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…