You are ill and deteriorating fast. You make your way to the doctor hastily in rising alarm. When you arrive at the hospital, you are rushed quickly to the top of the waiting queue to see the doctor. 

To your surprise, that doctor is Steven Pinker.

Before you can figure out how or when the Canadian psychologist and popular science author, most known for his Enlightenment optimism and belief in progress, retrained as an emergency room doctor (you are very ill after all), Dr Pinker beams at you. 

“You are looking well!” he says.

You are not looking well at all, you think. Perhaps it is his way of making patients feel at ease, you think. You thank him weakly and say you have a high fever, and …

Before you finish, Dr Pinker intervenes.

“Ah, but think of how easily treatable a fever is these days compared to before! These days, we have all sorts of analgesics and antipyretics that will block the chemical messengers in the brain that tell us we have pain, then reduce fever by affecting the neurological area that regulates our body temperature.”

You are confused as to why the doctor is telling you about how analgesics work but press on anyway because you really are starting to feel faint. You tell him that it seems like you have eaten something that has poisoned you, because you cannot keep anything down and have lost control of your bowels. He lets you finish, listening thoughtfully. You are relieved. He finally seems to have grasped the gravity of your condition.

“You really are very lucky,” he says when he finally speaks. “An episode of food poisoning like this would have been a death sentence not too long ago. We can give you drips to replenish the fluids you have lost and generally arrest the approach of the virus. 100 years ago, maybe even 50, you would not have made it.”

You do not feel like you are making it. Before you can remonstrate, your vision starts to blur. The last thing you can remember before you black out is Dr Pinker’s face over you as he continues to speak. “And that’s not even taking into account the fact that you wouldn’t even have had the means to get here so quickly. Before automated vehicles? On a horse? On foot? Forget about it!”

Why talking about progress has a downside

Collectively, political movements or positions that call attention to deep systemic failures in society are often treated like this poor patient. They are bombarded with observations on how things really could have been so much worse, and so what is there to complain about? 

It is a school of optimism that was parodied as far back as 1759 with Voltaire’s Candide, a protagonist who lurches from disaster to disaster only to be told by his unflagging tutor, Professor Pangloss, that he is living in “the best of all possible worlds”.  This school’s theory is that now really is the best time to be alive, and that any challenges that we do have can be addressed through the highly successful combination of scientific rationality and liberal humanism. 

To optimists and believers in progress, ideas that started in Europe in the mid-17th century are responsible for the longest winning streak in human history. In that time, medical advances eradicated several diseases for good; technology made our lives easier and healthier; and equal rights for women, minorities and LGBTQ+ people were secured in one long continuum of progress over the past 300 years. 

Progress is relative, not absolute

Indeed, these things are all true. Humanity has made huge strides over the last three centuries, but to the figurative patient – the protagonist with the ailment, be they individuals or societies as a whole – progress is relative, not absolute. 

That is, you can only perceive your distress in the here and now. It is not alleviated by a notional time in the past or a parallel existence in the present where it has, or could be, worse.  

Progress does not mean our current ailments are any less urgent, merely that they are different to what they were in the past

Distress is also experienced in relation to a specific starting point. For African Americans, the battle in the mid-20th century was on civil rights and segregation. It should have been no consolation to them that they were no longer enslaved. To contemporary black Americans, the fact that they can vote and don’t have to give up their seats to white passengers on the bus is no consolation when they face police brutality and systemic racism. The fact that women in Saudi Arabia can now finally drive their own cars is no consolation to those who still need the permission of their male guardian to travel.

Progress does not mean our current ailments are any less urgent, merely that they are different to what they were in the past. Talking about progress in absolute terms can obscure our view of what still is wrong with today’s society. Viewing our lives through the lens of the 17th century, we clearly have little to complain about. 

But that quietism about our fate, entrusting what problems we do have to the forces that delivered gains in the past, hinders further progress. Assuming things are getting better all the time, or that they could be worse all the time – believing that there is some benign engine that ensures that blessed state – actually can prevent change from happening fast enough, or indeed, at all. 

Positivity can be toxic.

