Mitchell: Is the old adage ‘a pessimist is an optimist with experience’ true? (column)
April 6, 2018
Recently, I read an article about the worldwide case for optimism, not a headline I'd expect in modern media. The whole idea had me chasing down others of the same narrative, with fervor, curious about a review titled "Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism and Progress" — shock therapy for pessimists — written by Steven Pinker.
I've carried with me a cynical anecdote toward pessimism, buoyed by the naysayer: "a pessimist is an optimist with experience." Such cynicism is readily available wherever rumor and fake news coexist. "Pessimism has it's place," he says, "it fosters caution," and breeds focus on problems, often leading to solutions.
Pinker's assertion is that the doom-mongers are wrong and that newspapers deliberately poison bright landscapes to incite discontent amongst primarily white, liberal activists, more by default than by design. Recall appears to operate more efficiently when trauma and celebrity merge, I say, forcing underestimation about progress, he says, making you want to rush to your laptop and close your Twitter account.
The world is about 100 times wealthier, he says, than 200 years ago, and this wealth is more evenly distributed. The share of those killed annually in war beats the '80s by 25 percent, and now you are 95 percent less likely to expire on the job or in a car. Humankind is less violent, emanating from earthlings learning to apply reason to problems, allowing rich countries to prosper and poor ones the means to catch up.
In every part of the world, Pinker says, IQ is rising. South Sudanese have mobile phones, and genealogical intelligence is now attributed to better nutrition, not smarts. Two hundred years ago, only 1 percent of people lived in democracies, and even then, women and working-class folks could not vote.
The belief in equality for ethnic minorities has shot up, according to both internet activity and polls. Racist jokes have fallen by 7/8ths since 2004. (Likely a good number of those reciting them have passed.) Young Muslims in the Middle Easterners are now as liberal as we were in the '60s. Pinker says that in 42 of 52 countries surveyed in the World Values Survey, happiness increased between 1981 and 2007. (It rises roughly in line with income, per head.)
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Loneliness, at least among American students, is declining, and global warming is a big threat but not credibly insurmountable. Is there dissent? Absolutely, manifesting itself in both pessimism and lack of trust for the old institutions, primarily amongst the populist, authoritarian parties in Europe.
Risks aside, Pinker remains optimistic. Checks and balances are reasonably effective in most developed countries, and Pinker exults in statistics about declining Christian faith. He feels that as people grow richer, they abandon the "crutch" of belief and rely more on reason. Things are not falling apart, says he, barring a nuclear war or a cataclysmic asteroid strike, and times will continue to get better.
Wishful thinking, I say? Damn pessimist, he says.
Pat Mitchell is an Avon resident.