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Enlightenment Now? - Equal Rights

How can we create a less racist, homophobic and sexist society? And how long will it take?

In this latest blog post looking at Steven Pinker’s book Enlightenment Now, we’re going to look at Equal Rights. Do we live in a deeply racist, sexist and homophobic society? Well, yes. But Pinker goes to great length to show just how much more racist, sexist, and homophobic society was in the past. Each new generation of modernity cares more about equal rights than the previous one. Does that mean we simply have to wait for all the older generations to die off before having a more equal society? Or can we learn from younger generations and do something about it now?

Children first

Before looking at racism, homophobia and sexism, it’s worth mentioning an equal rights issue that rarely gets spoken about today, namely the equal rights of children. Pinker notes that childhood, throughout most of history, was not thought of as a time of carefree youth – that’s a relatively recent invention. Instead, child labour was the norm, seen as a form of practical and moral education. It wasn’t until 1850, that child labour in Europe plummeted, as formal educational priorities took over. As educational opportunities continue to spread around the world, so does child labour fall.

This is, of course, remarkable progress. We don’t speak much about it today because it’s largely viewed as a solved problem – we take the freedom of childhood for granted. Similarly, we no longer tolerate corporal punishment or overly-authoritarian parenting styles. It’ll be interesting to see if this trend continues – whether we’ll continue to see children more and more as autonomous agents, with parents and institutions having less control over potentially harmful decisions. For example, when will enforced education be seen as unacceptable for some children? Or, indeed, enforced parenthood? Just how much control and freedom should children be given over their own lives?

I’m asking these questions here to make a point that we’ll come back to later: When it comes to social change, we’re dealing changes in values. These changes can seem pretty far out, and we have no idea what implications they’ll have on society as a whole. The idea of gay marriage might have seemed totally crazy to someone in 1790, when homosexuality was a criminal offence in almost every country across the globe. Not only should we celebrate the amount of social progress we’ve made – progress that we now take for granted – we should also accept that future progress is likely to seem scary and weird. But it’s not meant for us. It’s meant for the future. Which will look unimaginably different to how the world looks today.

Racism, homophobia and sexism

Okay, now to the three main topics that Pinker discusses in this chapter: racism, homophobia and sexism. As usual, Pinker shows how significant progress has been made across the board. Here’s some stats:

  • Racism: Racial and ethnic prejudice is declining worldwide. In 1950, almost half of the world’s countries had laws that discriminated against ethnic or racial minorities (including, of course, the US). By 2003, fewer than a third did. Pinker also shows that police shootings in the US have decreased, not increased, in recent decades.

  • Homophobia: In 1790, homosexual acts used to be a criminal offence in almost every country in the world. In 1925, it was only legal in 13 countries. Now, with the help of the gay rights revolution in 1970s, homosexuality has been decriminalised in over 100 countries worldwide, with similar increases in the legalisation of gay marriage.

  • Sexism: In 1900, women could vote in only one country: New Zealand. Today they can vote in every country in which men can vote (except for Vatican City). Today, in the US, woman make up 47% of the labour force and a majority of university students.

If you’re a Black American, homosexual or a woman, there is probably no better time in history to be around. So why do things seem so bad?

Why do things seem so bad?

Things seem bad because they still are in many respects. Black Americans, homosexuals and women still face prejudices and disadvantages that aren’t experienced by other members of society. Here are some things that too many people still believed in 2015:

  • “It’s not all right for blacks and whites to date each other” (believed by 11% of Americans);

  • “Women should return to their traditional roles in society” (believed by 22% of Americans);

  • “School boards ought to have the right to fire teachers who are known homosexuals” (believed by 19% of Americans).

Now, these percentages used to be much higher. In 1985, 35 years ago (and the year I was born), 45% of people used to believe in the racist statement; 50% believed in the sexist one; and 30% in the homophobic one. That doesn’t mean the current statistics above are acceptable. They’re not, even if they’re a vast improvement on how things were before. Just because things were much worse in the past, that doesn’t mean we can rest content in the present. Social movements such as #MeToo and Black Lives Matter are, unfortunately, still necessary, and may be for quite some time.

The long arc of social justice

Martin Luther King, in his campaign for civil rights, famously said that, “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.” Pinker would agree with this assertion. He cites research from the World Values Survey, which shows that modernisation has stimulated the rise of so-called “emancipative values.” As societies shift from agrarian to industrial to informational, their citizens become less anxious about fending off enemies and other existential threats and more eager to express their ideas and pursue opportunities in life. This shifts their values toward greater freedom for themselves and others. People begin to prioritise freedom over security, diversity over uniformity, autonomy over authority, creativity over discipline, and individuality over conformity. It’s the same underlying process that reduces racism, homophobia and sexism.

