In this week’s UpFront, we challenge author and Harvard professor Steven Pinker on his new book, Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism and Progress, in which he argues that data shows the world is becoming a better place.
And in the Arena, we ask journalist Afua Hirsch and Claire Fox, author and director of the UK-based think-tank the Academy of Ideas, about racism in the United Kingdom, and the kind of conversations needed to address it.
Headliner: War, poverty and inequality: is there any good news?
Harvard professor and cognitive psychologist Steven Pinker’s new book Enlightenment Now has sparked a debate on how we see the world.
While wars and poverty continue to affect millions around the world, Pinker argues that both are in decline and challenges readers to see “how amazing our world has become.”
“Any aspect of human well-being that you measure has shown an increase,” he says. “We live longer, more of us go to school, life is safer, fewer of us die in wars.”
According to Pinker, humanity’s progress can be attributed to reason and science, ideas he says were expressed in 18th century Europe, during a period widely referred to as the Enlightenment.
Pinker relies heavily on data to support his argument that prosperity is rising in the world. When challenged on the types of data chosen, particularly his use of the $1.90 extreme poverty line set by the World Bank, Pinker denies that other measures reveal more poverty.
“No matter what cutoff you set, the direction is downward,” he says. “Billions of people have been added to the world as a whole. What’s relevant is the proportion.”
Pinker’s views on climate change, expressed in his book, have also drawn criticism. “It’s not irrevocable,” he says. “The trend is in the wrong direction, but that doesn’t mean that nothing could work.”
Watch part two of UpFront’s interview with Steven Pinker here.
Arena: Is the UK still racist?
According to journalist Afua Hirsch, “discussing race in contemporary Britain is still a radical act.” In her latest book, Brit(ish), Hirsch argues that the UK has failed to reckon with its colonial past and that conversations about race, ethnicity and diversity have been silenced.
“I’m not saying that we haven’t made progress,” says Hirsch, “but I think what’s happened is that because racism has become less visible, and it’s become more subtle and coded, we’ve become very complacent.”
While Fox agrees that racism exists in the UK, she takes issue with some of the terms used in the conversation.
“This is an aspect of identity politics that I feel very uncomfortable with,” she says. “Rather than taking people for what they say and for the ideas they hold, we start to see people based on their ethnicity, or indeed on their gender or any number of things.”
But discussing race in the UK is necessary, according to Hirsch, because what exists now is a “victor’s version of history”.
“We talk about West India merchants in our literature and period dramas. We never call them slave owners,” she says. “We’ve found so many ways of coating this past so that it’s more palatable”.
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