The World-But Not as We Know It: We Tend to See Our Globalised World as Violent. but in Fact, the Rise in Democracy and International Human Rights Means We Live in Ever More Peaceful Times

By Graham, Paul | New Statesman (1996), November 15, 2013 | Go to article overview

The World-But Not as We Know It: We Tend to See Our Globalised World as Violent. but in Fact, the Rise in Democracy and International Human Rights Means We Live in Ever More Peaceful Times


Graham, Paul, New Statesman (1996)


How dangerous is the world? Is it getting more dangerous? On at least one measure we're living through the most peaceful period in human history: the chances of one person dying at the hands of another are less now than at any time. As evolutionary psychologist Steven Pinker argues, even if we include the wars and genocides of the 20th century we must still conclude that violence is in decline. And yet this is not how we see the world. Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Somalia, drugs wars in Latin America, disorder on the streets of Athens: they all suggest the world is as violent as it has ever been. Perception doesn't conform to reality.

Maybe people are naturally paranoid, and paranoia is rational. Using the "smoke detector principle", false positives (no fire, smoke detector goes off) are less dangerous than false negatives (fire, detector doesn't go off). Much human behaviour--particularly political behaviour--is affected by this principle. It is safer to assume that Iran is developing an offensive nuclear capacity, even if in reality its uranium processing facilities are intended only for civil nuclear power, or it is indeed developing nuclear weapons but for entirely defensive purposes.

Pinker attributes such distrust to the survival requirements in small hunter bands. But while we have inherited the psychology of our ancestors there's now a mismatch between these ancient survival instincts and the modern world. The communications revolution has meant we are confronted through TV and the web with images of violence that aren't actually part of our everyday experience. A cognitive illusion is created: we assign greater probability to those events that are easier to recall. Violent deaths are memorable, while deaths from natural causes are not.

So why has violence been in decline? There are a number of possibilities. People might be becoming nicer. Research into genetics is finding interaction effects between the environment and genetic predispositions. For example, testosterone--levels of which are highly heritable--is associated with violence but only under conditions of provocation. If you improve the environment the triggers for violence are reduced.

Another line of explanation points to institutions. The rise of the nation-state, so often considered a cause of violence, has actually been a major pacifying influence. The political philospher, Thomas Hobbes argued that in the absence of a coercive authority we would be forced to provide our own protection, and since we don't trust each other it is rational to pre-empt attack by attacking first. But if we know there is a powerful, third party enforcer we can learn to trust one another.

Hobbes's argument only applied to domestic politics--to territorially bound groups of individuals. It didn't apply to world politics, where no global authority exists to settle disputes or enforce agreements. So perhaps it could be argued that violence has declined within states but increased between states, but this is not supported by the evidence. Since 1945 there has been a downward trend in the number of battle-deaths.

Hobbesians would not predict this reduction in interstate violence. They would say that states will distrust one another. Even if a state is concerned only with its own security--and not intent on regional or world domination--it will aim to be more powerful than any competitor. In this "security dilemma", all attempts by a state to increase its security through greater defence spending just make other states more distrustful of it--and paradoxically reduce its security. This realist world-view predicts a very unstable and violence-prone world.

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The reason why the realist image of the world is wrong is that some states have learnt to trust one another and so have solved the security dilemma. While it's a truism that correlation is not causation, it is thought-provoking to note that the postwar decline in violence between states has gone hand in hand with the rise of democracy. …

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