Violence and the good old days  


In Ecclesiastes 7:10 we read -

'Do not say Why were the old days better than now? because it is not through wisdom that you ask this.'

On the other hand it is true that the present is not uniformly better than the past.  Without doubt, my mother and my mother-in-law think that the emphasis on sex in so many programmes on the TV is proof that society is degenerating.  They are also very concerned about the level of violence which we perceive in society today.  There isn't a day which goes by without a report of violence on the street, on the football field or in the home.  The newspapers tell us that we are going to hell in a hand-basket and it is a major preoccupation of the electorate at every general election. But perhaps we ought to pay more attention to what the writer of Ecclesiastes said. Because it seems that our impression of the world is false and not just in a minor way.

Where to start? With the long view. Maybe it is Rousseau's fault, who saw primitive man as a 'noble savage' and as superior to 'civilised man'. There is still a wish amongst environmentalists and others to think that the further our civilisation advances, and so moves away from nature, the worse it becomes. There is certainly a view that we should be more like the noble savage. We do, in fact, have some modern 'savages' in the rain forests of New Guinea and the Amazon. It is reasonable to think that their ways are similar to those of their ancestors. They are still hunter-gatherers who live in the same forests with none of the trappings of modern life. Anthropological studies have however recorded the percentage of male deaths through inter-tribal warfare recently in 8 different tribes. The percentage varies from 15% to 55%. In contrast we see an average male death-rate in Europe and the USA by reason of war in the 20th century of only 1%. And lets remind ourselves that this period includes two incredibly costly world wars. We can see therefore that violent death is an integral part of being a noble savage but a much more unusual event in the West where we live our lives so distanced from nature.

But why is there so much violence in the forest? According to the anthropologists, the answer is because, in a forest, it is not possible to know when another tribe will attack you. And as we all know, the best form of defence is attack. It is better to seek out the other tribe in order to take them by surprise before they can do the same to you. It is reasonable to think that the same result was arrived at when the same calculation was made during the Stone Age by their ancestors. Perhaps then the idea that modern society corrupts us by widening the gap between us and nature is just as great a myth as that of the noble savage.

And we can look at other telling numbers. There are figures which trace the changes in the rate of homicide from mediaeval times until modern times in Europe. Figures have been collected by researchers from various sources, including local courts of the various eras and official registers of births, marriages and deaths. The actual rate of homicide varies according to the country in question, but there is a similar variation in all of them.

Let's start with the 13th and 14th century. The rate of homicide in Europe as a whole was 32 per year per 100,000 people. This had dropped to 19 in the 16th century, 11 in the 17th century and finally to 1.4 in the 20th century. In fact we had a rate of homicide in the UK in 2010 of only 1.17 per 100,000 people - a thirtieth of the rate 600 years ago. Obviously though we have a news industry which spreads the news a lot more quickly than in the 13th century. So then we are more conscious of the homicides, not only in our immediate area, but also on a national scale.  From which comes our erroneous impression that we live in a world which is more violent now than it has ever been.

So then, how come our behaviour has changed so much (for the better). There are several possibilities. In a society in which there was no effective system of justice, it was up to each individual to protect his rights as he saw fit. And the evidence shows that there was a tendency in such circumstances to act in a way which we would consider excessive. It had the side-effect that the cycle of violence, in the form of revenge and feuds, would continue. A parallel factor was the importance of the twin concepts of 'honour' and 'insult'. We see this in the plays from that era where a character's honour is of supreme importance. And the contemporary records show that an insult to someone's honour was one of the main contributors to the starting of fights and, in turn, murders. The importance of honour was indeed generally accepted, by society and even by the courts - to kill someone because of an insult to one's honour was only punishable by a fine. It seems therefore that the decline of honour as part of our cultural code in regulating our lives was actually very significant. Fortunately, nowadays, an insult is no longer a matter of life and death.

So how do we explain this change in the way we see things? According to the figures, there was a more rapid reduction in protestant countries with their emphasis on personal responsibility and without the escape route of the confessional. But there's another possibility.  The change may be an example of the 'meme' proposed by Richard Dawkins. As we know, his idea is that not only a gene, but also an idea (a meme) can be self-propagating. Like a gene, a meme has to be better adapted to survive than other competing ideas. Granted the obvious peril involved for those participating in the idea of honour as all-important, one can conjecture that the meme of 'honour' in ancient civilizations has gradually been pushed to one side by less dangerous notions which are therefore better adapted to survival. What we now have is a meme which requires an attitude which is less aggressive but which depends for its continued existence on well-organised state justice.

But here we should sound a note of caution. When the politicians and journalists give us the impression that the state is ineffective, that criminality is rampant and that society is 'broken', then there is the real possibility that the meme which has in fact functioned so well will be seen as ineffective. In which event it may well be replaced by another: by one which again appeals to the less peaceful side of our nature.  By misrepresenting the present, we risk going back to a past when society really was broken.


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