How optimism backfires

On this year’s anniversary of 9/11, Nobel laureate and New York Times columnist Paul Krugman tweeted a “few thoughts” on the aftermath of the attack. 

“Overall,” he wrote, “Americans took 9/11 pretty calmly. Notably, there wasn’t a mass outbreak of anti-Muslim sentiment and violence, which could all too easily have happened. And while GW Bush was a terrible president, to his credit he tried to calm prejudice, not feed it. Daily behavior wasn’t drastically affected. True, for a while people were afraid to fly: my wife and I took a lovely trip to the U.S. Virgin Islands a couple of months later, because airfares and hotel rooms were so cheap. But life returned to normal fairly fast”.

He was deluged with accounts of hate crimes, arrests and people having to move home because their houses or mosques were burned down. Krugman, ever the optimist, responded with a bar chart. The chart showed that there was indeed a rise in hate crime against Muslims, but it was nowhere near what black Americans go through on a regular basis. “The post-9/11 upsurge in hate crimes against Muslims was real and unforgivable, but the horrible truth is that it didn’t loom that large compared with what Blacks face year in and year out.” He doubled down and actually tweeted the words: “it could have been much worse”.

These words may seem mind-boggling to many, and specifically to Muslims for whom 9/11 ushered in an era of Islamophobia, invasion and travel restrictions. But to Krugman’s mind, humans are capable of much worse, and so what Muslims experienced was, in fact, a restrained response to 9/11.

The unintended consequence of looking on the bright side thus is another version of what the optimists are trying to avoid

To those who suffered and are suffering, it is no consolation that there could have been a pogrom. To fans of progress and optimists (a more accurate but less wieldy term for the latter is “could have been worsers”), the focus is always on the upside, because they believe that fixating on the negative leads to fatalism, defeatism and the desire to destroy societies that are actually doing rather well. Not appreciating, not being grateful, leads to unnecessary and gratuitous vandalism of fundamentally sound societies. The result is that, in the example of the 9/11 aftermath, the moral panic necessary to raise the alarm about Islamophobia, hate crime and the social tensions precipitated by the war on terror is dampened. 

It could be argued that, if there was less minimising or relativist contextualising of what Muslims have been going through for 20 years in the United States and across the world, horrific policies such as the Muslim ban in 2017 would not have found popular support.  

And there was certainly the appetite to defend and protect Muslims from the long arm of the state. After the Muslim ban came into effect, pro bono lawyers scrambled to airports all over the country to support stranded Muslims. The suspension of the ban, and its subsequent watering down, was a result of these unpaid efforts. Had these forces mobilised further, raised awareness and campaigned against the normalisation of Islamophobia, one of the ugliest chapters in United States history could have been prevented. 

The unintended consequence of looking on the bright side thus is another version of what the optimists are trying to avoid – fatalism, defeatism and the desire to conserve societies that are actually doing rather badly.

Progress for whom? Obscuring victimhood

When the argument of progress takes hold as a response to political malaise, suffering is hidden. Before we advance the notion of progress, we should ask ourselves: what counts as progress? Who benefits from what counts as progress? If the progress that arose from capitalism, liberal humanism and scientific inquiry is to be measured in terms of life expectancy and affluence, then where do all the fallouts of this trifecta fit? 

Where, in the progress schematic, does one include climate change? How does one factor in that, within the United States, black women and white women have such starkly different mortality rates that they might as well be living on different continents? Which parts of the spoils of progress include the worldwide epidemic of ? The of job insecurity and zero-hours contracts? The rapidly increasing entrenchment of inequality that concentrates wealth in the hands of a few?

And, of course, where does one fit the coronavirus pandemic in countries such as the United States, where liberalism and scientific inquiry have performed unfettered and still the virus claimed hundreds of thousands of lives because there was no medical infrastructure or intellectual capital to cobble together an adequate response? 

What is the point of progress, and how dependable and durable is it, when one man can come to power in the White House and expose a system where progress has been leveraged for personal enrichment, rather than the health of a society? 

