If you think this has felt like the summer of sadness, you are not alone.
Every week, sometimes every day, seems to bring more stomach-turning news. In June, there was the Orlando nightclub shooting, where dozens were killed and injured in the deadliest terror attack in the US since 9/11. Then came July’s blood-soaked Bastille Day in Nice, when a terrorist drove a truck over holiday revelers, killing 84 people, including 10 children. Before the month was over, ISIS militants had assassinated a French priest in his church and executed the patrons and staff at a cafe in Dhaka, Bangladesh.
These are just the more gruesome terror events that grabbed headlines — and only those carried out this summer. I’ve made no mention of what happened in Paris over the last year, or the airport killings in Brussels and Istanbul, or, for that matter, San Bernardino.
And these are just the terrorist attacks. I’ve said nothing of the flaring racial tensions in the US, police shootings of black men, or the multiple reprisal shootings of officers — a cycle that played out again this week in Milwaukee, where protests erupted into burning riots following the police shooting death of 23-year-old black man Sylville Smith.
The political discourse of late hasn’t done much to soothe the anger or quell the hate. If anything, it’s inflamed matters. As Nick Kristof noted in the Times recently, Donald Trump is making America meaner, inciting violence toward immigrants and even his opponent, Hillary Clinton. ("Hang the bitch!" is a common chant at Trump rallies.)
All told, it can feel like we are sliding backward, toward a more violent, less tolerant time in history.
If there’s anyone who can put this moment into context, it’s the Harvard psychology professor and polymath Steven Pinker. A cognitive scientist and linguist, Pinker focused his study of human nature on our propensity for violence — and conversely, cooperation — in his 2011 book, The Better Angels of Our Nature. In the book, Pinker meticulously documented a steady decline in violence over the last several centuries, which he writes, "may be the most significant and least appreciated development in the history of our species."
I called Pinker recently for a discussion about the data and broader context behind the recent news events. (Hint: He says the world is still in a more peaceful period than at any other time.) We also talked about how the media shapes our views about violence, some worrying trends he thinks politicians should be keeping an eye on, and the danger of pessimism becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy. The conversation that follows has been edited for length and clarity.
You wrote a very optimistic book about the trend toward less violence on earth. But it feels like we’ve seen a lot of violence here in the US since then. We had the Sandy Hook massacre in 2012 — and there have been at least 1,069 mass shootings since then. Overseas, more than 1,200 people have died in ISIS-related terror attacks, not including those killed in Iraq and Syria. And we’ve heard a lot about killings of young black men by police, and the killings of police, over the past several years. How do you put all this in context?
News is a misleading way to understand the world. It’s always about events that happened and not about things that didn’t happen. So when there’s a police officer that has not been shot up or city that has not had a violent demonstration, they don’t make the news. As long as violent events don’t fall to zero, there will be always be headlines to click on. The data show — since the Better Angels of Our Nature was published — rates of violence continue to go down.
Rates of death in war show something of an uptick because of the war in Syria — but that’s still a fraction of the levels they were in the 1960s through the early 1990s, and that’s to say nothing of the World Wars.
There has probably been a slight increase in the rate of violent crime in the US in 2015, and I say probably because the FBI figures are still not out for that year.
But even then that wouldn’t even be as high as it was in 2012, just three years ago, and that itself is a huge decrease in the levels of '60s, '70, and '80s in the US, where violent crime has fallen by more than half. So there is probably an uptick for 2015 and 2016. But it’s just a wiggle in a curve that’s been going down, down, down.
Even if you even compare situation this year to a random year in the 1970s or 1980s, by every measure our world is much more peaceful.
But as you mentioned, there’s been an uptick in war deaths driven by the staggeringly violent ongoing conflict in Syria. Does that not affect your thesis?
No, it doesn’t affect the thesis because the rate of death in war is about 1.4 per 100,000 per year. That’s higher than it was at the low point in 2010. But it’s still a fraction of what it was in earlier years. For example, [the death rate in war] was 22 per 100,000 in years of the Korean War. It was nine per 100,000 during the Vietnam War. During the Iraq War in the '80s, it was five per 100,000. Even at its recent peak of 1.4, we’re still talking about a rate that is a fraction of what it used to be.
The trend for 2015 is mostly concentrated in Syria, and it’s not getting much better in Syria. But it’s probably not getting much worse given that there have been ceasefire talks through the year. That won’t necessarily end wars, but it can bring the rate of killing down.
Another thing we often lose sight of is that, in terms of global and local violence, terrorism and war deaths are negligible.
Yes, the rate of death in homicides far exceeds the rate of death in terrorism at a local level, and for that matter, in wars. More people die in homicides than in wars globally by far.
The rates of terrorism in Western Europe, according to the Global Terrorism Database, were much higher from 1972 to 1992 than they were in 2015, and 2015 was a terrible year for terrorism. Not that it was great in the '70s and '80s, because there were high rates of terrorism, but Europe survived and Europe will survive this round of [terror] attacks.
Terrorist movements always fail. They go out of existence. They do not achieve their strategic aims. Northern Ireland is still part of the UK, and Basque Country is still part of Spain, and Israel continues to exist … the list goes on and on.
Rebecca Onion had a great piece in Slate, where she got historians to weigh in on the worst year in history. Both the Black Death in 1348 and the US's 1836 slavery trade peak looked pretty terrible by comparison.
