Sunday, September 18, 2016

Reflections on the potential of reducing or eliminating violence

We are all tired of waking up to stories of violence and carnage:
·      in New Jersey just prior to a charity run yesterday,
·       in the Chelsea neighbourhood in New York city last night,
·      a knife stabbing in a small town mall in Minnesota
·      a mistaken attack on Syrian troops in Deir Az Zor in Syria by U.S. forces last night
·      a deadly attack on an Indian base in Kashmir by Pakistani forces yesterday
And who knows when and where the next headline will blow-up? The news is so focused on the minute by minute reporting of events, carried 24-7-365 around the world, that it is possible for many to perceive of the human condition as hopeless.
There is another side to the story of human violence. In a little book entitled, Peace Love and Liberty, edited by Tom G. Palmer,  Steven Pinker writes an essay whose title provides a lens on his data, “The Decline of War and Conceptions of Human Nature.” Pinker writes:
After a 600-year stretch in which Western European countries started two new wars a year, they have not started one since 1945. Nor have the 40 or so richest nations anywhere in the world engaged each other in armed conflict, In another pleasant surprise, since the end of the Cold War in 1989, wars of all kinds have declined throughout the world. Wars between states have become extremely rare, and civil wars, after increasing in number from the 1960’s through 1990’s have declined in number. The worldwide rate of death from interstate and civil war combined has juddered downward as well, from almost 300 per 100,000 world population during World War II, to almost 30 during the Korean War, to the low teens during the era of the Vietnam War, to single digits in the 1970’s and the 1980’s, to les than 1 in the twenty-first century. (p. 18-19)….
Human sacrifice was a regular practice in every early civilization and now has vanished. (p. 20)
Between the Middle Age and the twentieth century, rates of homicide in Europe fell at least 35-food. (p.20-21)
In a humanitarian Revolution centered in the second half o the eighteenth century, every major Western country abolished the use of torture as a form or criminal punishment. (p.21)
European countries used to have hundreds of capital rimes on the books, including trivial offenses such as sealing a cabbage and criticizing the royal garden. Beginning in the eighteenth century, capital punishment came to be reserved for treason and the most severe violent crimes and in the twentieth century, it was abolished by ever Western democracy except the United States. Even in the United States, 17 of the 50 states have abolished capital punishment, and in the remaining ones, the per capita rate of executions is a tiny fraction of what it was in colonial times. (p.21)
Chattel slavery was once legal everywhere on earth. But the eighteenth century launched a wave of abolitions that swept over the world, culminating in 1980 when slavery was abolished in Mauritania. (p.21)
Also abolished in the humanitarian revolution were witch hunt, religious persecutions, dueling, blood sports, and debtors’ prisons. (p. 21)
Lynchings of African Americans used to take place at a rate of 150 a year. During the first half of the twentieth century, the rate fell to zero. (p.21)
Corporal punishment of children, both institutionalized paddling and whipping in schools, and spanking and smacking in households, has been in sharp decline in most Western countries and has been made illegal in several Western European countries. (p.21)
Rates of homicide, rape, domestic violence, child abuse, and hate crimes have declined dramatically (in some case by as much as 80 percent) since the 1970’s. (p. 21)

So, in the short term, there continue to be eruptions of violence, especially resulting from the dramatic rise of the deranged terrorist insurgence. Yet, the panoramic historic landscape offers considerable hope.

Whether or not human nature has made the transformative changes that one would expect to accompany the shift away from various forms of institutionalized violence remains an open question for some. However, what comprises water cooler conversation, news reports, seems to reflect a shift at least in what the public will accept in the violence perpetrated by nefarious agents. The Biafra, Syria, Lybia and Bosnia stories, as well as the abduction of hundreds of young girls by Islamic terrorists known as Al Shabbab in Nigeria continue to haunt the world’s humanitarian and ethical promise.

Similarly, the regression in voting rights in many American states, as well as the spike in gun violence and drug deals, (including the death-by-overdose of hundreds if not thousands) in many urban ghettoes and the shootings of young black men by white law enforcement officers, and the continuing “dog whistle” race bating that punctuates too much of political rhetoric has draped the violence issue in somewhat “sophisticated” measures, without achieving the erasure of a kind of violence that still leaves many such as Barack Obama crying out, last night at the Congressional Black Caucus Annual Dinner, “There is still much work to do to eliminate racism,” as well as to continue to reduce the incidence of violence.

In fact, with digital devices glued to millions of hands, there is now the capacity to unleash verbal assaults on anyone, anytime, for any reason, with impunity. So, with respect to the elimination of violence from the culture in the developed world, there is still a long way to go.

Yet, if the curve of history bends in the direction of reducing man’s inhumanity to man, then we can all take some comfort from that potential, if long overdue, journey to the top of the mountain of global peace.

However, it will take a seismic shift in the millions of individuals’ lives from the attitude and perception that “what I think or do or say really doesn’t matter” and the only way to achieve “peace, tolerance and acceptance of the other” is for our political leaders to take responsibility for their bombs and their missiles. 

However, if and when we all, each of us individually, come to the place where our language has been stripped of the contempt, and the revenge and the jealousy and the agency of violence that expresses those attitudes, and when our sense of what is possible excludes violence, including physical, emotional, sexual, religious and ethnic abuse, and those acts and attitudes are replaced by alternatives like compromise, negotiation, conciliation, arbitration, mediation and a firm commitment to “getting to yes” then, not only will the many  profound costs of violence be reduced.

If such a personal goal were to be adopted, taught, integrated and made operational in our schools, in our families, in our churches, and finally in our public and private institutions, then we might begin to glimpse the light of peace peeking like an early morning sunrise over the mountain of darkness and violence that has confounded centuries of humans.

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