Share this story
Close X
Switch to Desktop Site

Assessing an age of emancipation: progress and dangers

Racial and ethnic liberation, improved living standards, an expansion of education, women's emancipation, more humane treatment of workers - these are among the vast social changes traced by the Monitor over the past 75 years. But with unprecedented progress in the liberation of the human spirit have come new conflicts and uncertainties, forcing the individual to confront deep moral and spiritual questions.

Searching for Monitor signposts to the trends of the 20th century, the eye lights on a front-page headline on an October day in 1928: ''Women of Nations Called to Frame World Program Abolishing Causes of War.'' The article goes on to tell of women gathering in London from every part of the globe for a conference on how to establish a permanent peace.

About these ads

Here, in a nutshell, is an illustration of the explosive social changes that have been taking place in the 75 years of the Monitor's existence: Women, even while caring for children and homes, were vigorously tackling the vital issues of the day and helping shape the kind of world their children would live in. These were no shrinking violets of Victorian times, but the forerunners of what decades later would become the new activists.

Women's growing role is not the only significant trend of recent times, of course. The 75-year period monitored by this newspaper has seen the world's social fabric change in profound ways. Perhaps this change can best be described as an extraordinary opening up of human possibilities: racial and ethnic liberation, the rise of independent new states, an unprecedented improvement in material conditions of life, and a broadening of the rights of the individual.

The catastrophes that have beset the 20th century pose urgent moral questions for society. Yet, even taking these into account, who can fail to note that many societies have grown more humane and compassionate. Workers have fairer pay and shorter hours. Children are exploited less. There is heightened concern about the elderly, the handicapped, the imprisoned. Better care of the physical environment, in the wake of the damage done to it in the era of industrialism, is another hallmark of the times.

The social forces behind this expansion of freedom, this breaking down of human limits and betterment of life, were set in motion well before the Monitor's founding in 1908. There can be no single, pat explanation as to why the late l9th century saw such a fundamental, massive change in every area of human experience. Some see behind it all a ''spiritual breakthrough'' which is only beginning to be understood.

Whatever the philosophical and intellectual impulses behind the ferment, it was characterized by a giant advance in science and technology. From the late 1800s onward, the technological explosion - from invention of the internal combustion engine to the introduction of electricity, the telephone, and chemical fertilizers - began to have an extraordinary impact on societies everywhere. With the Industrial Revolution came urbanization, great population shifts, a European scramble for colonies, and - as the decades ticked by - the collapse of Western colonialism, the rise of new centers of political power, the advent of mass consumer societies, and the emergence of new social systems.

At the same time the gradual integration of the world has led to an interlocking of interests that is inexorably driving humanity toward greater unity and cooperation. The individual's horizon used to be his village. Now radio and television - and the expectations they have created - have in many ways made of the world one giant village. Computer technology and the advent of the information age are accelerating the trend.

But if positive gains can be recorded in man's struggle to push outward the bounds of human possibility, they have not been without accompanying dislocations and turmoil, conflicts and collisions. Twentieth-century progress is marked by great paradoxes:

About these ads

* Men and women are achieving equal rights, but the institution of the family faces new stresses.

* Racial and ethnic minorities are winning new freedoms, yet the century has witnessed bitter racial and ethnic conflicts.

* The sexes have been freed from restrictive and arbitrary sexual codes. But some have misread this freedom as license or, at the least, moral relativism.

* Living standards have improved for millions of people, but many societies face inner decay because of an obsession with material things, the pursuit of sensual pleasures, and a glorification of violence.

* Such vast social ''crimes'' as human slavery, child labor, penal servitude, and infanticide are being brought under control. Yet murder, theft, violent assault, and white-collar crimes are widespread.

* Governments and public institutions have grown more responsive to human needs - sanitation, education, nutrition, clean air, welfare - yet the burgeoning of social controls has often led to a sapping of individual initiative and self-reliance.

* Illiteracy has been virtually ended in the advanced nations, and the process of educating the masses is under way in Latin America, Asia, and Africa. Yet in communist societies and some new nations education serves the ends of indoctrination, and in free societies literature and the airwaves are saturated with cheap sensationalism and vulgarity.

These are patterns the Monitor has not only recorded but sought to interpret in the context of the broader moral and religious challenges they pose. Monitor editors and writers have proceeded from the premise that, whatever the underlying human problems, they require not merely political or economic solutions but the application of moral and ultimately spiritual values. In fact, responsibility for mankind's liberation from limitation and injustice has been seen to begin not with governments and social institutions but with the individual and his attitude toward the world in which he lives.

The important point is that the salvation of society lies within each of us, '' wrote Erwin D. Canham, the late editor, in 1963. ''We are not in the grip of inexorable determinist forces. Moral awakening and moral living are present possibilities for anybody. The individual, however, cannot be a law unto himself. He lives and moves and has his being in a framework of divinely ordained spiritual law. Within that framework, the individual moves forward to accept and implement his social responsibilities.''

