Once a year, around Christmas, I usually write a column about how things are really not as bad as we think they are. I cite many of the socio-economic trends identified by Steven Pinker in his defence of progress, “Enlightenment Now”. World poverty halved a lot faster than we expected back in 2005 when Make Poverty History’s white-clad campaigners encircled Edinburgh. The world is demonstrably less violent than it was even 25 years go, with fewer wars, both civil and interstate. On the whole, we’re getting safer, healthier, wiser, wealthier, more equal and even happier, despite the traumas we read about daily in the press and on social media.
Responses to my annual exploration of the wisdom of Pangloss range from: “So why do you write about crises and negativity for the other 51 weeks of year?” to “How can you ignore poverty, domestic abuse, climate change, Brexit, Trump and the manifest inequality of neo-liberal capitalism”. I answer the latter by pointing out that I do write about precisely these things, week in week out, rather than things that are going right in the world. I do this, largely, because that’s what people want to read about. Newspapers know this from their market research. People tend to click on negative headlines, and I’ve heard circulation managers actually say that editors should accentuate the negative to boost readership. This isn’t as bad as it sounds.
There are good reasons why people tend to read about problems rather than solutions, and it’s not just because we’re hard-wired to be on the lookout for threats to our own wellbeing. Things may well be going reasonably well for most of us, but morality urges us to care about the people who are getting sicker, poorer and for whatever reason are leading miserable lives. It is surely right that we pay attention to issues like climate change, animal welfare, domestic abuse, opioid addiction and other modern scourges. That indeed seems to be the essence of the humanism which Steven Pinker advocates.
The problem, of course, is one of balance. And I would have to agree with Pinker that we’ve been getting things out of proportion in the last decade or so and since we became hooked on social media. We talk of epidemics of this, and plagues of that, without ever considering what real epidemics and plagues were like. We make efforts to believe things that aren’t true because we fear being held to ridicule or accused of having right wing sympathies. Pinker has been accused (wrongly) of being a racist because he points out that black suspects are no more likely to be killed by police than whites; a misogynist for recording that rape and violence against women has been falling for decades; and a climate-change denier for arguing that only technology can reverse it. Yet, all he’s really doing in this book is warning the media against the seduction of catastrophism.
“Not every problem is a Crisis, Plague, Epidemic or Existential Threat”, Pinker writes, “and not every change is the End of This, the Death of That, or the Dawn of a Post-Something Era. Don’t confuse pessimism with profundity; the problems are inevitable, but problems are solvable, and diagnosing every setback as a symptom of a sick society is a cheap grab for gravitas”. Every journalist and newspaper editor ought to have that pinned to their desk. Progress is not a myth, it is the inescapable reality of modern history, and we conspire with the enemies of humanism and social welfare by indulging in hyperbolic negativity.
However,, while I endorse his rejection of catastrophism, or “anxiogenic progressophobia” as he puts it, I don’t agree with everything Mr Pinker writes. He underestimates the social impact of economic inequality, when he argues that it is a price worth paying for the decline of absolute poverty. I think he is over-optimistic about the prospects for economically viable and safe nuclear power. And while I share Pinker’s dismay at the growth of safe spaces and no-platforming in universities, I think he exaggerates the totalitarian takeover of the humanities. Mind you, his vast army of critics on social media seem determined to justify his claim by insisting that this classic left-liberal intellectual is an alt-right fellow traveller,or worse.
Pinker is the archetypical Centrist Dad that left-wing Millennials lampoon for having a naïve belief in things like freedom of thought and freedom of speech. Feminists would accuse him of mansplaining. Others say his understanding of the Enlightenment is naïve, complacent, and that he misunderstands the writings of philosophers like Nietzsche. To which one can only say that he’s right about the important things. It is hard to dispute his central thesis that the systematic application of scientific reason has led to an explosion of prosperity and wellbeing over the past 200 years. And it’s not over till it’s over. We have every reason to be broadly optimistic about where society is going.
“Enlightenment Now” is a gold mine of startling graphs and killer facts about about the way we live now, and unlike so many of his denouncers Pinker writes with great clarity and not a little humour. He drowns modish pessimism in an ocean of good sense and empirical evidence. Everyone with an interest in how society is evolving should read this book and, just for once, be enthralled by what humankind has actually achieved in the age of reason.
“Englightenment Now – the case for reason, science, humanism and progress.” – Random House/Penguin. This review appeared in the Herald on 10/3/18