Despite the Headlines, Violence Is Trending Downwards

When something as horrific as last Friday’s Paris attacks unfolds on the news, it’s hard not to feel that the world is a very dangerous place. It’s hard to remember that what makes acts of terror, such as the one in Paris last week, so shocking and newsworthy is that violence is becoming rarer. In fact, the vast majority of human interactions are peaceful.

Esteemed journalist and HumanProgress.org advisory board member Matt Ridley put it well when he said, “violence makes the news precisely because it is so rare; routine kindness does not make the news precisely because it is so common.” Harvard University’s Steven Pinker, who is also one of our board members, observed,

We never see a reporter saying to the camera, “Here we are, live from a country where a war has not broken out”—or a city that has not been bombed, or a school that has not been shot up. […] The only sound way to appraise the state of the world is to count.

And if we judge how violent the world is by counting, instead of by how gruesome the headlines are, we find something heartening. International wars have almost disappeared. Homicides are becoming rarer. In the United States, violence against women is decreasing, and so is child abuse.

Almost everywhere, we see a trend away from violence. Progress, sadly, is neither linear nor inevitable. Setbacks do occur. Terrorism is one of the few areas where violence is becoming worse, although it remains rare. For example, you are much more likely to die of a disease, in an accident, or from an ordinary homicide. 

To meet the challenge posed by terrorism the rest of the world may need to think outside the box. Even one violent death is too many. Still, we must not lose sight of the fact that though some violent fanatics may stand athwart the trend towards greater peace and tolerance, violence is slowly retreating.