Is There a Way to Acknowledge America’s Progress? (applies more broadly)

Good reminder by Andrew Sullivan that many things have changed for the better. And of course, recognizing progress doesn’t mean doing more may not be needed, but having a historical perspective helps focus debate and discussion on what should be the more pressing issues:

…Why this sudden ratcheting up of rhetoric? On the right, it’s fueled by the kind of absurd hyperbole that Trump uses all the time. On the left, it’s Trump himself. His extremism, misogyny, transphobia, and racism have all provoked a sharp turn to the left among Democrats. But, as you can see from the workforce numbers for women, there’s little he can actually do to prevent the future from being female. He could tip the Court, which could, in turn, repeal Roe, but that would be a highly unpopular ruling and likely provoke a backlash that could lead to more moderate federal legislation in its place. Marriage equality is settled law, according to the chief justice of the Supreme Court. Gay visibility is ubiquitous. Black unemployment is at record lows; black women are seeing real improvement in their careers and earnings; crime in urban neighborhoods is a fraction of what it was in the 1980s and 1990s. Yes, we have a bigot in the Oval Office — but his ability to influence these broader cultural tides is quite limited.

Some of the rhetorical excess is also about money. Interest groups for various subpopulations have a financial interest in emphasizing oppression in order to keep donations flowing.

But a recent psychological study suggests a simpler explanation. Its core idea is what you might call “oppression creep” or, more neutrally, “prevalence-induced concept change.” The more progress we observe, the greater the remaining injustices appear. We seem incapable of keeping a concept stable over time when the prevalence of that concept declines. In a fascinating experiment, participants were provided with a chart containing a thousand dots that ranged along a spectrum from very blue to very purple and were asked to go through and identify all the blue dots. The study group was then broken in two. One subgroup was shown a new chart with the same balance of purple and blue dots as the first one and asked to repeat the task. Not surprisingly, they generally found the same number of blue dots as they did on the first chart. A second subgroup was shown a new chart with fewer blue dots and more purple dots. In this group, participants started marking dots as blue that they had marked as purple on the first chart. “In other words, when the prevalence of blue dots decreased, participants’ concept of blue expanded to include dots that it had previously excluded.”

We see relatively, not absolutely. We change our standards all the time, depending on context. As part of the study, the psychologists ran another experiment showing participants a range of threatening and nonthreatening faces and asking them to identify which was which. Next, participants were split into two groups and asked to repeat the exercise. The first subgroup was shown the same ratio of threatening and nonthreatening faces as in the initial round; subgroup two was shown many fewer threatening faces. Sure enough, the second group adjusted by seeing faces they once thought of as nonthreatening as threatening. The conclusion:

When blue dots became rare, purple dots began to look blue; when threatening faces became rare, neutral faces began to appear threatening … This happened even when the change in the prevalence of instances was abrupt, even when participants were explicitly told that the prevalence of instances would change, and even when participants were instructed and paid to ignore these changes.

We seem to be wired to assume a given threat remains just as menacing even when its actual prevalence has declined:

Our studies suggest that even well-meaning agents may sometimes fail to recognize the success of their own efforts, simply because they view each new instance in the decreasingly problematic context that they themselves have brought about. Although modern societies have made extraordinary progress in solving a wide range of social problems, from poverty and illiteracy to violence and infant mortality, the majority of people believe that the world is getting worse. The fact that concepts grow larger when their instances grow smaller may be one source of that pessimism.

This study may help explain why, in the midst of tremendous gains for gays, women, and racial minorities, we still insist more than ever that we live in a patriarchal, misogynist, white supremacist, homophobic era. We constantly adjust our view of our fast-changing world to ensure we don’t believe it has changed at all! Maybe this is simply another way of describing each generation’s shifting of the goalposts. Or maybe it’s because we’ve made so much progress that the injustice that remains appears more intolerable, rather than less. Or maybe, as these psychologists suggest, “holding concepts constant may be an evolutionarily recent requirement that the brain’s standard computational mechanisms are ill equipped to meet.”

But whatever the cause, the result is that we steadfastly refuse to accept the fact of progress, in a cycle of eternal frustration at what injustices will always remain. We never seem to be able to say: “Okay, we’re done now, we’ve got this, politics has done all it reasonably could, now let’s move on with our lives.” We can only ever say: “It’s worse than ever!” And feel it in our bones.


About Andrew
Andrew blogs and tweets public policy issues, particularly the relationship between the political and bureaucratic levels, citizenship and multiculturalism. His latest book, Policy Arrogance or Innocent Bias, recounts his experience as a senior public servant in this area.

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