Posted by Tania Kindersley.
This morning, a strange thing happened on the wireless. A man mentioned the word ‘pessimism’ and everyone else in the studio went crazy with delight. It is bank holiday Monday as I write; a dazzling sun is shining out of an untroubled sky; a lone oyster catcher is dozing on the grass in front of my study window. The cool air has that sharp spring scent of infinite possibility. I was going to write a nice, whimsical piece to do with Easter and daffodils or I don’t know what. But the men on Radio Four are haunting me, so instead, my darlings, I am afraid you are going to get a rant.
So there I was, listening to Start the Week, vaguely happy, looking forward to a little cerebral stimulation. And on came Professor John Gray, the leading thinker, the pre-eminent philosopher, as Andrew Marr took care to remind his audience. I always love a good philosopher on a Monday morning, so I settled down happily to pay attention. I started getting ruffled fairly early on, but that is fine, because my entrenched ideas and prejudices must always be challenged, that is what I pay the licence fee for. I waited for the other guests to put up a counter-argument, or just ask a question, because that is usually what happens, but instead they all piled in behind Gray, gleefully smashing up everything I believe in in the process. And that was when I became very, very cross indeed.
The burden of Gray’s song was that any idea of human progress is a chimera. He was especially scathing of the Whig view of history, which has been largely discredited, but for which I still hold a small guttering candle of fondness. He said that despite undeniable technological and scientific advances, humans and the lives they live and the values they hold do not improve. And so, pessimism must be the only correct reaction for the thinking person. Yes, yes, cried Michael Portillo, in a perfect fandango of joy. Pessimism is what true conservatives should and do embrace. Of course, of course, said Peter Ackroyd, in a grumbly chorus of agreement – do moderns think any better than Aristotle? Has drama improved since Sophocles? (Personally, I prefer Ibsen and Chekhov myself, but that’s just me). Marr made a slightly pathetic attempt to put the other side: we do know more, he said, weakly. Yes, but what do we do with that knowledge? said Gray. Implication: nothing good.
The only gentle dissenting voice came from Amanda Craig who said that she would rather be a woman now than a hundred years ago. Although she was polite and diffident, I thought that was the crushing point, but Gray waved it off. We might think of that as progress, he admitted, but it was so fragile and reversible as not to count. In other words, at any moment, all human achievement and striving could be wiped out by some unnamed malicious force, taking us back to the dark ages. It’s the bleeding obvious, said Portillo, giddy with happiness, smacking the argument home.
I knew at once that I did not agree with this argument. Every part of me revolted against it. But Professor John Gray is the foremost thinker of our time, and I am just an irrelevance who sits at home in a room with my dogs. What do I know? I have no PhD; Radio Four producers do not come and build a willow cabin at my gate. My rational mind said: perhaps he is right, perhaps the low humming optimism about the human condition that I carry with me is no better than the kind of magical thinking that believes in ghosts or horoscopes. Years after the slave trade was abolished, there are still young women being trafficked, and illegal immigrants working for little better than slave wages. Centuries after the Enlightenment, there are still people in the most powerful nation in the world who believe fervently in the rapture and the end times, some of them in public office. Years after the poor laws and the invention of the welfare state, there are still old ladies who dare not turn on their heaters in winter. Perhaps I am just a posturing Pollyanna who knows nothing.
And yet, and yet. The more I think of it, the more I think that this intellectual pessimism is a cheap trick. There was something about the fervid eagerness with which it was embraced in the studio which carried a whiff of snobbism, a rotting fish stink of us and them. We brilliant thinkers know the truth, which is that we are all doomed; while you unreflective dolts out there carry on with your plebeian optimism. I think that most humans do believe in progress; it is why people fight and die for the vote; it is why huge crowds in Prague recently roared Barack Obama to the echo when he talked of the Velvet Revolution; it is why parents will sacrifice almost everything to get their children educated. Hope is not just a slogan or a political sleight of hand or bovine group-think, it is an absolute necessity for life. If the pessimists had been in charge when humans learnt to make fire, they would have convinced the populace that it would only ever be good for arson.
It is easy to look around the world and find examples of poverty and oppression and bigotry. It’s all hell and handcarts, and thinking otherwise is stupid and naive. But I thought it instructive that it was the only woman in the room who took Gray on. I have a small, fledgling theory that women might be more inclined to believe in progress than men, just now, because they feel it so keenly in their daily lives. You don’t even have to go all the way back to the suffragettes. In my own family, university, which was inevitable and expected for me, little swot that I was, was unthinkable not just for my mother but also for my older sister. Small, hardly noticed things have set women free – the washing machine and hot running water mean that the laundry no longer takes an entire day of steamy battling with mangles and other hideous contraptions. Women in the West may do jobs, keep their own money, and run countries. This is progress. Even in the countries where advances seem illusory, there are women fighting for freedom – there are feminists in Afghanistan and Iran, and I believe that one day they will prevail.
Casual prejudice is no longer accepted in polite drawing rooms, or any room. As recently as the 1970s, one of my stepfathers used to stalk about the house talking of kikes and coons (my mother in those days had famously bad taste in men). Now, Britons view anti-Semitism and racism as incontrovertible wrongs. In living memory, children were sent down coal mines, which would be unthinkable today. The mentally ill are not regarded as sub-humans to be herded into asylums, but increasingly understood and treated. Despite the Iraq adventure, it is generally considered bad form to go about invading other people’s countries so that you can paint the map a pretty shade of pink.
To say there is no such thing as progress is to tell all those who fought for trades unions, women’s suffrage, human rights, rule of law and full democracy that they have been wasting their time. Blind optimism is a kind of delusion, and the human condition is not perfectible, but full-scale pessimism will surely only lead to ulcers and despair. Advances in anything do carry a fragility which must be guarded; smugness and complacency will not do. But a hope for better things is not idiocy, a crazed pipe dream which we would do better to give up. It is what gets me out of bed in the morning; and I wish that the pre-eminent thinkers would not try and take that away from me.