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On the perfectability of human nature


Of late, I have had cause to consider the changes I’ve seen in my lifetime. One of the remarkable things that you get, as you head out of your frantic twenties and heady thirties, is occasional moments of pure wonder at changes in the world. Occasionally, this is brought on in me by technology.

As an example, two years before I was born man stepped on the Moon for the first time. It always haunted me slightly in my teens and early 20s that we hadn’t really gone back, that this moment of vaunting ambition wasn’t replicated, built on, to the degree that the sci-fi nerd I was thought it should have been. 1999 came and went, and the moon didn’t go spiralling out into the universe, the inhabitants of the moon base having adventures, like Space 1999 promised us would come to pass (at least, I think it didn’t. You never know what THEY are keeping from us….). And yet, and yet, the computer technology that put us there was equivalent to the memory held in an old Nokia brick.

You remember those phones? I had one. The memory it held was equivalent to the computing power that got us to the MOON, goddamit. Chunky, insanely awkward slow things. I had cause a few years back to go back to an older model of a touchscreen phone – only 3/4 years older. Insanely slow. And now I walk around with this latest generation iPhone, and it can access me – with a few taps of the slightly grubby screen – pretty much more knowledge than was held in any library of my youth. And pictures of cats falling into water. It’s got about 40 albums on it – when I first went on a lads holiday in the 90s, we took a ghetto blaster and 7 or 8 cds. Hugely awkward walking around with suitcases and that. Now, I carry 5 times that amount of music in my pocket every day. And the texting thing – we’ve all seen the Peter Kay routine about the family texting each other from the same sofa, but those texts bounce themself up into space and back down to travel a distance of however many yards. Think about that.

David Cameron never mentions it, but the Conservative Party won a by-election in Birmingham, and they sent out little kids with leaflets that said, “If you want a nigger for a neighbour, vote Liberal or Labour.” And if political correctness has achieved one thing, it’s to make the Conservative Party cloak its inherent racism behind more creative language.” – Stewart Lee.

And so it is, with social change. I’ve been ploughing my way through Stephen Pinker’s “The Better Angels of Our Nature” (And I admit, it’s got to the sciencey bit and I’m finding it slightly harder going, mine is a mind that never got trained properly for science, although I try) and everything I read chimes with personal experience. We are getting better.

Oh, I don’t mean individually. There’s as many cocks out there now as there ever were, I’d think. Quite often, I number amongst them. But societally, as a species, we are getting better. When I was younger, my parents had a friend called Howard. Nice bloke, not particularly malicious, but he had one real blind spot, and that was homosexuality. I remember him making the joke one night in the pub quiz, “When I was young, Homosexuality was illegal. When I started college, they made it legal but it was frowned upon, Now, it’s tolerated, pretty soon, it will be everyday, I’m getting out before they make it mandatory”. I laughed at that, as only a callow 17 year old who had barely kissed a girl could, and true enough he did check out before that point. As I suppose I will. But thinking back now, to that moment, I think of the societal context in which we lived.

AIDS had just started, and some wag in the playground had christened it “Arse Injected Death Syndrome”. People were still terrified to come out. “Gay” wasn’t a strangely all purpose insult as it’s been re-tooled by our yout’, but a deadly one. You were called it, it would lead to fisticuffs (or it was the cue for you getting seven shades of shit knocked out of you). Schoolyard scraps. The teachers would sit in their staff room, glugging their coffee and smoking like chimneys and gaze slightly dispassionately at their feral charges. If it looked like getting out of hand, maybe they’d stir themselves to intervene. Today, I’m pretty sure (all anecdotal, and most statistical evidence tells me) that that kinda of attitude has gone the way of the schoolyard scrap for larger and larger chunks of our society. Oh, sure, there’s islands, god knows there’s many islands of intolerance, and we should never be complacent, or backslide, but there’s also been real social change. Tom Daley is pretty damn lucky to be alive at this time.

We could pass over other subjects, such as sex and race, and make similar observations. It’s always tricky to address any of these subjects from this perspective, because of course, the last thing you want to be doing is downplaying people’s perception of racism, of sexism, of homophobia. The mixed youth who has been asked “Where are you from?” doesn’t want to be told that he should thank his lucky stars it isn’t 1973, 1963 or 1953. And quite rightly so. The woman who feels demeaned by sexist attitudes around her, the woman who is abused, she doesn’t want to be told “ah, yes, but look at the seventies”. Or, on the subject of societal violence, pointing out that – even if we take the inflated end of the spectrum for mortality statistics – the Iraq war caused massively less carnage than would have been, was regularly being, caused decades before is small comfort to the dead, the maimed, the bereaved. But, all that aside, a sense of perspective about these things does allow you to address certain myths about them. The biggest being that change is impossible.

It isn’t Panglossian to consider – for example – that from racist violence being common place, we’ve moved – through a period where racist language is front and centre in the discourse – to a position where we are now, slowly, beginning to challenge the assumptions, the societal bedrocks, the linguistic bedrocks, the psychological bedrocks, that that language rests upon. One doesn’t have to be a self congratulating liberal, intent on making himself feel better, to grasp that. The message we should take from it is not “racism/sexism/homophobia/whatever bigotry you want to name is DEAD, so we can now rest on our laurels, pat ourselves on the back, go us, aren’t we so wonderful and tolerant?”. The message we should take is change can happen. We have changed. In my lifetime, we have changed. We can change more. We can change better.

And while it does remain true that the utopia will, forever, remain out of our reach (for human beings are not perfectable, that ol’ brain chemistry probably puts paid to that), that doesn’t mean we can’t spend the rest of human eternity getting closer to it. Shit, we aren’t perfectable. But we are most definitely improvable.

And, I suppose, that’s my worldview in a nutshell. The Whiggish theory of history is one that looks at the past through the eyes of today, and sees everything as part of a glorious progression to the wonderful NOW. The conservative theory of history imagines us as fallen creatures, forever seeking some lost state of grace that existed in the roseate, halcyon past (although the place in time of this alleged Eden does subtly shift too – we’ve moved on from Victorian values to the wonderful 50s being the Eden, in my memory). But these are both delusions. The true message we should take is that battles have been fought, and battles have been won, but there’s still a long, long way to go in this war.

 

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