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Tracking Global Violence: Are things Getting Better?


Since September 11th, and perhaps before, conventional wisdom says the world is going to hell in a hand-basket. But it is? Not necessarily. The data shows that in the case of violent conflicts things are actually getting better. According to the Human Security Report,

Without new superpower "proxy wars" starting in the Third World, overall armed conflicts have fallen by more than 40 per cent, and extremely violent conflicts -- those with 1,000 or more battle deaths -- have dropped by 80 per cent... International arms transfers, defense budgets, armed forces personnel and refugee numbers have also all decreased.

The study, funded by five governments and led by Professor Andrew Mack at the Liu Institute for Global Issues at the University of British Columbia (my alma mater), concludes that global institutions have made a difference. It finds "that the best explanation for this decline is the huge upsurge of conflict prevention, resolution and peacebuilding activities that were spearheaded by the United Nations in the aftermath of the Cold War." So the UN and other national and local interventions, however imperfect, can take some credit for these improvements -- a piece of PR they sorely need when our impressions of these institutions is poor.

This positive news shouldn't be too surprising. At the very least we shouldn't be surprised that we're surprised by the gap between what we perceive and what is in fact happening on the ground. By now we should all have a healthy distrust for how the global media distorts our interpretations of reality, and how politicians and even international agencies have been quick to leverage the techniques of fear-mongering for their own purposes, a classic play out of any Orwellian hand-book.

Yet curiously, people are surprised. More that that, their reactions have been visceral and contentious, which is interesting in itself. As Deborah Jones reports in the Global and Mail (November 15, 2005), "Reaction to his report ranges from disbelief to relief to scornful dismissal. Those on the political right and left each accuse him of siding with the other."

The Trouble with Positive News

People's reaction to this study is not just about the findings. Something else is going on -- something more emblematic about how we deal with good news in general these days -- but what is it? Turns out the possible answers are multifaceted. Turns out underneath the content lurks several worldviews in collision.

But let's start with this specific case: the Human Security Report. Like many divisive issues today, part of the problem is a lack of long-term data which is considered valid. Until this study (and this is shocking) there was no reliable information that tracked global conflicts and political violence around the world, something Professor Mack discovered when he went to work for General-Secretary Kofi Annan in 1998. In the absence of a discussion rooted in some facts, misinformation starts driving our perceptions. As Professor Mack says, the information that has been used to date conjures "a picture of global security that is grossly distorted. But they are widely believed because they reinforce popular assumptions. And they often drive political agendas." (While the State Department has collected some data since 9/11, Mack thinks it's pretty poor stuff.)

Yet the reasons why good news is hard for us to absorb, intellectually and emotionally, go even deeper. This has to do with cultural mindsets and cognitive biases in how we perceive the world. Compared to base politics and the structure of global media (obvious places to point fingers) these "mental map" factors are harder to pin down.

Taking a long view helps. For instance, the idea of decline and pessimism is part of an enduring tradition in Western thought, a historical legacy most people don't know about. Fortunately, Arthur Herman's excellent book, The Idea of Decline in Western History, educates us about this meme and its consequences for today. As Stewart Brand summarizes in his review:

Big pessimism has a sordid lineage. When 19th century romanticism turned gloomy and escapist in response to the failure of the French Revolution, the rejection of the Enlightenment turned increasingly toward rejection of contemporary civilization and commerce. From then to now, elaborate, often racist, theories of history were conjured up to show how the decline of society was inevitable, being destroyed from within by Jews, or blacks (later whites), or crass bourgeois, or wimpy liberals, or businessmen, or technology, or whatever. Leading intellectuals of Europe and America adopted the pose and the notions--Jacob Burckhardt, Friedrich Nietzsche, Sigmund Freud, Henry Adams, W.E.B. Du Bois, Oswald Spengler, Arnold Toynbee, and on to Marcuse, Sartre, Foucault, Fanon, and many of my fellow environmentalists.

Far from some distant force in the past, this meme is still framing our public discourse and habits of thought. Whether it's amongst the intelligentsia or with friends at a cocktail party, positive interpretations of the human condition are considered "un-intellectual" and "not serious" irrespective of the facts at hand. We are socialized to think that Pollyanna's are mental pansies at best, or just plain foolish. It's just cooler, and easier, to be the dark brooding type deconstructing our reality, instead of offering something more generative.

