By NICHOLAS D. KRISTOF
Published: November 23, 2011
It’s pretty easy to conclude that the world is spinning down the toilet.
So let me be contrary and offer a reason to be grateful this Thanksgiving. Despite the gloomy mood, the historical backdrop is stunning progress in human decency over recent centuries.
War is declining, and humanity is becoming less violent, less racist and less sexist — and this moral progress has accelerated in recent decades. To put it bluntly, we humans seem to be getting nicer.
That’s the central theme of an astonishingly good book just published by Steven Pinker, a psychology professor at Harvard. It’s called “The Better Angels of Our Nature,” and it’s my bet to win the next Pulitzer Prize for nonfiction.
“Today we may be living in the most peaceable era in our species’ existence,” Pinker writes, and he describes this decline in violence as possibly “the most important thing that has ever happened in human history.”
He acknowledges: “In a century that began with 9/11, Iraq, and Darfur, the claim that we are living in an unusually peaceful time may strike you as somewhere between hallucinatory and obscene.”
Still, even in a 20th century notorious for world war and genocide, only around 3 percent of humans died from such man-made catastrophes. In contrast, a study of Native-American skeletons from hunter-gather societies found that some 13 percent had died of trauma. And in the 17th century, the Thirty Years’ War reduced Germany’s population by as much as one-third.
Wars make headlines, but there are fewer conflicts today, and they typically don’t kill as many people. Many scholars have made that point, most notably Joshua S. Goldstein in his recent book “Winning the War on War: The Decline of Armed Conflict Worldwide.” Goldstein also argues that it’s a myth that civilians are more likely to die in modern wars.
Look also at homicide rates, which are now far lower than in previous centuries. The murder rate in Britain seems to have fallen by more than 90 percent since the 14th century.
Then there are the myriad forms of violence that were once the banal backdrop of daily life. One game in feudal Europe involved men competing to head-butt to death a cat that had been nailed alive to a post. One reason this was considered so entertaining: the possibility that it would claw out a competitor’s eye.
Think of fairy tales and nursery rhymes. One academic study found that modern children’s television programs have 4.8 violent scenes per hour, compared with nursery rhymes with 52.2.
The decline in brutality is true of other cultures as well. When I learned Chinese, I was startled to encounter ideographs like the one of a knife next to a nose: pronounced “yi,” it means “cutting off a nose as punishment.” That’s one Chinese character that students no longer study.
Pinker’s book rang true to me partly because I often report on genocide and human rights abuses. I was aghast that Darfur didn’t prompt more of an international response from Western governments, but I was awed by the way American university students protested on behalf of a people who lived half a world away.
That reflects a larger truth: There is global consensus today that slaughtering civilians is an outrage. Governments may still engage in mass atrocities, but now they hire lobbyists and public relations firms to sanitize the mess.
In contrast, until modern times, genocide was simply a way of waging war. The Bible repeatedly describes God as masterminding genocide (“thou shalt save alive nothing that breatheth” — Deuteronomy 20:16), and European-Americans saw nothing offensive about exterminating Native Americans. One of my heroes, Theodore Roosevelt, later a winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, was unapologetic: “I don’t go so far as to think that the only good Indians are the dead Indians, but I believe nine out of ten are, and I shouldn’t like to inquire too closely in the case of the tenth.”
The pace of moral progress has accelerated in the last few decades. Pinker notes that on issues such as civil rights, the role of women, equality for gays, beating of children and treatment of animals, “the attitudes of conservatives have followed the trajectory of liberals, with the result that today’s conservatives are more liberal than yesterday’s liberals.”
The reasons for these advances are complex but may have to do with the rise of education, the decline of chauvinism and a growing willingness to put ourselves in the shoes (increasingly, even hooves) of others.
Granted, the world still faces brutality and cruelty. That’s what I write about the rest of the year! But let’s pause for a moment to acknowledge remarkable progress and give thanks for the human capacity for compassion and moral growth.