Are We Moving Towards a Better Society—or Regressing?

September, 24 2020

Are We Moving
Towards a
Better Society
or Regressing?

In this challenging, chaotic time, there are moments when many of us, even optimists, fear that society is regressing. Is this fear justified? Are we really moving backward? Or is what we are seeing a temporary detour on the path forward? Is there even evidence that such a phenomenon as progress exists? How we feel about this “Big Question” influences how we perceive the world, including how we vote. It’s a human question,  so we have not limited this question to Jewish thinkers. But, as you will read, it is also a very Jewish question. Our thinkers, of varied ages and backgrounds, touch upon a breadth of topics and diagnose different problems. We hope you take your time going through their insights, and return to them, as you ponder our shared future.


As someone who was born in Prague in 1937, I can assure you that the human race has confronted, and endured, darker times. But today it often feels as though the world is getting better and worse at the same time.

Compared to a generation ago, we have made gains in reducing extreme poverty, increasing access to education and curbing hunger. But sadly, democratic progress has stalled, and hundreds of millions, if not billions, of people are at risk from conflict, climate change and pandemic disease. The most serious challenges are interrelated. A deteriorating climate will aggravate economic problems that will, in turn, generate new threats to security. Technology, if used wisely, can improve the lives of billions of people; if misused, it has the potential to destroy us all. That is why good governance is so important and why the antidemocratic trends we are witnessing are so disturbing.

 I am often asked whether I am an optimist or a pessimist. I am an optimist who worries a lot. I am an optimist because I believe people have shown the capacity to accomplish great things when they are willing to work together regardless of differences. I worry because I see so many politicians trying to augment their power by exploiting fears and driving people apart.

 Democracy can be fragile and is far from perfect, but it is also resilient. Most of us desire what only democracy can deliver, including the right to participate in choosing our leaders and in shaping the laws by which we are governed. When people are dissatisfied, it is usually because they want their democracies to be more effective and responsive, not because they wish to live under a dictator. That gives me hope.

Madeleine Albright, the United States Secretary of State from 1997 to 2001, is the author of the forthcoming Hell and Other Destinations.

Eric Ward

Right now, we are asking ourselves: Who’s an American, and what should America look like? Over time, white nationalists have murdered and injured more Americans than any other political or ideological extremist group. When you look at the rise of hate and violence, it’s easy to believe that we are regressing. But I’m going to paint another picture: What we are seeing is a backlash against the gains for racial justice and gender equity and against the attempts to address the income inequality that has worsened over the last seven decades. This backlash is intense. It must be taken seriously, but it’s not a regression yet. It becomes a regression only if the majority of Americans who believe in inclusive democracy, the idea of a people-centered, accountable and transparent government, remain silent or immobilized. 

This is a story with a very long arc. We can’t let our fear immobilize us from doing what we owe those who came before us, and those who will come after us.

Those who are victims of hate violence have done nothing more than dream of better futures for their children, and for their communities. They are innocents, and it is always heartbreaking to see life so cheaply dismissed. That has been part of the history of the United States, but it doesn’t have to be part of our future. This is a story with a very long arc. We can’t let our fear immobilize us from doing what we owe those who came before us, and those who will come after us. Now it’s up to our generation to move from backlash to opportunity in America.

I think of the young daughter of George Floyd, the unarmed African American man whose murder by police in Minneapolis launched the largest civil rights movement that we’ve ever experienced in this country. You see her on video, sitting on the shoulders of a family friend, saying, “Daddy changed the world.” When I heard that, I thought to myself, yeah, your dad did change the world. He didn’t deserve to be killed to change the world, but it is what happened. And we can’t change that. But the one promise we can keep to her is that we owe her that better world. 

As a non-Jewish person speaking to the Jewish community, I would say: We have a long and heavy road to undo systemic anti-Semitism and the unconscious bias that comes from it. Anti-Semitism is deeply rooted in the world, and it is deeply rooted here in the United States. One of its purposes is to scapegoat and exploit the Jewish community by positioning it as a buffer between the haves and the have-nots. When the have-nots get frustrated, rather than seeking grievance and redress from those who actually have the power to change systems, some of them direct that frustration toward the Jewish community, typically in very physically violent ways. Anti-Semitism also hurts and kills non-Jews—and undermines the idea of and the belief in democracy.

And now we have COVID-19 on top of this wave of white nationalist vigilante violence, and no response from the federal government. Add to that economic depression and staggering unemployment numbers. This type of chaos and lack of leadership prompts people to ask questions to which we know the easiest answer has always been anti-Semitism. That’s why we see anti-Semitic attacks that accuse Jews of spreading COVID-19 and then tell people that the vaccine for COVID-19, when it comes out, could be dangerous because it is part of a Jewish conspiracy. 

So, are we moving forward or moving back? When I look at younger generations,  I don’t see anything that should suggest to the Jewish community that a long-term regression is likely. What I witness as an outsider is a modern Jewish renaissance through writers, thought leaders, artists and new faith voices. It is inspiring, and it is quite visible. When I hear these voices and see these faces across society, I can’t help but think we will bring ourselves into the promised land.

Eric Ward, a civil rights activist, is the executive director of the Western States Center and a senior fellow at Race Forward.

TM Luhrmann

From the long view, it’s pretty clear that as a society and as a species, humans are moving forward, becoming more kind and less violent. We’re more likely to treat our pets kindly. We identify with them more; we behave as if they have emotions that need to be respected. The Judeo-Christian God has gotten distinctly kinder and less violent since he kicked his humans out of the Garden of Eden. Per capita, people are less likely to die violently than they were 500 years ago. Not that there aren’t horrible events. We’re more capable of committing genocide efficiently, and climate change may kill us all, but as a species, we are bending slowly toward more empathy.

 That said, one thing I think we are losing is the power of living and working within small face-to-face communities like the ones in which humans evolved. These communities were often quite violent in defending themselves against apparent threats from other groups like them. But the small community also can provide a moral structure for the group, a shared understanding of how one should act and a sense that the people within the group really matter. Clearly, this cuts in two directions—for example, the group’s set of beliefs about sexuality can have clear negative consequences for people who are different from those norms. Yet it’s also something that everybody understands, whereas a universal morality can unsettle people who feel that they’re not sure what proper behavior is. Unsettled people can become angry people. Rules can help a group to function and help its members identify with one another, and I think we have lost some of that.

 What it means to be a member of a community has radically changed with the internet, freedom to travel and open borders. On one hand, this has produced this wonderful sense of inclusion, in which all people have equal rights and equal status. On the other hand, that’s not something humans do well, so we’re working against the odds. It’s a wonderful vision of how the world should be, and so much not the way our species has evolved. So we’ll see.

T. M. Luhrmann is a professor of anthropology at Stanford. Her books include When God Talks Back: Understanding the American Evangelical Relationship with God and the forthcoming How God Becomes Real: Kindling the Presence of Invisible Others.

Larry Brilliant

Progress always happens in fits and starts, not a straight line. We hope that it’s two steps forward, rather than the reverse. Right now as far as public health is concerned, we are at an inflection point. After World War II, humanity in general, and the global health and development community in particular, saw the skeletons coming out of concentration camps, the firebombing in Dresden and the mushroom clouds in Japan, and collectively shuddered. Without a big meeting, each country and each person agreed to give up a little sovereignty in order to make the world a better place so we could live together and say “Never again.”