These are generalizations of course. These propensities vary widely across the Western world and beyond. Compared to East Coasters, California-types do tend to be more optimistic and future-friendly. Even though this sense of possibility and openness drives innovation and risk-taking in socially useful ways, the "Californian way" is routinely ridiculed as being too flaky, too inexperienced, and too ignorant of the hard realities of the world. While this stereotype is somewhat deserved (and can be annoying), these so called negative qualities seem to deliver the goods. Somehow these dope-smoking, new age, intellectual light-weights have managed to create a region that has been one of the most influential generators of ideas and wealth in recent history. Go figure.

To make matters even more complicated, our trouble with internalizing good news is also rooted in our cognitive apparatus. As a foresight practitioner, I've noticed that groups have a hard time imagining the upside scenario. Almost always people discount positive scenarios at first because they are considered to be less believable, even though in many instances it is just as plausible as any other possible future. This is counter intuitive because the positive scenario is often the most strategically advantageous of all the outcomes, yet decision-makers naturally resist it. While individuals may perceive themselves as optimists, in a group setting the alchemy changes. Rather, what executive teams seem to want these days is more pain and more negativity to wallow in -- what I've privately called "corporate S&M." Just call me Mistress Nikita! (And no, I'm not serious, even though I'm sure it would be a lucrative niche market :)

The psychology of risk literature is helping me understand this tendency better. Turns out we are more concerned about risks that may lead to losses than risks that lead to gains. In other words, we feel the pain of losing far more than the benefits of winning something, all other things being equal. This strange asymmetry was first noticed by Daniel Kahneman and his colleague Tversky, which they explained through their prospect theory, a descriptive and empirical set of ideas that won Kahneman the Nobel Prize in economics (even though he is a psychologist.)

Can negative thinking be good?

I've always thought that critics are just natural pessimists. Their job is to look for flaws, challenge assumptions and social expectations, so that we can find ways to better the world. I always figured I'd be lousy at this since I was a "glass-is-half-full" kinda gal. But critics aren't always pessimists, and pessimists aren't always good critics. Moreover Herman helped me understand that not all pessimists have the same goals:

The historical pessimist worries that his own society is about to destroy itself, the cultural pessimist concludes that it deserves to be destroyed. The historical pessimist sees "disaster in the pole star," as Henry Adams put it: the cultural pessimist looks forward to disaster, since he believes that something better will arise from its ashes.

Today, I see many activists and critics using "disaster as a pole star". Good news is often received badly by some of my activist friends because to publicly admit some things are getting better would let themselves and society off the hook. What's needed is constant vigilance and pressure towards fighting for a better world. What's required is solidarity with those billions still in need. And then there is the pesky issue of funding: bad news sells so much better when it comes to grant-writing and budgeting time.

Of course, optimism can also be a special form of denial, pernicious and maladptive in its own way. Willful wishful thinking is rife in our society -- often when politically expedient -- especially when it comes to some of our most challenging problems around resources. Anti-climate change lobbyists seem to be particularly skilled at employing the "everything will be fine" tactic. An argument can also be made for negative thinking which has been championed by some psychologists like Julie Noreum. Her book, The Positive Power of Negative Thinking (which I haven't read) positions itself as an antidote to the modern pressures of having to be positive about everything (this is an American audience, obviously. In France, the odd-balls are the optimists.) She promotes the practice of "defensive pessimism", a strategy of imagining the worst-case scenario of any situation.

In a similar vein, Joshua Wolf Shenk's article in The Atlantic Monthly, Lincoln's Great Depression, argues that the President's clinical depression enabled him to transcend conventional wisdom and perceive the dark reality of a divided nation, which in turn gave him the tools and courage to manage the civil war. While I don't necessarily agree with this interpretation, this thesis has been the talk of the blogshere.

Indeed, it's hard to deny the long connection between melancholy and genius. Any doubts I had were dispelled by a recent exhibition at the Grand Palais in Paris, "Melancholy: Genius and Insanity in the West" (travelling to Berlin shortly) which dramatizes this point with 250 works from antiquity, the Middle Ages, the Renaissance, the classical and Romantic eras to modern times. As Art Lovers' Paris says,

"Before the sciences were separated, melancholy was the state of mind that could touch in passing vast subjects such as philosophy, theology, literature, medicine, psychology and the arts. It was called the ‘sacred illness’, which is today referred to as ‘depression’ without taking into account its positive aspect, its mysterious duality."

In resolving these dilemmas, we are stymied again by language. The word "optimism" or phrase "positive thinking" is problematic with too much baggage. It's also culturally relative. The definition of optimism, for instance, is "a tendency to expect the best possible outcome or dwell on the most hopeful aspects of a situation." Attributed to Leibnitz (1646-1716) , it's a belief that the universe is improving and that good will ultimately triumph over evil. This definition clearly doesn't work for our moment in time, not that it worked for the Enlightenment period either, clearly deserving Voltaire's satire in Candide -- the story where we get the cultural icon of Dr. Pangloss from.

