The case for optimism, cont’d: “A forward movement we can’t easily see”

I’ve been rereading Doris Lessing’s Prisons We Choose to Live Inside, a small collection of essays adapted from her lectures; some excerpts below. Inspiring humanism and amazing prescience. Highly recommended.

Sometimes it is hard to see anything good and hopeful in a world that seems increasingly horrific. To listen to the news is enough to make you think you are living in a lunatic asylum.

But wait . . . we all know the news is presented to us for maximum effect, that bad news seems, at least, to be more effective in arousing us than good news — which in itself is an interesting comment on the human condition. We are all regularly presented, day after day, with bad news, the worst, and I think our minds are more and more set into attitudes of foreboding and depression. But is it possible that all the bad things going on — and I don’t have to list them, for we all know what they are — are a reaction, a dragging undertow, to a forward movement in the human social evolution that we can’t easily see? Perhaps, looking back, let’s say in a century or two centuries, is it possible people will say, “That was a time when extremes battled for supremacy. The human mind was developing very fast in the direction of self-knowledge, self-command, and as always happens, as always has to happen, this thrust forwards aroused its opposite, the forces of stupidity, brutality, mob thinking”? I think it is possible. I think that this is what is happening.

In the balance against this hopeful fact, we must put a sad one, which is that large numbers of young people, when they reach the age of political activity, adopt a stance or an attitude […] that democracy is only a cheat and a sham, only the mask for exploitation, and that they will have none of it. We have almost reached a point where if one values democracy, one is denounced as a reactionary. I think that this will be one of the attitudes that will be found most fascinating to historians of the future. For one thing, the young people who cultivate this attitude towards democracy are usually those who have never experienced its opposite: people who’ve lived under tyranny value democracy.

It is not that I don’t understand it — I understand it only too well, having lived through the process myself. Democracy, liberty, fair play, and so forth — these have been stuffed down one’s throat, and suddenly you see the most appalling injustices all around you, and shout: “Hypocrite!” […] But when people are in that state of mind, what is forgotten is that a democracy, no matter how imperfect, offers the possibility of reform, change. It offers freedom of choice. It is this freedom to choose that is the new idea, historically speaking. I think we tend to forget how new these ideas are, that an individual should have rights, that a citizen should be able to criticize the government.

That an individual should be entitled to the rule of the law — why, three or four centuries ago, they wouldn’t have known what you meant by it. Now it is an idea so powerful that strong and ruthless governments are brought down by it.

More reasons for optimism here.

(Photo via Derryck Mimbari)


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