The violence paradox

It is a fact that the world is less and less violent. So why do we have the feeling that the world is more and more violent, when it is more and more secure?

By Mailys

I. The decline of violence

A. The decline of homicides

The common method to measure violence is to look at the homicide rate- war, murder etc. If you look at the homicide rate over a very, very long period of time, there is a clear trend: a steady decline. This is the observation reached by the economist Max Roser who, in studying the evidence of homicides on the skeletons of 26 archaeological sites, calculated the following rates:

violence paradox

Let’s take the United States and Europe from 1900 to 1960 — during the period of the two World Wars, which together accounted for several tens of millions of deaths. Will this be higher or lower on the graph?

violence paradox graph

Despite their weapons of mass destruction and their world wars, when compared to prehistoric societies, Americans and Europeans of the 20th century seem almost like pacifists…

In tribal societies, where the state was almost non-existent, revenge and self-defence was enacted through  violence.  Gradually, as societies evolved, states built their authority by assuming what is called the monopoly of legitimate violence. It meant that only the state has the right to resort to physical violence .

In his book The Civilization of Morals (“La civilisation des moeurs” in French), sociologist Norbert Elias shows how this control of violence has been gradually internalised by
humans. This is what he called the pacification of manners. In the Middle Ages a knight could kill without remorse or even sometimes without being punished. Little by little, however, this violence has become less socially and legally acceptable. And it is a phenomenon that translates in the figures, as shown by Steven Pinker in his bestseller The Better Angels of our Nature:Better of our nature

If we zoom into the 20th century, the rate of homicides linked to wars is also rapidly declining. Since the end of the Second World War, there has been an unprecedented period of peace, when no great power has entered the war with another great power.

‘In 2016, one is 500 times less likely to die from a homicide than during prehistoric times.’

B. The decline of other violence


Delinquency (excluding homicides) is quite difficult to measure. This is because complaints or convictions are not very reliable indicators. For two reasons:

– Today, people complain more easily for facts that they would previously haven’t even talk about.
– The policy of governments changes according to the time (increase or decrease of the
forces of the order, tightening or softening judicial processes, etc.), which impacts the
number of complaints recorded.

Then to measure this evolution more reliably, we must turn to another tool: victimization surveys. The idea is to interview each year a representative sample of the population on the violence they have suffered in the past year.

The United States (National Crime Victimization Survey) and the United Kingdom (England and Wales Crime Survey) were the first to use these surveys. What we are seeing is that after an increase in violence in the 1970s and 1980s, violence has drastically fallen since the 1990s…

The fact that delinquency is going down has been studied extensively in the United States but not every scientist will totally agrees. There are a lot of factors that come into account such as:
– Increase in Police and Prison Population
– Ageing of the population
– Securing our property
– Development of contraception and legalization of abortion (thesis advanced in the bestseller Freakonomics; the legalization of abortion in the 1970s avoided the birth of unwanted children, who would have been raised in more family difficulties context and therefore potentially more likely to become criminals).

II. Why do we feel that the world is more and more dangerous?

A. Reduced tolerance to violence

When Alexis de Tocqueville, one of the precursors of sociology, visited the United States at the beginning of the 19th century, there was something he did not quite understand. Indeed, at the time, Americans lived in a much more egalitarian and democratic society than Europe.

And yet: they are all very worried about the future. Why?
Here is his analysis:

“In a society, the lower the inequalities, the more intolerable the
remaining inequalities become”

What is the link with violence? Because a lot of sociologists (like Laurent Mucchielli for
instance) say that it is the same with violence. In a global context of pacification and where violence declines, this decline of violence is accompanied by a decrease in tolerance towards violence …

In other words, paradoxically, the more violence is diminished, the more sensitive one is to residual forms of violence… and the less one feels safe. Today, we are much less victims of physical violence but we are much more exposed to violence than in the past (through the news, TV,…). The systematic emphasis of sensitives and violent subjects distorts our perception of the world.

For example, look at these images and ask yourself what do you think is most likely to kill you this year?


B. Terrorism

On September 11, 2001, the United States was attacked at home on their territory for the first time in their history.
Where terrorism is scary, it is also that it changes the nature of violence. Before, the violence was perpetrated according to what an individual possessed or did. Terrorism, on the other hand, targets identities: it aims at what one is … and as it is random, one has the impression that it could all touch us.

And yet —
In the UK, over the last 10 years there’s been 1.4 deaths due to terrorism – which, means
you’re more likely to be killed by dog, hot water (100 deaths per year) or using your
phone while driving (2,920 deaths per year).

Indeed, speaking outside Downing Street, Theresa May condemned the London’s attack-
when a group of three terrorists used a van and knives to kill seven and leave dozens more injured – stating that “enough is enough”. But despite this latest attack, relatively few people have been killed by terrorist attacks in the UK in recent years.


In fact, there can be even more dangerous than terrorism: our reaction to the terrorist attacks.


“Terrorism makes relatively few casualties, does not damage the
enemy’s infrastructure, and yet it has maximum impact.” Noah Harari, La Stratégie de la mouche (The Fly Strategy) 

Because in fact, terrorism is like a fly attacking an elephant in a porcelain store. Its means are a little derisory but, if it does well, it can provoke a catastrophic reaction …
In fact, its impact depends less on the damage inflicted objectively than on the way in which people are reacting to it.

C. But why do the media talk so much about violence?

A journalist will never talk about trains arriving on time. They
want a story to tell.

And with our smartphones, we are increasingly exposed to medias, fake news and bad news. According to Mediametrie’s Media in Life study, with the appearance of smartphones, we are 30% more exposed to the media than 10 years ago, with more than 44 contact points per day.

D.Why this feeling of insecurity is dangerous

Because it is a risk of making the world really more violent. Indeed, by believing that our world is more and more violent, one could end up making it really more violent. I don’t known if you have realized, but after the last elections, these are the main leaders of the UN Security Council.hard line


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