I prefer how the Chinese have defined optimism with two related but different words. The first word is more akin to the English definition; it's a naive hope for a better future regardless of the reality of the situation. The second word means looking at the reality of a situation as clearly as possible, and even if it is grim, and still be hopeful and open to possibilities. It's this that we need more of.

Studies on what makes individuals "resilient" confirms the merit of the second Chinese definition of optimism. Resilient people tend to have three things in common: they have a strong value system and ability to make meaning out of life; they are excellent improvisors and adaptors given life's events; and they are good are perceiving the reality accurately, for better or worse, in any given situation. As Diane Coutou tells in How Resilience Works (Harvard Business Review, May 2002), the so-called optimists are the least resilient if their view of reality is out of step with their context. In studying the histories of the American prisoners during the Vietnam War, the hopeful ones who thought they would be home by Christmas were the first to crash and burn. They didn't make it. In the wake of 9/11 I've noticed similar pattern amongst executives, leaders and colleagues who were diehard optimists. For a while, they all kind of become emotionally unglued, and some of them in my view haven't quite been the same since.

The science of decision-making is also helping us distinguish between adaptive and generative strategic thinking. Adaptive strategies are all about securing our survival or the status quo, whereas generative strategies are about creating new possibilities. An adaptive posture is where Julie Noreum, our wannabe "negative thinking" guru, is right (at least partly). In fact, cognitive paleontologists, the folks who study how the human brain has evolved, argue that this negative default is hardwired to some degree because our brains were formed during times of tremendous uncertainty and adversity -- namely, the last major ice age. Evolutionary speaking, our survival was more dependent on our ability to think about negative contingencies rather than positive ones, which makes some sense.

By contrast, for generative thinking, a positive frame of reference pays off. In tracking brain waves and through other experiments, cognitive psychologists demonstrate that we perceive more options and opportunities when we're in a positive mindset, and far fewer when we're in a negative or depressed fame of thinking. Moreover, therapies that force us to dwell too long on the past (like many psychoanalytical techniques) can make us too passive about our future and embittered by our victimhood. Our lived experiences confirm this as well. We've all felt a deep sense of "stuckness" when we're depressed, that dark place where solutions seem elusive and where every option seems either wrong or undesirable.

Given the challenges at hand, we need both adaptive and generative thinking strategies. But we'll get much more leverage if we emphasis the generative modus operandi because this is the mindset that will give us the kind of step-change in human ingenuity needed for a better future. Adaptive thinking will only help us react to the status quo, not reinvent our relationship to this planet. And it certainly wouldn't hurt to celebrate some successes in a positive way if we are to maximize human potential. The news that institutions make a difference in combating political violence is key information that we can use to counterbalance all of those memes that say the UN doesn't matter. And while we are at it, let's toast all of those millions of unnamed civil servants, activists, journalists, NGO workers in the trenches, and academics like Professor Mack in the trenches for helping build the foundations for a shared understanding of what is and isn't working when it comes to ensuring human security. (Mack, by the way, is already working on next year's report which will look at the hidden costs of war, such as famine and disease, noting: "We have no data on the numbers of people who die indirectly in war.")

The biggest obstacle, however, is to find a way out of this current policy climate of doom-and-gloom. A tall order, I know. But just like how a depressed mindset affects the quality of our decision-making, we simply can't afford the consequences of undue negativity: the apathy, the fatalism, and a very narrow interpretation of the alternatives we have for improving our situation. No wonder we find it tough crafting systemic solutions that get to the causes-of-the-causes of political conflict!

Lastly, as responsible change-makers in the 21st century, I think we need to forget this simple negative-positive, optimism-pessimism divide. We to recapture some of the pre-modern "mysterious duality" that drove the insight of our most cherished artists. We need to borrow that Chinese definition of optimism, a concept that lets us live in the shadow of the lightness and darkness of our situation, the ambiguity within us and around us, even though this is discomforting -- a posture described in Zaid Hassan's eloquent essay The Embrace of Unhappiness. While I have not read fellow contributor, Alan AtKisson's book, Believing Cassandra: An Optimist Looks at a Pessimist's World I suspect he might also have some wise things to say about this mindset dilemma.

But who says it best? One of America's most prolific and staunchest critics, Noam Chomsky -- not exactly a poster child for rosy interpretations of the world:

Optimism is a strategy for making a better future. Because unless you believe that the future can be better you are unlikely to step up and take responsibility for making it so. If you assume there is no hope, you guarantee there will be no hope. If you assume there is an instinct for freedom, there are opportunities to change things, there’s a chance you may contribute to making a better world. The choice is yours.

