As most presidents have done after a mass killing in the United States, Donald Trump spoke to the American people the day after the Feb. 14 school massacre in Parkland, Fla. He was consoling to the victims’ families but also offered two practical steps. He called for better security in schools and more help for the mentally ill who might resort to such violence.
His ideas are welcome. Yet he did not mention better regulation of guns. Nor did he speak of many other measures offered by experts. The reaction to his selective choices was swift. It reflected not only a political divide in the US but also a deep exasperation and despair over a lack of progress toward ending large-scale shootings.
Such rage is not uncommon these days. It is directed at the seemingly slow work in ending police shootings of black men, stopping sexual harassment, reducing income inequality, cutting carbon pollution, lowering the national debt, and other big problems.
Solutions to such issues seem so obvious to many people that they are quick to anger and quick to fight others. What is often missing is a mutual recognition between opponents of their common belief that progress is possible.
In the history of human societies, that belief is relatively new. It really took off in the Enlightenment of the 18th century with the writings of European thinkers. It was built on an understanding of each individual’s ability to perceive the underlying nature of reality and that all people have an equal moral standing. This enabled a new age of reason and discovery as well as a spirit to assist others who are suffering.
In a new book, “Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism and Progress,” Harvard University scholar Steven Pinker makes a case that solving today’s problems would be much easier if we were more grateful for the progress of the past two centuries.
Progress, he says, needs a wholehearted defense. The ideals that have created so much progress are “gifts” that we take for granted. Humans cannot ignore the achievements of the past, such as liberal democracy and the “institutions of truth-seeking.”
People can only understand where they are if they know how far they have come, he says. Dr. Pinker goes so far as to define spirituality as “gratitude for one’s existence, awe at the beauty and immensity of the universe, and humility before the frontiers of human understanding....”
Much of the book includes mounds of data about progress made in reducing homicides, poverty, pollution, illness, war, and similar problems. Gratitude for such progress can help us not be resigned to the “miseries and irrationalities of the present, nor try to turn back the clock to a lost golden age,” he writes.
He asks that we stop seeing every unsolved problem – such as gun violence – as a symptom of a sick society. The ideals that have built a better world, such as reason and benevolence, are still readily available. In fact, much of that knowledge can be found in the smartphones in our purses or pockets.
Massacres like those of innocent teens in a school bring forth strong emotions. But despair at preventing such tragedies should not be one of them. Solutions are possible, and they will need gratitude to achieve them.