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The arc of justice prevails

I start every morning with The New York Times email briefing. Cup of joe in hand, I am inundated with bleeding headlines: stories of authoritarianism, crime, terrorism and war, rampant violence, discrimination and climate change. My perpetual preoccupation with depressing news cycles has its consequences, as it does for readers throughout the world.

Our national conversation is replete with mourning and apprehension for the future. A 2017 survey from the American Psychological Association found that “news consumption has a downside. More than half of Americans are stressed by the news, feeling anxiety, fatigue, or sleep loss as a result, yet one in 10 adults checks the news every hour.” The effects can at times be so consequential that consumers are forced to retreat into news blackouts.

But there’s no escape.

For someone who tunes into CNN, or whose phone buzzes with every update in current affairs, or who spends a day in our news-obsessed society it seems like the world is a bad place. Groggy and jaded, I spend my mornings tempted to agree.

Despite this temptation, I stand with Steven Pinker. Pinker, a cognitive psychologist at Harvard, argues that “humans are not just less violent these days but better off in myriad other ways: healthier, smarter, happier, all thanks to the spread of science and reason.” In his TEDTalk, Pinker describes how a tabulation of positive and negative emotion words in news stories shows that during the decades in which humanity has gotten healthier, wealthier, wiser, safer and happier, The New York Times has become increasingly morose and the world’s broadcasts too have gotten steadily glummer. Rose-tinted memories of the past — and sensationalized illustrations of the present — may make things appear like there’s been an even steeper decline.

But in reality, by every major measure of human well-being, people throughout the globe are better off today than they were before the start of the Enlightenment in the 17th century. This idea motivates Pinker’s possibilist perspective that humanity has made headway, and will continue to improve, so long as we keep trying to solve problems as we have in previous generations.

This isn’t mere pontification on Pinker’s part. His analysis of recent data on homicide, war, poverty, pollution and more indicates that we’re doing better now in every one of these categories than we were 30 years ago.

In the same TEDTalk, and in his book Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress, Pinker explains exactly how the world has improved. Thirty years ago, the homicide rate in the United States was 8.5 per 100,000, the poverty rate was 12 percent, and we emitted 35 million tons of particulate matter and 20 million tons of sulfur dioxide into the atmosphere. In 2017, the homicide rate dropped to 5.3 per 100,000, 7 percent of citizens were impoverished, and we emitted 21 million tons of particulate matter and 4 million tons of sulfur dioxide.

Globally, 30 years ago, there were 23 wars, 85 autocracies, 37 percent of the world population was in extreme poverty and 60,000 nuclear weapons were in circulation. In 2017, these numbers had plummeted: 12 ongoing wars, 60 autocracies, 10 percent of the world population in extreme poverty and over 10,000 nuclear weapons. Albeit imperfect, the world has taken vast steps forward. It seems, as MLK said, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.”  

Faith in the arc of the moral universe does not diminish today’s reality. Death tolls may have decreased, and the quality of life may have improved. Nevertheless, the challenges we face have shifted realms. Where we once waged world wars, individuals may now engage in intrinsic wars with mental health or addictions. These issues are real and can contribute to the reported feelings of anxiety, fatigue or sleep loss as a result of the news cycle. Understanding this reality, the possibilist still contends that society has successfully surmounted any obstacle in our history, and furthermore, that we will continue to overcome the frightening realities depicted in the news.

Pinker’s possibilism is not without his critics. The dismissive snub “Pinkering” has been defined as a way of marginalizing those with real, local complaints using aggregate long-run global data, and the nickname “Peven Stinker” has certainly captured some opponents’ disdain. They argue that Pinker has applied a too-sunny gloss to world events.

Contrary to their belief, Pinker does not believe our world is without folly. Far from it. As the media makes abundantly clear, we need further progress. Yet climate change, nuclear war and other wide-reaching issues need not be apocalypses-in-waiting. Like so many global and local challenges before those of our generation, today’s issues are simply problems to be solved. Whether through technological advances, cross-cultural collaboration or sheer human ingenuity, the onus lies on us to tackle issues head on. No need for doom-mongers or for blind faith — just a steadfast belief that the arc of justice can prevail if we move toward the right solutions.

Though we live in a world of bleeding headlines and fear of the future, this need not be the case. The story of our world is a story of progress, slow and unsteady, yet unremittingly positive. The world is getting better, and it will keep moving in that direction if we push it to. Let’s find the solutions to take us there.

Contact Tashrima Hossain at thossain ‘at’ stanford.edu.

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