Getting So Much Better All the Time

In my previous post, I cited some facts from Johan Norberg’s recent book, Progress: Ten Reasons to Look Forward to the Future, showing that in many ways, life on Earth is better than ever. On average, we humans have more food to eat, better access to clean water, and better sanitation. We live much longer lives, and there is a lot less extreme poverty in the world than there used to be, despite there being many more of us around. But what about violence, the environment, and inequality? It turns out there is good news on these fronts as well.

It’s true that we can all easily call to mind ample evidence of violence depicted on the nightly news or social media. This ease is one of the reasons we think we live in violent times. But there’s a strong bias for sharing bad news: If it bleeds, it leads, as the saying goes. It just isn’t newsworthy to point out that most people were not murdered last night, or that most parts of the world are not war zones.

Yet the numbers are clear. Read more

Diversity in social movements

The diversity of movements and organisations shapes them.

This might sound trite, but it also creates a barrier to more diverse movements. This 2011 Daily Kos article is one of my favourite things on the Internet. (I know. The headline. Persevere.) It’s a consultant’s story about trying to help feminist groups become more racially diverse.

This isn’t necessarily about racism or sexism or classism or anythingelseism. It’s more about a kind of Hayekian concept of privilege. We don’t know what’s in other peoples’ heads, so we miss stuff when we don’t interact with or listen to each other.

Treating the Daily Kos article as a case study gives some insight into the barriers to diversity and shows us why diversifying can lead to pushback. Read more

Do You Believe in Miracles?

My workweek ended on a bright note today, as I happened upon one of the brightest pieces of news imaginable: the world is on the brink of eradicating polio, forever. A disease that for generations has killed or crippled countless among us – condemning some to decades in an iron lung – may soon go the way of smallpox: formerly a scourge of humanity, now the mere stuff of history books and medical texts. As someone whose own mother still lives a full four decades later with the (relatively minor) sequelae of a case contracted in early adulthood, my joy could not be greater.

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Peoplesplaining Is No Joking Matter

Earlier this week, Canada’s Prime Minister interrupted a woman to correct her after she used the word ‘mankind’. Trudeau asked that she instead use the word ‘peoplekind’ in order to be more inclusive. This exchange garnered international criticism, which led the Prime Minister to respond by saying the whole thing was just a “dumb joke”.

Apart from the fact that the Prime Minister used a word that doesn’t exist, à la Sarah Palin’s ‘refudiate’, he then claims it was a joke. This, to me, is much worse than if he had simply apologized.

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Don’t cheer for gridlock

In The Meaning of Democracy and the Vulnerabilities of Democracies: A Response to Tocqueville’s Challenge, Vincent Ostrom argues that a democratic society must be a self-governing society. Not just one that’s designed the right way.

By explaining why people need to be able to use persuasion and work together to solve their problems to keep democracy healthy, Ostrom gives us a useful way to think about a common concern: gridlock. Libertarians often cheer for gridlock. We shouldn’t. And not just because it’s tone deaf.  Read more

Sweet talk and self-governance

We haven’t heard as much lately about panic over falling faith in democracy, but questions about the proper scope of democracy and what we mean by “democracy” are still relevant. Is democracy popping a ballot in a box, or does it include our conversations and what we do as communities?

Vincent Ostrom asks this question in The Meaning of Democracy and the Vulnerabilities of Democracies: A Response to Tocqueville’s Challenge, and urges us to recognise a seldom-discussed danger to democracy. We often hear that we need to do more than just vote—we need to vote well. But, says Ostrom, we also need to be able to persuade each other—to use what Deirdre McCloskey calls “sweet talk“. Sweet talk is how we get people to act together when we can’t force them to. But we have to persuade well, the right way—building buy-in and consensus. The wrong kind of persuasion might be as dangerous as the wrong kind of voting. “Rhetoric pursued as an art of manipulation can be a trap contributing to the vulnerability of democratic societies.” (xiii)

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Getting Better All the Time

It’s easy to get caught up in all the bad things that are happening around the world. There are always plenty of leaders unfit to lead, plenty of disasters big and small raining misery down on us and our fellow humans. But while it’s good to shine a light on the darkness, it’s important not to lose sight of the bigger picture—and the bigger picture, despite what you might think, is very positive. The good old days, as Johan Norberg puts it in the title of the introduction to Progress: Ten Reasons to Look Forward to the Future, are now.

Don’t believe it? Let me throw a few facts at you: Read more