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Thom Barker: It’s always the worst of times… or does it just seem that way?

Thom Barker
Thom Barker - Contributed

When I was in high school there was a group of us who fancied ourselves poets and artists and pacifists. One of the places conducive to highfalutin discussions on topics of politics and society and violence was art class, in which instruction was less structured and hands-on work could be completed while solving the ills of the world.

One afternoon our art teacher overheard our laments about what violent and uncertain times we lived in and weighed in on our discussion disputing the contention that the world of the late 1970s was as violent and uncertain as we were making it out to be.

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She was an older woman, although likely younger then than I am now. Even if she was in her late 40s at the time, she would have grown up during the Second World War, certainly violent times on an epic scale. Her point that really stuck with me, though, was how access to information can skew perspective. She rightly pointed that we lived in an incredible technological period when every home had a television, which, at any given time during around 16 hours a day, could broadcast a whopping nine channels, including news four times a day.

In her day, she had to go to the movies for the newsreels to get the latest and greatest news and even then it was well out of date. The difference in the world was not more violence, she said, it was more access to news about violence.

I can only imagine what she would think of the constant barrage of news (and misinformation and disinformation) today from 24-hour news channels and the minute-by-minute feeds on our ubiquitous hand-held devices. And, of course, following the time-honoured journalistic tradition of “if it bleeds, it leads,” a similar cadre of pacifistic high schoolers might conclude they live in the worst of times, both here at home and internationally.

In fact, they would be wrong on both counts.

From a mass violence perspective (i.e., war and oppression) the most violent period in human history was the first half of the 20th century according to many scholars. Despite the near daily headlines about conflict and oppression in parts of the world, statistics show we live in relatively peaceful times.

In terms of violence other than war, or interpersonal violence, Canada peaked in the 1960s and 1970s (perhaps we weren’t all wrong) and has been steadily declining since.

The two areas of violent crime for which that is not true are gun violence and sexual assault. Statisticians attribute the significant increase in sexual assault cases recently mostly to an increase in reporting as the stigma of doing so is slowly being lifted. The level of reporting remains low, nevertheless.

With gun violence, on the other hand, an increase of 30 per cent in violent crimes involving firearms over the five years from 2013 to 2017 is almost certainly is an accurate reflection of rising rates.

It’s pretty easy for Canadians to be smug about our record of gun violence compared to our nearest neighbour, but we should never compare ourselves to the United States.

The U.S. is the outlier among developed nations. It is the data point statisticians would throw out because it skews the mean.

The countries we need to be comparing ourselves to are the countries of Europe. Canada ranks fourth out of 31 in firearms homicide rates behind only France, Germany and Italy.

And it is on the rise. Now, most of that is coming out of Saskatchewan—where I can tell you having lived there less than two years ago, there are wide-spread, almost American-style, attitudes toward gun control—and Ontario. The Ontario numbers are coming mostly out of Toronto.

It’s pretty easy for those of us in the rest of Canada to be smug about our record of gun violence compared to Toronto, but Frederickton might have a little bone to pick with that right now. It’s a big city problem… until it’s not.

We need to stop thinking that we don’t have a gun problem and start thinking about how to fix it. There is a direct correlation between access to guns and gun violence rates. The countries with the strictest laws (Australia, Japan, UK) and the least number of guns, have the lowest rates. Are these people less violent? You know they’re not, and non-gun-related violence statistics back that up.

If you’re a hunter, the beauty of guns is their lethality. If you’re a society trying to stem the tide of people using guns for interpersonal violence—or self-violence, which is an even bigger problem (80 per cent of gun deaths in Canada are suicides)—the problem with guns is their lethality.

But the debate is going nowhere because we also have a perspective problem. In addition to unprecedented access to legitimate information, technology has given us a soapbox whereby the shrill voices of conspiracy, hate and disinformation are increasingly finding their way into mainstream politics and high political office. The polarization in positions is becoming entrenched.

The short-term trend in Canada is more gun violence, but the long-term trend is less. The short-term trend in the world is more frequent terrorist attacks, but the short-term trend is less large-scale war. Despite the carnage we see 24-7, we live in relatively non-violent times.

That can change, and probably will, if we don’t find a way to talk to each other pacifically.

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