Such an approach to world events has not diluted a down-to-earth look at the human scene. Among the many currents of social change, the themes of family and home, racial and ethnic justice, and the rights of the individual have run like a consistent thread through the Monitor's pages. When American women won the vote in 1920, the paper stressed: ''It is a lesson for the benefit of the whole world, for to this standard of rightness all the world must sooner or later come.''

But enthusiasm for women's rights did not hide concern about the ''destructive influences'' aimed at family life. ''The home is the target at which all the darts and arrows of ignorance and vice are aimed,'' the Monitor editorialized in the early 1920s. ''With its capitulation there could not fail to come social and political chaos.''

Today, with the changing roles of women - and men - that concern has intensified. No phenomenon has had greater social and economic impact in the industrialized world than the surge of women out of the home and into paid jobs, a tidal wave that has had enormous repercussions for family life and the workplace. Women's changing views of family and work

What has caused the flight?

Certainly the feminist movement of the '60s and '70s - sometimes reaching beyond the Western community into the third world - helped reinforce many women's changing attitudes toward home and work. Women have come to seek satisfaction not only in raising children, but in developing their intellectual and physical capacities. They also want to contribute their insights to solution of national and world problems - an objective vividly reflected in a 1923 Monitor report on a women's campaign in Cuba to preserve a ban on bullfighting. ''Women's Movement Proves Regenerative Force in Cuba,'' read the headline over the highlighted story.

But other social forces, perhaps more dominant ones, have been at work: a declining birthrate, the development of service economies in the industrial nations, and, above all, the pressures of the pocketbook. ''It's a misconception that the feminist movement created a flirtation with the labor force,'' the Monitor reported in 1978. ''People don't realize that most women work because of economic need, because they have to.''

Whether they have to or not, working women everywhere have welcomed the feminists' efforts to achieve equality of opportunity and compensation. The battle was front-page news and the subject of frequent commentary even in the days of the Monitor's beginnings: ''It cannot harm men that women doing the same work, and doing it as well, are equally compensated,'' said an editorial as far back as 1911.

At the same time the stampede of women into the work force, combined with the sexual revolution, has had undeniable impact on the family and marriage. Throughout the industrialized world - in the land of Soviet communism no less than in capitalist Britain or the United States - divorce rates have skyrocketed. The number of couples living together outside marriage has risen. The incidence of births out of wedlock, especially among teen-agers, has grown. More and more children are living with only one parent.

Sensitive to the fate of the younger generation, the Monitor through the years has probed such topics as child abuse, the legal rights of children, and the problem of ''latch-key''children. Two years ago Monitor correspondents around the world surveyed efforts in Britain, France, Japan, and other countries to provide care for school-age youngsters of working mothers - pointing to the global nature of the problem.

As the world rushes toward the 21st century, however, it is not about to abandon the bedrock institution of society. Signs abound that families, although still often in trouble, are becoming stronger for the buffeting they have received. Equality of the sexes draws nearer as men begin to discover their own capacities for child rearing. Women, including Betty Friedan of ''Feminine Mystique'' fame, are preaching new pride in motherhood and homemaking. In an article on ''Families and Teens'' last year a Monitor editor wrote: ''The conviction appears to be growing that, for all its flaws, the family . . . is indispensable. Neither schools, nor the welfare state, nor the experts can truly stand in loco parentis.''

Moving outward from the individual family, significant social change has also been monitored in the lives of entire races and nationality groups. On a global level, progress toward the freedom of all peoples can be seen in the collapse of the old imperialist empires and the liberation of one colony after another in Africa and Asia. The spread of national and racial liberation to all parts of the world is perhaps the most important social and political development of the 20th century - giving blacks, Chinese, Hindus, Arabs, Malays, and countless other racial and ethnic groups a greater measure of self-determination.

In the United States, the world's unparalleled experiment in ''multinational'' democracy, many barriers of discrimination have fallen. In 1954 the Supreme Court ordered school desegregation. Ten years later, after the heroic struggles of Martin Luther King and his movement, racial justice took another leap with the Civil Rights Act, which the Monitor hailed as providing ''a promise of orderly redress and reassurance against anarchy.''

Today blacks are entering the social and political mainstream as professionals, businessmen, political leaders. Bigotry against Jews and other minority groups has waned, and doors have been flung open to immigrants not only from Northern Europe and Britain but from Latin America, Southern Europe, and such Asian lands as South Korea and Cambodia.

While warning of ''the long road still to be traveled'' before the last vestiges of racial and ethnic discrimination are wiped out, the Monitor has welcomed the signs of steady progress. When the American Indian Congress was established in the 1930s, the paper commented that ''racial self-consciousness has been increasing'' and referred to the United States as a nation ''that finally has begun to atone for its early barbarities and its senseless herding of the tribes that were not exterminated.''Countercurrents of tribalism

Yet etched in mankind's history of the 1908-83 period is also racial and ethnic slaughter on a hitherto unimagined scale. The extermination of 6 million Jews was the most barbarous crime of World War II, pointing to the undestroyed savage elements in human thought. But scarcely any patch of the globe has been free of ethnic or racial or religious strife: Hindus fighting Muslims, tribal conflicts in Nigeria and the Congo; wars between Arabs and Jews; the massacre of Chinese by Indonesians; Tutsis and Hutus murdering each other in Burundi; Turks and Greeks slaying each other in Cyprus.