From this arose an alphabet soup—the UN, UNICEF, FAO, NATO, WHO, the EU, international societies of scientists, a proliferation of alliances and treaties—which kept the world from a war for the next 70 years and were the glue that bonded us together. We helped set the table for increasing democracy. Alliances of democracies fought off fascism and totalitarianism, foreign aid helped developing countries, and the field of global health burgeoned. It was the Golden Age of international cooperation.

That’s changed. From the social cohesion that arose from centripetal forces bringing us together, there’s arisen a centrifugal force splitting us apart into nationalism, provincialism, neofascism, hegemony, oligarchy. The world today is less safe, less fair. The global health compact is frayed. The pandemic should be uniting us, but it is exacerbating divisions. It’s patently self-defeating to not work with everyone else during a pandemic. Albert Einstein said, “No problem can be solved from the same level of consciousness that created it.” That’s certainly true in global health. You can’t solve a pandemic at the local level.

I think this pandemic is a test of whether the centripetal forces or the centrifugal forces are stronger. It’s a test to see whether we care enough about people who are a different color, religion, race or economic status. Do we care enough about them to invest in public health? We will see if we pass this test, because it’s not going to be the last. We now live in the age of pandemics, and there will be more.

The next several months are going to be very, very difficult. Worldwide we will pass a million deaths by the end of the year; in the United States 300,000 of our brothers and sisters, parents and children will have died from this virus. We will be facing winter: the cooling of the weather, being indoors where the virus propagates more easily. When we enter flu season it will be difficult for physicians to differentiate early stages of flu from COVID. Then we have Halloween, the election, Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s Day. Every one of these events bring us together out of our isolation. Will we be wearing face masks, hand-washing and social distancing?

But I’m very optimistic about what will happen about six months later when we’ll likely get a vaccine, even though we’re going to mess up the launch. We’ll have more tools to deal with this pandemic. We’ll have a whole batch of point-of-care diagnostics that are very rapid, very inexpensive, very accurate. We will have more treatments: steroids, some antivirals and advanced forms of convalescent plasma—although not the way Trump described it. And we will soon have enough different kinds of vaccines that we’ll be able to do something like what we did with polio and smallpox. Not eradication, probably, but global vaccination programs that will bring us toward herd immunity and a measure of control. I think we will start living more normal lives by summer or fall. That’s when it becomes imperative for us to rejoin the world.

But the United States with “America First” has made us alone; America has removed itself from the world, withdrawn from the World Health Organization and from many of the treaties that we had entered into. This is a very important election. It’s important for America and the world that America rejoin it as a reliable, trustworthy partner with integrity. After battling each other in two World Wars, looking over the brink of the abyss time and time again, and pulling apart, we found something that brought us together. We need to do that again. We need America to rejoin the community of nations.

Larry Brilliant is an epidemiologist, technologist, philanthropist and author, known for his work with the World Health Organization helping to successfully eradicate smallpox.

Steven Pinker

The question can’t be answered because there are many dimensions of well-being, and they don’t always move in the same direction. Advances in science and technology are unstoppable, and so there will be continued headway in longevity, including beating back the COVID-19 pandemic. The human species has always been vulnerable to pandemics, but this one is likely to be defeated more rapidly and with fewer deaths than earlier pandemics such as the Spanish flu and smallpox. 

In the political realm, we are seeing the reversion to authoritarianism, nationalism and tribalism in the authoritarian populist movement of Donald Trump. That is likely to recede because of the demographics. Support for populism declines with generational cohorts: the younger the cohort, the less support. As older generations die off and are replaced by younger ones, it’s likely that nationalism will decline as well.

And with it, the revival of the racism and nativism that Trump has taken out from under the long-standing taboo will decline. The data suggest that overt racism—that is, people who actually endorse segregation or oppose interracial marriage, or who hold derogatory views of African Americans—has been in decline for many decades, and that has continued through the Trump years. Measures of implicit bias have also been in decline for as long as they’ve been measured. That will probably accelerate now that millennial and Gen Z cohorts’ antiracism has become our new religion, as Columbia University professor John McWhorter has put it. 

Some might object that demographics may not foretell trends because people get more conservative, and perhaps more racist, as they age. But the data suggest that that’s not the case: People, by and large, carry their political values with them as they age. A complementary fear is that the antiracist religion, if it takes over a generation and becomes the status quo, could impede the classic liberal search for progress via policy improvements. If the underlying ideology is that there is a zero-sum conflict between races and genders and that the only path to progress is by wresting power from the dominant white male heterosexual faction and handing it over to females and minorities, as opposed to promoting values of equal rights and policy reform, that may not be a recipe for societal improvement. That could generate unproductive conflict and leave many of the root causes unaddressed, such as inequities in education.

No one knows what the best policy solutions are a priori. Opinions must be shaped by analysis, criticism, debate and empirical data.

More generally, this ideology is an alternative to the enlightenment-inspired driver of progress, which is to treat society as a set of phenomena, including problems, which we don’t understand and must struggle to explain. To reach those explanations one must have open debate and the freedom to propose hypotheses and have them publicly evaluated. None of us knows what the best policy solutions are a priori. Our opinions must be shaped by analysis, criticism, debate and empirical data. That entire mindset  is threatened by a woke ideology that is certain of the truth, intolerant of disagreement and that uses moral condemnation rather than policy improvement as a vehicle to progress. On the other hand, even though we associate woke ideology with the millennials and Gen Z, no generation is monolithic. If there is a renewed commitment to liberalism and enlightenment ideals, then it’s possible that the beneficial trends that we have observed—the decline of racism and sexism, the decline of war and violence, the increase in longevity and health and education—could continue.

I suspect the white nationalist movement and its eruptions of hostility toward Jews will decline, again because of the demographics. Society is becoming more diverse, more urban, better educated and younger, and among those demographics, bigotry is deeply uncool. White nationalism is not absent in younger generations, but it’s not a phenomenon of the young. And despite the publicity that has grown around anti-Semitic hate crimes, the FBI data suggest that overall trends for hate crimes are down. There was an uptick starting in 2017, but anti-Jewish hate crimes are still lower than they were in the 1990s and early 2000s. I always advise not drawing conclusions about trends from highly publicized incidents such as rampage shootings. Just because they get saturation coverage at the time does not mean that they are trends. We can ascertain trends only from year-to-year data, particularly data from disinterested organizations rather than advocacy groups.

Steven Pinker is a professor of psychology at Harvard University whose books include The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined and The Stuff of Thought: Language as a Window into Human Nature.

Jill Jacobs

Judaism believes that we are ultimately moving toward a messianic age and that, in fact, things will get much worse before we reach that point. We believe we are somewhere in the chain of moving toward that perfected world, which gives us hope for the future and also allows us to situate ourselves in a chain that includes our great-great-great-grandparents and our great-great-great-grandchildren. Jewish history has had some really terrible points and a few better moments. And through all of it, we as a Jewish people keep the long view.

There is a Jewish concept called Yerida letzorech aliya: “We have to go down in order to go up.” Right now we’re at an extremely low point, with a government that violates all norms of society and is regularly acting to destroy democracy. We’re living under what I would call an aspirational autocracy. We have a government that doesn’t seem to care if Americans die and is doing absolutely everything wrong in dealing with the current pandemic. And, of course, this government attacks people of color and immigrants and makes anti-Semitism and misogyny okay. So we’re at a very low point.

