Monday, June 23, 2008

Your generation was more violent   posted by agnostic @ 6/23/2008 05:08:00 PM

Previously we found that your generation was sluttier, so we turn now to another great threat to civilization -- violence (between individuals). As before, our concern is with whether violent crime rates are increasing or decreasing, and not so much with the absolute level: it is easier to screw up civilization than it is to improve on it, so a decline can quickly snowball, while it may take much longer to restore things to their previous levels.

There are very good and very clear data on violent crime, so this post will be much more direct than the one on sluttiness. Let's begin with homicide. The Bureau of Justice Statistics, part of the US Department of Justice, has taken homicide data from the CDC's National Center for Health Statistics and put it into a straightforward graph. I see five trends in the graph: an increase from 1900 to the mid-1930s, a decrease from the mid-1930s to about 1960, an increase from 1960 to the late 1970s, a fairly steady high level (with oscillations) throughout the 1980s, and a decrease from 1992 to the present.

To be generous to older generations, let's say that much of this homicide is committed by 15 year-olds. That means that the cohort born in 1945 is responsible for the increase that began in 1960. I figure you have to be about 73 years old in order to decry how violent the younger generations have been -- certainly the Boomers and Gen X-ers cannot complain, while Generation Y should be thankful they've lived through such peaceful times.

The homicide data also caution against viewing the past with rosy spectacles -- there was nothing peaceful at all about the first third of the 20th century. Declinists who long for better times in the past seem to latch onto a fleeting period of rest and prosperity. That's fine, as far as worshipping one period over another goes. However, we should not think that we can easily maintain that level, whether through individual choice or institutional incentives, as oscillations and limit cycles appear to be the rule rather than the exception. We should aim instead to have a somewhat low level of Bad Things, with low-amplitude fluctuations, and not let the mere existence of waxing and waning cause us hysteria.

What about the intersection of sex and violence -- how have forcible rape rates changed over time? Again we turn to BJS data, although they do not go back nearly as far as homicide data, the earliest year being 1960. After retrieving data from this page, looking at the entire United States, forcible rape rate, from 1960 to 2006, I put them into a simple graph:

There are only two trends here: an increase from 1963 to 1992, and a decrease afterward. In fact, the two trends look pretty linear on first glance. The slope of the increasing trend is about +1.11, and the slope of the decreasing trend is about -0.85, confirming the hunch that the decline of civilization snowballs more quickly than its restoration proceeds. As with homicide, Boomers and Gen X-ers cannot complain about rape epidemics in recent generations. This is particularly true for the Boomers and Gen X-ers who manufactured and continue to prop up the myth of the campus rape crisis.

The BJS also has an index of "violent crime" that includes murder and non-negligent manslaughter, forcible rape, robbery, and aggravated assault. I used the same search function as for the rape rate graph, and the trends for this general violent crime rate look the same as the rape rate trends, so I won't include the graph. In brief, there's an increase from 1962 to 1991, and a decrease afterward.

As in the case of sluttiness, using popular culture as a means of taking civilization's pulse is highly unreliable. Before, we saw that slutty behavior has been decreasing even as perceived slutty appearances have been increasing. Here, we see that violent crime has been decreasing even as video games, movies, and TV shows have become increasingly violent. To pick just one example, gangsta rap was invisible during the 1980s and only became popular when Dr. Dre's album The Chronic came out in 1992, drawing ever larger audiences throughout the 1990s -- at the very time when violent crime was falling.

I don't believe that trends in real behavior and in popular culture are causally related in an inverse way either -- just that they are independent of each other. Cycles of fashion in the cultural realm are self-contained, and oscillations and limit cycles in real behavior are also self-contained, at least to a first approximation. I've read posts at Cognitive Daily that exposure to violent video games (and perhaps TV shows?) desensitizes people to violence within controlled, experimental laboratory settings, and that is an interesting finding. However, in examining the world outside of the lab, violent media cannot hope to account for even a trivial share of the variance across time in violent behavior.

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