‘Blame the baby boomers for snowflakes’
Why do we refuse to accept that we’ve never had it so good, Simon Heffer asks Steven Pinker
Last week, the latest feather-ruffling book by Harvard psychologist Professor Steven Pinker, Enlightenment Now, was published in paperback. Its basic thesis? That we have never had it so good – and yet, churlishly, we refuse to accept the fact that we have benefited from progress.
Like the scientist he is, Prof Pinker has substantiated his thesis with an avalanche of data, proving that we are living longer, and more healthily, and more safely and prosperously than ever before. This has already attracted some cynicism from those who believe we live in a society of increasing crime, delinquency and danger: prompting a fightback from Prof Pinker, stressing that the Enlightenment values he champions have ensured, and should continue to ensure, progress.
Prof Pinker – a compact, lively and effortlessly charming man, crowned with a slightly anachronistic head of silver curls that give him the air of a thinking man’s Barry Manilow – runs through a checklist of what he thinks progress is. “Increases in human wellbeing. Longevity, health, happiness, prosperity, safety, literacy, education, opportunities to experience the cultural and natural world,” he replies. It is a means of “enhancing the very conditions that allow us to exist – health, sustenance, safety from danger, ability to learn about the world. And to enjoy friendship, sexuality and other aspects of human condition.”
Aren’t these, however, Western values? For example, expressing homosexuality in Russia or parts of Africa will lead only to persecution.
“I asked myself: has the rest of the world been enjoying some of the fruits of the Enlightenment, such as longevity and education?” he says. “And part of the impetus for the book was to discover that they have. Life expectancy in Africa, though lower than in the West, has seen spectacular gains. In many regards, Africa is in better shape today than many Western countries were 50 years ago.”
He claims that Enlightenment was not always easily accepted by the West. “As soon as the Enlightenment came along, there was a counterEnlightenment that valued blood and soil more than individual wellbeing. It glorified struggle as opposed to knowledge and problem-solving. By contrast, many non-Western societies that were written off as hostile to markets, liberty and human rights, actively embrace them when they have the chance” – he lists Indonesia, Singapore, South Korea and Chile.
But what about North Korea? “I suspect it would be like East Germany – there is enormous pent-up demand,” he says. Yet freedom of thought and empowerment of women in many nonWestern societies are, he admits, things that “remain to be seen”.
He adds: “Attitudes that were thought to be specific to protestant non-Western Europe have been attractive first to Catholic countries, then to East Asian countries.”
When I suggest large stretches of the world seem resistant to these values, he says: “It indicates the resilience of aspects of human nature that always push back against Enlightenment ideals. We all have tribalist intuitions – we all have authoritarian impulses, that a charismatic leader always embodies the wisdom and virtue of the people, we have a tendency towards demonisation – of blaming misfortune on evil people.”
When it comes to demonisation, the so-called “snowflake” generation – those perceived to be over-sensitive and intolerant of disagreement – appear to be leading the way. Last week, a campaign was launched by Oxford University students to prevent Prof John Finnis, renowned emeritus professor of law and legal philosophy, from teaching, amid claims that several of his academic papers published between 1992 and 2011 made “hateful statements” about homosexuality.
Oxford University defended its academics’ right to free speech – yet more than 500 people have signed the change.org petition.
As a university teacher himself, does Pinker worry about the obsession among many students to stop people from expressing views with which they disagree? In fact, his view is that the baby boomer generation created the conditions in which millennials are able to behave like this.
There is a layer of bureaucracy “of student life deans, diversity officers that have encouraged this intolerance, and vice-principals who have not stood against this… and not reminded students why the principle of free speech is worth defending – the principle that no one is omniscient or infallible, and that the use of raw force to keep someone off a platform is not the way to establish whether certain views have merit, that progress does not always consist of a battle between good people and evil people.”
These are values, he says, that his own generation “has been delinquent in instilling and defending”.
Political correctness, he adds “deserves a lot of the blame. We have opened a door that those who wish to limit free speech have walked through.”
I try to draw him on the exception many women take against men who are changing their gender, using their lavatories and changing rooms, and who feel it unfair that they are denounced as “transphobic” – but he is reluctant to be drawn.
“I have a carefully watched controversy portfolio and embrace a finite number of controversies and outrages.” Progressives, he does say, need to be reminded that “free speech was essential in the civil rights movement and in women’s suffrage”.
Pinker also laments the teaching of civics and political history, for failing to teach people what it takes to achieve peace, and prosperity. “Young people are more cynical about democracy now, and part of that is because of a failure to teach what can go wrong without it,” he says.
I point out how some wish to overturn the democratic act that was Brexit. He admits he has been saddened by it. “We have common interests that span our tribal identities – free trade is very much an Enlightenment ideal.” I point out that we remain keen on free trade, and in a larger context not allowed by the EU. “I was disappointed by the result,” he says, “while acknowledging that there may be aspects of policy and governance in the EU that may be short of ideal.”
Are we likely to be even happier in a decade’s time? “That is not an inevitable outcome. Things can go wrong – but there’s a possibility for continued improvement, thanks not least to technology, and advances in medicine and energy,” he explains.
“It would seem liberal democracy is on the defensive, but there are signs that younger people are more resistant to authoritarianism, and as people become more educated, they become less responsive to authoritarianism.”
Might the growth of artificial intelligence make humans more miserable, by taking away jobs?
“We will be clever at finding things to do – and I tend to be cautious or judicious about how fast this revolution will be,” he says. “But I think the obsolescence of humanity will take a while. We’re not on the Hayekian road to serfdom yet.”
‘Progress does not always consist of a battle between good and evil people’
by Steven Pinker (Penguin, £12.99) is out now. Order for £10.99 plus p&p on 0844 871 1514 or visit books.telegraph.co.uk
Political correctness: Prof Steven Pinker, left, says we only have ourselves to blame for today’s culture of trying to stifle free speech and cynicism towards democracy. Above, a protest in Oxford