But at this low point, we start to feel the birth pains of redemption. Millions of people are on the street standing up for Black lives. People are politically involved as never before. Ideas are gaining acceptance that once were considered radical. For example, creating a society in which our safety is not entirely entrusted to a police force, and rethinking what safety actually means in society, whether that’s about increasing mental health resources or universal healthcare. These are openings to create a society that actually values the health, safety and dignity of every single person in it. The challenge for all of us is whether we are going to move toward that society or get stuck in the depths. It’s not a steady forward move. It’s a little bit forward, a little bit back, sometimes a lot back. 

But we as Jews believe that even if it’s going to take generations to get there, ultimately we’re moving toward a better society. We have a lot in our tradition about how to build a just society. There’s a broader picture that we can rely on to ultimately bring about that messianic age.

Jill Jacobs is a Conservative rabbi and executive director of T’ruah: The Rabbinic Call for Human Rights, and author of among other books, There Shall Be No Needy: Pursuing Social Justice Through Jewish Law and Tradition.

shalom carmy

For a religious individual, your question is equivalent to asking whether, as a society, we are coming closer to or further from the service of God. The answer depends less on empirical data than on our differing, probably incommensurable, ideas of God and what He requires of us. In most areas, my thoughts are no doubt consistent with those of Orthodox believers.

However, two observations may resonate with those who do not subscribe to my religious commitments. First, middle-class Americans and Westerners have grounded their sense of security in their trust in democracy and in material progress.  We could look with relative equanimity at the decay of many personal virtues, confident that democratic procedures and values would prevent political and social chaos. And we could expect technical innovations to improve our standard of living steadily, keeping us satisfied and the lower classes content and guardedly optimistic about their prospects.

Right now, faith in the inevitability and benefits of democracy is shaky. Caveats about the democratic ideal raised by thinkers from Plato and Aristotle to The Federalist Papers and Alexis de Tocqueville, and after, were never put to rest. These include the potential sway of demagoguery and celebrity and the tyranny of ignorance, herd mentality and irresponsible partisanship. These are not transient dangers, but rather, the potential for disaster inherent to the system. That we have done this well so far is a fortunate contingency. In a deeply divided society, we cannot take for granted that the institutions we value will continue to protect us from ourselves.

Second, in our prosperity and comfort, we detected no downside to progress that could not be overcome by more advanced and more prudent scientific application. We should have recognized, for example, that global mobility plus our methods of animal farming would make new, rapidly spreading diseases common and that sooner or later we would be visited by plagues that outstrip our short-range defenses. On so many fronts, the effects of environmental change threaten to undermine our expectation of materialistic triumphalism and thus exacerbate the anxiety of the well-to-do and the resentment of those who are not.

All this means that the future will pose a genuine test of our social virtue. We will be forced to cooperate, to compromise, even to sacrifice, without the confidence that a political or technological deus ex machina will save us if we fail.

For a religious Jew, stepping into this future engenders additional thoughts. The partial moratorium on Jew hatred in the West after the Holocaust has expired. The phenomena I describe are likely to intensify the scapegoating of my people. I fear for our physical safety and I also fear that what we have done to rescue and rehabilitate Jewish religious life in the past 75 years will be swept away. I am uncertain and afraid, but my task remains to build up religious individuals and the communities in which they can survive and, I hope, thrive.  

Shalom Carmy, an Orthodox rabbi, teaches Bible and Jewish philosophy at Yeshiva University and is a scholar at Cardozo Law School. He is the editor emeritus of Tradition: A Journal of Orthodox Jewish Thought.

deepak chopra

Everything happens in the present, including the future. The future has no existence in itself. It’s a mental construct that we’ve all become used to. Mental constructs are what the poet William Blake called “mind-forg’d manacles.”  

Our cells live in the present moment, coordinating literally hundreds of thousands of chemical reactions per second. Our brains live only in the present, so when we remember the past or look ahead to the future, we are abandoning the here and now. Memories are powerful and give the impression that we have gone back in the past. The future is an imaginary vehicle for looking ahead either pessimistically or optimistically. Both moods are transient and depend on collective sentiments.  

The value of dropping the conventional concept of the future is that we are freed from worry and uncertainty, two of the most crippling conditions in modern life. In reality, the world has always been a place of dramatic extremes encompassing bliss and suffering. I’m not saying that we shouldn’t do everything we can to relieve pain, suffering, racism, prejudice and injustice. One might say that the strong Jewish strain of philanthropy and progressivism in social affairs is rooted, first, in the memory of enormous Jewish suffering and persecution, and second, in the absence of a future afterlife (there are variants of this belief in different traditions of Judaism, I know, but most Jews don’t have an expectation of salvation in Heaven). 

This focus on leading a morally upright life here and now has the potential to motivate us to live in the present. In the Indian tradition, the present is the eternal now. It is therefore timeless, stripped of any illusions about past and present. It is timeless and right in front of our noses, both at once. 

In a word, what matters isn’t our opinion about society advancing or sliding backward. What matters is our state of awareness. As consciousness expands, the possibilities for improving everyone’s life expand. If consciousness contracts out of fear, confusion, uncertainty and pessimism, the possibilities for improving your life also contract. This will lead to very different tomorrows, but the seed of tomorrow is planted by our state of awareness today. 

Deepak Chopra is a clinical professor of family medicine and public health at the University of California, San Diego, and the author of more than 90 books, most recently Total Meditation: Practices in Living the Awakened Life.

joel mokyr

In my field, economic history, I’ve noticed something curious: When I talk to my students about technological progress and institutional change, the assumption is that technology is getting better and better over time because it’s cumulative, but that institutions can get better or worse with equal probability. Over history, that’s exactly what has happened. Technology is getting better, and institutions are getting worse. 

Nobody in his right mind would argue that technology today isn’t better than it was at the time of Shakespeare. But are worldwide institutions better? Well, in some places they are; in some places, they’re not. If you look, say, just at the Western world over the last hundred years, have institutions been getting better? In some ways they have: We thought democracy was spreading, more freedom of the press, more freedom of expression, women’s rights, things like that. And then you look around and all of a sudden you see that many of these things are dissipating and disappearing, and democracy retreating in the last 20 years in a whole host of countries. We thought nationalism had basically disappeared after its disastrous costs in World War I and World War II. And so for a generation after World War II, nationalism, tribalism, populism, anti-Semitism, all of these things were barely visible in the Western world, and now they seem to be appearing everywhere. 

It’s not Germany in the 1930s, but if you look at the world—Turkey, Hungary, Poland, Brazil—there seems to be an inclination to go back to autocracies that suppress opposition, that arrest opponents and that become self-perpetuating. Four years ago, I would have said, well, that might happen in a bunch of countries; it would never happen in the United States. Now, nobody is sure. 

Another example: Corruption is one of the most striking symptoms of nations that have bad institutions. Every country has a little bit of corruption, but degree is everything. When you measure the corruption around the world going back 20 years, it’s not getting any better. In some places, corruption is going down a little bit and in some places, corruption is going up, but worldwide, I would have a very hard time saying the world is getting less corrupt. That’s scary. 

