Human Rights Statistics: Why There’s a Good Reason for Hope

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "Enlightenment Now" by Steven Pinker. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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Is there progress in the arena of human rights? Are bigoted attitudes on the decline in the world?

In Steven Pinker’s argument that humanity is advancing rather than worsening, he includes some hope-inspiring human rights statistics. He specifically considers racism, sexism, and homophobia to be the biggest contributors to human rights abuses.

Keep reading to discover why Pinker believes that we should acknowledge the great advances the world has made in these areas.

Human Rights Statistics

Racist, sexist, and homophobic attitudes: In his presentation of human rights statistics, Pinker provides data from the Pew Research Center on racist, sexist, and homophobic opinions that shows those have all steadily declined in the U.S. from 1985-2015, and they are far more likely to be associated with the oldest generation. He shows us that hate crimes also have declined, and he says that, while there were upticks during the Trump presidency, that’s not indicative of an overall trend. (Shortform note: Racism isn’t only about bigoted attitudes. It’s built into the structure of society. Systemic racism includes inequalities and discrimination that are part of social institutions. For example, discriminatory practices in hiring, housing, and policing result in large-scale social disadvantages for some groups as compared to others.)

Women’s rights: Pinker shows that women around the world have increasingly gained more rights, freedom, education, and economic security. He points out that in 1900, only one country allowed women to vote—New Zealand. Today, women can vote in every country that men can, except one—Vatican City. This supports Pinker’s claim that religion is one of the major barriers to Enlightenment values. 

Gay rights: Pinker points out that homosexuality used to be considered a crime in almost every country in the world. He says the first suggestion that sex between consenting adults should not be legislated came from European Enlightenment thinkers such as Voltaire, and some countries began revising their laws shortly thereafter. The statistics Pinker presents show that as of 2015, around 90% of the world’s countries have decriminalized homosexuality.

Liberalization: Pinker says that when we look at the overall trends, we see that the world is becoming increasingly liberal. He defines liberal values as “emancipatory” values that encourage personal freedom and autonomy, individuality, and creativity over authority, conformity, and discipline. He points out that there are still gaps between regions, but all world regions are becoming more liberal over time. He argues that, when we look at correlations between liberalization and other social features, we see that more liberal countries correlate with: 

  • Greater wealth
  • Higher levels of education
  • Urbanization
  • Lower fertility rates
  • Peacefulness
  • Democracy
  • Less corruption
  • Lower crime rates
Women’s and LGBTQ rights in Indigenous Societies

On these measures, Pinker compares the present to the relatively recent past, and the progress is undeniable. However, if we look further back in time, we find that in some cases, these issues got worse before improving again. For example, there have been many indigenous matriarchal societies around the world, meaning societies in which women have high status and leadership roles. Women’s status tended to decline in many of these cultures only after European colonization, but there are still some solidly matriarchal societies existing today, such as the Mosuo in rural China.

Many indigenous cultures, as well as early state societies like the Greeks and Romans, also accepted homosexuality as natural and normal long before the Enlightenment. This may even be one of the ideas the Enlightenment thinkers “borrowed” from Native Americans—many of those tribes are known to have had sex/gender systems that were characterized by fluidity in gender and sexual identity and categorization.
Human Rights Statistics: Why There’s a Good Reason for Hope

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Elizabeth Whitworth

Elizabeth has a lifelong love of books. She devours nonfiction, especially in the areas of history, theology, and philosophy. A switch to audiobooks has kindled her enjoyment of well-narrated fiction, particularly Victorian and early 20th-century works. She appreciates idea-driven books—and a classic murder mystery now and then. Elizabeth has a blog and is writing a book about the beginning and the end of suffering.

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