Monday, 22 July 2013
EQUALITY AND VIOLENCE
I'm so sorry for the long gap... examining, sunshine, playing with my son... Anyway, I have lots of thoughts I want to share here, and lots of exciting trips to talk about.
A few weeks ago, I went to a brilliant conference on 'European Perspectives on Cultures Violence' at the University of Leicester. Since violence is the subject of my book, it was of obvious interest to me, and a great opportunity to think about cultures and roles of, and responses to, violence across a variety of societies and periods. It was everything a conference should be - some excellent and thought-provoking papers, a healthy level of disagreement, and really stimulating discussions over coffee... I came away with so much to think about.
The conference concluded with a talk by Peter King on levels of violence and how we might explain them. He took on the idea that the apparent decline in violence over time (diachronic) is connected to the trio of modernisation, industrialisation and urbanisation, and challenged it by considering whether it could explain differing levels of violence across space (synchonic). On the face of it, more modernised countries have lower levels of violence. But, when you look within those countries, historically, you find that the areas with the lowest levels of industrialisation and urbanisation tend to be the least violent. Of course, all these things are hard to measure, but the evidence looked pretty convincing. So, what other explanations might work?
King suggested that the most reliable marker of levels of violence, both historically and in the modern world, is inequality. Societies which can be deemed most unequal, according to a variety of criteria, tend to be the most violent (usually measured in terms of homicide rates). The most equal societies (and I'm afraid that the UK is not one of them) have the lowest rates of violence.
This is a correlation rather than an explanation. But surely the idea that inequality breeds hostility and tension is a no-brainer. Coincidentally, I've just been reading Wilkinson and Pickett's The Spirit Level: Why Equality is Better for Everyone, and the mass of evidence is pretty overwhelming - poverty alone isn't the issue - it's inequality.
Which makes it all the more extraordinary that we seem to be content to live in a society which is becoming ever more unequal (though in more insidious ways). And we look for ever-more complex ways to justify this. Or at least I thought we did. The other day when we took our son swimming at a beautiful lake: there was a special deal to park for £5, rather than the usual charge per head - I overheard a mother of two small children complaining that it was too crowded: 'They really should stick with the higher price to limit the number of people who come here'. Amazing.