S. the decline is also happening.  According to this report in the Washington Post last year,

fewer Americans are dying as a result of gun violence — a shift that began about two decades ago….This decline in gun violence is part of an overall decline in violent crime. According to the FBI’s data, the national rate of violent crime has decreased 49 percent since its apex in 1991. Even as a certain type of mass shooting is apparently becoming more frequent, America has become a much less violent place.

The article identifies several possible explanations for the decline: more police officers, the use of computers to collect and crunch data,  a decline in national alcohol consumption, less lead in the environment, and a better economy.

And the trend has actually continued, with similar exceptions that prove the rule: while the statistics for the national homicide rate leaped up this year, that is the effect of murders in just three cities: Chicago, Baltimore, and Washington, D.C. (and Chicago is responsible for most of those). The rest of the country continues to experience less violent crime.

Why is this decline happening?

Harvard professor Steven Pinker, a cognitive scientist, linguist, and psychologist, thinks that this is because of human nature.  In his book, The Better Angels of Our Nature, he writes that innovations such as the state with its monopoly on the use of violence and ideas such as human rights have progressively contributed to more peaceful societies — from the family on up to the globe.  This has been possible, he says, because humans are hard-wired to have reasoning ability and emotional empathy.  That, in combination with material prosperity, allows a culture that values peace — and creates a virtuous cycle where more peace allows more prosperity which allows more peace.

Not everyone agrees with either his data or his assessment of it.  The book’s reviewer at The New York Times makes note of a disturbing trend in violence tied to climate change, and questions whether this might stop that virtuous cycle.  And that isn’t the only threat on the horizon: a reviewer at The Christian Science Monitor wrote:

Discussing the possibilities of terrorists or so-called rogue states, Pinker said, “A large number of deaths from a single renegade perpetrator would be a misleading indicator of the state of the world.” But that is precisely the point, which is why World War I is still shocking 100 years later – technologies of mass destruction can make the otherwise peaceful and progressive nature of societies irrelevant.

The reviewer at The Guardian flat-out refuses to buy the thesis that reason is winning.  The power of the state can and has been used to kill, not just to pacify — as practically the  entire 20th century and the prison-industrial complex in the U.S. demonstrates.  Furthermore, rather than admit that reasoning from base assumptions can permit extraordinary evil to flourish, he writes that Pinker discards much of the Enlightenment and its progeny:

How could a philosophy of reason and toleration be implicated in mass murder? The cause can only be the sinister influence of counter-Enlightenment ideas…Such links between Enlightenment thinking and 20th-century barbarism are, for Pinker, merely aberrations, distortions of a pristine teaching that is innocent of any crime: the atrocities that have been carried out in its name come from misinterpreting the true gospel, or its corruption by alien influences.

And finally, Pinker’s grasp of statistics has been rigorously questioned (.pdf).  This last is important because how data is generated in the first place is just as fraught with complications as how it is interpreted; epistemology counts.

All of which goes to say that these datasets and these explanations are debatable, so have at it in class!

[Featured image is 6,000 members of the Ithaca community forming the world’s largest human peace sign, 22 June 2008, by Rebecca Eschler, CC by 3.0.]

BulbgraphOnOffProjects and Internet Projects are ideally suited to flipped classrooms — students can read and research on their own, while doing the cumulative activity in class.

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Dr. Annelies Kamran is V.P. for Content and Product Development at WorldView Software, Inc.

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