Is the glass half empty or or half full?
In discussing whether the world is improving or getting more awful every day, it’s quite common for people to state their belief in the latter. In part this is because it’s easier to begin a conversation from the common ground of what two or more individuals reject. Defining what we are not can be a much quicker path to camaraderie than defining what we are. Avoiding danger is a survival mechanism, the neural wiring of which leads us to give more weight to the negative despite realising that positive focus is better for long-term health and happiness.
I submit that while the growing population of the planet presents ever more complex knots for us to entangle if we wish to survive as a species, our growing consciousness about how we treat our fellow beings (human, animal, plant, etc.) is expanding in a positive way. No longer are slavery, torture, and murder unquestioned facts of life. It happens, yes, but there is increasing outcry against injustices, as well as public movement toward a more egalitarian outlook. It is not acceptable that infant and child mortality rates due to preventable causes are higher in one part of the world than another. Privilege should not determine whether one lives or dies. We all have potential and the right the reach it.
Modern politics seem to have a way of swinging back and forth between progress and regress, often within the same generation. In the 1960s in the United States, it seemed that breaking out of the conservative chains of the past was a goal finally within reach. Love was prioritized over greed. And yet, as many hippies grew older, they transformed into an ironic embodiment of all they’d previously railed against: yuppies. As Tom Berenger’s character in The Big Chill said, “F*** them if they can’t take a joke.”
One of my passions, indeed it is the likely basis for my upcoming dissertation, is representation. When we are relentlessly shown what the global marketing machine currently considers normal, generally a very narrow and rare standard, we begin to believe that our appearance, accomplishments, living conditions, even desires are inadequate or bizarre. Often the interests and concerns of large sections of the populace are discounted because they come from a minority and/or from women. This means much of the entertainment industry considers their stories to be less marketable – which means the stories do not get told. Lesser value is placed on the situations of those with whom we have no emotional connection. Storytelling, visual and otherwise, is one of the most common ways we develop those connections. Stories engender not only empathy, but value.
I no longer own a television, but the little bit I see of both North American and European shows illustrates differing cultural perception, including how and whom we value. European television still seems much more willing to show real looking people. While visiting friends in Vienna some years ago, I was being delighted at seeing the main protagonist in a German police drama was a woman in her mid-40s. She displayed signs of ageing – weight gain, wrinkles, etc. – and looked like someone you might actually meet on the street, rather than the airbrushed, plasticised version of humanity often presented on American television.
Nichelle Nichols, known for playing Lt. Uhura on Star Trek, recounted the tale of meeting Whoopi Goldberg during an interview with NPR (National Public Radio). Ms. Goldberg, who played Guinan on Star Trek: The Next Generation, told her about watching the original series as a child. Upon seeing Lt. Uhura on the bridge, she ran through the house shouting to her family, “Come quick, come quick. There’s a black lady on TV and she ain’t no maid!” It’s shocking to realize that up until that point, the young Ms. Goldberg hadn’t likely seen representations of black women in any roles other than as domestic servants.
Among other factors, biology and socialisation deeply affect how we perceive our limitations and capabilities, as well as how we present these beliefs to others. Despite the fact that in many sectors percentages of women in industry are on the rise, the roles they occupy are often still lower in the hierarchy than men. Susan Colantuono’s TED Talk, The career advice you probably didn’t get, explains some of why this is so.
Women and men are taught to behave differently, sometimes directly, sometimes through being subtly “steered” in a particular direction with regards to dress, body language, and career choices. Astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson deftly addresses the question about why there are so few women in the STEM fields (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics), as well as why there are so few minorities (fast forward to the 1:01:20 mark).
Yet, there are signs of change. Indeed, in a 2010 TED Talk, Hanna Rosin presented data that indicates women are becoming the primary wage earners in some demographics.
This is in stark contrast with the experiences of Meera Vijayann, a citizen journalist from India, as relayed in her TED Talk from June of 2014.
Sadly, this aligns with the political push in the United States to deny women equal pay for equal work, as well as to remove protections for access to birth control and legal abortion. Much of the work of earlier generations is being gutted and undermined. Research by the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media indicates that under-representation of women is a world-wide phenomenon. All is not lost, however.
For one thing, the fact that there is enough awareness of and interest in this inequality to fund research is a sign that thing are changing. The increasing popularity of celebrity-backed websites and campaigns, such as Amy Poehler’s Smart Girls, is continuing to bring attention to the problem of limiting gender roles and biases. Just as importantly, these sites are bringing solutions to the table. Identifying the issues is an important step, but taking meaningful action to enact change is even more so.
The issues of sexism and racism are but a few things that require recognition and forward movement if we are to create a more just and equitable world. Issues of income inequality, gender (including intersex, queer, and non-gender conforming identities), education, healthcare, access to clean water and sanitation, religious freedom (including freedom from religion), hunger, sustainability, privacy, and many others must also be addressed. (By some accounts, the amount spent on one week of running the US military, if redirected, would completely wipe out global hunger.) We have the tools to do so and many are devoting their lives to making positive change happen.
I find myself frequently frustrated and angry at the lack of progress. I am admittedly impatient, particularly when it comes to issues that could be easily solved by the removal of corporate greed and intransigent politics. Yet as a fan of technology, I see how quickly innovative ideas are being used for the greater good. Everywhere I’ve travelled, I have met good-hearted people who support positive change and equality. I try to read enough good news to balance out the bad – and there is plenty of good news around, it is merely occluded by the sensationalistic.
We seem to be moving, albeit slowly and painfully, towards a more positive future. Inequality is a factor of contemporary life, but it does not need to continue this way. Lurching, with fits and starts, towards equality is where we are headed. It is a journey worth taking.