Even as the world grows more interdependent, it seems to be in danger of being fragmented by a countercurrent of narrow-minded nationalism and tribalism. Canada is threatened with dismemberment as many French Quebeckers agitate for independence. Northern Ireland is torn by religious and tribal conflict. The Kurds in Iran, the Eritreans in Ethiopia, the Walloons and Flemish in Belgium, the Basques and Catalans in Spain, and myriad other groups - all are rising up for separate identity.

Mankind is thus beginning to see the difference between legitimate national, ethnic, and racial aspirations on the one hand and divisive, disunifying tendencies on the other. The real challenge is to find the way to a pluralism that does not lend itself to conflict and fragmentation. ''No Racial Politics for America,'' proclaimed a 1923 editorial when American Jews were being urged to unite for political action. ''American political life has been troubled in the past by efforts of this or that party to secure votes by professing to be the special friend of some race or nationality,'' it remarked. ''It was hoped that the attempts to divide Americans along the lines of racial groups were diminishing.''

In more recent times the Monitor has voiced concern with respect to another minority in the United States - Hispanics. Integrating this ever-growing and dynamic population into the American mainstream ''will prove a challenge to US society far greater than the civil rights explosion of the 1960s,'' suggested a Monitor report last year.Diversity and pluralism are acknowledged to be a source of national strength and vitality. But it is wondered whether the nation can preserve its unity if Spanish becomes a second language and Hispanics insist on maintaining a separate cultural identity. Will this produce a ''Hispanic Quebec''? a Monitor correspondent asked.

Perhaps the challenge in the rest of the 20th century lies in fostering a sense of social cohesion - in restoring a better balance between the individual and the social group. Among the lessons learned from the experience of the past few decades is that the individual is not autonomous or solitary, any more than is a nation-state. Freedom has to be balanced with, indeed can only be achieved through, a commitment to and love for family, for community, for nation - and ultimately for all humanity.

In the Western democracies, which have been in the forefront of humanity's quest for freedom, a large measure of individual civil and political liberty has been won. Elsewhere, peoples struggle for it. But so central have human rights and social justice become to mankind's aspirations that protection of them is now regarded as a collective responsibility. The UN Declaration of Human Rights and other international covenants enshrine fundamental freedoms of speech, religion, movement, assembly - as well as freedom from governmental violation of the integrity of the person. Social, economic, and cultural rights are also gaining legal sanction. Needed: a vision of community

Still, in advanced societies, there has been another side to the quest for liberty - the lapse of freedom into moral and cultural license. Since the social and political upheavals of the 1960s, a ''don't-make-rules'' philosophy, an ideology of individualism with its stress on ''self-fulfillment,'' seems to have become a functioning norm. At the same time there has been a decline of trust in almost all institutions: government, churches, political parties, universities, corporations, unions. As confidence in these collective groupings has waned, the individual has tended to look inward and to set his own standards.

But the Monitor sees the trend being resisted, perhaps even beginning to turn around, in the decade of the '80s in the face of economic pressures and nuclear uncertainty. In mid-1981 it reported findings of a shift in the United States away from '70s-style self-absorption to greater commitment to neighbors, community, coreligionists, and co-workers. Preoccupation with material status symbols seemed to be on the decline, with young people talking more openly of religious beliefs.

Other harbingers of change have also been noted: workers getting together with management in the workplace; increasing talk about the need for cooperation between government and industry; and the call of social critics for a fundamental change in attitudes away from a preoccupation with ''ego fulfillment'' to a sense of responsibility to others.

Few thinkers today deny the need to counter the atomistic tendencies on planet Earth. A stable, free, peaceful, and humane world requires that people be bound to a larger social compact, that they have a vision of community and of the relatedness of all men. This does not mean submerging the individual or his identity. It does not mean homogenizing the world or shaping some faceless collective of like-minded people. It does mean nurturing that morally and spiritually based community in which each individual finds his or her own true identity and purpose.

In sum, the swiftly moving forces of social change these past decades have heralded new freedoms and possibilities for humankind. They have also broken down old cultural and moral norms and created new dangers, uncertainties, and potential for self-destructiveness. These dangers are forcing men and women everywhere to confront deep moral and spiritual questions that go to the very core of what reality is.

''Do we exist in an indifferent and purposeless universe which ultimately makes meaningless our noblest achievements?'' asked a Monitor writer as the 1970 s drew to a close. ''Are we mere helpless specks doomed to extinction and swirled about by a maelstrom of forces beyond our understanding and control? Can we still believe in a real, living, divine power? Is there a spiritual, universal reality which gives purpose to experience and is the source of effective goodness in the human situation?''

Humanity seeks - and is certain to find - a positive answer.

Follow Stories Like This
Get the Monitor stories you care about delivered to your inbox.