The concern is even bigger because while technology keeps getting better and institutions don’t, the gap between them is growing. So ever more powerful societies are managed and led by people who are not trustworthy and may be criminal—that’s also scary. There’s a famous quote by Sigmund Freud: “While mankind has made continual advances in its control over nature and may expect to make still greater ones, it is not possible to establish with certainty that a similar advance has been made in the management of human affairs.” Once society knows something, it’s hard to take that knowledge away. But the development of institutions can be reversed, and when that happens democracy can disappear. 

Joel Mokyr is a professor of economics and history at Northwestern University. His most recent book is A Culture of Growth: The Origins of the Modern Economy.

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chris anderson

I am an incorrigible optimist. That said, I think this moment is a great example of radical progress, where urgent circumstances have led to decades of virology progress in a year and a generation of workplace reform in six months. The enemy of progress is not regress, but rather stasis. Change is good.

That doesn’t mean that all change is good, but it is necessary. There is a tendency for societies to get “stuck” as political and economic forces build to defend the status quo. In mathematics, that’s called a “local maxima.” The only way to get out of it is to shake the system, rolling through some valleys to find an even higher hill nearby in the quest for “global maxima”—some optimal state.

In short, if the arc of history bends toward progress, the faster you can move along it, the better. So, if you think the best thing humanity can do is to try new things, change, rethink assumptions, break patterns of behavior in favor of new ones, then what is happening now is the biggest example of that in my lifetime. 

Current circumstances forcing many people to work from home, thus destigmatizing the notion of work from home,  compelled those of us who were skeptical to try it, rather than think of how we felt about it. Here in Silicon Valley, most companies have decided to make it permanent or semi-permanent, which allows people to try it on for size, develop new work methods and maybe move outside of the cities (try Montana, for instance). This has been a huge driver for innovation in communication. And think about the impact on traffic congestion, pollution, commuting time, housing prices. It’s definitely forced us all to adapt our ways of work to make us more efficient.

In terms of remote conferencing and collaboration, it’s kind of Zoom-on-steroids. So many events and conferences have had to go virtual, and you can’t just Zoom that. You have to set up equivalents of hallway conversations, breakout and poster sessions, etc. Everyone said, “We thought it wasn’t going to work, but it actually does.  And furthermore, we’re not sure we’re going to go back to the way we used to do things.” The big win is having more participation from a wider variety of participants. Even Burning Man went virtual this year and the response was surprisingly positive.

In just ten months, we’ve had 100 percent progress in the rhythms and technologies of remote collaboration and learning.  We’ve done a lot of evolution in a short amount of time.

So technology has gotten better, and in just ten months, we’ve basically gotten 100 percent progress in the rhythms and technologies of remote collaboration and remote learning. Just from a kind of Cambrian explosion of perspective, we’ve done a lot of evolution in a short amount of time. And in general, if you believe that humanity—either biology, or humanity, or just nature itself—tends to evolve toward a better way, then the faster evolution goes, the better.

It’s definitely a kind of “never let a good crisis go to waste” perspective. There’s obviously a lot of pain in the short term as we deal with all of this. But if you have confidence in humanity’s ability to take a crisis and turn it into learning, then there’s been a lot of learning.

Chris Anderson is the cofounder and current CEO of 3D Robotics, a drone manufacturing company. He was the editor of WIRED magazine from 2001 to 2012.

caroline randall williams_

The way the world is functioning right now feels like we’re in the midst of the birth of some kind of new Jim Crow in this country. After the Civil War, there was Reconstruction, a sort of strange postpartum glow before the demise of this new freedom baby during Jim Crow. It feels like we’re repeating that: We had the civil rights movement, followed by a period of—at least in pop culture—an acceptance of integration and a certain kind of Blackness as mainstream that was not there before. We had this moment of false comfort and progress, and we’re now evolving into this moment of really profound polarity that is all the more unsettling—and it’s a regression. 

I speak to my grandmother, to older Black people in my community, and I think there’s a real sense of heartbreak because to them, this looks like what it looked like before. And there’s certainly been a radical regression of rhetoric, which revealed that the infrastructure was not just to begin with. I think the things that we’re seeing have been systemic and enduring. They’re not a regression, they just were never fixed, and that’s why I say we’re at a critical juncture. The question is: Now that we’ve identified the fact that these things just were never fixed and need to be, what are we going to do about it? And that will determine whether as a society we’re actively regressing or moving forward.

I have a really big fear that we won’t do anything, or we won’t do enough in time. Part of that is the sense that people without obvious vested interest in some of these sociopolitical concerns want to think the best of people. I have good friends who are happy to announce they’re anti-racist, for example, and they’re obviously pro the Democratic nominees. But when I tell them that I’m not sure that their aunt or uncle or insert-voter-here actually wants me to have my full American freedom—that I’m not sure those people really do want me to feel free in America more than they want their political goals met—it’s hard for some of my well-meaning white friends to really onboard that. That kind of naiveté is really dangerous right now, and it could cost us our actual freedoms. I think it could cost us democracy. 

Because I think that we’ve been naive about what American democracy actually is and was built on. It wasn’t built for us to be able to vote, as women. It wasn’t built for me to be an American citizen, as a Black person. The systems in place were not built for an equitable American experience. And so the question becomes, now that we know that and have acknowledged it, does America turn into the country that Thomas Jefferson and George Washington imagined? That would be a regression, because that country was a country where only white men could vote, and Black people were owned.

Should we fight to get that country back? I don’t know what the answer is going to be. And I don’t know where people get this idea that people won’t turn on their neighbor, or become dangerous and silent in their own communities when faced with really divisive rhetoric. That’s something that surely we have to have learned from the Holocaust. We know that people can turn on their neighbors. We know that you can send your child to school with someone one week, one month, one year, and then look away while your friends and neighbors are taken and put in terrible danger.

And I fear that we think we’re impervious to that in this country. I don’t know why people think that all Americans want all other Americans to have all of their American liberties. Because that’s never been true. 

Caroline Randall Williams is a poet, activist, academic and the author of three books, including Soul Food Love. She is currently a writer-in-residence in medicine, health and society at Vanderbilt University. 

george f. will

We’re regressing, because a principal index of social health—arguably the index, because so many others depend upon it—is the ability to talk reasonably and calmly about real problems. And there’s less and less of that going on in America today, and indeed the cancel culture fueled by a kind of nonstop hysteria about life in our remarkably prosperous and free society makes discussion virtually impossible. Those who should be immune to hysteria and fads, those who fancy themselves an intellectual elite, turn out to be their own kind of mob.

If you can’t frame questions and pose problems accurately, how do you get to a sensible solution? We talk about African American problems, but no one talks about the elephant in the room, which Daniel Patrick Moynihan drew attention to in 1965 when he said the family is always the primary transmitter of social capital—meaning the habits, mores, customs, dispositions necessary to take advantage of freedom and opportunity. And the decline in the stability of the African American family is a problem; no one wants to talk about that. Obviously we need police reform and criminal justice reform. But reform it all you will, America is still going to look very much the way it does today, and the difficulties in the African American community will be very much as they are today. 

