(Though many don’t want to believe it, the world is getting safer. There will be an end to war, someday, if the world works towards it. To read the rest of our posts on “The World is Getting Safer”, click here.)
Donald Trump definitely made America seem like a dystopian hellscape last week at the convention. (See Seth Myers on Late Night for good coverage.) Trump’s theme was clear: the world is in chaos. With multiple wars in the Middle East, terrorist attacks in Europe, police shootings, and violence at political rallies, everything seems to be falling apart.
Trump wasn’t the only person spreading fear this year. Almost every Republican candidate for president--from mild-mannered Jeb Bush to bombastic Chris Christie--told the electorate during the Republican primaries that we live in truly “dangerous” and “perilous” times. Donald Trump and the Republican National Convention just made it their official theme.
Republican politicians aren’t alone in fear mongering. Democrats like Diane Feinstein believe we live in a “dangerous world”. Even a liberal commentator like Jon Stewart--who just called Trump out for fear-mongering on The Late Show--ended his run on The Daily Show (in the second to last episode) saying, “'The world is demonstrably worse than when I started.”
We need some perspective on how great we really have it.
And for that, we turn to the fantasy world of Game of Thrones.
Each week the show offers helpings of war, torture, rape, incest, mass murder, terrorist insurgencies, beheadings and so on, which should just depress us more. But it’s actually refreshing. Contrasting the pessimism of the daily news to this dark but wonderful TV show, we can’t help thinking, “Man, the world is so much safer today.”
Game of Thrones is a fun world to visit, but I can’t imagine anyone wanting to stay. If modern times are “perilous”, how would you describe the Middle Ages? Despite the anxiety that pervades our culture, when compared to the past, we’re living in a modern golden age.
And Game of Thrones proves it. Unlike past fantasy authors, Martin based his world on actual European history. George R.R. Martin has said numerous times that he places a high premium on accuracy. “My novels are epic fantasy, but they are inspired by and grounded in history,” he told The New York Times. Along with accuracy in food (lamprey pie), dress (velvet doublets) and weapons (two-handed greatswords), Martin’s Westeros is an excellent analogue for the ugliness and violence of Europe of hundreds of years ago (specifically, the eras of the Hundred Years War and the War of the Roses). A trip through that world reveals just how much more dangerous and violent it was compared to contemporary times.
(Wall-sized spoilers abound for the rest of this article.)
Two seasons ago Jaime raped his sister Cersei and some fans got upset. Last season, Ramsay Bolton raped Sansa Stark, outraging many, many fans, including US senators. Viewed from a modern perspective, Sansa’s rape was disgusting. Show that scene to someone from the 1300s and they’d wonder why people were upset. Arranged marriages among royal families were an unquestioned part of life in the past, along with subsequent marital rape.
Sansa’s rape was far from the only sexual assault in the world of Game of Thrones--214 instances and counting in the books. Gregor “The Mountain” Clegane uses war as an excuse to rape as many people as he can. Sansa almost got raped by a mob in season two. And the series opened with Daenerys getting raped by Khal Drogo in the same circumstances as Sansa. (I’m not sure the Dothraki can even have consensual sex.) As Martin has said, in response to criticism both two seasons ago and last season, rape has always been a part of war. To not depict it would artificially sanitize his medieval world.
Today, governments work to stop sexual violence. For one of the first times in human history, politicians have opened investigations into sexual assault in the military. Husbands can no longer legally rape their wives. This isn’t to say there still isn’t work to end sexual assault--there is--but we have come a long way.
One of the scariest parts of Game of Thrones is watching someone travel. Anywhere. As Catelyn Stark found out travelling to the Vale, even armed guards can’t keep you safe. You could be murdered at any point, or in the best case scenario, robbed of your savings, which Sandor Clegane did two seasons ago to a person giving him room and board. Or you could get captured by pirates with an interest in dwarf penises.
Homicide today is not what it was in the past. According to Steven Pinker’s The Better Angels of Our Nature, 14th century England had a murder rate that was 95% greater than it is today. In the short term, as has been widely reported in Slate and other outlets, the murder rate has declined, in some cases below levels in the 1950s and even early 1900s.
In the world of Game of Thrones, slavery is illegal in Westeros, but it’s legal in Essos. And boy howdy is it legal, with an entire region named Slaver’s Bay. The people of Astapor castrate slave warriors and the people of Meereen crucify slaves who rebel.
Until the middle 1800s, slavery was legal in most of the world, including Asia, Africa and Europe. The ugliest and most infamous example was probably the Transatlantic slave trade between 1525 and 1866, when slavers shipped 12.5 million slaves across the Atlantic. (Almost 2 million of them died during the trip.)
Cruel and Unusual Punishment
Game of Thrones leans heavily on the Westerosi tradition of “trial by combat”, in which someone accused of a crime can fight their way out of it. This was really only practiced in Germany. Trials by ordeal, on the other hand, were quite common in Europe, forcing people to endure starvation, drowning and fire to prove their innocence. Though many think this only applied to witches, it was actually quite common.
The “justice system” of the medieval world was barbaric and capricious, often catering to the mob. Criminals found guilty weren’t taken to prison, they were paraded through the streets (like Cersei walking naked through the streets of King’s Landing), then ritually tortured (like having their nipples torn off with hot pincers), and then killed in gruesome ways (like being ripped apart by horses). The guillotine was actually invented as a more humane method of capital punishment.
Remember in the middle of season two of Game of Thrones when Arya, captured by the Lannisters, watches as Lannister henchmen systematically torture dozens (hundreds?) of prisoners? Pretty brutal stuff, plucking one prisoner each day, at random, then torturing them to death.
And pretty realistic to medieval uses of torture. As Pinker told Scientific American about torture five hundred years ago:
“Religious instruction included prurient descriptions of how the saints of both sexes were tortured and mutilated in ingenious ways. Corpses broken on the wheel, hanging from gibbets, or rotting in iron cages where the sinner had been left to die of exposure and starvation were a common part of the landscape.”
The World Is Getting Better
We could go on, listing the multitude of ways the world has become less violent. (We haven’t even mentioned the decline in war, the end to institutionalized racism, and more.)
Over the last few years, a cottage industry has sprouted up among academics trying to prove this academically. Stephen Pinker, John Horgan, Joshua Goldstein, John Mueller and others have tried (vainly) to convince the world that war is decreasing in frequency, terrorism is more hype that danger, and that overall things are getting better. Pinker summed up the argument for Slate a few years ago, “The world is not falling apart”. Charles Kenny titled a piece for The Atlantic in December “2015: The Best Year in History for the Average Human Being”.
But this line of thinking hasn’t broken through. Thanks to the media’s steady stream of daily violence, people believe the world is a scary, dangerous place.
By giving us an accurate, bloody depiction of the ancient world, Game of Thrones may actually give people a sense of how good we have it now. Hopefully, sometime soon, politicians and pundits will stop complaining about the sorry state of the modern world.
Or perhap they’d rather live in Westeros?