(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.)
It’s a cruel world out there, folks. Turn on CNN and you hear about another plane crash. Turn on Fox News and see ISIS taking another town. Hell, even the the local morning news broadcast has a story every day about a shooting or car accident.
Sociologists have a word for this: “mean world syndrome”. Mass media makes violence seems more prevalent than it actually is. This doesn’t just apply to the average person; it also applies to critics and academics who don’t think the world is getting safer. (Or as I dub them, “anti-pollyannas”.) In other words...
They use anecdotes!
Imagine someone who is trying to disprove that the world’s population is growing larger, pointing out that their grandmother just died. Or imagine a global warming denialist pointing out that it’s snowing outside. No one said that people weren’t dying and that there would be no more winters. They said the population is growing and average global temperatures are rising.
For most anti-pollyannas, the best way to disprove the “world is getting safer” theory is to bring up an anecdote of an isolated incident of violence. No one said violence no longer exists, we said it’s becoming rarer. (Ironically, as the world gets safer, incidents of violence may actually get more news coverage.)
Commenters here at On Violence have provided us two perfect examples of using anecdotes. As we wrote about a few weeks ago, someone on the blog argued the world isn’t getting safer because North Korea is a dictatorship. Next, we had a comment on Facebook that the world isn’t getting safer for cartoonists. Looking at the statistics and larger trends instead of isolated anecdotes, the world is getting more democratic and safer for expressions of free speech.
(In response to my question about the larger statistics on cartoonist deaths, the Faceboook commentator brought up gun control.)
Using anecdotes isn’t limited to internet commentators. Take Elizabeth Kolbert (who I love, especially for her work on the environment) in her review for The New Yorker (a magazine I adore) of The Better Angels of Our Nature by Steven Pinker. She opens by describing the mass shooting in Norway a few years ago, an anecdote. But homicides in Europe are down over the last 50 years, last 100 years and last 500 years. This anecdote doesn’t prove a thing.
Or take Ross Douthat (who I don’t love) for The New York Times (which I still kind of respect), who opens his op-ed about Pinker’s book by describing the threat posed to Coptic Christians, “They may not survive the Arab spring.” Well, that doesn’t disprove Pinker’s theory. Statistically, mass genocide is way, way down. And it’s not even a good anecdote: the Coptic Christians survived the Arab spring.
This blog post, by professor Christian Davenport, counters the “world is getting safer” theory by arguing, “After looking at political violence data for about 20 years and witnessing Darfur, the DRC, and Rwanda over the last few decades, I have my doubts.” First off, Davenport should have stopped the sentence at “looking at political violence data” then cited that data. But he uses the anecdotal example about violence in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) to debunk Pinker. Using upper estimates, about 5.4 million people died in their various civil wars that closed the twentieth century, or less than 10% of the country’s population.
Was that really worse than Belgian colonialism at the close of the nineteenth century?
According to scholars, ten million people died under Belgian rule from 1885 to 1908 or 20% of the country. In both absolute and relative terms, shockingly, even Congo has witnessed a decrease in violence. (And the Congo Civil war was the deadliest war the world had seen since World War II.) For a conflict scholar who has studied the region, he should know that. Of course, he didn’t witness that devastation with his own eyes and society didn’t have cameras to capture it either.
And I can keep going, citing Andrew Brown in The Guardian (“This news [that wars are less common] must come as a relief to the inhabitants of Iraq.”) or the blog Utopia or Dystopia (“Regardless of tragedies such as the horrendous school shooting at Newtown...”) or Frank Hoffman in War on the Rocks. The website World Beyond War has an entire article that cites a lot of numbers about deaths in American wars, but doesn’t analyze a single trend.
Edward S. Herman and David Peterson only use anecdotes to debunk Pinker, the more American the anecdote the better. They write, “Whereas in Pinker’s view there has been a “Long Peace” since the end of the Second World War, in the real world there has been a series of long and devastating U.S. wars”. I’m pretty sure those wars are included in Pinker’s data about battle deaths, and I’m also pretty sure there were devastating wars (American and not) before that time period.
The problem with anecdotes is that they’re just that, anecdotes. They don’t prove trends. As we pointed out earlier, saying “The world is getting safer” isn’t saying “Violence is extinct.”
Again, think about the “mean world syndrome”. Many of these critics wouldn’t have anecdotes to open their writing without mass media. Andrew Brown, from England, cites the Newtown massacre in America for a newspaper based in England. Elizabeth Kolbert, for the New Yorker, cites an example in Norway. Would either of these writers be able to use these examples without mass communication? Probably not, which is why they think violence is unchanging.
Step away from the coverage, look at the numbers and you’ll see, yes, the world is getting safer.