The Virtue of Radical Honesty

Steven Pinker, a psychology professor at Harvard, calls himself an Enlightenment man.

This week I asked a group of students at the University of Chicago a question I’m asking students around the country: Who are your heroes? There’s always a long pause after I ask. But eventually one of the students suggested Steven Pinker. Another chimed in Jonathan Haidt. There was general nodding around the table.

That was interesting. Both men are psychology professors, at Harvard and N.Y.U., who bravely stand against what can be the smothering orthodoxy that inhibits thought on campus, but not from the familiar conservative position.

One way Pinker does it is by refusing to be pessimistic. There is a mood across America, but especially on campus, that in order to show how aware of social injustice you are, you have to go around in a perpetual state of indignation, negativity and righteous rage. Pinker refuses to do this. In his new book, “Enlightenment Now,” he argues that this pose is dishonest toward the facts.

For example, we’re all aware of the gloomy statistics around wage stagnation and income inequality, but Pinker contends that we should not be nostalgic for the economy of the 1950s, when jobs were plentiful and unions strong. A third of American children lived in poverty. Sixty percent of seniors had incomes below $1,000 a year. Only half the population had any savings in the bank at all.

Between 1979 and 2014, meanwhile, the percentage of poor Americans dropped to 20 percent from 24 percent. The percentage of lower-middle-class Americans dropped to 17 from 24. The percentage of Americans who were upper middle class (earning $100,000 to $350,000) shot upward to 30 percent from 13 percent.

There’s a fair bit of social mobility. Half of all Americans wind up in the top 10 percent of earners at at least one point in their career. One in nine spend some time in the top 1 percent.

Poverty has been transformed by falling prices and government support. “When poverty is defined in terms of what people consume rather than what they earn, we find that the American poverty rate has declined by 90 percent since 1960,” Pinker writes.

America has a pretty big safety net. Our numbers look bad because so much of our health care spending is funneled through employers, but when you add this private social spending to state social spending, America has the second-highest level of such spending of the 35 nations in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, after France.

Pinker has data like this in sphere after sphere, marking the progress we’ve made in health, the environment, safety, knowledge and overall happiness. So is he right, that society is in much better shape than we’re allowing?

In part, but not totally. Pinker’s philosophical lens prevents him from seeing where the real problems lie. He calls himself an Enlightenment man, but he’s really a scientific rationalist. He puts tremendous emphasis on the value of individual reason. The key to progress is information — making ourselves better informed. The key sin in the world is a result either of entropy, the randomness that is built into any system, or faith — dogma clouding reason.

The big problem with his rationalistic worldview is that while he charts the way individuals have benefited over the centuries, he spends barely any time on the quality of the relationships between individuals.

That is to say, Pinker doesn’t spend much time on the decline of social trust, the breakdown of family life, the polarization of national life, the spread of tribal mentalities, the rise of narcissism, the decline of social capital, the rising alienation from institutions or the decline of citizenship and neighborliness. It’s simply impossible to tell any good-news story when looking at the data from these moral, social and emotional spheres.

Pinker is a paragon of exactly the kind of intellectual honesty and courage we need to restore conversation and community, and the students are right to revere him.

But today’s situation reminds us of the weakness of the sort of Cartesian rationalism Pinker champions and represents. Conscious reason can get you only so far when tribal emotions have been aroused, when existential fears rain down, when narcissistic impulses have been given free rein, when spiritual longings have nowhere healthy to go, when social trust has been devastated, when all the unconscious networks that make up 99 percent of our thinking are aflame and disordered.

Our problems are relational. I don’t know about yours, but after the CNN Town Hall Wednesday night, my Twitter feed was aflame, with two raging warring camps. If we had an emotionally healthy polity, it would be completely easy to pass eight or 10 sensible restrictions to at least make it harder for lonely attention-seekers to get guns. But our nation is emotionally sick.

Pinker’s rationalism is not the total cure. But I have to confess, I really like him. A few years ago the magazine Moment gave genetic tests to a bunch of writers with Jewish heritage. The tests reveal that Pinker and I are third cousins. Learning of this kinship tie, I now feel special affection for him. Why? There’s no rational, scientific reason. I just do.

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