Stay calm, everyone 

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I was taking the dog for a walk near my home in Squamish last Friday when I saw a street fight narrowly avoided.

We were trundling past Howe Sound Secondary, where my son was meant to start Grade 11 on Tuesday, but the perpetrator wasn't some misguided youth.

There was a group of six or seven teachers picketing, with signs, chairs and a large pop-up tent erected to keep off the elements. Many passing cars beeped gently in support and were met with upturned thumbs and waves.

I was used to the scene; it had been going on for days, going on since late June.

Suddenly, a commotion. An older man pulled over across the street from the high school. He proceeded to berate the picketers, his voice quickly increasing in volume. Whether it was because he was an irate taxpayer who thought he was personally being ripped off, or because he was on the opposite ideological fence to the teachers, I don't know. It became surprisingly physical surprisingly quickly. He rushed about like an alpha gorilla.

The only male teacher present took the full brunt of his belligerence, and I was grateful he was there — and bigger than the angry man. (Full disclosure: I know the name of the male teacher, though he has not taught my son.) The teacher placed himself between the man and his female colleagues.

I watched the scene from across the street. My journo senses were tingling, especially after the first F-bomb was dropped, so I reached for my iPhone to take a picture and was annoyed with myself when I realized I'd left it at home.

The cursing didn't come from the teacher. Strike or no strike, I suspect he would have been in trouble if he had engaged with the man that way. Instead, I could hear him say things like, "Let's agree to disagree." He smiled at the older man, who was infuriated by this, and the swearing increased.

I thought of sprinting home for the camera, but didn't move in order not to miss anything. All the while, cars were driving past and gently beeping, their drivers unaware of the conflict.

This went on for about four or five minutes, but, thankfully, the final line into a physical fight was never crossed. The angry man, having vented his opposition to the strike in a grotesque way, went back to his car and roared off. And the picket was quiet again, though I suspect the nerves of the teachers were jangled.

Mine were.

I backed off; it was no longer a potential news story. I was grateful it wasn't because to become so would have meant it coming to blows.

But it is a talking point.

Steven Pinker, the Johnstone Family Professor in the Department of Psychology at Harvard University, recently delivered a lecture called "A History of Violence and Humanity" at the new Canadian Museum for Human Rights in Winnipeg, which was replayed on CBC Radio's Ideas program late last month.

He says humans are more likely than ever to deflect violence.

"Today, we're probably living in the most peaceful era in our species' existence," he said in his talk.

Pinker noted that until about 6,000 years ago, human beings lived chaotically, without central government. Statistics on the level of violence is possible to gather because archeological forensics counts showing how many people died of physical traumas in pre-history, for example, by arrow or by having their heads bashed in. Pinker estimates that up to 15 per cent of people back then died this way.

"Consider that in Europe and the United States in the 20th century, notorious for two world wars and many other wars, the comparable rate of death was six-tenths of one per cent... the highest credible estimate of how many people died in the famously violent 20th century... you can boost that rate up to about three per cent."

Of course, these improvements are not going to be a huge comfort when people feel threatened at home, at work, out on their daily business, or on the picket line.

Pinker says that what is key to the perpetuation of all these types of violence is a lack of empathy, and that the bonds created by trade and other human movements or activities helped transcend this lack of empathy.

It was that lack of empathy that was evident on the sidewalk in front of Howe Sound Secondary. I'm not talking about forcing an agreement between two fractious, diverging sides — I'm talking about basic, respectful rules of engagement.

However long this dispute goes on, this is what we need. A guy flipping out in front of a school would have had the police in attendance if it had happened with children present.

Was he never taught that sort of behavior is wrong? Lessons are needed.

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