That’s completely right. Then in the 1940s, there were the World Wars that resulted in more than 50 million deaths all told.
Rates of terrorism in Europe were higher in the 1970s than they have been at least through 2014. I haven’t seen data for 2015 yet. During the heyday of the Red Brigades and Irish Republican Army, rates of death and terrorism were higher than they are now.
Even though deaths from both terrorism and rampage shootings are relatively small when it comes to violent deaths, [these] are ways in which small numbers of individuals can manipulate the media. The only guaranteed way of becoming famous is kill a lot of innocent people. As long as media will give endless publicity to multiple murderers, they create a niche for people who want to make a difference for a political cause or their own ego.
Do you think the media plays a big role in making people think the world is going to hell?
I do think the media should take more care in allowing themselves to be used by violent actors. It’s certainly clear from [studies on] rampage shooters that many collect news reports about past killers and anticipate the publicity they will get. [See this chilling Mother Jones story for examples.] That’s also true of terrorist groups — not only are they waging a war against the armed forces of a country, but they are counting on the publicity the gory violence gets in order to put their cause in the spotlight.
I do think events have to be reported, but the coverage should be in greater proportion to the actual human cost.
And everyday homicides — the kinds that police stations worry about — kill far, far more people than rampage shootings, but they dribble in about 30 deaths a day. If any of them occurred in a single event, we would get nonstop news coverage and a president giving a speech. But when they [the single homicide deaths] dribble in one or two at a time, people are unaware of the far greater damage they do.
To avoid that kind of glorification, there are some European outlets that no longer post the names or faces of terrorists. What do you think is the best approach to covering terrorists and other mass shooters?
I think there should be less coverage of rampage shooters. If there are 30 deaths in a day from individual homicides in the US, and five people died in a mass shooting, it’s not clear why the mass shooting gets 100 times more coverage than individual homicides.
Pessimism can be a self-fulfilling prophecy
I certainly think publishing manifestos, videos, photos, and having endless analysis and discussion is encouraging [violent actors]. News should not be repressed, but there should be a sense of proportionality in terms of what the human cost is.
Do you think the perception that the world is going the wrong way makes it more likely that progress will be overturned?
It certainly is a danger. Pessimism can be a self-fulfilling prophecy. While we have to be realistic about changes both up and down in rates of violence, we have to remind ourselves that violence is a problem we can deal with, that we have dealt with, and what’s important is to look at it realistically. To keep track of when it does up, when it goes down, and what causes it to go up and go down and do more of what causes it to go down. We know over the last couple of years that it has gone down, so we should figure out what we did to achieve that and do more of it.
As you know, some have noted that we may be at an inflection point — that we’re heading into a less peaceful time. We’ve seen the fabric of Europe begin to fray with Brexit, and we have US presidential candidates suggesting they wouldn’t defend America’s allies in NATO if they were attacked by a foreign power. What do you make of these threats to institutions that have likely helped sustain peace in recent years?
Brexit and Trump — these are not good developments. I don’t think Brexit is going to lead to another war. I would say it’s not good news. But it’s too early to tell.
I do think that politicians, especially on the left, would be unwise to ignore changes in violence. It’s important not to panic. But there has been a small increase in the US in the last one and a half years, and it would be foolish for politicians to just hand that issue over to the right and pretend it doesn’t exist.
Politicians should acknowledge that there has been a small change in a bad direction and make sure it doesn’t get out of hand
There is a concern over the phenomenon of depolicing — of police being less willing to intervene in potentially violent incidents out of a fear they’ll be accused of racism. There’s reason to think that this phenomenon, post-Ferguson, has been one of the contributors to the increase [in violence] from 2014 to 2015. I think it’s not addressed by liberal politicians and if they pretend it doesn’t exist at all, they’ve created an opening for the right to exploit the issue.
How could politicians better address the recent uptick in violence in the US?
If I were to give advice to politicians — it would be to seek some balance, and to not allow there to be an impression that the country is falling apart or that we’re in the middle of a crime wave, because we’re not. They should acknowledge that there has been a small change in a bad direction and make sure it doesn’t get out of hand — and therefore to balance the dangers of police shooting innocent people, which really has to be reduced, but at same time not to let that turn into a push back on policing.
Humans have demonstrated a capacity to engage in acts of appalling brutality against "others" on account of their ethnicity, religion, or tribal affiliations. It’s often encouraged by politicians — in this US election cycle, Trump — to gain power. Can you suggest how we can diminish or abate this hostility?
You’re right that often politicians whip up and organize ethnic hatred. And naturally the news reports convey the impression that everyone hates everyone else.
Aside from blessed apathy — it takes a lot of work to organize a civil war or genocide, and people have lives — the other force that militates against sectarian violence is that the perception of group identities, and of allies and enemies, is fluid. Before 1945, the Germans were our vicious enemies and the Russians are stalwart friends; a few years later and it was the other way around. Statesman forge inclusive identities, as when Nelson Mandela united black and white South Africans around, among other things, the national soccer team.
As I put in The Better Angels of Our Nature, alluding to the famous Seinfeld monologue about team sports, "People root for clothing instead of blood and soil." Psychological experiments going back to the famous 1950s Robbers Cave study show that hostilities can be tamped down when both sides have to work for a superordinate goal, such as pulling a bus out of the mud.