Stand back. Way back to where a year looks like a blade of grass. Back to where your front lawn looks like the history of man. What do you see? is it progress or recession? Has the social journey resulted in a better lot for mankind or a decline in civilisation? Is the grass growing high or dying off?
The answer is probably a mixture of both. Some things are better and others worse. It would be hard however to say we were worse off overall. We can defeat diseases that centuries ago meant a death sentence. Less of us are starving to death. Technology has given us things that could only be imagined a few decades back. Our lives are more liberated and free than those of the who lived in the “BCE” times under Roman/Persian/Greek/etc. rule.
It is called social evolution. Societies evolve taking on progressively more liberal ideas and norms. In the western world at least. Some countries seem to have stalled, but even though they take a backward step from time to time, they still seem to evolve over the centuries.
Take the suppression of freedom in China today. We might say that is a backward step, but is it worse than during the Ming Dynasty when penal servitude was the lot of the peasants and slavery still existed.? There have been steps forward as well as one or two backwards
Social evolution can be seen as the difference between normality at two points in time. What is normal in one era is rarely normal in another. It was normal to burn witches in the middle ages but not so much now. Droughts were seen as the wrath of God rather than climate change. Trade was confined to the village market place rather than Amazon warehouses.
Examples of social change
Let’s focus on a small patch of lawn as an example. What has changed in the western world in the last few hundred years.
- Child labour had existed for millennia. It was Prussia in 1839 that first passed laws restricting child labour. Britain soon followed and then other countries picked up the social evolutionary change. It is still going on with sub-Saharan African countries passing laws as recently as 2014.
- The right to vote was only declared by the UN in 1948. It had been a social evolution in many countries. For example, in Australia the right to vote started in 1840 for councils. It was restricted to landowners who owned property over a certain value. It took until 1856 to introduce secret ballots and one man one vote. Women didn’t get the right to vote until 1895. It was not until 1962 that Aboriginals had the right to vote.
- Gay marriage took decades of debate before becoming law in 2018.
- Abortion became legal is South Australia in 1969 but it was 2019 before it was legal in NSW.
- It was only in the 1930’s that Annual Leave in Australia was introduced after union action. It was initially one week. In 1945 it became two weeks and in 1963 it became three weeks. In the ’70s it became four weeks. Across the world it varies from two weeks in the US to six weeks in Finland.
- Universal health care via Medicare was introduced in 1984. It is not perfect but was a first step towards ensuring equality for medical treatment. The National Disability Insurance Scheme followed in 2013.
Bill of Human Rights
So legalisation of human rights has been incremental. The International Bill of Human Rights created by the United Nations in 1948. The bill has ten basic rights:
- The right to equality and freedom from discrimination
- The right to life, liberty, and personal security
- Freedom from torture and degrading treatment
- The right to equality before the law
- The right to a fair trial
- The right to privacy
- Freedom of belief and religion
- Freedom of opinion
Those rights exist as a patchwork quilt across nations. Some are in place and some are still to be achieved. Some are obscured by social evolution – for example, privacy in a social media world. Freedom of opinion is hard to define when we have to draw a line between opinion and truth.
What we can see is that there are a set of sometimes obscure goals that society is working towards, and sometimes they take decades if not centuries to achieve. For example, freedom from discrimination exists for gay people in Australia but not in other countries. Australia’s immigration detention centres score a “Fail” for degrading treatment and several other basic rights.
I spoke about normality. If you look at what is considered normal today and measure it against the ten basic rights, almost every country is only part of the way there. If you compare today’s normal with what was normal a hundred years ago, there are major changes to normality that have taken us on a journey towards fully meeting the ten criteria – the Nirvana of normality.
I said there were backward steps and you don’t have to look too far to see those steps in different countries. Hong Kong has taken a step backwards in most of these rights in the last year. The Uighurs in China have lost their freedom of belief and religion, the right to equality before the law and the right to equality and freedom from discrimination amongst others. Social media, along with the truth, has trashed freedom of opinion in most countries. The gap between rich and poor is widening in many western countries. If you look, however, at the big picture, the world is slowly trudging forward. Progress is patchy but the progress of society as a whole is forward, not backwards.
The long view
This brings me to another point that is important. Society slowly recognises a problem, then comes the pressure to change, then comes incremental change. Rarely is it total change from problem to the ideal situation. To move from votes for those of privilege, to universal voting rights took over 100 years. To have all states legalise abortion took 50 years. Child labour reform has been ongoing for 175 years. This is not a blade of grass. This is a whole patch.
