Battle of Agincourt, from Kenneth Branagh's Henry V

It’s a bit of a cliche that the really important stories are never on the news. I guess that’s because it’s extremely rare for something that changes the world to happen in an instant: a megatrend can only be something that happens over a period of years or decades. The trend I wanna talk about is one that’s been going on for centuries, and it must rank as one of humanity’s greatest achievements.

War is down; violent crime is down. Overall, despite a degree of uncertainty in the statistics, the incidence rate of violence, and violent death, is lower now than at any other time in human history.

At least, if you believe Steven Pinker. And you can also look at this article about the decline of war, which is very interesting.

The article sets up something of a false dichotomy between, on the one hand, romantic woolly thinkers who espouse the idea that humans are naturally peaceful and that modernity has driven us to savagery, and on the other, rational social scientists counting up the numbers and concluding that we are now more peaceful than ever. Before having read this article, I think I would have guessed that the past century had seen much worse bloodshed than any other, but only because modern technology had made it much easier for humans to follow their natural instincts to kill each other, rather than any sort of cultural reason. But anyway!

The apparently true and incredibly interesting part is that we are turning away from violence in just about every walk of life. People are using less violence to solve interpersonal disputes, commit crimes and wage wars: if you compare both civilian and military casualties for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan with, say, the Vietnam war, the difference is stark. This topic is too big and too complicated to explain or even sum up in a concise fashion, but if I were to start guessing, I’d say there are a maybe three big differences between today and the middle of the last century that influence the amount of bloodshed taking place in wars. One is technology: so-called smart bombs really are better at destroying specifically what they’re aimed at, reducing the kind of horrors seen in bombing campaigns over Dresden, Hiroshima, Nagasaki, London and others earlier in the 20th century. A second reason is the end of the Cold War, which had been the pretext for an awful lot of medium-sized wars even though it never descended into a global conflagration. Without such a global threat to worry about, it seems that violence is a much less quick resort than it used to be. Third, global norms around war have shifted. The Geneva Conventions, Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and decolonisation that occurred in the 50 years following the second World War represent (to my mind) an acceptance that violent domination over others is not the way that we want to be doing things. Which may be a woolly, optimistic way of thinking, but what else is there?

Well there’s this, a review of a book by Kwame Anthony Appiah called “The Honor Code.” It is an attempt to explain what the author terms “moral revolutions” – specifically, three big changes that happened in different places around the world during the 19th century. In the cases of duelling among British gentlemen, foot binding in China, and slavery in the British Empire, Appiah argues that the society’s understanding of honor evolved to reject a practice that had previously been deemed honorable. It didn’t just happen organically: determined groups of people took advantage of social, political and economic shifts to make the case for change to the wider society. But the key to their arguments was redefining what was honorable. Perhaps this is what is happening to our attitudes toward violence. In the past, men (for it was almost exclusively men) could earn honour (switching back to UK spelling, yeah?) and glory by defeating foes in battle (look at Macbeth, Act 1 Scene 2:

SERGEANT

For brave Macbeth–well he deserves that name–
Disdaining fortune, with his brandish’d steel,
Which smoked with bloody execution,
Like valour’s minion carved out his passage
Till he faced the slave;
Which ne’er shook hands, nor bade farewell to him,
Till he unseam’d him from the nave to the chaps,
And fix’d his head upon our battlements.

DUNCAN

O valiant cousin! worthy gentleman!),

and while people still respect soldiers I think it’s a different kind of respect: for their sacrifice and endurance under harsh circumstances, for the benefit of their countrymen. Expressions of delight at the manner in which killing is done are far more rare and less kindly looked on than they were in the past.

 

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