1. Gregory Greenwood says

    I enjoyed the viudeo for the most part, and its argument that it is reason that is the principle motivating force behind what moral progress our species has made is a powerful one, but I do have a couple of quibbles.

    Almost every time they discussed the development of various rights movements they presented it as some kind of linear progression, with one leading to the next in some smooth, inevitable chronological progression. Sadly, it has all too often been the case that one rights movement has been subverted as a weapon against another, usually by means of claiming that the advances made by one rights movement will be somehow undermined by the pursuit of equality for another group, or that somehow this other movement is representing notionally ‘less worthy’ groups, and that as such its pursuit represents a distraction from the supposedly more important goal of securing greater rights for the first group. As an example, one could look at how vehemently the campaigners for abolition of the land qualification for voting opposed any notion of the enfranchisement of women.

    Far more problematic is the way in which so many of the civil rights struggles are discussed as if they are now fully resolved and accepted as completely settled issues by the vast majority of citizens. The speakers talk about how we look back in horror on our slave owning, racist, msiogynistic and homophobic forebears, and I think that this runs the risk of playing into the hands of people who want to contain or roll back advancements toward equality for marginalised groups. One of the last (but, sadly, one of the most effective) lines of defence of bigots is to declare victory on behalf of their opponents; to state that the struggle is won, and that everyone is equal now, and that people should just stop talking about it. They do this before many of the most meaningful strides toward legitimate equality are made, and then they cast anyone who says that equality has not yet been acheived either as unreasonable hardliners who want to go beyond an equitable equality and into the realms of supremacism, or as irrelevant figures still obsessed with fighting yesterday’s culture war when society has already moved on, seeking to place them alongside the boorish old Cold Warriors who yearn for the ‘good old days’ when everyone allegedly ‘knew’ that the enemy was the USSR. I have lost count of the number of times I have heard people try to dismiss feminists or gay rights activists with the idea that gender equality/gay rights are already here, that all that has been done and dusted for a decade, and why are people still droning on about it.

    But amidst all the congratulatory back slapping (both sincere if misguided and that used as a means of trying to blunt equality movements) it is worth remembering that are by many measures more people living as chattels, especially with regard to sexual slavery, now than at any other time in history.

    Racism is still endemic, as can easily be seen by such things as the danger of carryng a bag of skittles while black, and how many people are so quick to defend that state of affairs.

    ‘Gay bashing’ is hardly a thing of the past, and more evangelical anti-gay campaigners are crawling out of the woodwork everyday, casting themselves as the victims of the supposed oppression of their freedom of cosnscience. There are still several socities where homosexuality is considered criminal and can carry hideously severe punishments up to and including execution, and even in what are claimed to be more enlightened cultures marriage equality and full legal equality before the law for same sex relationships is still far from the norm.

    And what about rights for members of trans* groups? I find it a little odd that when they were disacussing the things that our future descendents might find horrifying about the bigoted practices of contemporary society, neither of them even mentioned the gross, often violent and almost ubiquitous oppression of trans* people. The very fact that this seems to have simply been bundled in with gay rights as if the problems faced by these groups are somehow identical doesn’t sit well with me. It feels like trans* people have once again become conveneiently invisible in a discussion about fundamental rights. How is it that time is made to discuss animal rights but not trans* rights?

    And as for women’s rights, they seem to have gone into full reverse, with the War on Women reaching a fever pitch that is resulting in every greater restrictions on access to abortion sevices and thus pushing us further and further back toward the days of backstreet abortion clinics and vast numbers of entirely needless deaths. And then then there is the perennial scourge of rape culture, that also seems to be undergoing something of a resurgance at the moment, with most people’s first response to a report of rape being to ask what the woman was wearing/where she was/what time it was/whether she was drinking/if she somehow ‘led her attacker on’ – all different ways of casting the rape as the victim’s fault. Rape conviction rates compared to initial reports are still the lowest for any crime of comparable severity such as serious personal assaults, and the rate of reporting of rapes is still incredibly low because so many women accurately assess that if they report a rape it will be their lives that will be put under an extremely unsympathetic microscope. That so many women feel this way is hardly surprising given high profile examples like the Stuebenville rape case and how the victim was so completely ostracised while her rapists were clasped to the bossom of their community. And all this without even considering those countires where a rape victim can be put on trial for being raped and may face being stoned to death for adultery.

