Being pessimistic isn’t so bad after all

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Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker is making the media rounds again, this time talking up his new book “Enlightenment Now,” in which he argues that humanity’s embracing of Enlightenment values led to the present being the greatest and safest time to be alive.

Ever since the publishing of his 2011 book “The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined,” Pinker has made something of a side job of reassuring us that everything isn’t so bad. His arguments usually go something along the lines of, “Yes, things are bad at times now, but at least smallpox and widespread interpersonal violence are things of the past, right?”

There’s nothing wrong with being thankful for the ways in which the human experience has improved since ancient times through advances in medical technology.

Where optimism like Pinker’s falls short is in offering us instruction for dealing with contemporary injustice, inequality and exploitation.

I’ve long thought that pessimism is underrated. We’re in a period of national decline and global instability. The threat of nuclear warfare could kill us all tomorrow, and perhaps millions of deaths are already certain to result from the irreversible effects of global climate change. Despite how far we’ve come and how much progress we’ve made, we still face social injustice and violence on a global scale. And yet those cheerful contrarians among us can’t help but remind us how much worse things used to be.

In his work, Pinker basically looks at the history of human suffering and argues that the sum total of human violence, health problems and early deaths are lower, in relative terms, now than they have ever been. He argues the decline in open warfare, interpersonal violence, death from disease and the abolition of slavery have all led to the present being the best time to be born, all things considered.

But to make this argument work, Pinker has to come up with some strained definitions of “violence.” Pinker is often challenged on this, and critics view him as ignoring modern institutions like human trafficking and mass incarceration.

Largely sticking to the dictionary definition of violence as a physical assault or violation of one person by another, Pinker brushes these criticisms off by simply saying that he wasn’t talking about that kind of violence.

The most obvious blind spot in Pinker’s arguments without a doubt is war. Pinker argues, correctly, that modern conflicts are relatively limited when compared to historical total war scenarios. This framing of war hides an inconvenient fact for Pinker’s brand of “the past was worse, so don’t complain about the present” optimism. The technological and military advances he cites as “limiting” warfare actually make it possible for more people to be killed during the capturing of a single city than would have died from all causes during an entire year of our distant hunter-gatherer past.

Pinker also has to be challenged on the moral arc that his work implies. While he himself argues against this interpretation, it’s easy to read his work and come away with a sense of slow but steady and inevitable progress. Recent events should have hammered this home to all of us, but there is no set arc of moral progress for us to adhere to. We’re just one bad news cycle from falling for another demagogue who will abandon those enlightenment values that Pinker sees has being humanity’s salvation and guiding light and set us on a regressive path.

Optimism may help keep people sane and happy, but pessimism gets stuff done. Pessimism keeps us from being satisfied with bread crumbs in the face of massive systemic inequality, exploitation and violence. It keeps us worried for our future, and that’s a good thing considering the climate change cliff that world leaders are driving us off, or the nuclear brinksmanship that somehow hasn’t already wiped us all out.

If, not knowing the kind of person I would end up being, I had to choose what time to be born in, I fully concede to Pinker that I would choose the modern era. I can’t live without modern convenience, and it’s pretty nice not having to worry about botulism in our food.

However, it’s important to not let comfort and progress blind us to the areas where we’ve fallen short, or to the experiences of those who do not enjoy the same level of modern comfort and safety as we do.

Counting our blessings is good, even healthy, but resting on our Enlightenment laurels is inexcusable while there is still one person suffering from poverty or violence.

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