‘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

The Sunday Telegraph - - Features -

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

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