Progress vs perception


This is just a quick observation, not a full post. Reading Facebook posts today, I observed more than one person complaining about the state of crime in America and “all the crazies out there these days.” This type of discussion is a bit irritating, knowing how simplistic that view is. 

I’ve noted this before, but it bears repeating. Crime (violent and property), death by war, death by disease, infant mortality, and a general tolerance for cruelty have steadily dropped pretty much every decade since the Renaissance. Other than the occasional obvious upticks (1940’s come to mind), per capita death and destruction has greatly improved through the years. In every objective measure, humanity is becoming more humane. This trend has been observed by multiple historians and social scientists. 

So why do most people I talk to think the opposite? Why does it feel to so many that humanity is backsliding? I see Facebook posts from people freaking out about a single crime (not realizing that it’s notable because it’s rare) and talking about wanting to buy a gun, or move away, or decrying the state of the world, and so on. Why is it that life is getting measurably better, and yet so many feel the opposite? 

Certainly, cruelty and misery do exist, and we have yet to actually resolve the problems of war, hatred, and bigotry. Conflicts pop up on both national and international scales, seemingly weekly. 

Clearly the speed and responsiveness (if not always accuracy) of the modern media play a role. We see events as they happen, in multiple formats, compared to just a decade ago, or a few decades ago. Going back even further, before the advent of the telegraph, news of major world events may not reach other nations for days or weeks. Our interconnected global community is a factor.

It can’t be only media, though. There must be other reasons why a sizeable percentage of the most powerful nation on Earth believes that the world is collapsing into oblivion. 

In the American context, that perception of widespread crime and misery can actually become self-fulfilling. Modern American gun culture has long and complex origins, but much of the current popularity of private firearms ownership is directly related to fear of crime. However, American firearms ownership (and increasingly lax regulation) is possibly the biggest reason for America’s comparatively high murder rates. While murder rates have dropped in the last couple decades, Americans still kill each other (and usually with guns) far, far more than other wealthy democracies. The persistent gun culture deserves much of the blame. Now, I don’t want to turn this into an anti-gun treatise, and I do have a much longer gun-related post in the works. That will turn into a big debate soon enough. There’s quite a bit more to discuss regarding American gun culture and firearms policy. However, I can’t help but note some of the correlations between American fear of violence, and the perpetuation of said violence.

Beyond the near-instantaneous media, and certain cultural pockets that perpetuate the negative perception of the state of humanity, there must be another cause for our pessimism. Is there something ingrained in us to assume the worst? Could the long history of violence and misery that has punctuated civilization have caused humanity to reflexively see the world in a negative light? Perhaps our brains have evolved toward feelings of general pessimism. 

For those who do believe the worst, and who assume that the world is going to hell in a handbasket, I recommend some good reading (and one listen). 

Atrocitology by Matthew White, is a fun, comprehensive, and somewhat morbid look back at the worst atrocities (wars, famines, etc) in human history, with a general theme of refuting the notion that the world is a deadlier place in the 20th and 21st centuries. 

The Progress Paradox: How Life Gets Better While People Feel Worse, by Gregg Easterbrook, is a more recent look at (mostly American) history, and how trends in the quality of life are moving in a positive direction. It analyzes how better lives aren’t improving happiness.

The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined, by Steven Pinker, is perhaps the best book of the three. It argues, using comprehensive data,that we currently live in the most peaceful time in human history, and the likely trend is for a continuation of this improvement. 

Finally, here is a recent podcast from containing an excellent conversation that discussed, among many things, why people often struggle to believe certain statistics, including why crime rates are down across the country, despite our fears to the contrary.

I would argue that it does little good to assume the worst, but the books and podcast listed above explain why better than I do.

About hbreck

Writer, debater, contrarian, storyteller, occasional troublemaker. I'm mostly just making things up as I go.
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2 Responses to Progress vs perception

  1. Pingback: The Politics of Fear | A Skewed Perspective

  2. Pingback: It’s the end of the year as we know it | A Skewed Perspective

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