Reader Tim found this video from Bill Maher’s latest show in which the host attacks “progressophobia”—the claim that everything, including morality and social justice, is getting worse. This is palpably untrue, as Steve Pinker shows for many aspects of society in his book Better Angels. (Maher says the term “progressophobia” was coined by Pinker.) Yet for simply documenting progress (while noting that it’s not always steady and some areas regress), Pinker has been demonized. This baffles me.
I’m not sure why the “”progressophobes” persist. Some people seem to have an interest in claiming that the world is getting worse in nearly every way. I suppose this comes from the fear that if you admit that things like race relations and civil rights are getting better, you’re undercutting your mission in some way. After all, if equal opportunity (or even numerical equity) finally obtain in colleges, then diversity and inclusion administrators will be out of a job. And if your self-importance and the attention you get from others depend on complaining about lack of progress, then real progress undercuts those traits.
But I don’t see why we can’t fight to improve things at the same time we admit that they have improved. Who but a historical ignoramus (or Kevin Hart; see below) could clam that the rights of people of color haven’t improved in the last 75 years? I’m not going to bother to list all the ignominies visited on African-Americans, even when I was a little boy, that are diminished or gone. And do I need to add here that there’s still substantial room for improvement: improvement in housing, income, education, and so on? Or that racism has not completely disappeared?
I often tell the story of arriving at the College of William and Mary in 1967 on a Greyhound bus. At the bus station there were two bathrooms for each sex and two water fountains. It took me a minute to figure out what that meant. Only a few years before, those bathrooms and water fountains had been labeled “white” and “colored”. (William and Mary is in Virginia.) The labels had been removed, probably in 1964.
This bit by Bill Maher, in which he underlines moral progress, will surely dispel the claim that he’s an alt-righter (maybe he was an anti-vaxer, but he’s still on the Left). It’s one of his better bits, honest but humorous. And he takes “progressophobia to bits, asserting “There is a recurring theme on the far Left that things have never been worse,” and giving the example of Kevin Hart telling the New York Times, “You’re witnessing White power and White privilege at an all-time high” (article here).
Now no chronicler of progress, least of all Pinker, would claim that progress has been steadily upward, or in some areas, there’s been actual regression. Maher notes in this segment that areas that have worsened include the environment, the degree of homelessness in Los Angeles, and “the prospects for maintaining an actual democracy in America”. But seriously, if you were a Jew, a black person, a gay person, or a woman, would you rather have lived in 1850 or now? This is a no-brainer.