The Arc of the Moral Universe Bends Whichever Way We Bend It

Yesterday, a well-known radio personality went on a cable news show and told a female anchor that the only two things in this country that he believes in absolutely are “the first amendment and boobs.” Exactly one month ago, white supremacists and actual Nazi’s marched through the streets of Charlottesville, Virginia chanting Nazi slogans and doing the Hitler salute. In both cases, my initial reaction was the same, “it is 2017, how can this stuff still be happening?”

It was a bad reaction, or, at least, one built on the very dangerous notion that there is something about the passage of time that guarantees both the advancement of social ideas or the permanence of social achievements. We take too much comfort, I think, in Martin Luther King’s statement that “the moral arc of the universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”

King did not really say this.” Well, he did say it, sort of, but he was quoting an established proverb, and there was already a note of caution in his phrasing. That note of caution became overwhelming in the “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” in which Dr. King specifically cautions against the “strangely irrational notion that there is something in the very flow of time that will inevitably cure all ills”:

Actually, time itself is neutral; it can be used either destructively or constructively. More and more I feel that the people of ill will have used time much more effectively than have the people of good will. . . . Human progress never rolls in on wheels of inevitability; it comes through the tireless efforts of men willing to be co workers with God, and without this hard work, time itself becomes an ally of the forces of social stagnation.

King warns us against a flawed view of history that sees the passage of time as a guarantor of social progress, as though racist ideas simply time out and wither away. This is a bad idea–every bit as bad as the opposite bad idea, which is the notion that the modern world has descended from a former perfection and is now a hopeless morass of conflict and wickedness.  

No book that I know does a better job of debunking the second bad idea than Steven Pinker’s The Better Angels of Our Nature. In 800 pages of data, tables, analysis, and conjecture, Pinker argues compellingly that we are now living in the most peaceful era of human history. Violence has declined on every time scale: over  millennia, centuries, decades, and years, human society has become less violent and more respectful than it has ever been before. But before he starts, he gives us three important clarifications:

  • The decline of violence has not been steady
  • Violence has not been brought down to zero
  • The decline is not guaranteed to continue

These are crucial qualifications. What they tell us is that social improvement is neither predictable nor guaranteed. It is not a function of the passage of time, but of actual human effort to improve the societies that they live in. There have always been such people, and there have always been their opposites. Who wins at any given time depends on a lot of factors, not least of which is who gets listened to and who gets put into positions of power.

The unfortunate corollary to the question, “how could such a thing happen in 2017?” is the falsely reassuring thought that “it is 2017, so things can’t possibly get too bad.” The problem is that things can get too bad. Our bad angels–tribalism, selfishness, zero-sum thinking, the view of other people as means to our happiness–coexist with our good angels–empathy, altruism, and the ability to love and connect. “Human Nature” is all of this in combinations that do not inevitably lead anywhere.

The accomplishments of civil society are significant. Things like mutual toleration, peaceful resolution of disputes, and respect for the rule of law have dramatically improved life for millions of people (and failed to do so for millions of others). In many parts of the world, racism, sexism, and other exclusive ideologies have decreased over the last thousand years, and even in the last fifty, But these advancements did not come about because time passed, and there is nothing about the passage of time that guarantees that they will continue.

There is no inherent shape to history. Justice and social advancement happen because people work hard to bring about justice and social advancement. When we stop working, advancement stops happening, and backwards movement is just as possible as forward movement. The moral arc of the universe bends whichever way we bend it.

Comments

  1. As one who has lived while around the world, I have always believed that civilization is a very thin veneer.

  2. Just last week I was talking to a man about catcalling and he said, “But I don’t know if that sort of thing really happens anymore.”

  3. christiankimball says:

    I agree but want to reinforce that the simplified arc statement AND the simplified counter are both dangerous. There is no inherent shape — agreed. Thinking there is lets people off the hook of being actively engaged. But there is an empirical, observed shape, and over the long haul (generations, centuries) it has been pretty good for awhile. Thinking otherwise would lead to despair and retreat, also defeating the purpose of active engagement.
    In the end we get better if, but only if, lots of good people keep working at it. Which I take it is your point, with MLK (good company that).
    As for current events, as outrageous as they are, I am trying to hold on to a picture of increased volatility (with attendant serious costs) rather than a fundamental change of direction. Speaking of human affairs. Climate change, unfortunately, exhibits both.

  4. Wonderful post–as ever. I wish Pinker was required reading in Gospel Doctrine sometimes. It was a shock to my paradigm when I discovered, as a nineteen year-old in one of Richard Johnson’s BYU sociology classes, that in fact, empirically speaking, the world was not getting worse and worse but, by nearly every measure, better and better. The hell-in-a-hand-basket narrative is neither true nor useful.

    On the other hand, I can say that as a white person in the United States, who tucks her babies safely into bed every night. Wonder how I’d feel about the state of the world if I was a Rohingya woman with an infant and a toddler, or even the Lebanese emigree college student I happened to chat with yesterday who had lost two of her three older brothers to war and whose only surviving brother is still in Lebanon, unable to join their family here in the U.S.

    As a woman in my faith community, as the mother of very small children, and as someone, in general, who does not see herself as either brave or wise, it’s very hard to know what I can do, how, and where to meaningfully bend the arc.

    [Word Press tells me I’ve already made this comment, but it doesn’t seem to be posting. If this is the case, please do delete the duplicate for me…unless of course I’m being moderated, in which case I shall reproach myself (but secretly wear my moderation like a badge of honor–I’m seldom numbered among the cool, edgy kids).]

  5. Two steps forwards, on step back. All of these improvements do mean that something has changed for somebody. These changes can build up resentment. Sometimes the pressure builds, and is then released. Hopefully good people can make sure that the release is temporary, and not course changing.

  6. I wonder, as I often do with such self loathing articles such as this, where would you fall with the St Louis riots where organized, paid criminals are destroying public property….over an action that was deemed justified by facts. The radio show host made a deliberate trap for liberals by pairing the freedom of speech with a symbol of sexuality freely proliferated by rap artists day in and day out. My question is, where is the outrage over “riots” and rap?

  7. I mean, who understands those rap guys anyway?

  8. it's a series of tubes says:

    Today, JKC wins the internet. +1

  9. I will try, really try, to hold onto the idea that empirically, things are improving as I participate (bite my tongue?) in this week’s high priest lesson on “Virtue”

  10. Thanks for this truthful post. The 2016 presidential election I think will always remain a watershed moment in my thinking, from a patient optimism that said things will eventually get better, to a realization that the worst parts of human nature are ever with us, and that entrenched privilege, like violence, will probably never be brought to zero. The Church’s response to Ordain Women in the summer of 2014 was another such moment.

    I’m preparing for my gospel doctrine lesson this Sunday, about the Martin and Willie handcart companies. I wondered who they were (mostly English immigrants), then wondered about overall immigration in the 1850s, and the major political questions of the day. Of course slavery was the biggest issue, but immigration was a big one, too. Irish immigrants were still pouring in from the 1845 potato famine as well as other European immigrants. The Know-Nothings thought immigrants were taking away American jobs, they hated immigrants, and they hated Catholics. Wow, does that sound familiar. The Republican Party, formed in the mid-1850s, had the following platform: “Foreign immigration which in the past has added so much to the wealth, resources, and increase of power to the nation…should be fostered and encouraged.”

  11. Excellent points, Michael. And Emily U, I love your comment. I feel exactly the same way about the 2016 US presidential election and the Church’s response to Ordain Women. Events like these have definitely pushed me to see the world through more pessimistic eyes.