We’re going through a society-wide fever that inflames rhetoric and inflames positions taken and results in violence and looting and all the rest, to the point at which we have people defending looting, never mind that it destroys the lives of people who pour their entire worth into small businesses. Now, fevers tend to burn themselves out, and this too will burn itself out, at which point we’re going to find out whether or not we can still talk about things in a calm way. Ten years from now, I hope that people will look back in stunned amazement at the fact that mobs tore down a statue of Ulysses S. Grant. Why? What were they thinking? How did they think this was going to make America a better place? The answer is they didn’t think that, because they weren’t thinking. They weren’t thinking because a lot of them don’t know how to think. And they don’t because no one ever taught them how in school. American education has strayed far from education toward indoctrination, toward inculcating political attitudes and political agendas. The problem isn’t just that the agendas are mistaken, although I think they are; the problem is that people who absorb these agendas are not given the critical thinking skills to examine them critically.

The tone, the volume of assertions about America as a fundamentally racist society, a badly founded society, a story of white supremacy—when you cast the discussion in those terms, the discussion ends, because anyone who disagrees is then branded as a defender of slavery and racism and all the rest. And it’s just a cacophony of accusations.

Martin Luther King Jr.’s genius as a social reformer was that he rightly cast the civil rights movement as an attempt to redeem a check written by the American founders with the first two paragraphs of the Declaration of Independence. He cast the civil rights movement as another step toward making America a success. He cast it in the vocabulary of the American founding. Compare that to today, when a lot of people say the American founding is indefensible, rooted in evil and darkness. So of course they have no vocabulary within the American tradition to advocate for improvement in the way King brilliantly did. 

I think that political leadership at the highest levels has a tone-setting function, and we can certainly have a better tone of public discourse in the United States. I expect we will in 2021. That’s a start, but only a start. You can’t unring a bell, you can’t unsay the things Trump has said, the name-calling and the rest. He has validated a kind of coarseness that is new to American politics. The national problem is hysteria, and it spans the political spectrum, from far left to far right.

George F. Will is a Pulitzer-Prize winning columnist at The Washington Post. He is the author of numerous books, most recently The Conservative Sensibility.

nicholas kristof_

Generally, we are moving in a more humane and compassionate direction. It wasn’t until the late 1700s that we had the first broad protest movement on behalf of people other than the protesters themselves: the British anti-slavery movement. In the mid-19th century came one of the first international relief efforts, for Irish famine victims. But now, on any university bulletin board, you see students talking about protecting people’s rights and providing relief for people in distress—advocating for others, not themselves. By historical standards, that is a really new phenomenon. One of our moral failings is toward farm animals, but there, too, there is progress. There is more concern for calves now than, for much of history, there was for humans who were not of our own clan.

I’ve seen this in my reporting. Compared to when I first began traveling around the world in the 1980s, the number of kids dying before the age of five has plunged, and the number of girls going to school has soared. That’s partly because wealthier people around the world simply care more about kids in Niger or Bangladesh than they used to. I’d say the exception is, paradoxically, within the United States. Since 1980, there’s been a hardening of attitudes toward those who don’t make it and an emphasis on a personal responsibility narrative that blames people for their struggles and sees compassion as a sign of weakness. That’s been a catastrophe. In my book Tightrope, I talk about how a quarter of the kids on my old high school bus are now dead from drugs, alcohol and suicide. That wasn’t a failure of personal responsibility—it was a failure of our collective responsibility. But I also think it is part of a 50-year cycle that I hope is now unwinding. We have a fighting chance of changing that narrative and of embracing a more humanitarian approach both at home and abroad. 

I hope we in the United States will look back on this period with a certain amount of shame and rejoin upward trends in the rest of the world.

Nicholas Kristof, a New York Times op-ed columnist, has won two Pulitzer Prizes for international reporting. With his wife, Sheryl WuDunn, he is the author most recently of Tightrope: Americans Reaching for Hope.

andrew solomon

I have two minority identities in which there’s been a real shift in recent years. I suffer from depression, and one reason that I’m able to function reasonably well and have a good and happy life is that there’s been an enormous acceptance of the idea that someone can have a mental illness. I’m also gay. And you can’t really be a gay person and look at the world and not say the progress has been astonishing. My whole life was unimaginable when I was a kid. Now I have a husband and we have children, and we’re accepted as a couple in pretty much any context that we choose to go into. I know that there’s still a lot of homophobia, and I know that my experience is an experience of privilege and that there are transgender women of color living in Louisiana who are having a really horrible time, and I don’t trivialize how much work there is still to be done. 

But there is also a pull, especially from the right, but also from the left, toward lack of freedom and closed-ness that I think is very frightening. I’m troubled by the incursions into free speech on the left. When we close down arenas of discussion, the anger and hatred don’t go away, even if we curtail their expression. They become harder to deal with and harder to control because there’s no open public expression of them. We’re in a period that’s parallel to the late days of the Roman Empire, where everything became decadent, everything began to fall apart, and ultimately, we were plunged into the Dark Ages. I feel like there could be dark ages right ahead. But there is also a pull toward an ever more embracing society. And as a beneficiary of that greater openness, I feel it would be churlish for me to say that everything is just going wrong.

There’s also been an intensifying polarization in the larger society. People for whom it’s better have it much, much better. People who are left at the bottom of society are having a really tough time.

Privileged Americans have achieved greater acceptance for a range of identities, from deafness to autism to transgender, but there’s a large underclass. And the idea that somehow justice will trickle down is naive. We have to really work for the privileges we have to trickle down. The moral impetus now is to fight to ensure not only that there are new rights, but also that the rights we have reach down to the people who don’t have access to them.

Andrew Solomon is a professor of medical clinical psychology at Columbia University. His books include Far From the Tree: Parents, Children and the Search for Identity.

ruth bader ginsburg

Upon the ratification of the 19th Amendment in 1920, women gained the right to vote. Generous interpretation of the suffrage amendment might have opened doors to equal rights and opportunities in other respects. But that did not happen. Instead, federal and state legislatures and courts read the amendment restrictively to extend the franchise to women, and nothing more. So, among other differentials that persisted, women could be left off jury rolls, prohibited from engaging in certain occupations—bartending, policing, firefighting, for example. But in the 1970s, the U.S. Supreme Court turned in a new direction. It commenced to hold unconstitutional laws that treated women as separate from, and subordinate to, men—occupants of a confined place in the larger world reserved for men.

In truth, the court was catching up to changes in the way people conducted their lives. Changes in the composition of the legal profession are illustrative.

When I entered law school in 1956, women were only 3 percent of the lawyers in the United States. No women were on the faculty of the law schools I attended; only one woman had ever served on a U.S. federal appellate court. Today, about half the nation’s law students are women, one-quarter of our federal judges are women, including three of the nine justices composing the U.S. Supreme Court bench. Women fill some 20 percent of U.S. law school deanships and serve as general counsel to more than 20 percent of Fortune 500 companies.

My dear colleague, the first woman on the Supreme Court of the United States, Sandra Day O’Connor, explained the significance of the newly opened doors this way:

“For both men and women, the first step in getting power is to become visible to others, and then to put on an impressive show…As women achieve power, the barriers will fall. As society sees what women can do, as women see what women can do, there will be more women out there doing things, and we’ll all be better off for it.”

Despite the considerable progress, a daunting distance remains to be traveled.

Yet, despite the considerable progress, a daunting distance remains to be traveled. Most people in poverty in the U.S. are women and children, women’s earnings are still notably less than the earnings of men with comparable education and experience, our workplaces do not adequately accommodate the demands of childbearing and childrearing, and we have yet to devise effective ways to ward off sexual harassment at work and domestic violence in our homes.

