Pinker and Populism (II)

Pinker and Populism (II)

Written by Alfonso Elizondo



Steven Pinker says that in order to overcome populism, the value of progress must be recognized because normally intellectuals and journalists highlight only the negative and always describe the world as if it were on the verge of the apocalypse. Trump exploited this way of thinking and did not find enough resistance on the ‘left’, since only one sector of it was in agreement with his theories. But Pinker says that many existing institutions solve problems and can reduce extreme poverty and that is part of the rational world in which we live.


In his last interview with the press at Harvard, Pinker was asked whether after two world wars, the thousands of deaths caused by the atomic bomb, the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and terrorism, he still thinks that today’s world is better than before. Pinker said that currently one needs to be realistic and that things can get worse, so too much optimism prevents danger from being seen. Risk is a kind of fatalism which says it is not worth worrying about improving the world if the world always gets worse, with many human beings thinking that the world will soon end due to either climate change or robots.


On the other hand, many young people rightly see the errors in the current system, but it is very negative to think that existing institutions are so dysfunctional that there is no point in trying to improve them. That leads to the terrain of radical solutions where everything can be destroyed because nothing is worth enough. This leads to the thinking that it is best to start from scratch and the world has to be built on the ashes.


Among the main factors of destruction in the world today is nationalism that can be benevolent or malignant. It is benevolent if it functions as a social contract based exclusively on residence and not on religious or tribal beliefs. Pinker says that the human mind has a flexible category called the tribe. This may refer equally to race, to a sports group or to a fight between commercial or industrial brands.


All will be well if the nationalist sense of a country in the West coexists with the feeling of being European and even more of being human and citizens of the world. Nationalism is negative when it starts with the demands of the tribe and when it is understood as a zero sum game in the sense that it is thought that a nation can only prosper if others do badly.


Regarding the role of social networks, Pinker thinks that they have been used a lot by populism, but they have not been at fault for its progress. However, social networks can be used positively, as Obama did when he was US president. Pinker says that journalism by nature focuses on particular events much more than social trends, and finds it easier to talk about the negative than the positive, so it ends up creating an erroneous view of the world.


In his last interview with the media, when he was accused of being too optimistic, he said that being optimistic is irrational behavior, since there has been a false belief since the nineteenth century that evolution and progress are the same thing. But evolution in a technical and biological sense goes against human happiness, since the biosphere is full of pathogenic elements that evolve to make human beings sick. Life is a struggle and the natural course of events is terrible.


According to Pinker there is a very common lie that represents progress as a mystical force in the universe that destines the human being to be always improving, and that is not true. Rather, there is a reasonable hope of progress if the institutions created by man get the best out of him and allow him to acquire new knowledge and solve problems. However, there are many forces that make things worse naturally.


Addendum: Looking at reality, there are always positive and negative views that will continually change the predetermined path of human society because of the totally genetic nature of human behavior. So facts hardly serve to develop a little story or a beautiful tale.