There is only one constant in human culture: Change. There never has been and never will be any sense of stasis in how we interact with our world. Everything is always shifting, evolving, growing (decaying too, but let’s leave that for another day). We are a species in flux.
This change is at once so micro and macro that it’s almost impossible to find many unifying factors. But there does seem to be an undeniable sort of seasonality inherent to the construction of the universe. A time to reap and a time to sow, so to speak. And right now — if you’re willing to cherry-pick a few pieces of good news from the headlines — it’s beginning to seem like this might be time for a little optimism. A peck. A pinch. And not just optimism as defined by political parties, but for anyone who hopes to see higher-level values elevated.
Consider for a moment, the impeachment proceedings going on in Washington DC. Even if you were to believe that the president is the paragon of ethics and high morality (a belief which a single phone call with the Ukrainian leader makes nearly untenable), you’d have to admit that the entire process has opened the door wide to conversations about ethics and corruption on a national stage. Yes, right now that means Trump and how he’s used strong-arm tactics to serve business and political interests, but a spike in conversation about American operations in Ukraine has also led to an important discussion of Hunter Biden’s work in the country and the different sorts of legal corruption that allow people with proximity to power to enrich themselves in dramatic fashion.
Be heartened by everyone paying attention to these ideas. If we really believe that “knowledge is power,” then a Google Trends spike in searches for “corruption” can at least count as some sort of forward movement. (The rise in searches for “Ukraine” probably isn’t a bad thing either.)
Or look with hope at Greta Thunberg. Here is a young woman who has treated Climate Change as an absolute emergency because, well, that’s what we’ve been told by scientists worldwide who have given their lives to studying our environment. In doing so, she’s helped galvanize and mobilize a generation of young activists concerned about the world being passed to them. In her advocacy and commitment to her ideals, she has helped give rise to discussions about climate that seem to carry an invigorated sense of urgency. Rather than her words landing on the ears of young people who’d been raised in the era of mass consumption, Thunberg and her generational cohorts were raised in a post An Inconvenient Truth era. They’ve got a baseline knowledge and a willingness to change their habits. They’ve seen the docs and been spurred on by Jason Momoa.
This is how it goes with these things, messages resonate and their effects ripple outward. They grow and expand, eventually becoming commonplace. Politicians adopt them and then gain votes through them. Laws change. The world changes.
(Even if you oppose the vast majority of scientific experts and don’t believe in climate change, Thunberg and those like her offer cause for optimism. Because the desire for basic planetary stewardship shouldn’t be obligated to rely on data — its importance is impossible to argue with.)
There was a thing that happened in Liberal or Progressive circles after Donald Trump was elected. People loved to call everything a “dumpster fire” or “trash.” And the case that the world is indeed a flaming pile of refuse is always there, always ready to be made (look at the wealth gap, species death, or dying oceans). But when it comes to the other issues that are “in the ether” — pulling the focus of the populace since the presidential election of 2016 — there are significant levels of measurable improvement.
- The #MeToo movement rose to national prominence in early 2017. In the years since then, The Harvard Business Review has reported an 11% downturn in sexual coercion in the workplace. Powerful men have been held accountable and workplace policies have changed. Harassment laws have passed in California and New York and the #TimesUp Legal Fund has grown year after year.
- #BlackLivesMatter, by its very existence and success, is its own proof point for societal progress. And though race remains one of the largest social issues facing the country and data on issues like the racial wealth gap takes time to reflect improvement, the fact that presidential candidates are talking seriously about reparations, private institutions are taking that conversation into their own hands, and representation is up in film, TV, and novels, the case for acknowledging some sense of progress is a viable one.
- Walmart has decided to further restrict the ammunition it sells in stores. More importantly, since the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in 2018, we’ve seen a wave of new gun laws across the country. The latest was enacted just this week in New York state. And yet none of these laws snatches lawfully owned guns from a law-abiding populace. In fact, these are the “common sense” gun laws that an overwhelming majority of Americans have long clamored for.
This is a tricky game to play, pulling short-term data like this. And I can’t imagine anyone on the front lines of these movements or feeling marginalized in our society wants to hear another man of Euro heritage say, “but things are getting better!” Still… for right now — viewed through this exact angle of light — there is something to be said for seeing the glass as half full.
Maybe just barely half. Maybe it’s just a mid-glass convex meniscus. But it’s something.
If there’s a case to be made for optimism on this exact day, October 1, 2019, then it would have been born out of a nation in discontent. The United States has seen the power of protest fully flexed over the past three years. There have been marches in the streets connected to literally every issue for which we might feel a modicum of positivity.
That’s how the process is supposed to go, right? The people recognize an injustice, they grapple publicly and privately with it, they rally against it, and, eventually, their discontent ascends higher until it reaches the halls of power. “Sparks fly upward,” as the poet said.
Isn’t that literally the idea behind the whole “the arc of the moral universe bends toward justice” quote? It’s not like the arc bends naturally, right? The arc needs people and eventually policymakers to tug on it. It requires force. It’s iron rebar not Uri Gellar’s spoon. And just as you think “wow, this moral arc sure is bending” comes a new set of forces intent on bending it even further led by a new generation. And again. And again. With more urgency every time.
So while this might very well be the time for optimism, it’s certainly not the time to relent. There’s not a moment to coast.
If you’re anywhere on the Democratic/ Liberal end of the political spectrum, you still have an array of candidates to fit your personal belief patterns. Candidates fighting big business. Candidates focused on compassion-driven immigration policy. Candidates who don’t want you to have to self-regulate insulin because you can’t afford it. Savor them. Play to win and get behind the one who you believe will help build a better world.
If you’re a Republican, you may just get a fresh start without having to do the requisite mental gymnastics to excuse why the leader of the free world is using his influence to enrich himself and attack his enemies. You could be part of returning your party to its small-government ideals, or its history of protecting natural spaces.
At its heart, the “case for optimism” is a case for persistence. A reminder to redouble our efforts and keep pushing, evolving, and growing in the fight for a planet where the dignity of all people and the environment is protected. A planet where “change” doesn’t need to induce fear.