One way of viewing this shift is that people only gain equal rights when they have enough power to claim them. Even if you believe that all people are equal from a moral point of view, that does little to stop powerful groups dominating others, either out of a sense of entitlement, self-interest or simply historical inertia. In modern societies, a greater diversity of people rub shoulders, do business, and find themselves in the same boat with other kinds of people. The more affluent we get, the harder it is to ignore, or deny, the worth of each individual.

This process is not confined to Western liberalism. In every part of the world, people have become more liberal. Young Muslims in the Middle East, the world’s conservative culture, have values today that are comparable to those of young people in Western Europe, the world’s most liberal culture, in the early 1960s. Not only are modern societies more affluent, they are also more democratic, technologically productive, and their citizens have greater access to education and information. All of these factors bend the moral arc of the universe towards justice.

But does it have to take so long?

The process of liberalisation shows that each new generation of modernity cares more about equal rights than the previous one. That’s all very well, but do we have to wait for all the older generations to die off before having a more equal society? Does social change have to take so long?

To some extent, the answer to this question is “yes”. We live in complex societies, where norms and values coordinate the behaviour of millions, if not billions, of people on a daily basis. Values – such as tolerance, respect, trust and kindness – are long-term strategies for coordinating with others, even in conditions of uncertainty and with no immediate pay-off. In “honour cultures”, for instance, it’s values of honour and revenge that deter people from stealing each other’s stuff. Get rid of these norms overnight and there’d be chaos. The reason why people’s values don’t change much over their lifetime is simply because they work – they create order out of complexity and uncertainty.

So values can’t change too quickly without risking the established social structures that our lives depend upon. But that doesn’t mean they can’t change at speed. New technologies, supported by new generations, can disrupt the established status quo and create new norms and values. Interestingly, it’s not the case that, as people get older, they get more conservative. They simply stick with the same set of values they’ve always had – something that, to younger people, can appear static and horribly outdated.

The upshot is that social change can’t happen overnight, but it can still happen quickly given the right conditions. At the moment, we’re seeing a stark divide within Western societies at how quickly this change is taking place. On the one hand, we have people who live in cities, are highly educated, affluent and proponents of autonomy and diversity. On the other hand, we have people in live in more rural areas and small towns, are less educated, more likely to be unemployed and have more traditional, small-group values. The former group have largely benefitted from globalisation, while the latter group have largely been left behind. Not surprisingly, the urban, educated, middle-class would like more of the same – more change the better, hurry up! But the reality for the rural, unemployed, working-class is that change only brings bad news.

Positive (and radical) social change

For social change to be most effective, it needs to bring everyone along with it. Liberal, urban, educated, affluent, diversity-loving people shouldn’t look down on those with racist, homophobic and sexist views. Instead, they should ask why such people are so resistant to change in all its forms? What are their experiences of change? What kinds of changes will benefit everyone?

We should also recognise that social change is inevitably disruptive – the bigger and quicker the change, the more unintended consequences it will cause. To deal with the disruptions caused by social change, we need to have appropriate buffers in place. What will happen, for example, when driverless car technologies eventually put lorry drivers out of a job? The standard economic theory is that they’ll retrain and get an even better job. But without resources invested in re-training programmes, this is merely a fantasy. And with more people left behind, the kinds of social changes we want to happen – a more tolerant, equal, inclusive society – are going to take much longer.

With both of these conditions in place – 1) social changes that don’t leave anyone behind and 2) buffers in place to deal with major disruptions – radical social change is possible. This is something Pinker doesn’t do justice to. He wants to see social change continue, but not if it’s at risk to economic growth and other social structures that have got us to where we are today.

This seems narrow-minded to me. When it comes to making social change, we are in a completely different situation today than we were 30 years ago. Consider, for instance, the position we are in when it comes to ending global poverty. In 1990, it would have cost 10.5% of world GDP to lift everyone above the poverty line. In 2013, it would have cost only 3.3%. We are three times more able to end poverty today than we were just a generation ago. My point is that our socio-economic conditions move rapidly – radically, in fact. Social change can happen at a similar speed.

We can put this idea more strongly. When the conditions for positive social change are in place, we should strive for social change that keeps up with socio-economic changes. Anything less is simply not good enough. This is perhaps why the social change being advocated by each new generation not only seems threatening, but also weird. The world is changing at an incredibly fast pace. Younger generations see no reason why social norms and values shouldn’t do the same. As uncomfortable as that may be for those of us familiar with our current social structures, it is a progressive process we need to embrace, not get in the way of.

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