Is there more — or less – violence today?

It is a common attitude of some older people to fear the worst.    Many imagine that the amount of violence today is unprecedented.

An elderly lady became depressed one day as she watched the evening news, with its list of murders and car crashes.

“I don’t know what things are coming to,” she said to me. “Things in the world seems to be getting worse than they’ve ever been.”

“I’m not sure that is correct,” I told her. “Things were much worse in the 1940s, when your husband was away fighting the Germans, and you had no guarantee that he would ever return home.

“Further back, think of the great suffering that occurred at Gallipoli, with the slaughter of so many people, and other places of suffering in what was thought to be the war to end all wars.”

On 25 April 1915, NZ troops landed at a place in Turkey called Gelibolu (which they had difficulty in pronouncing, so they referred to it as Gallipoli. Few people know the place’s real name is still Gelibolu).

I’m reasonably certain that things have been worse in every one of the past centuries, with their ghastly slaughters on battlefields and terrible plagues decimating Europe and Asia.

Not long ago, as history goes, people like us in the western world burned heretics at the stake, tortured suspected traitors, stoned adulterers, disembowelled criminals or cut them in half, and tore offenders apart with teams of horses. We don’t do these things now.

There is much less violence in the world than there used to be.

That may be hard to believe if you’ve just seen a news bulletin consisting mainly of Isis bombings and destruction from Syria or Gaza, but each major transition in civilisation has made violence less necessary.

The first transition came when anarchic hunter-gatherer societies gave way to a more settled, more organised, agricultural society.

The next big shift came in the Middle Ages, followed by The Enlightenment, when reason began to replace brutality.

The fourth transition was the respite from major interstate wars we have seen since the end of World War II. Hard to imagine it, but centuries ago the great powers were almost always at war.

Another lessening of violence followed the lessening of wars, but the decline of interstate wars saw an increase in civil wars. However, civil wars tend to kill far fewer people than wars between nations.

My reading of history convinces me that acts of violence are gradually being reduced.


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