The very concept of progress is often ethno and class centric, where certain markers of development are valued over others, and where those markers have served the interests of some over others. To ask a sick member of society to be grateful and try to seek the progress that has only benefited others is like urging someone to attend a heavily barricaded and policed party for which they have no invite. 

Life is not lived in the collective

Optimists display a jarring positivity because they believe only in one thing: the big picture. The further you zoom out, the smaller the negative phenomena appear. 

All that matters is the pattern – the direction of travel. But just as in the long run we’re all dead, if you zoom out far enough, barring a nuclear holocaust, everything looks good. In that zoomed-out picture, where things got better in some aspects of life, other things not only did not improve, but, in fact, deteriorated. Many people who would have died of polio did not, but many people died of non-defensive military campaigns who should not have. 

Believing in progress is to have a preference for which way one dies and which misery is preferable to which. 

Life is not lived in aggregate. If it was, no reform, no rebellion against inequality, no effort to come up with treatments for illnesses or organise society in a more fair way would have come about. 

Just as progress is relative, not absolute, it is also registered in the collective state of humanity and not by its individual members.

Better politics: a firm belief, not an assumption that progress is possible

I say this not from a place of cynicism, but as a Better Politics correspondent whose very beat is founded on the belief that change, even in the most unlikely of circumstances, is possible. Not only that, I believe that change is, in fact, less challenging than one would think, and that many of us have been conditioned to believe that change is hard or improbable by a media complex that thrives on scaremongering and negativity. 

Change is, in fact, less challenging than one would think

I about how progress in fact is the lesser told story, because it is overshadowed by crisis. In the case of the global momentum of Black Lives Matter this summer, I explained how what looked like the crescendo of a rising trend of racial discrimination was actually the result of intersecting patterns of improvement in the material conditions of black Americans and their increased access to opinion making and changing spaces. 

So, my warnings against the risks of toxic positivity come from a commitment to progress as an ideal, as a goal, rather than a given. I do not disagree with the Krugmans and Pinkers of the world, and I even see the virtue in the forbearance that professor Pangloss preaches. Progress in technology, politics and equality has transformed our human condition en masse for the better. And more progress is possible in the future – but it is not inevitable. 

In order to give progress the best chance of happening, we have to assume that it will not happen unless the realities of our present condition bite. Deferring to some long arc of history that bends towards progress, to paraphrase Martin Luther King Jr, can make it harder to achieve. 

Illustration of an inanely smiling grey coloured mannequin flying through a light cloudy sky, legs lifted high and up behind them, arms by legs, in a soaring pose. The face is laughing with eyebrows raised at the front, red lips, gums and tongue all visible.

An inexorable tectonic force

Steven Pinker claims that “some kinds of social change really do seem to be carried along by an inexorable tectonic force”. But all change comes about not via inevitable organic forces, but high friction, high effort action. And the urgency, the impetus for that action, comes from registering and becoming alarmed and enraged, by distress in the human condition. Whether it is universal suffrage for women, securing reproductive rights, equal rights for people of colour, the abolishing of segregation and apartheid, investing in medical solutions for chronic diseases or spending the intellectual effort to come up with political philosophies to organise societies better, all progress is the result of distress. 

The inexorable tectonic force that carries along social change is the ability of human beings, their healthy natural self-preservation instinct, to register pain and inequality and have the bravery and moral conviction to do something about it. If progress evangelists had their way, they would watch movements for social equality expire, as they berated them for not being grateful that things really couldn’t be much better, therefore guaranteeing that things do indeed get much worse. The only way to create the best pre-conditions for progress is to be grateful for the past and take nothing for granted in the future.

Dig deeper

Illustration depicting three side profiles of women going from small to big, looking towards the right sight of the frame against a green background. The child wears small braids with colourful yellow and blue pastel beads. The head in the middle is wearing a see-through cap and blue buttoned-up shirt. The largest head has a pink earring and wears yellow and white stripy shirt.  How 50 years of racial progress fuelled a global movement against racism Protests against racial injustice are nothing new, but they’re different this time around. The Black Lives Matter movement is a response to worsening racism, but it’s also the result of black people’s increasing power, influence and progress. Read my piece about racial progress here