While I am mindful of current realities, the opening of doors long closed makes me optimistic about a future in which daughters and sons alike will be free from artificial barriers, free to aspire and achieve in full accord with their God-given talents and their willingness to do the hard work needed to make dreams come true.

Ruth Bader Ginsburg is an associate justice of the Supreme Court of the United States.

natan sharansky

In the Cold War struggle with the Soviet Union, the Iron Curtain was very clear. All the world could see it, so it was easy to unite against it. Now, 30 years later, nothing is clear, and the world is falling apart, so it seems. But I am optimistic.

Ironically, the problematic situation we are in started with the great victory of the forces of good to end World War II. There was a desire to find a single simple solution. After hundreds of years of religious and national wars, people said, “Let’s imagine the world without nations, without religions, without governments, without anything to die for.” Even today, there are many people who believe that this imagined world of John Lennon is the real paradise. But under the pretext of such great slogans,  the right to identity has been suppressed. Relativism has triumphed over values. The nation-state is losing its unique value. Critics of it say, “All regimes are relative.”

I call the universalists who deny the value of identity the illiberal liberals. They don’t need any borders, any restrictions. They say, “Who says that the democratic regime of Israel is better than the non-democratic regime of the Palestinians?” They are coming back to old Marxist slogans. It is impossible to engage in discussion with them. 

In response, a new nationalism is also rising. These people say, “Let’s close the borders. Who needs those people who are different from us? Only our country is right.” Both sides are involved in what is called “cancel culture.” Instead of being the basis of cooperation, the two basic desires of people, to be free and to belong, are confronting one other. 

The lessons of the victory of the Western democracies over the Soviet Union have not been learned. Totalitarian regimes imprison the minds of their citizens and are doomed. Given a choice, people will always choose freedom. As a result of moral relativism, the linkage between human rights and foreign policy has practically disappeared. People like to say it is all because of Trump. But under the two previous American presidents, international relations became human rights-free. Engagement to achieve peace is an important value. But engagement to achieve peace without individual freedom is wrong. 

In domestic politics, people are afraid to express their opinions because they fear they will lose their careers and their friends. This is true in academia, the workplace and the media. The main alarm in the free world today should be that people are afraid to express their opinions in the public square. A “fear society” is replacing the “free society.” Similarly, while today’s protests against racism are legitimate advocacy for human rights, it is very alarming to hear people say that the ideals of American history and the American Revolution have no value because they were the work of white males and slave owners. A huge intellectual brainwashing is taking place.

We all want to be free and we all want to belong. We cannot cancel one another. We can only succeed together. Jews in America and Jews in Israel have to talk to and understand each other. The same is true with Americans on the left and the right. We have to talk to each other.

Natan Sharansky, a former Soviet dissident and Israeli government minister, was the chairman of the Jewish Agency for Israel until 2018. His latest book is Never Alone: Prison, Politics, and My People, written with Gil Troy.

haleh esfandiari

In the Middle East, there are signs of disorder everywhere. Syria and Yemen are in a state of civil war. Lebanon is on the edge of breakdown. Iraq is still struggling for order. And authoritarianism rather than democracy governs. But on the other hand, I would argue that for women in the region (or at least in some of the stable countries in the region), the future looks hopeful. Because all along, it has been women who have continued to push for rights, equality and a larger role in society. 

It was women who in Iran bravely resisted the imposition of serious social restrictions. They have succeeded in winning for themselves quite a substantial amount of freedom. And this is for women from all strata of society—because with the restrictive laws that were passed in the Islamic Republic, it didn’t make a difference whether you were a secular or a religious woman, whether you were upper or working class. When the right to seek a divorce was taken away from women, or when polygamy was reinstituted, it didn’t make a difference what kind of background you had.

We have seen Arab women participate in large numbers in the Arab Spring, demanding dignity, freedom and accountable government. And at least in some countries, they succeeded. A lot has changed. Women no longer simply frame their diplomas as part of their dowries to hang in their husband’s homes, but instead use them to gain employment. This is the result of widespread educational opportunity across the Middle East—the stable Middle East. There is a deep urge for improvement, for a better life and better society, freedom and democracy. You see the same thing in the Persian Gulf states. Women at every  level are pushing for employment. Last year, the speaker of the house in the United Arab Emirates was a woman. I never thought in my lifetime I would see such a thing. And in almost all the cabinets across the region, there are women ministers or deputy ministers.

When I look at Iran, the majority of the younger generation—now more than 50 percent of the population is under the age of 30—are educated. You have a new generation that will take the country completely away from what the Islamic Republic has installed and set up a more modern country. That’s why I’m hopeful.

Haleh Esfandiari is the founding director of the Middle East Program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. In 2007, she spent 105 days in solitary confinement in Tehran’s Evin Prison, an experience that is the subject of her memoir, My Prison, My Home.

thomas l. friedman

We’re both progressing and regressing, but I would describe myself as “net worried.” I’ve never been more worried in my life than I am today about my own country. I’m seeing people abuse institutions and norms and break and bend rules at a scope and scale I’ve never seen before. I see a media landscape increasingly dominated by social networks designed to profit by enraging and titillating their users, not informing them.  

I am terrified by the fact that we no longer share, even remotely, a common body of facts. Democracy cannot function without a shared sense of what is true and what is not.

What do I fear most? The abuse of our institutions—both the Constitution and democratic norms that we have long taken for granted. You lose them and they are hard to get back. In addition, I am terrified by the fact that we no longer share, even remotely, a common body of facts. That’s a prescription for disaster. Democracy cannot function without a shared sense of what is true and what is not. I am a glass-is-always-half-full guy. But my own hometown, Minneapolis, the place where I was born and raised, is in turmoil right now. Downtown Minneapolis—it was my Jerusalem growing up, the beating heart of my community—is in a state of dystopian disintegration. That really colors my outlook these days. For most of my career, the Middle East was this tribalized region, with rule-or-die politics, and Minnesota was this warm community I could return to. I knew it was not perfect, as I wrote in my latest book, Thank You for Being Late. It had its racist downsides, but it always seemed to me to be a place where a lot of people wanted to get caught trying to improve it. I think that is still true to some extent. It is also true that today a lot of people are just not talking to each other. It feels like Beirut has followed me home. 

What’s causing this in part at least is an age where technology, globalization and climate and environmental degradation—what I call “the market, Mother Nature and Moore’s Law’’—are basically all accelerating at the same time. And it’s simply too fast for some people. Some people are looking for a strong man or strong woman to stop the wind. People of different races, creeds and colors are being thrown together, new social norms are being introduced,  and new demands for education and adaptation to the workplace are proliferating too fast for some people to adapt and adjust. Add political parties that can’t really navigate this moment, and social networks that amplify all of the stresses and strains and show us each other at our worst, and you have a really dark time. Sorry to be so grim, but there’s a lot of bad stuff going down. 

I was just talking to a friend of mine from Minneapolis about when and where we grew up. It was not an easy time if you were Black, or if you were gay or trans or a woman, particularly a woman of talent, back in the 1950s or 1960s. Many of those people had to either be in the closet or were simply blocked from realizing their full potential. Those are the things I do not miss. But I do miss the fact that I grew up in this neighborhood where nobody seemed any richer than anybody else. I didn’t know how much anybody’s parents made. We all lived in the same basic post-war ramblers. And I had the happiest childhood possible, friends from one end of the block to the other. I went to grade school, junior high and senior high with all the same kids. And my dad never made more than $20,000 a year, but I went to Israel all three summers of high school. I actually paid for it myself by working at my aunt and uncle’s delicatessen. There were things about that period, a powerful sense of community and a real sense of equality, economic equality, not racial or gender equality, that I really miss. More people have a chance to realize their full potential today, but you have to do it in a context of enormous income gaps and where you’re required to be running, running, running all the time—work, learn, work, learn—to keep up. 

