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…


  1. The question was posed:
    “Who is going to march for moderation, civility and common sense?”
    These are the things I see in the Biden/Harris victory.
    ….moderation, civility and common sense….
    I HOPE they are given a chance to succeed.

  2. Who indeed are going to close the gates to protect science and liberties? The anti-vaccination group? The so-called “militias” who distinguished themselves on January 6? They are the kinds of people who get headlines, because the media love sensational stories. Perhaps the (what once was called) “Silent Majority” will step up, but there does not seem to be a thread connecting them, as there is (thanks to social media) for the other groups.

  3. Search ‘braver angels’ for a nationwide group founded to bridge tha gap. An active group is functioning in Bloomington. Where else?

  4. I would have to delve a little deeper into Pinker’s theories to see what the fuss is about, but clamoring for moderation reminds me of asking for the status quo. If you take a snapshot of the status quo or where we stand now, it is not an optimistic picture, so he might be somewhat delusional.

    I posted a survey yesterday where half the youth asked about civilization on this planet said it is doomed because of our poor stewardship. I believe Greta Thunberg told the folks at the United Nations that our youth was not going to wait for you to get your shit together.

    I agree with the youth’s sense of urgency since we’ve intentionally wasted four decades or more appealing to the profit maximizers who run the US/UK imperial states. China and Russia have dragged their feet as well, but they are in a position to make decisions and move their countries on a dime versus ours.

    I am optimistic with our youth since they appear to be much more woke to their connectedness. It’s as if they’ve been chosen to usher in a new period of Enlightenment.

    Also, to those who clamor for moderation on this blog, please pay attention to who just salvaged Biden’s economic plan. I’m not sure if he wanted to get the whole thing passed, but the moderates he offered it up to just got smoked by the Progressive Caucus. We need more victories from Progressives who serve the people, not the profit maximizers.

  5. Dog bites man = not news. Man bites dog = news. We don’t celebrate the ordinary, because it’s just there and we rarely even think about it even though we rely on it more than anything to make life okay.

  6. 2000 years ago we were told that we are our neighbors keeper. The Covid virus has reminded us of the power of 1:1 contact. I believe the formula for turning back the barbarians is me deciding to love rather than hate, to share that experience with my neighbor/family/friends, and to do so daily. We cannot move multiples, but we can individuals… and that ripple of ones can grow in a synergistic way. Like Pinker, I choose optimism. Is my head in the clouds? Yes, but that’s where the wind of change is. Sounds trite, but it’s true….choose love….and share it.

  7. An interesting essay today, Dr. Kennedy, but I have to say this:
    I do think that human history has remained pretty constant because human attitudes and motivations don’t really change that much.
    There has always been ‘progress’, even during the times that later came to be thought of as ‘dark’. After all, the Dark Ages, did lead to a great development in the re-organization of societies, and with the feudal system, did provide for ways for people to survive invasions of the ‘barbarians’, but at the cost of reducing societal knowledge and thrusting it into the hands of “The Church”.
    Later, as wars became for violent, humans began to re-act, but sadly, one of the ways they re-acted was to become even MORE violent.
    A study of the 20th century may well result in it correctly being called “The Century of Blood”, for at the same time that science was giving us atomic bombs, it was giving us penicillin and other miracles.
    But, in the end, humanity has never accepted there being those 2 sides to every invention, step of progress, or improvements of anything. To wit: the main result of progress in medicine has led to us not even consider that if death is reduced, so must the introduction of new life, and this has given us such an over population of the earth that our very survival as a species is now in question.
    So, IMHO, the 2 sided thing is still with us, but still not accepted. And the only thing that DOES change are the levels of optimism vs. pessimism. And right now? Think of it this way: after the exuberance of developing a huge number of TV satellites so we may each have just the channels we ourselves want to watch, we have to deal with a humanity that has divided itself into two groups of viewers – those who love lies, and those who depend on truth. And on it goes.

  8. The media makes it hard for me to believe that violence has lessened over the centuries especially when I think of Syria, Yemen, Ethiopia and Eritrea, gun violence in the U.S., terrorist violence, violence against women and girls.

    I will say, though, that the advances in medical science during my life have been amazing. The rapid development of an effective, safe vaccine for COVID is a perfect example. Many surgeries are now completed in an outpatient setting and with the use of scopes has decreased the need for long incisions.

    I do think our world is in a major transition due to the fact we are being compelled by global warming to change from our use of fossil fuels to energy sources that are much more sustainable. I hope we move fast enough on this transition. I often feel sad about all this because we have known for decades that we needed to make this energy transition and did not do so because of corporate greed.

