Many journalists and academics feel compelled to grapple with the problem of violence in the world today. In part it comes out of the shocking spate of terrorist acts we have been witness to in recent times in Europe – Paris, Nice and now Saint-Étienne-du-Rouvray to mention but a few – as well as the ongoing war in Syria, the millions of refugees, the police and related sniper attacks in the US, and even the stabbings in Japan.
Many seem to agree with the Harvard psychologist, Steven Pinker, who claimed in his book, The Better Angels Of Our Nature, published in 2011, that the modern world is more peaceful – that is, less violent – than at any other period in our history.
This claim seems to fly in the face of recent trends. David Hammond reported in The Telegraph two alarming figures: that 180,000 people were killed in internal conflicts in 2015, a number 3.5 times higher than in 2010; and that deaths from terrorism have risen five-fold over the past 15 years.
Conflicts in Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan, and organisations such as Isis and Boko Haram, about which we have heard a great deal, no doubt help explain much of that violence. So, is the world more violent? Let me answer the question this way.
First, it depends on what kind of violence we are referring to. In France, since the beginning of 2015, 239 people have been killed in terror-related incidents, and another 588 wounded. That makes for a staggering if not horrific figure, but compare it to the number of women killed during that same period by male violence in France. In 2014, 134 women were killed by men. That is an average of one woman killed every 2.6 days. If we were to calculate the number of deaths based on those figures from the beginning of 2015 to the end of July 2016, around 218 women would have been killed through male violence.
That is almost as many as the spectacular attacks in Paris and Nice, and yet we hear little about it. Nor do we hear much about the 223,000 women, according to the ministry responsible for family affairs and women rights, who are physically or psychologically abused by their partners in France every year. That figure would be in the millions if we took into account the whole of the EU.
The figures for rape are just as appalling. In Australia, the reported number of rapes (the implication being that many go unreported) in 2010 was about 28 in 100,000. In Sweden, with one of the highest rape occurrences in the world, it is closer to 66 in 100,000 and almost double that in South Africa. 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).
It also depends on where in the world we are talking about. As much as the attacks in France have received mass media coverage, similar attacks elsewhere in the world have received almost none. Who recalls the horrific attack at a university in Kenya in April 2015 that left 147 dead? Who has even heard of the village of Baga, in Nigeria, where as many as 2,000 people were killed by Islamic terrorists in the same week as the Charlie Hebdo attacks in January 2015? How many of us were aware that the week before the November 2015 attacks in Paris there were two suicide bombings carried out in Beirut that killed over 40 people? In Syria, of course, deadly attacks are a daily occurrence. The UN envoy has estimated that over 400,000 people have been killed since the beginning of the conflict.
And yet the figures journalists and some academics invariably trot out 'prove' that we are heading towards a brighter, more peaceful future. Now let me answer the question – is the world getting more violent? – in a different way.
Try telling someone in Honduras, with the highest murder rate in the world (85 in 100,000) they are living in a peaceful world. Try telling a woman in South Africa, where as many as one in every three will be raped at some point in their lives, and one in six is in an abusive domestic relationship, that the world is getting more peaceful.
The world has always been violent and it always will be. The question of whether there is more violence in the world today is not a particularly useful one. A better question would be to ask why the world is more violent at particular times, in particular regions of the world.
'Wife beating', for example, was an expected part of male behaviour from ancient times to the twentieth century. A sudden change came about in the second half of the twentieth century in the western world. Similarly, corporal punishment of children was not only accepted but expected in Anglo-Saxon schools right up to the 1960s. Hitting children in schools was only banned recently in Brazil but is still practised in Malaya and Egypt.
The point is that attitudes towards violence change over time. What might be acceptable in one part of the world in one culture is not in another. Those kinds of questions can be applied to the spate of terror killings in Europe today. Why is it now that Muslims kill in the name of their religion? Why is it that attacks are occurring in France, which by the way has a long history of terrorism going back to the 1960s, and not say in Italy or Spain?
The answers, to state the obvious, all have to do with race, gender, politics and even foreign policy. The key is to place recent events in context, and sometimes that means going back in history in order to better understand why violent eruptions occur. Every act of violence has a history.
Philip Dwyer is a professor at the Centre for the History of Violence at The University of Newcastle, Australia