Sorry, but I can ruin any dinner party these days if you get me going—and I do weddings and bar mitzvahs.

Thomas L. Friedman is a columnist for The New York Times. He is the recipient of three Pulitzer Prizes and the author of six books, most recently Thank You for Being Late.

colette avital

Democracy is regressing. We have quite a few governments in Europe that could be called “authoritarian democracies.” To my regret, this is also happening in Israel. I’m concerned because after 2,000 years we created a country that was the only democracy in the Middle East, and we are witnessing a gradual erosion of that democracy. There is an organized attack by the prime minister and his party against the judiciary, the High Court of Justice—an institution that doesn’t exist in many countries—the attorney general, the police and the media. They are not only attacking, they are trying to change the rules of the game—the laws.

We tried to shape a country and a people out of very different communities. We were almost there. We have second-, third-, fourth-generation Israelis whose grandparents and parents came from places as varied as Iraq, Romania and Morocco. You can’t tell anymore if they are Ashkenazi or Sephardic. But now there’s a clear attempt to break the society, to make groups fight against one another. You now have half of the society believing that people who are left-wing are traitors. People say to us, “We will either kill you or put you in jail.” It’s very far from the dream of creating one people, one society.

 I’m not saying that we should all believe the same thing. There has to be diversity. There has to be pluralism. I have to be able to respect people who believe other things than I do. I have to have an equal right to say why I’m against something and not to be treated like a traitor to my country. There can be a unity of purpose and diversity of beliefs. This is what democracy’s all about.

I don’t think that my society, at the moment, is at its best. I would like to see that change. The sooner, the better, because the deeper the incitement goes, the more divided we become. This has to come to an end before it’s too late and we really split. 

Memory is a must in our value system. As a Holocaust survivor, I have to remember and I have to say, “I’m here because we overcame and because, in fact, we are a people that knows how to come out of the ashes and to create.” I have to remember that we have a moral commitment to create a better world. 

I remember what happened to us in Europe and why. The Holocaust didn’t just happen because we were not organized or we were weak. It happened because of the incitement and the brainwashing that proliferated at that time. Without the brainwashing, people would not have become accomplices of the Nazis, and the Nazis would not have been able to achieve what they did.

It is very important for young people to know what happened and not to fall into the trap of Holocaust denial. We cannot completely avoid violence; it seems to be part of human nature, but people can be educated. The younger generations need to do everything they can to get educated and to educate against violence, against racism, against all those theories and practices that made the Holocaust and other mass killings since then possible. Otherwise, where exactly is this going to lead us?

Colette Avital was born in Romania and was ten when she and her family fled the Nazis for Israel. She served as Israel’s ambassador to Portugal, consul-general in New York City and as a member of Knesset. In 2007 she was the first female candidate for the Israeli presidency.

bill mckibben

Society is a subset of the physical world, and there’s no way to have a working society on a broken planet. And at the moment, we’re definitely headed in the direction of a broken and degraded earth. The temperature has already gone up 1.8 degrees Fahrenheit, enough to have melted most of the ice in the Arctic. The ocean is far more acidic than it used to be, the patterns of drought and rainfall have shifted decisively, so we see huge outbreaks of forest fires and floods. But the scary news is that the trajectory we’re on right now takes us to an increased temperature of 7 or 8 degrees Fahrenheit. If we allow that to happen over this century, we will not have a civilization that resembles anything we’re used to. That’s simply way, way, way too much stress. The saddest part is that those who did the least to cause this crisis are affected first, worst and hardest, and the relentless rise in temperature is already putting millions of people on the move to escape impossible conditions where they live.

The scary news is that the trajectory we’re on right now takes us to an increased temperature of 7 or 8 degrees Fahrenheit. If we allow that to happen, we will not have a civilization that resembles anything we’re used to.

So that’s the terrible backdrop. If you want to feel hopeful right now, there are two reasons to do so. One is that finally there’s a massive movement around the world to take this on, with the global environmental movement Extinction Rebellion and other youth campaigns across the globe, and the largest divestment campaign in the planet’s history, $14 trillion worth of investments and portfolios that have already divested from fossil fuels. The other promising and hopeful thing is that our brothers and sisters in the engineering labs have done their jobs. The cost of solar power fell 90 percent in the last decade, and that and wind are now the cheapest way to generate power.

So if we wanted to change, we could. It involves removing the political power of the fossil fuel industry that has kept us locked in place for decades, and unlike other problems we’ve faced, this one comes with a time limit. The fight, in the end, is not between Democrats and Republicans but between human beings and physics, and physics sets absolute limits. Once you melt the Arctic, there’s no way to freeze it up again. The thing that scares me most is the speed with which we have to move, because our systems are not geared for change at that pace.

Bill McKibben is the founder of climate change campaign and a scholar in residence at Middlebury College. His most recent book is Falter: Has the Human Game Begun to Play Itself Out?

isabel wilkerson

This is almost an impossible question to answer. I fear that we are on parallel but divergent paths in our society. There are people who still have an investment in the hierarchies as they have been in our past, because they have known no other way to be and because they have been part of a group that has benefited from the hierarchies. At the same time, many people have been awakened. I believe that we’re on the cusp of awakening a lot of people who have responded with human outrage over many of the things that we have been seeing in recent months. That is why I do have hope. 

I think one of our great challenges as a country is that many of us don’t know our own history. We do not know America. We don’t know the full, complex, multilayered history that got us to where we are right now. If a person doesn’t know history, it’s hard to respond in a way that reflects what actually got us to where we are. In my book Caste, I describe our country as being like an old house. We’ve inherited this old house, none of us alive built this old house, yet here we are the current owners of this very old house and after it rains, we may not want to go into the basement. We just may not want to see what’s going on in the basement.

We may not want to see what the rain brought, but if we don’t go into that basement, we are going to have to deal with the consequences, whether we are aware of them or not. The equivalent would be knowing our country’s history, knowing how we got to where we are. It is now our responsibility to find a way to repair our old house, our country, our legacy, and to strengthen it so that we can move forward with a sense of purpose and meaning. Hopefully we can transcend these divisions that were created long ago and that we are living with to this day.

Isabel Wilkerson is the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration and the recent Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents.

marisol garrido-martinez

It was a loss of innocence to grow up in the age of mass shootings. Sandy Hook happened when I was in fifth grade. That was the first news story that really stuck with me. Afterward, I went into my mom’s bathroom and cried. I just remember thinking that this could never happen again, but it continued to happen as I grew older. Mass shootings became a normal thing to see on the news: a concert in Las Vegas, a gay nightclub in Orlando. And then eventually at Parkland, my own high school. It is a reckoning with reality when national news comes to your doorstep in so horrific a way. I genuinely believe that if we really wanted mass shootings to end, and we took all the necessary steps, they would be a thing of the past ten years from now.

