Tag Archives: optimism

I Want To Believe…

Stephen Pinker is one of those academics who has learned to communicate with a much broader public than is served by obscure academic journals. A recent, long article in The Guardian profiled him and the string of books he has authored over the past 25 years.

Pinker has written popular books on language, the mind and human behavior–books that reflected his scholarship– but he is best known for what the Guardian called his “counterintuitive take on the state of the world.” In other words, he is focused on the good news rather than the bad–a posture I find incredibly appealing. (Okay, I’m desperate for good news…)

In The Better Angels of Our Nature, published in 2011, Pinker examined mountains of data that showed a steady decline of violence across human history. He attributed that  decline to the emergence of markets and states. (It reminded me of Benjamin Barber’s observation that wars between countries that both had McDonalds were very rare…)

Then, in 2018, at the height of Donald Trump’s presidency and amid the accelerating climate crisis, Pinker published a follow-up, Enlightenment Now, which expanded his argument. It wasn’t just that life had become less violent; thanks to the application of science and reason since the 18th century, the human condition had dramatically improved in health, wealth and liberty, too.

According to the Guardian article,  the turning point in Pinker’s career arrived in 2007, when he was prompted to answer a simple question: “What are you optimistic about?”

The prompt was part of an annual symposium for the website Edge, run by Pinker’s literary agent, Brockman. Pinker’s 678-word answer was that violence had declined across human history, an argument he expanded over the next four years into the 696-page book Better Angels. “A large swathe of our intellectual culture is loth to admit that there could be anything good about civilization, modernity, and western society,” Pinker wrote in the book.

The article describes Pinker as standing “athwart the stupidification of public discourse–as  a defender of reason and objectivity.” That self-image led to the writing and publication of  Enlightenment Now, which I read a couple of years ago, and which Pinker himself has described as his “theory of everything, or almost everything, or at least a lot”. I strongly agree with the values that book endorsed–values that emerged from the Enlightenment and that are currently under attack by people on both the Right and fringe Left.

In the book, he argues that, along with liberalism, the Enlightenment gave rise to three main values – reason, science and humanism – that led to the massive improvements he charts in the human condition. These improvements were not only material but moral, as people began to expand their circle of moral concern to those beyond their own family, tribe, nation or species. It was his wife, he said, who convinced him that these values were “worth singling out and defending”.

Pinker offers a robust defense of liberal democracy, and the “mixture of civic norms, guaranteed rights, market freedom, social spending and judicious regulation, held together by a state strong enough to keep people from each other’s throats.”

I don’t agree with all of Pinker’s positions (nor, admittedly, am I familiar with all of them). The critics who point out that progress rarely comes from those who are cheerleaders for the path we are on have a point. His friendship with the detestable Alan Dershowitz also suggests some blind spots.

But Pinker isn’t blindly optimistic.  He concedes that we are living in a precarious moment–a time when advances in human wellbeing are under threat. He assigns primary importance to the political battle being waged against “the Trumpist, authoritarian, conspiratorial right.”  But he also worries that too many factions on the left see the world as a zero-sum battle for supremacy among different racial, ethnic and gender groups.

The (very lengthy) article ended with a quote from Pinker that was emblematic of our areas of agreement:  “Who’s going to actually step in and defend the idea that incremental improvements fed by knowledge, fed by expanding equality, fed by liberal democracy, are a good thing? Where are the demonstrations, where are the people pumping their fists for liberal democracy? Who’s going to actually say something good about it?”

Who is going to march for moderation, civility and common sense?

Who is going to the ramparts to defend science and reason and liberal democracy? Who is going to remind us that, over time, those products of Enlightenment philosophy have vastly improved the human condition? Who is going to protect us against the barbarians who are so close to the gate?

I so want to believe that sane Americans are going to rise up and shut that gate…


Looking For Omens

My husband frequently tells me that my posts to this blog are “downers.” Of course he’s right–but in my defense, any age that includes the election of someone like Donald Trump (no matter how accidental or non-reflective of the majority’s choice) is a “downer” age.

The question we face–as Americans, as humans–is: how do we make things better? ( I should stipulate that I mean my version of “better”– not David Duke’s or Pat Robertson’s or the other “Make America Great” supporters of our demented President. My version is a kinder, less hateful, more equal society.)

It is a truism that lasting social change ultimately depends upon widespread cultural shifts. Laws prohibiting discrimination are important, for example, not because they effect overnight change, but because they begin the much slower process of changing people’s attitudes about what is acceptable behavior. (As anyone with eyes can see, that process is still very incomplete.)

The MeToo# movement would have been incomprehensible to my mother’s generation, and is somewhat startling to mine; only after millions of women entered the workforce (a phenomenon that was only possible when reliable birth control allowed us to manage our reproduction) did the overall culture begin to shrug off retrograde beliefs about gender roles–beliefs mostly rooted in religion– and begin to understand the importance and nature of gender equality.

As Kurt Vonnegut would say–and so it goes.

I’m currently doing research for a book (tentative title: Governing the Brave New World), and I am seeing emerging signs of positive culture change/paradigm shift. Some examples are broad acceptance of same-sex marriage, even among younger Evangelicals; growing recognition by businesses that they have responsibilities to employees, customers and their communities as well as their shareholders; men’s endorsement of movements like #metoo and white support for #blacklives matter; rising levels of civic engagement; and diminishing religious fundamentalism.

Much of this is still tentative. Much of it is triggering furious backlash. But it’s there.

There are theories about generational change that suggest political shifts occur every 40 years or so. I have no idea whether the “bright spots” I see are part of this relatively reliable turn toward a reasonable politics or a harbinger of something larger.

What evidence is there for (cautious) optimism?

I often think of a poem my mother (a definite pessimist) would recite: “Twixt optimist and pessimist, the difference is droll. The optimist sees the doughnut, the pessimist, the hole.”

I realize that some regular commenters on this blog are predisposed to see only the hole. (If I saw the world the way Todd evidently does, for example, I’d kill myself.) A number of the people who comment on this site, however, see both the doughnut and the hole, and I’m directing this question primarily to them–although I welcome a response from anyone who wants to weigh in.

What are the omens of positive culture change that you see? What are the indications that America is emerging from the past quarter-century or so of the “me, myself and I” attitudes that have made phrases like “public service” an oxymoron and caused people to sneer at the very idea of the common good? (If at all possible, provide sources for those sightings.)

What are the “uppers” that you see? Inquiring minds want to know!