Before moving into Pinker’s final three chapters, I wanted to compare his favored explanation for the rights revolution to what David Deutsch said in The Beginning of Infinity. I don’t know if either has ever commented on the other, but I find great common ground between them, particularly here.
Deutsch talks about his “principle of optimism”: All evil is due to a lack of knowledge. Problems are inevitable, but they are soluble. All triumphs are temporary, and only progress is sustainable.
Now consider Pinker’s thoughts at the end of Chapter 7 of Angels.
“If I were to put my money on the single most important exogenous cause of the Rights Revolutions, it would be the technologies that made ideas and people increasingly mobile. The decades of the Rights Revolutions were the decades of the electronics revolutions: television, transistor radios, cable, satellite, long-distance telephones, photocopiers, fax machines, the Internet, cell phones, text messaging, Web video. They were the decades of the interstate highway, high-speed rail, and the jet airplane. They were the decades of unprecedented growth in higher education and in the endless frontier of scientific research . . .”
My childhood began in the middle of this technological revolution, when TV was still the big three (plus PBS, see below) and computers were made of vacuum tubes and filled entire rooms. But we were going to the Moon and the planets, and Spock and the Professor on Gilligan’s Island were everybody’s favorite characters (OK, Mary Ann, too).
One of the strongest messages of Pinker’s book is that simple solutions to complex problems are almost always incomplete. So I’d like to offer my own crackpot and woefully incomplete theory for a little part of the Rights Revolution, at least as I experienced it. My explanation: Big Bird.
I grew up with Sesame Street. In the days before cable, daytime TV was either PBS (Electric Company, Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood, and Sesame Street), or else utterly boring soap operas. Ugh!
As opposed to the uniformly white faces on the soaps, Sesame Street gave me Gordon and Susan. How could I fear or dislike black families when Gordon and Susan were like kind surrogate parents to all the assorted monsters and little kids who passed by their stoop? Sesame Street gave me Grover, kind-hearted and empathetic. Grover knew that everyone deserved to be heard and respected. And Sesame Street gave me Big Bird, Big Bird who insisted that his elephantine friend Snuffy was real despite the disbelief of others.
Sesame Street taught me so completely how to treat others that, whenever I saw boorish behavior, I am still tempted to ask, “Didn’t you ever watch Sesame Street?” After spending so much time in the world of Sesame Street, where even monsters are treated as individuals, it wasn’t so hard to see that women, minorities, and gays deserved to be treated at least as well.
Now I don’t claim that Sesame Street made a significant dent in the rate of violence of my generation. As Pinker has taught me, that’s too easy an answer. But wouldn’t it be great if, when a politician or a business leader does or says something that we all know just isn’t the Big Bird and Grover way, we could assign them some remedial Sesame Street watching? Just a thought.