But instead we are learning to live with a disease, and we’re treating it as something that is going to be perpetual. When we build schools, we now build them like prisons. The very architecture of the places we learn in is being shaped to deal with gun violence instead of actually dealing with gun violence itself. It feels counterintuitive to me.

We tend to view history as a linear progression of things, getting better and better and better. I think it would be more accurate to say that we’re moving in cycles. The things in contention change, but the ideals behind them track throughout the years. You can see what’s happening right now in how our country is grappling with race. We grappled with race in the 1960s and 1920s, and in the Civil War, which tore our country in half over slavery. You can see what happened in Kenosha, Wisconsin, where a 17-year-old white shooter killed two people. From what happened there and what happened with the mass shooting at my school, you can see that police in those cases peacefully apprehended shooters, whereas Black people with traffic violations or who have infringed on the law in a minor way are murdered, their breath stolen from them as they lie on the street. You see undocumented immigrants have their families ripped apart, the generational trauma we have yet to even fathom. With all that goes on, one is almost forced to be either horrified or numb. Maybe that’s the way it’s always been and maybe we’ve become so shocked by it now because we can see it. It’s right in front of us, since we live in an era of globalization and information on demand. Nothing is more than a quick Google search away. 

Look at gay marriage, legalized a little over five years ago. I remember I was in the car with my family when I saw the news alert pop up on my mom’s phone. That’s a moment that I lived through and that was a moment of things getting better. But at the same time, you see gay people can still be discriminated against for housing. Trans people face constant human rights abuses around the world, with the U.S. ramping up discriminatory policy of late. A few months ago, the Trump administration pushed for doctors to be able to deny us coverage more easily on religious grounds. And while that is obviously being challenged in court, the fact that it was pushed in the first place shows that progress isn’t always a straight path. There’s oftentimes a looping back and having to fight battles over and over again. 

Dealing with the trauma of the mass shooting was so difficult for me in part because I tied a lot of my healing to political action, and politics is slow. Politics doesn’t change with one march or one voter drive. It’s something that can take years or decades. It was moving away from that focus on activism solely for political ends, as opposed to for community or self-healing, that really allowed me to grow in the aftermath of February 14, 2018.

I try not to believe that the world is getting better on its own, like it will just happen, nor do I believe that the world is getting worse. As someone who cares about social issues, who cares about activism, you can be neither a pessimist nor an optimist, because both of those assume that things will just happen on their own. You have to take actions in order to cause the change that you wish to see.

To make the world a better place, I teach poetry. I taught poetry at my high school and I’m planning on starting another poetry club at my college since we don’t have one. Art and poetry and music are really great ways to bring people together sometimes.

Obviously, there’s protesting, and there’s volunteering on a regular basis. Simple community outreach is more powerful than most people seem to realize. Most of the time people don’t feel like their lives are under constant pressure if they don’t have to worry about what they’re going to eat that day or how they’re going to pay for their medical bills or where they’re going to live. If you can help people with those basic needs in whatever way that you personally can, if you can help your community, you can see that generally things will get better around you.

If you can’t do any of that, you can always talk to the people in your life. It can be a very uncomfortable thing for a lot of people, but I think that it’s critical that people talk about social issues with family members whom they care about, and if not reach an agreement, at least reach an understanding of one another’s ideas. Just understanding issues, understanding how they affect you and how they affect people you care about, makes a difference.

In a word, care. I find that general apathy is what gets in the way for most people in taking actions to better themselves or their communities. So many people are just underinformed and undereducated on certain issues. When they become aware, they become another person who’s willing to jump in, in whatever form, whether it’s a protest, art, community outreach or an uncomfortable conversation with a relative who says something bigoted at the dinner table. I think that’s how the world is going to get better. It may be small and incremental and painful at times. But still, we move forward.

Marisol Garrido-Martinez, 18, was 16 when she lived through the mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, FL. She is a poet, musician and activist, focusing on issues of gun control, transgender rights and mental health. She has just started her freshman year in college.

Downward facing arrow and title that reads: RJ Snell, A Distortion of Intelligence

There is progress and decline in human society based upon how intelligence serves civilization and culture. If you look at mortality rates, and access to clean water, and access to food, we seem to have progress. But we have grave disorders at the cultural level. One disorder is the idea that the main goal of intelligence is to make sure that we’re progressing in the world of technology and science, which I’m all for. The distortion though is when we think that personal and cultural values are satisfied by this. And so questions which look pointless, like philosophical, or metaphysical, or religious speculation, which don’t serve some obvious practical good, get shuttled to the side. That hampers the range of questions we’re willing to ask and creates the conditions for long-term decline. And what looks to be a fruitless, pointless, metaphysical insight, later on, turns out to be a really important insight for something like legislation, but then we lack that insight. So when the question arises we don’t have access to it.

The second moment of decline in intelligence is where intelligence is used not for the good of the whole, but for the good of “people like me,” or “people like them,” however that’s defined. It could be a religious thing, it could be a gender thing, it could be an ethnic thing, whatever. But intelligence is part of the deposit of humanity. Intelligence is not the deposit of this or that group. Every group will have, in history, the way that it works its intelligence out. Every nation, every city, every religious tradition or community will have common sense—the way it works out intelligence for its concrete particular needs. When intelligence is directed back to the special purposes of one group, potentially at the expense of another, it gets weaponized and truncated, because we’re trying to figure out how my group can get ahead, or how their group can be forestalled. We’re seeing that in dramatic ways right now. I’m really concerned about the way that race, for instance, is being thought of as power, by everybody, it seems. On the left and the right and the center, there seems to be a sense that politics really is about power, not about human progress. And that’s bad news.

There is a role for faith to reverse this decline because that decline is caused in part by the shrinking of intelligence. One of the demands that people of faith have is a sense to not truncate reason. We’re trying to understand God. We’re trying to understand transcendence. We’re trying to live in harmony with the all commanding voice. I think people of faith have the occasion, in the dialogue of cultures, to expand reason and to reverse decline. But then, the call for action is to do theology, think about God, expand reason, which is, in some ways, not a call for action, it’s a call to allow reason to not be squished.

R.J. Snell is director of Academic Programs at the Witherspoon Institute in Princeton, NJ, and executive director of the Aquinas Institute for Catholic Life at Princeton University.

One thought on “Are We Moving Towards a Better Society—or Regressing?

  1. Davida Brown says:

    Unfortunately, human wisdom and intelligence cannot produce the hoped for perfect outcome in uniting our diverse cultural and religious ideas. Perhaps if we all returned to the God- wisdom of the original manual He gave us, namely the Bible, we would find that wisdom we are so desperately seeking for. I quote, as a reference point: ” Thus says the Lord: “Let not the wise man glory in his wisdom, let not the mighty man glory in his might, let not the rich man glory in his riches; but let him who glories glory in this, that he understands and knows Me, that I am the Lord who practice steadfast love, justice, and righteousness in the earth; for in these I delight, says the Lord.” (no, the grammar is not wrong in the above statement)
    (Jeremiah 9:23-24) The following passage compares the nations and the house of Israel as physically and “heartfully” uncircumcised, respectively. Isn’t it about time that we meditate on the words of the Almighty and understand what He keeps reminding us of…that we need to be circumcised in the heart. What does that accomplish, you ask? It brings us into His mindset and world view, which is vastly different from ours. In this way, we can experience how the Lord views all our many inconsistent views and sympathies. Are they His?

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