Within each of these changes are people who are promoters, and people who are reluctant to change. Call them progressives and conservatives if you like. The progressives can take generations to overcome the reluctance of the conservatives.
Social evolution is an unstoppable force. As society evolves, it demands improvements to its conditions. Whether it be more annual leave or equality in medical support, it is going to happen eventually. The only question is how quickly. The conservative element of society is not going to stop progress on social equity. They are only going to impede the progress.
On the other hand the progressive element of society is laying the foundations for the next step in the journey. They are moving the normal. Consider climate change which is generally accepted as being an issue. It was the progressive element of society that redefined over time what normal was in terms of attitudes to the environment. The conservative elements will not change it back to the normal of 1980. They only slow down the change. Without the conservative elements attitude of “change nothing”, we might have reached the normality of 2020 by 2000.
An interesting question is what are the milestones on this journey in the next twenty, fifty or even hundred years. Some are fairly obvious and others less so. Obvious social changes are:
Legalise euthanasia. This is already happening in some countries and states, and looks likely to become the norm in coming years.
Aboriginal recognition. This is another hot topic in Australia and is not too far distant.
Australian republic. A referendum failed in 1999 (45% “For” and 55% “Against”). A part of the reason was the tying together of questions about whether we wanted a republic and the form of election for the head of state into one question. It seems inevitable that in the next decade or two a second referendum will support a republic.
Decriminalise some drug use. Moves are already underway to legalise marijuana and it is likely some recreational drugs will become legal and controlled. Other parts of the world seem to have successfully managed drugs and resistance is decreasing.
Other less obvious milestones on the journey to normality may be:
Population mobility. As natural population declines in the western world, it may become the norm to actually bid for labour from third world or developing countries. It may become standard practice to bring families to western nations and provide housing, education and integration so that the children will be able to contribute to western societies. The developed societies will no longer operate on a quota system, but actually undertake a competitive bidding process to get immigrants.
International peace-keeping. As the world matures, it may become evident that wars in developing or third world countries are violations of most human rights and there is a responsibility of the developed countries through the UN to bring peace to these countries. With the advances in automated warfare, much of the fighting may be done remotely with drones and sci-fi soldiers.
Online government. With advances in technology, it may be possible to vote on key issues from the comfort of your home. The right of society to vote may extend further than just electing parliamentarians. We have already had plebiscites and referendums so why not extend it further. Imagine votes on things like immigration detention policy or climate related issues.
Privacy. There are a myriad of privacy-related social changes which could develop. Thinking at the macro level, privacy intrusion seems to have grown in two key areas. Government and corporations. We are starting to see progressives pushing the issue, of privacy laws. Conservatives from both the key areas are pushing back against these laws, but if the past is a guide to the future, the conservatives only slow the changes. They don’t stop them.
Awareness of government role in income redistribution. If it will benefit me, I want the government to do it. If it will hurt me, no way. That is the attitude today. I believe in time we will mature enough to understand that governments take money, then redistribute it. When we look at something we feel would benefit society, we will start to think as the politicians do. Where will the money come from? Half the discussion will be about social change and half about how it is to be funded.
Social evolution is about the journey of normality. On one hand progressive thinkers want to better mankind. They want to change the normal to create a new and better perspective on what is good for society. Conservatives try to hold back any change. They want to stick with what we know is normal today. Usually they have optimised normal at a point in time to suit their own circumstances. Sometimes they even want to roll normal back to what it was in the past.
Given the perspective of changing normality, what is the more powerful message for agents of change to put forward. It is not so much to argue the rights and wrongs of a social change as to make the person see normal through the eyes of the progressive.
Take euthanasia as an example. One argument might be that religion does not have the right to dictate a policy on death for everybody. It seems a logical argument but does it change normality? Doubtful. A better argument might be to say “Imagine you or a loved one had motor neuron disease and were loosing control of your body. Would you like the option to decide the point to die?” It shifts normality to another level. It makes it seem “normal” to want to have that option. That is how social evolution happens.
History shows that all the conservative thinkers achieve is to slow down the change. Sometimes they can successfully do it for generations. They rarely stop change. Be it fundamental Muslims, Russian autocrats, the Chinese Communist Party, British royalists, private health funds or free-marketeers opposed to paying a decent wage to unemployed, they only slow the implementation. Hopefully we will live long enough to see social progress on some of these issues.