It's a choice I have to make everyday. How about you?

Bookmark and Share


Ms. Boyer, thank you for this incredibly lucid, thoughtful, and timely piece. I'm bookmarking it and sharing it with my friends.

Posted by: six on 6 Jan 06

Beautiful and eloquent. The world both is what it is, and our mindset helps make it what it is.

Understanding this seeming contradiction is a lifelong task, the end product of which is called "wisdom." I will try to remember your wise words.

Posted by: Kim on 6 Jan 06

We need this kind of violence box score at regular periods so that we can have some kind of feeling for how inhumane humans are being.

How's making the dashboard display for Spaceship Earth?

Posted by: gmoke on 6 Jan 06

A wonderful essay.

My brow furrowed at the beginning a little, especially regarding 'The Idea of Decline in the West', and Brand's review of it. It seems to me that the Idea of Progress is just so entrenched and dominant in the West that there will naturally have been a counter-trend of pessimism all along the way (and, inevitably for a view counter to the "good" and "right" mainstream, horribly intermixed with some very unsavoury views). I wonder about the extent to which "this meme is still framing our public discourse and habits of thought", simply because it's easier for us to notice how memes that counter the status quo affect us. The dominant memes are largely an invisible sea we swim in. And I find it hard to conjure a more optimistic view than the free market idea that everyone is a rational agent.

Anyway, it was heartening in the extreme to find this simplistic critique quickly balanced and complexified by the genuinely insightful ideas that followed. Thanks.

Posted by: Gyrus on 7 Jan 06

Great article, very enjoyable reading.

People want to be negative. I think it gives some people a kick out of 'claiming to be able to see that things are going bad and getting worse'. Maybe they feel more intelligent than the average person because they claim to be able to see something that others can't.

Take a look at those from the Peak Oil camp. According to them, the world will go to armageddon and everyone will end up living with third-world living standards, and there's nothing anyone can do to stop it. They think by spreading the word all over the internet, they are 'smarter' because 'they saw it before the goverments did'.

Posted by: Richard on 7 Jan 06

"Pessimism is the 'new black'"
Paul Hawkin, at GreenBuild Conference last November

For me, I'm with the cognitive paleontologists: survivors look for trouble and work to avoid it. Pessimism takes that natural adaptation and internalizes it to expected/projected outcomes. It's our line of least resistance and can become an excuse for not working for change.

Posted by: Jeffrey Swainhart on 7 Jan 06

Philosophical points about pessimal and optimal thinking aside*, I want to comment about the news that started Boyer's essay.

Let's also remember that, so far, we've managed to avoid another global war. It's weird how quickly people forgot how recently the Cold War ended and how the threat of nuclear exchange has receeded somewhat.

* Zen and Taoism are two good examples of how some Eastern philosophy tries to transcend the artificial dualities that our brain is predisposed towards making. The yin and yang, another Chinese concept, contain a little bit of each other. There is also the cliche about the Chinese word for crisis being composed of the words for danger and opportunity. (Which by the way, is wrong.)

Posted by: Pace Arko on 8 Jan 06

Thanks for drawing our attention back to the story about a decrease of political violence, which is an important headline worth digesting.

I had debated not turing this into a "philosophical essay" and just focusing on the facts in the report. But instead used this case as an illustration of a broader phenomenon, especially since posting positive stories is WC policy -- something that's always good to debate now and again.

Posted by: Nicole Boyer on 8 Jan 06

Thanks for drawing our attention back to the story about a decrease of political violence, which is an important headline worth digesting.

I had debated not turing this into a "philosophical essay" and just focusing on the facts in the report. But instead used this case as an illustration of a broader phenomenon, especially since posting positive stories is WC policy -- something that's always good to debate now and again.

Posted by: Nicole Boyer on 8 Jan 06

"Take a look at those from the Peak Oil camp. According to them, the world will go to armageddon and everyone will end up living with third-world living standards, and there's nothing anyone can do to stop it. They think by spreading the word all over the internet, they are 'smarter' because 'they saw it before the goverments did'."

Richard, the kind of people you are talking about are extremists, even among peak oilers. The loudest nutcases always gain the most attention, but the average 'peaknik' simply does not think in the way you describe. Then again, the last sentence of your post I partially agree with. There are quite a lot of people who spread doomsday scenarios just to feel they are somehow special, but they exist within all kinds of groups, not just peak oilers.