    I see advances in civil rights for people of color, women, and the LGBTQIA community( at this rate our desire to be inclusive will lead us to have the whole alphabet). The Me Too movement has led to the exposure of violence against women by powerful men. And still, I know we have a long way to go with ensuring equal protection under the law.

    I recently subscribed to a Good News group that shows acts of kindness etc every day. I just found out Australia has given a rain forest back to the Aborigines. Yay!

    What we imagine, what we focus our minds on has a direct impact on our mental and physical health. I know this because I had the wonderful opportunity to work with biofeedback early in my career. Want to bring your blood pressure down? Pet a cat or dog and watch something funny or inspiring.

    Thanks Shiela for sharing something optimistic.It’s a breath of fresh air.

  9. We are observing the end of the Reagan Consensus, where Capitalism prevailed and social progress was not a priority. In the next 40-60 years, we will, hopefully, see more social progress and the excesses of capitalism will be curtailed, (I hope.)

  10. I do not know how anyone can say:
    “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.”

    There were the Napoleonic Wars, WW 1 and WW 2. Each war increased the intensity of violence beyond what had occurred before. The colonial wars extinguished millions of lives around the globe.

    Since WW 2 the USA has been the chief purveyor of violence around the planet: Vietnam, and now the war on terror.

    Wealth has increased however we see it concentrating at the top, to the point where we have Mega-Billionaires having their own space race.

    Marvelous advances have been made in Medical Science. The “However” is you can avail yourself of the advances, If and Only If You can Afford It.

    Bottom line for me is There is a Lot of Work to be done. Unfortunately, we have elected politicians that are more concerned with their own petty efforts at wielding power in an effort at self-aggrandizement.

  11. Robin – not sure there is less violence; with mass media and the internet, we just hear more about it. It is a bit of a moot point. Check movies, TV, gaming, protests, etc. – violence is much more accepted as “the way of the world” – for me, that makes that world less civil and it is impossible to see it going back…

  12. I don’t see how it’s possible not to see the correlation between civilization and human knowledge. I don’t see how it’s possible not to see that we, here, now live more comfortably than all of the humans who proceeded us. How can comfort not correlate with the explosion in human knowledge revealing to us that there are no limits to how our species can live in ways that allow everyone to live as we the fortunate live? Perhaps the reason is that we have been led off the path to success and being comfortable is not our purpose but merely a mirage obscuring our purpose. Is it too late to reprioritize accomplishment as our goal instead of comfort? Perhaps comfort is just a business and not a goal.

  13. Braver Angels is a group that is gaining a lot of traction and engaging both the Red and Blue in civil conversation and rigorous debate at the grassroots level and are forming in many states. They are really on to something it seems. Check them out.

  14. There is a extensive body of criticism of Pinker’s work. Not surprising, since he has strayed far beyond his areas of academic expertise. Among other things, he appears to know little about the evolution of capitalism and he ignores the dangers of environmental and climatological tipping points—worse yet he appears to place all his faith in market-based solutions and technological fixes. No wonder he is the darling child of so many elites.

  15. I believe one big issue is the Dems have painted themselves in a corner. The Republicans are quite happy to see the circular firing squad the Democrats have settled into.

  16. While I like the idea of optimism, I don’t quite see things the way Pinker portrays it.

    I see “progress”, in a “progressive” sense, where the franchise has been expanded from white, property-owning, Christian males, and the social safety net has been expanded. I see strides to properly regulate the “free market” and in general, a reining in of the ability of the rich and powerful to stomp all over everyone else (although I may get some arguments on this last point).

    Still I don’t see this progress as a steady flow, but rather as leaps forward, followed by periods of push back.

    Ending slavery, trust-busting, women’s suffrage, the New Deal, Civil Rights legislation, the CFPB, gay marriage – these were all leaps, followed by push back.

    My point (echoing others) is that moderation doesn’t bring progress.
    “To everything there is a season and a time for every purpose….”
    There is a time for moderation and a time for change – now is a time for change.

    Clinton – liberals are bad; so is big government
    Obama – liberals are not bad, they are well-meaning but wrong and have no place at the table
    Biden – hey, some of these liberal ideas aren’t half bad

    Now is not the time to “be moderate” and pull back

    Rick Smith – Dems have always been a disorganized sort, not ready to fall in line behind their party leader – the circular firing squad was started by Blue Dogs, reneging on agreements they made with the Progressives, who (for a change) are firing back – ergo, our circular firing squad – unlike LBJ, I don’t think that Biden, for all of his experience, knows “where the bodies are buried” enough to bring the entire party into line behind his agenda. I share your worry about this big issue – maybe the most important one at the moment.

    Still – I like optimism.

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