Friday, November 28, 2008

Why I remain an optimist - and why I still believe in progress

At this stage it appears that two Sydney men are among the Mumbai dead.

It is hard to remain optimistic just at present. TV and radio with its constant negative drip feed erodes the spirit. Yet, and as I have said before, I remain optimistic. I do so for three reasons.

First and least importantly, optimism is more practical. Without attempting to document the case, there is considerable evidence that optimistic people tend to be more resilient, happier, than pessimistic people.

Secondly, while we know from history as well as current events that dreadful things happen, we also know that in most cases troubles pass. This may be small consolation to those affected, but is I think true.

Thirdly and most importantly is what I think of as the evolution of the human spirit.

Human beings are hard wired from a past that began as hunter gatherers struggling to survive in a hostile environment. The best and worst of the human character comes from this; our drive, our sometimes compassion, our willingness to turn on others to protect our own or to get what we want.

A few years ago I re-read Homer's the Iliad and the Odyssey. Both the question of the real authorship and the exact dates of these works are uncertain, but they are old in human terms. I had not read them since school, and I found that my reaction was completely different.

At school, I just read them as stories. Now I was interested in what they told me about Greek society at the time. Here I was struck by what I thought of as their primitive nature, constant violence, constant fights to gain cattle or olive oil.

In the years since I first read Homer, I had also read other early works such as some of the Norse sagas. These formed my later views because they too displayed similar features.

The features presented in these works still exist. However, if you look at the evolution of human society and thought, you will see that the need to control our human weaknesses, the desire to find a better way, is a constant thread.

The evolution of religion, philosophy and ethics is central to our social evolution. Yes, progress is patchy. However, there is a world of difference between the Europe presented in these earlier works and today. I say Europe only because I know European society best.  

Take, as a simple example, the abolition of the slave trade in the British Empire in 1807. While economic factors were involved, this was still a decision campaigned for and finally taken on ethical grounds. It was a decision that would have been incomprehensible just a few years before. 

This short post is not meant to be a history lesson. My point is that it is helpful to remember that history does show evolution, development, progress in human thought even if the results are patchy.

Hitler used the mechanisms of a modern nation state to carry out genocide. Millions perished. Yet one outcome was the first attempt to create an international framework that might control genocide.

We may argue that there have been more failures than successes since. However, you can see the progressive evolution of laws and structures intended to address those failures.

Progress takes time and always involves setbacks. My own concern, one I explored to some degree in Moral Courage, Fear, Technology and the Decline of the West, is that our own negativity and fear - moral funk - is of itself the single biggest longer term threat we face.

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