Posted by: Oliver on 8 Jan 06

thank you for your point, oliver. extremists and those looking to say 'i told you so' to the world come in all stripes. i think the idea of peak oil and the mindset of 'peak oilers' are both extremely pertinent to this discussion.

many of the doomsday scenarios championed across the web evidence the sort of pessimism that is reactionary rather than reactive, and which has always gone on, as Herman points out. but many sober (rather than melancholic) thinkers subscribe to some form of peak oil belief and do so based on the best available evidence. rather than originating merely and always from a half-empty glass, pessimism can in some cases rest on a tendency towards prudence, and it is this sort of thinking that is in relatively short supply.

when the balance of data seems to point towards danger and hard times, as I beleive is currently the case, prudence will yield better and more appropriate options than will unbridled optimism. a world in which society must deal with security, equity, climate change, and all the other things that may or may not be getting better (but still need work) is one thing. a world in which we must do so in the context of constrained fuel supplies and possible economic disruption is another. the latter is darker, sure, and potentially quite depressing -- but likely. shouldn't we be ready to meet it?

as for WC's 'positive news' policy, i don't object per se. i just think that it needs to be challenged more often. the darker, arguable more realistic worldview (although 'worldview' really sounds more totalizing than what i mean) is not one without solutions. it just demands a different set of solutions, and maybe means they're harder to find. believing the world is in just such a pickle is not (always) equivalent to giving up. it's just another way of being open-eyed and earnest about human civilization getting through that pickle and emerging with a brighter future on the other side.

Posted by: aheartwell on 8 Jan 06

If you develop an ear for sounds that are musical it is like developing an ego. You begin to refuse sounds that are not musical and that way cut yourself off from a good deal of experience.
-John Cage (courtesy of Doug Ramsey)

My father, carpenter by trade rather than electrician, used to say that every negative has a positive, one just has to look for it. 'The dominant memes are largely an invisible sea we swim in.' I could not disagree less or agree more! Congratulations are in order for this thought-provoking piece of wisdom ...

CODA: There are times, however, when optimists should be shot ;-P The Greatest Czech of All Time

Posted by: jozef Imrich on 8 Jan 06

As I tolf my dad way back when of course the world will break. How else are we gona get a new one?

Doomsingers arnt pessimists they want the world to break so we can get a new one.

My mom for years tried to get rid of her ugly dishes by trying to break em.. they were supposedly unbreakable. She found a way. Likewise people WANT to break this world and find a new one. And they are finding ways. When enough people want a new world they can take the smallest crack and break the world with it.

Posted by: wintermane on 9 Jan 06

Things arnt getting getter violent people just are getting sneakier. You can kill 100000 people in total silence or kill 50 and it echoes across the world.

Posted by: wintermane on 9 Jan 06

Thanks Nicole for the excellent essay and to all for the discussion that followed. Evidence of the reduction of violence in a typical human life is all around us. The beautiful walled cities of Tuscany and in fact most ancient European town were not built as tourist attractions. There was a high probability of violent and frequent attacts by the forces of a nearby Duke or other charismatic or autocratic leader. I don't know about everyone else in this conversation, but when I go camping lately (the past century and a half) in North America it does not occur to me to throw up a stockade and post sentries all night while some of us sleep by the fire. Heck, Canadians, like you and I have been at various times in our lives Nicole, often don't even lock their doors.

I submit that even our failure to recognise the trends towards nonviolence, longer life spans, better nutrition and higher literacy rates for billions of people, and cleaner urban air and water in the major cities of the west and countless other trends can be seen positively. Our standard of what is expected and acceptable keeps rising. Violence, starvation and degradation of our natural life support system are not seen as inevitable or acceptable by many millions of us and we complain like hell about things that lead to that. The lack of satisfaction provokes noise which draws attention to the problems and sometimes sparks helpful action. May the standards continue to rise.

Posted by: David Berry on 9 Jan 06

When its quiet I get worried that something is sneaking up on me. My gut tells me something is wrong and to be careful and my gut is never wrong.

Posted by: wintermane on 9 Jan 06

Excellent and insightful article. In 2001, while working for a large corporation, there was no escape from what I termed (with apologies to Scott Adams)the "Dilbertization" of the workplace, where missteps were felonies and looking over your shoulder to guard your back was a more effective survivalist technique than looking forward--especially with optimism. In my view, 9/11 crushed what had already become a fragile structure, with reduced strength to quickly rebuild ourselves thereafter. The world has always run on "consumer confidence" in the face of difficulty. Intelligent optimism never belies facts; rather, it sees them in the light of their greatest potential.

Posted by: Jo on 11 Jan 06



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