    While things have improved somewhat compared to the worst excesses of the past, these battles aren’t won. They aren’t even close to being won, and while I know that Steven Pinker and Rebecca Goldstein are in no way trying to argue that we shouldn’t still be fighting on these fronts, and certainly aren’t trying to minimise the suffering of marginalised groups, it irks me that this video could seem to play into the preconceptions of those who find it convenient to claim that civil rights, women’s rights, and gay rights (among other rights movements) are yesterday’s news.


  2. says

    If I were Pinker though, I’d sue for cariacture defamation ( :

    What’s with the Aboninable Dr. Phibes look, complete with fake nose thing?

  3. Sastra says

    By the way, I can’t find a press release but philosopher / feminist Rebecca Goldstein is this year’s recipient of the Atheist Alliance’s “Richard Dawkins Award.”

    Following the banquet, we will be presenting the prestigious Richard Dawkins award to Rebecca Goldstein. This truly marks us as a Family Friendly event. Last year’s recipient was her husband, Dr. Steven Pinker.

    The Richard Dawkins Award is presented each year to honor an outstanding atheist whose contributions raise public awareness of the nontheist life stance.

    Rebecca personifies the goals and aspirations of our group and members, and exemplifies all of what Richard Dawkins has and continues to accomplish.

  4. unclefrogy says

    I only have one complaint or quibble about any discussion that involves values and ethics or moral truths held by people. It concerns where in the past the comparisons start. Often in these discussions they seem to start with villages which would imply some time after the advent of agriculture at best 15000 years ago. We had been humans for a long time before then and much if not all of our major evolutionary change must have already occurred . If I were to try an look back into the past for a base line of what was our favored behavior patterns would be I would expect that a current example would be people like the San of the Kalahari and not late neolithic village people. Is the argument really that humans are a war like aggressive species that on its own would develop many of the faults commonly listed and condemned here an a regular basis or how much of that negative behavior self perpetuated learned behavior. Children must be taught who and how to hate or what is a god and such.
    the general premise of the video that reason is very important and probably the way our survival and progress lies seems true to me
    even the creationists and other religious apologists seem to try to use reason to prove faith which seems like a conflict in terms.!?!?
    uncle frogy

  5. raefn says

    Their premise that everyone cares passionately about their own well being is flawed. Depression, addiction, and the urge to self-destruct are very common and ancient problems in us humans.

  6. Brian O says

    I can’t use up my data allowance watching a fifteen minute video containing some I don’t like that much (Pinker), so I’ll stick to PZ’s comment. I always get nervous when anyone talks about ‘reason’, as that is a catchword of Koch types (Pinker himself is a Cato-style libertarian), so I get a Pavlovian feeling that I’m about to be lectured about the supposedly irrational disdain I have for financial elites and market worship, and Pinker has repeatedly stated that bankers “make everybody rich”. As for empathy, a more interesting video would be Jeremy Rifkin’s RSAnimate video which has already got a million-plus views on YouTube.

  7. torwolf says

    Brian – It might be useful to distinguish between two types of reason: strict evidence-based reasoning (applying logic to verifiable facts about the world to derive the most likely conclusions in the absence of quantitative data) and moral reasoning (reasoning based on a mixture of evidence and values). I presume you fully endorse evidence-based reason. You do not believe in Christianity or Islam, etc. because of this sort of reasoning. You also believe that humans are the product of evolution because of this reasoning. Moral reasoning is likely what makes you nervous.