Wednesday, 19 February 2014

The Good Old Days Fallacy

     I've recently read Steven Pinker's The Better Angels of Our Nature, a fascinating book about the decline of violence in the world. He spends a few chapters simply trying to establish that violence is declining, historically, because to most people, that sounds patently false. How can the world be getting less violent, when every day we hear on the news about some fresh new atrocity? It wasn't like this when I was a kid!
     Well, no, it wasn't. It was actually worse, what with higher crime rates, various local wars and genocides, all against the backdrop of two superpowers threatening each other with nuclear weapons. And of course, it was still worse, going back a generation to the World Wars. The pattern breaks here and there, but over centuries it's consistent and undeniable. But why do we so consistently have the opposite impression? Why do I have this sense that the world is more dangerous today than it was when I was young?
     One obvious explanation is that our world is much more interconnected today. Whether or not violence is more rare, we have almost instant live reporting of it now, so we are drawing our experience from a much larger field.
     I think this is probably a big part of it, but it seems to me there may be another even simpler explanation: the cumulative nature of history.
     Consider: when you're born, you have no history. Nothing has happened to you yet. And the odds are, you probably won't be affected by crime or violence for some time yet. Even in violent times, parents tend to try to shield their children from exposure to such things.

     So when I was little, sure I knew there was such a thing as violence. But murder was just something that  people did in carefully calculated schemes that were almost but never quite clever enough to prevent Columbo from figuring out who did it in time for the closing credits. War similarly was known only from toys and historical dramas. I suppose I had heard mention of the Vietnam War, but it felt no more immediate to me as a child than the Boer War. The only actual violence I encountered then was the occasional spanking. The world I lived in was peaceful and free of crime.
     Of course, it wasn't actually. As distant from my consciousness as Vietnam was, I did not know at the time that there had been a real possibility of my father being drafted to go fight there before moving to Canada. And in 1965, the year I was born, there was a terrorist bombing at the downtown airport, which I only learned about just now as I was writing this post by googling for "Edmonton murder 1965" to get some idea of what the actual crime rate was. I had never heard of this! How many other noteworthy crimes and acts of violence took place while I was growing up, that never impinged upon my consciousness?
     In the sixth grade, I got into my first actual fistfight. The fifth grade bully had, I suppose, established his dominance over all the fifth graders, and as one of the meeker sixth grade boys, I was the next rung on the ladder. Unfamiliar with schoolyard fight protocol, I didn't realize I was supposed to wrestle him to the ground and claim victory by pushing his face in the dirt, so knocked him down with a punch to the jaw. So shocked at this exposure to genuine violence, and affronted at having been forced to harm someone, I was the one who was crying, which I vaguely remember him trying to cite as proof he had beaten me. But the world had become, for me, a more violent place, because the sixth-grade me had been in a fight, while the younger version thought such things the stuff of fiction.
     Around that time, I'd suffered other blows to my innocence. One night, someone in a truck had made the rounds, stealing almost every bicycle in the neighbourhood. Another day, someone walked off with my cheap plastic sled from the toboggan hill. So I could point to examples of how the world was nastier than when I was younger: I'd been a victim of two thefts and an assault.

     And the list just keeps on growing as I get older. I met my first murderer in university, though I didn't find out he was a murderer until he disappeared from our social scene. A few months later, a friend reported having seen in the paper that this fellow had lost his appeal and been sentence to life in prison for killing his wife! None of us had even known that he'd been married. (A few years later, it just so happened that my crim instructor in first year law was the same lawyer who'd defended him.) Several years ago, there was a fatal stabbing in the parking lot of my local supermarket, three blocks from my house. Two years ago, a shooting just down the street. And of course, with live reporting of breaking news, events that happen far away now register on my consciousness with greater immediacy than when TV was young.

     The point I'm making is this: every single experience of violence is like a scar in memory, and we tend to judge how violent the world is by how many such scars we have. My 5 year old self had no scars. My 10 year old self had two or three minor scrapes. My  20 year old self had those two or three minor scrapes, plus another 10 years worth of randomness. My 25 year old self had all of that, plus the scar of having known an actual murderer. My 30 year old self had all that, plus having watched O.J. Simpson's white Blazer in real-time fleeing the police. The actual rate of new scars has been declining, but since the old ones don't disappear, my memory is much more full of nasty incidents today than even five years ago, and so I sense the illusion that the world today is more dangerous than it was.

    What I like about this explanation is that it holds true in any age. If you look through writings of a hundred or a thousand years ago, you can almost always find someone complaining about how the world is getting worse, and kids today are disrespectful and unruly and society is going to hell blah blah blah. If that were so, this'd have to be the worst time in all human history to live. Somehow, though, I don't think that's a viable claim to make.

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