The Storm Before the Calm

Shortly after the New Year showed up, Nick Kristof wrote in the the New York Times that, contrary to widespread belief, “2017 was probably the very best year in the long history of humanity.”

Kristof’s point echoes the gist of Steven Pinker’s monumental study, The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined. Pinker and Kristof both point out that we have come to doubt the goodness of human nature and to fear the worst among us thanks to the incessant reporting of violent, destructive, murderous, and just downright nasty behavior in most of our mass media news coverage.

When I was teaching leadership studies at Ripon College, I made a habit of asking students in my intro course how many had ever witnessed a murder. Over 33 years of teaching that course twice a year, only one person out of some 3,000 ever raised a hand. Then I would ask how many had seen at least 50 murders on TV, and every hand in every course in every semester went up.

Our brains are wired to pay close attention to danger, and the people who program our mass media, produce our crime shows, and report our news realize that violence sells – and so does sex. But the reality described by Kristof and Pinker, based on huge piles of verifiable evidence, is that human behavior has become much less violent millennium by millennium, century by century, generation by generation. Even in the twentieth century, in which millions died by violence in worldwide wars, the percentage of people touched by violence compared to the total population of the planet was way down.

This is part of what Kristof reported on January 6, 2018: “A smaller share of the world’s people were hungry, impoverished or illiterate than at any time before. A smaller proportion of children died than ever before. The proportion disfigured by leprosy, blinded by diseases like trachoma or suffering from other ailments also fell. . . . We journalists focus on bad news — we cover planes that crash, not those that take off — but the backdrop of global progress may be the most important development in our lifetime.”

So please don’t despair about the trajectory or the fate of the human community. Hitch your wagon to the better angels of the human spirit and think long term. We are actually living through a nasty storm before the next calm, and we should all pitch in to bring it about. You can read all of Kristof’s column here.