How exactly is ours a better world?

Thoughts on 21st-century human behaviour

Today I heard about two girls in Abuja, Nigeria’s capital city, who went out yesterday and haven’t been heard from since.

Earlier in the week, I read this BBC article from last year on child abduction in the UK. Carried out by teenagers, no less.

Just around the turn of the year, a young man was brutally murdered not too far from where I live.

Events like this are troubling.

Not just because of how terrible they are (and they are terrible), but also because they raise the most unwelcome of questions:

Are we ever really safe?

Events like this are troubling because they are unpleasant reminders that just under the surface of our world, the same world we live in and work in everyday, evil lurks.

That’s not something anyone likes to think about. And understandably so: who wants to dwell on the possibility that the nice stranger smiling at you on the road today might have murdered someone just yesterday?

The thought is so terrifying, we simply refuse to think about it.

And it might make sense not to think about it too much, because we probably all know people who live their lives constantly thinking about these kinds of things. People who are so paranoid they seem to us unable to really live.

And it’s possible, you know. It’s possible to love life so much, you’re unable to enjoy it. (Some people who are like that with money—we call them misers.)

But for most of us, we tell ourselves these people are animals, and they don’t live in the same world as we do. We even have a name for their alternate universe: we call it the “underworld.” “Men of the underworld,” we say, and shudder as we hope never to come in contact one of these people who, surely, are inhuman.

Except, they are human. And they are part of our world.

We like to think the world is a safe place, and in many ways it is. It’s definitely safer in our days than it has ever been in the history of humanity. Never mind the way our interconnectedness overplays terrorism attacks and virus scares: previous generations lost far more people to war and disease and natural disasters every single year than we do now.

The world is safer than it has ever been.

The question is, is it safer because humans have become more enlightened, or because we have built better systems?

Many have argued for the former, but a number of factors would seem to give the lie to that—two world wars, ongoing violence in many parts of the world, the persistence of racism and a globally sweeping new wave of nationalism.

It’s more arguable, I think, that the world is safer not because humanity is inherently better (which is arguable), but because we have built better systems (which is inarguable). And not the least of those systems is a degree of widespread access to education and information unprecedented in human history.

If that’s the case, what happens if we begin to undermine those systems, as it seems we are doing now?

What would happen if we bottleneck access to information, define “truth” in the most loose ways, and undermine human rights and dignity?

What then?

Then again…do we really want to find out?

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