Returning home for Thanksgiving weekend, I did what any other college student does on Turkey Day — I began hour-long debates with my elders. Our discussion topics varied and followed no clear, linear logic. Initially, we covered ISIS (because what else?), American national security, and then moved in to lighter topics like crime, poverty, religion and the Syrian refugee crisis.
Of course, I know the golden rule of family dinner conversation: Don’t talk about politics or religion — but neither I nor my family members could help ourselves. It seems that argumentation runs through our blood; the only escape being heated discourse (and for me, the convenient platform of the Daily. Thanks, editors). So the debating continued, volume increased, vocal chords were expanded and many worked tirelessly to prove their ideological opposite wrong.
This year, though, while I continued the tradition of discussing world affairs with those I definitely shouldn’t be discussing them with, I hoped something about the conversation would change — specifically, its tone. That is, I hoped that even though we’d fiercely debate depressing topics, ultimately everyone would remain optimistic about the future.
See, during most holidays, my family members discuss problems that plague people high and low in our society. We discuss problems for the obvious reason that problems make life exciting — they provide us with the prospect of finding a solution, a path toward resolution. It’s no question that social, political and economic problems are challenging, but if we didn’t have challenging problems, we’d be miserably bored and lacking purpose. Internally, we’d feel bereft without raising potential answers.
Yet even when recognizing our continuous problems, it’s important that we maintain perspective on the overall state of the world. So when I hear my family members say things like “god, I would not want to be young today” and “the world is going to shit,” I become more irritated with how people perceive the world. Unfortunately, I’m not at all surprised. Sadly, I hear this utterly unfair blanket statement about the state of the world all too often, not just by my own kin, but also by many old and young people I encounter.
This defeatist attitude makes me uncomfortable because it dismisses an incredibly important point about our society today. That is, in innumerable ways, the state of the world is better than it has ever been in human history. Throughout my contentious family discourse, I’ve tried making this point clear, but no matter how I frame it, my words fall on deaf ears.
And while it is true that we have arduous problems like racial and wealth inequality, global warming, many acts of gun violence and suicide, we must reconcile that, by the numbers, our world is getting better. People, on average, have a higher standard of living and higher well-being around the world. That is, crime, violence, war, homicide, rape and sexual assault, famine and abject poverty have all declined in the past several decades. What’s more, general health (due to the eradication of disease), life expectancy, literacy, education levels, political freedoms and opportunities for personal autonomy have risen to a higher degree than ever before. In many ways, we’re moving closer to an idyllic utopia. Unfortunately, few believe it.
Many people, particularly in America, interpret the world as miserable and depressing. Americans perceive crime and violent crime as rising and are more fearful of a large terrorist attack and Syrian refugees. Regrettably, as I’ve noted in my previous article, this unwarranted line of thinking potentially leads to fear-driven practices and policy that influence hate and discrimination, thereby adversely affecting everyone.
In my opinion, the proliferation of information, with particular regard for our television sets and computer screens, drive this fear. We hear, watch and read more horrifying stories throughout our day, and for longer periods, than ever before. Due to this constant bombardment, we perceive that our world is crumbling even as we walk outside and realize everything is fine. That’s why many people believe the world is “going to shit.”
But as noted above, today we’re not dying nearly as often due to transportation accidents or losing infants due to a scarcity of health care resources. People’s lives, on the whole, are better.
The measures we have in place for safety from the top down in our society — our laws, objective judicial systems, advanced medical and research institutions, and private ownership of shelter — has created a safer world for U.S. citizens to be sure.
What all this means is that we must step back from the information we consume daily online and on our TV screens and consider our world more broadly. We must zoom out and see the world through a lens that isn’t painted with human tragedy or specific acts of horror. This is particularly important considering the media’s incentive, knowing humans are easily be driven by fear and emotion. If we frame our vision in a nuanced light, we can understand with clearer heads how the state of the world is.
Of course, interpreting the world differently doesn’t mean we should be cut off from it. Citizens everywhere deserve to know what is going on. However, in a world where it’s easier than ever to access information from everywhere around the world, what we do with that information becomes increasingly important. So every time you watch the news, consider who’s talking to you and the general societies in which humans are operating and how that’s changed over time. Aside from relatively small instances of human tragedy (that we, of course, should do everything to prevent) the answers will more often be optimistic.
Sam Corey can be reached at email@example.com.