Is the world really becoming less violent?
By Philip Dwyer, Director of the Centre for the History of Violence, University of Newcastle
There is a growing consensus among scholars that rates of violence in Western countries are steadily declining, and have been doing so for centuries.
The statistic used by most people who support this view is homicide rates. They have dropped dramatically from 100 for every 100,000 people in the 13th century, to ten in 100,000 by the middle of the 17th century (although it was that high in the United States only a few years ago) to rates of around one in 100,000 people in most Western countries today.
The argument that we are now a less violent world is compelling, but it raises more questions than it provides answers. In Australia, while murder rates have been steady for decades, assaults are on the rise – from 623 per 100,000 in 1996 to 840 per 100,000 in 2007. More young women are appearing before the courts than ever before for violent offences, and domestic violence has seen a resurgence despite the media awareness surrounding the issue.
In NSW, the problem of street violence has been brought to the fore recently by a number of high profile cases in the media. Young men who have either been killed (in the case of Thomas Kelly, who was fatally punched in Sydney's Kings Cross in July 2012) or put into comas after being "king hit", illustrate the extent to which street violence is prevalent in some areas in Australia's major urban centres.
The statistics tell us about the immediate causes of the violence, but very little about the mindset of the young perpetrators, usually men, and why they ultimately become violent.
There is a complex relation between violence and public drinking, which is embedded in Australia's history and culture. Regular violence in public drinking locations cannot simply be blamed on rowdy patrons or excused as something natural and unstoppable, and nor can it simply be blamed on irresponsible drinking. The drinking environment is an evolving historical and cultural product, which can be left unchanged, or altered for the better through education and legislation.
The outcry against these indiscriminate acts of violence demonstrates that the wider public finds them unacceptable. Attitudes towards violence are constantly changing, but not always in a positive direction. In the cultural domain, for example, schlock horror movies are more explicit than ever before and leave films like Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho and Quentin Tarantino's Pulp Fiction – both of which caused a stir in their day – looking very mild in comparison.
Conversely, what one generation may have accepted as perfectly banal (corporal punishment against children in the 1950s, for instance) may shock another, later generation.
And then there is the problem of violence towards women. The outcry over Nigella Lawson's husband, Charles Saatchi, "strangling" his wife in public has come to our attention largely because of Lawson's celebrity status. Violence against women, however, generally remains hidden. In India, as we have seen from several high-profile rape cases, sexual assaults against women are so common that the violence has become normalised.
In South Africa, women's organisations estimate that as many as one in every three South African women will be raped at some time in their lives, and that one in six South African women is in an abusive domestic relationship. That figure is across the political and racial spectrum, and does not take into account sexual abuse against children.
This is not a problem limited to developing countries. According to British government statistics, 80,000 women are raped every year in the UK, and 400,000 women are sexually assaulted. The numbers vary enormously from one region of the globe to another. A recent World Health Organisation study found that reported physical and/or sexual violence by an intimate partner for women aged between 15 to 49 years varied from between 15% (in Japan) and 71% (in Ethiopia).
Statistics on sexual violence are always underreported, and often hide much deeper social and cultural problems. The act of violence often mirrors prevalent societal attitudes that are entrenched and therefore difficult to move. Take American attitudes towards the death penalty – according to a recent Gallup poll, 63% of Americans support the death penalty. It is even higher, perhaps not surprisingly, among Republicans, 80% of who support the death penalty.
These figures in support of the death penalty have remained more or less constant since 1936. It correlates with America's love of the gun. A Gallup poll taken in December 2012 shows that despite the recent Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting, the number of Americans in favour of banning handguns has dropped to a record low of 24%, as compared to 60% in 1959. When asked if "assault rifles" should be banned, 51% said no, an increase of 9% since 1996.
Violence is, to a certain extent, a cultural construct. The act and perceptions of it change over time, so that each generation and each society decide what levels of violence are acceptable and what are not. The fact that violence appears so evident – we see it before us every day in the media – often hides the complexities involved.
Violent crime is largely the affair of young men between the ages of 20 and 30, who are often poorly educated and come from working class or poor backgrounds.
When young men are unhappy with their position in society, they are more likely to resort to violence when their self-esteem is slighted or challenged.
This suggests that violence is not a purely innate phenomenon and that it is also a question of culture and education. Cultural factors can play a determining role in how aggressive or violent a society is. Aggression, which is often mistaken for violence, can be contained by society and can be channelled into more positive activities.
In this, the role of the state and local community is fundamental. In countries where citizens identify with their local communities and where government is responsive and popular, levels of violent crime are relatively low.
Is the end of violence possible?
No, but cultures and attitudes can be changed by focusing, above all, on education, positive outlets for aggression, and community involvement.
Philip Dwyer receives funding from the Australian Research Council. He is Director of the Centre for the History of Violence at the University of Newcastle.
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