Hope is a slave to news; we should never forget it. And news has always been bad. Its currency is unspeakable horror, with hatred and doom darkening every horizon. News defies us to peer through the gloom and ever see light ahead.
The answer lies not in downgrading hope, it lies in downgrading news. For it is not what it purports to be – the real world – but an edited, selected, distorted reality, designed for vicarious public consumption.
Media organisations receive periodic complaints that they should “cover more good news”. The result is usually unreadable. A successful plane takeoff is not news, only a crashing one. Famine is news, plenty is not. War is news, peace is not. News is the evil we do each other, seldom the good.
Hope lies not in headlines but in the more tedious realm of statistics. Five years ago, the American scientist Steven Pinker wrote a book The Better Angels of Our Nature, seeking to compute the gains and losses of humankind over recent centuries. His sum was overwhelmingly positive – and despite “miserabilist” critics has stood the test of time.
Violence, said Pinker, has vastly diminished. Both inter-state and civil conflicts are less common, and less deadly, than at any time in history. The chance of dying a violent death is a tenth of what it was just half a century ago. Starvation and plague have almost been eliminated and indeed make headlines when they occur. Life expectancy has soared, along with female emancipation, literacy, health, access to water, power and electronic communication. How can that not be a source of hope?
Any fool can open a newspaper and cry. Just look at Syria or Yemen or the Democratic Republic of the Congo or Isis or climate change or the risk of a revanchist Russia and a “primitivist” America. People are dying of cancer and suffering from mental illness. On every side is evidence of man’s inhumanity to man.
Since homo sapiens first walked the planet it did unspeakable things, but there was no internet to tell every tale. The recourse to cruelty, personal, communal and international, seems ingrained in the human condition. But for all the backsliding, hope lies in the fact that this recourse is plainly diminishing. In just a century, democracy has gone from being a foible of a few western states to ruling a majority of the world’s population.
The chief agencies of progress have been economic. The industrial revolution and the advent of global trade have brought prosperity, comfort and happiness beyond the dreams of our ancestors. The proportion of people living in what is defined as poverty has declined in two centuries from 94% to 10%. We take this so much for granted that we struggle to deny it to a few Amazonian tribes still beyond its reach – as if guarding the memory of our former selves.
The ubiquity, the sheer unavoidability, of bad news is like George Orwell’s boot, stamping on our faces over and over. In many countries, democracy may seem to be passing through a difficult phase. The restless exhortation to change, to disrupt, to intervene in other people’s business appears undimmed. When I hear MPs stand up in parliament to demand “something be done” about the world’s ailments, my instinct is to reply: “For God’s sake, no.” But even such ambition is fuelled by hope, the everlasting spur to progress. It is the engine of improvement. It motivates science and charity alike.
So turn off the news. Turn on history. Believe that things will get better, for the excellent reason that they have always done so.
Source : The Guardian