In end-of-the-year phone calls from friends near and far, many express despair at the state of the world. I fully understand why, but I don’t accept their despair. In fact I can make a strong argument against it. Because what has changed is not so much the world itself, but our awareness of it.
A single click on the screen you’re looking at right now will bring you to visceral images from thousands of miles away. A Syrian boy’s body washed up on the shore of a Greek island. A young woman beaten to death and set on fire in Afghanistan after a malicious rumor that she had burned a Quran (which leads me to ask “and even if she had…?”). Crazed Israeli settlers celebrating a wedding by cheering the arson murder of a Palestinian baby. A white cop shooting a fleeing black man in the back. We focus on such images, and ask what the world has come to.
We forget where it has come from.
When Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker’s book The Better Angels of Our Nature came out a few years ago, I bristled at the pseudo-religious sentimentality of the title. (Okay, I still do.) But the book has stayed with me, along with its subtitle: “why violence has declined.” Yes, you read that right.
Pinker is no cock-eyed optimist: he’s an empiricist, and he spends close to 700 pages proving his point with data . “We can see our world as a nightmare of crime, terrorism, genocide, and war,” he writes, “or as a period that, by the standards of history, is blessed by unprecedented levels of peaceful coexistence.”
Now, it’s true “the standards of history” are pretty low, and that as Pinker himself notes, to make such a case in a century that began with 9/11, Darfur, and Iraq could well be seen as hallucinatory, even obscene. But it’s also true that despite what we see on the news, more people live more safely than ever before.
The difference is that now we know about violence. News spreads almost instantaneously. Cellphones are everywhere. Images are captured in real time, and seen in real time. And it’s only human to focus on these images.
So how do we deal with so much knowledge? How do we go about our lives with this awareness?
Outrage, shock, and even despair all seem to me healthy reactions. Because they are reactions, and not so long ago, there were none. White cops once shot unarmed black men as a matter of routine. Refugees have drowned and starved in far greater numbers in the past. Women were once set on fire in Massachusetts as well as in Afghanistan. And massacres were by the thousands, even without the aid of guns. But all of this was hidden from immediate consciousness. Such events once passed for the most part unnoticed, unreported, unremarked upon until far later.
And more important, we didn’t see the violence. We didn’t have the evidence of our eyes. Now we do, and it encourages me that we are shocked. That we are outraged. That we do condemn. That we do care.
Evil can no longer take place under the cloak of silence. We hear it, and we see it. And we speak up against it. We are all witnesses now. And as witnesses, we will step forward.
And yes, despite the evidence of our eyes, this is progress.