Objectively things are generally better than ever. The problem is, life is by definition a subjective experience
By now, most of us are familiar with Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. Physiological needs necessarily come first, followed by the need to feel safe, loved, esteem, and finally self-actualization. These needs are typically visually described as a pyramid, with the most fundamental physical requirements of existence forming the base.
Our physical requirements also happen to be the ones that can be both most easily defined and objectively measured. The availability of food and water, for example, can readily be assessed by scientists and governments. The same goes for the availability of adequate shelter. Things like adequate educational opportunities and access to healthcare are only slightly more subjective and difficult to quantify.
But as we move into the psychological realm, things quickly start to get fuzzy. While everyone may be said to have intellectual and emotional needs, or even spiritual ones, how these are defined and satisfied can vary a great deal from one person to the next. There is no guarantee that satisfying the physical requirements of existence will lead to emotional or spiritual wellbeing.
However, we can be assured that failing to meet the physical requirements will make it extremely difficult, some would even argue impossible, to meet the needs Maslow placed at or near the top of his famous pyramid. As Gandhi once famously said, “There are people in the world so hungry, that God cannot appear to them except in the form of bread.”
Steven Pinker and others have recently spilled more than a little ink describing the objective conditions in which we currently find ourselves. Pinker, in particular, has made a name for himself laying out the facts about contemporary existence which, when compared to life not so long ago, is quite good by just about every measure.
But however real our progress as a species may be, as a felt force in our daily lives it’s a slippery fish that often gets away. Pinker puts it this way in Enlightenment Now: The case for reason, science, humanism, and progress:
But it’s the nature of progress that it erases its tracks, and its champions fixate on the remaining injustices and forget how far we have come. An axiom of progressive opinion, especially in universities, is that we continue to live in a deeply racist, sexist, and homophobic society — which would imply that progressivism is a waste of time, having accomplished nothing after decades of struggle.
This statement can be seen as somewhat problematic in so far as it’s possible for systemic racism, sexism, homophobia, etc., to remain even within a culture that has made incredible headway in these areas. Indeed, Pinker nowhere disputes the continued presence of these problems. However, talking about systemic problems generation after generation without also drawing attention to the progress society has made risks causing older individuals, in particular, to become somewhat numb. Without a grounding in a broader historical context, there’s a very real danger progressives might be seen as crying wolf because there’s too little regard for how the nature of our systemic problems has changed in response to various policy solutions or public attitudes over time.
In addition, progress is a cursed concept precisely because we live in the present, not the past, and the better things get the more our expectations build. Greater social and technological development too often lead to the emotional equivalent of tail chasing. However, this curse is also a blessing. A few pages later in Enlightenment Now Pinker writes:
The global momentum toward abolition of the death penalty, despite its perennial popular appeal, offers a lesson in the messy ways of progress. As indefensible or unworkable ideas fall by the wayside, they are removed from the pool of thinkable options, even among those who like to think that they think the unthinkable, and the political fringe is dragged forward despite itself. That’s why even in the most regressive political movement in recent American history there were no calls for reinstating Jim Crow laws, ending women’s suffrage, or recriminalizing homosexuality.
Having hopefully forever removed ideas like slavery and denying women the vote from our bin of “thinkable” options, acquired devices we can hold in the palm of our hands that provide access to the equivalent of many millions of Libraries of Alexandria worth of information, and enjoying many more years of health and vigor than ever previously experienced in human history you would think we would be much happier than we are. But, alas, subjective things like happiness and fulfillment don’t have simple linear relationships with improvements in human rights, technology, education, and healthcare.
Even historians and anthropologists that make their living considering the experiences and difficulties faced by our ancestors find it practically impossible to take the long view. That’s because life in 2018 is fundamentally different from life in 1900, 1500, or during the reign of the Caesars. Changing conditions means changing context.
We’ve all heard someone make the argument that kids today don’t understand the challenges previous generations had to face. If you’re over 40 like me, you’ve no doubt found yourself increasingly making some version of this argument yourself. While it’s certainly the case that Americans are, on average, largely ignorant of history, this ignorance isn’t the primary driver behind such complaints. Parents and grandparents in other countries where the citizens are often better informed of the past can be heard expressing the same grievance.
That the vast majority of our children and grandchildren can no longer imagine a world where virtually everyone became infected with the measles and mumps sooner or later, let alone a cholera outbreak or the depopulating effects of the plague, isn’t an indication of their ignorance but of their lived experience. While we want everyone to have a basic awareness of our shared history, the fact is no amount of education will truly enable someone raised in the modern developed world to understand what it was like to live in a society where illiteracy and disease rather than instant access to news and an abundance of clean water is the norm.
Pinker and others are right that the pessimism they bemoan is overblown. But it’s also an example of people reacting to their circumstances more or less the way they always have. It’s unrealistic to expect someone raised with a car in the garage that’s capable of crossing the continental United States in less than two days to compare themselves to people that had to do it in covered wagons. Even if they are familiar with the exploration and settlement of North America, covered wagons and vast expanses of unmapped roadless wilderness are simply not part of their day-to-day lives.
The authors and scholars that remind us that our politicians and the news media are blowing things way out of proportion, if not outright lying to us in order to gin up fear in advance of an election or to get us to click on a story, aren’t wrong. Violent crime is way down, war isn’t nearly as common or deadly as it once was, and we’re living longer healthier lives than at any previous point in our history.
However, these scholars do tend to minimize the role human psychology plays in our perception of reality. Even if the press and public officials were more inclined to take the long view of history and prioritize stories of human triumph rather than tragedy or failure, people would still typically take a darker view than the evidence supports. That’s because the friend or family member with cancer is not only an exception to the story that human health has improved tremendously but a close case that touches our lives in ways that defy objective analysis. A sick loved one has far greater salience than the percentage of the population that experiences illness on any given day, let alone at any given point in history. In fact, that many illnesses have become so rare makes it more tragic rather than less when a rare misfortune befalls us or someone we care about.
Politicians, in particular, have a difficult time walking the fine line between what is objectively true and salience. Anyone who stands before an audience that hasn’t seen their wages rise recently, or only just keep up with inflation, is more likely to get votes by feeling their pain and calling the stagnation they’ve been enduring unjust than by pointing out that they are much wealthier than people doing similar work a century ago.
Donald Trump has proven himself a master of dramatizing current suffering at the expense of historical reality. He understands that a family that lost a loved one to a crime committed by an undocumented immigrant isn’t going to care that immigrants, documented or otherwise, are far less likely to commit crimes than native-born citizens. Likewise, he knows that a crime victim’s story is something voters can relate to far better than crime data. When confronting Trump supporters with the facts, one often receives a reply that reads something like ‘one American that’s the victim of a crime that could have been prevented is one too many.’
Pinker and other contemporary intellectuals do us a service by calling upon us to place things into a broader perspective. Their function is not so much to set the record straight as it is to offer history as a counterweight to the here and now. Even if we can’t truly relate to the world humanity once inhabited, recalling that we did inhabit such a place tempers the emotions modern living inevitably brings to the surface.
Wisdom resides at the intersection of knowledge, reflection, and emotion. When we stray too far down any of those roads alone, the perspective needed to appreciate nuance and accept a little bit of uncertainty into our lives is diminished. If we are presently at risk of losing many of the benefits we inherited from the Enlightenment, it’s because emotion is currently ascendant. Fear is increasingly untempered by reflection and knowledge is derided as elitism. Reflecting a little on contemporary society’s place in history is one sure way to find our way back to a more balanced perspective.