What Was the Most Important Thing People Learned in the 20th Century?


Robert Fuller believes the most important learning of the century was disabusing ourselves of the notion that some people are inferior.


What was the principal take-away from the 20th century?

Atomic energy? DNA? Penicillin? Or, something from the world of art or philosophy or psychology? The title question leaves plenty of room for debate.

My answer is that the most important learning of the century was disabusing ourselves of the notion that some people are inferior. Put the other way round, the most important misconception of the last century was the belief that some people were superior.

At the beginning of the 20th century, the existence of superior individuals and groups was widely accepted. Although there were some who disagreed, far more were eager to believe that their own kind were exceptional, and they were willing to degrade and exploit those whom they saw as their inferiors. Belief in the validity of such judgmental comparisons underlay much of the manmade suffering for which the 20th century is rightly known.

Well into the last century:

* Imperial powers believed themselves superior to the peoples they colonized and exploited.

* The doctrine of White Supremacy took many forms, including Jim Crow and Apartheid.

* Gentiles deemed Jews an inferior race.

* Ethnocentrism was the norm.

* The rich looked down their noses at the poor.

* Male supremacy and patriarchy were all but universal.

* Dominion over the Earth was defended as a God-given right.

* Co-religionists typically believed their faith superior to others.

* Heterosexuals regarded their moral superiority as self-evident.

* People with physical or mental disabilities were stigmatized.

* Native-born citizens felt superior to immigrants, and earlier immigrants felt superior to later arrivals.

* Traditional hierarchies of class and caste persisted. White collar workers looked down on blue.

* The academic world both mirrored and reinforced these valuations. Intelligence tests were regarded as certifying mental superiority and were used to justify consigning low-scorers to low-status jobs.


No doubt further examples will come to mind. But before going on, it is crucial to get one thing straight. I am not saying that differences do not exist or that performance cannot be judged, let alone that competition is bad. Of course some golfers are better than others, some musicians have more fans, some nations have higher income per capita, and some politicians outpoll their rivals.

What I’m saying is that ranking higher on a particular scale does not support a more general claim of superiority as a person. The winners of a race in a track meet are not superior human beings. If you insist, you can say that Mary was “superior” in the 400 meter dash on Saturday, but really all that means is that she crossed the finish line ahead of her competitors on that day in that event. The gold medal is her rightful reward, but it doesn’t mean that she’s a superior person. Larger, broader claims to superiority are unfounded, unseemly, and, as the 20th century amply demonstrates, treacherous.

The trouble with the superior/inferior distinction is that it’s used to confer or deny ancillary benefits, ones that go far beyond just rewards for winning a particular competition. Worse, claims to superiority are invoked to justify degradation, exploitation, and even the extermination of “inferior” individuals, groups, ethnicities, cultures and peoples.

Because untold suffering has been licensed by presumed superiority, my nominee for the most important takeaway from the 20th century is the hard-won realization that applying the superior/inferior distinction to persons or peoples is specious. Such comparisons are odious. They present a grave danger not only to those deemed inferior, but also to those who pride themselves on their superiority.

This is not to say that imperialism, colonialism, exceptionalism, racism, sexism, ageism, ableism, homophobia, etc. have been eradicated. Hate-mongers and demagogues are constantly popping up and pandering to those who, doubting their own worth, hunger for assurances of superiority. American politicians, even those who know better, cultivate feelings of superiority by concluding their speeches with “America is the greatest country on Earth.” While such nationalistic puffery used to be music to patriots’ ears, it is increasingly cringe-making. To those who’ve come of age in a globalized world, exceptionalism rings false.


I can hear the objections already. Everywhere you look, some group, braced by a sense of its superiority, is demeaning or belittling those it regards as beneath it. Yes, such behavior persists into the 21st century, but increasingly it’s met with skepticism if not condemnation.

Here’s evidence of this change:

* Imperialism yielded to decolonization. The British, French, and others withdrew from Asia and Africa. Imperial designs of the Germans, Italians, and Japanese — intoxicated with their presumed ethnic superiority — led to the utter destruction of these would-be conquerors. The collapse of the Soviet Empire in the final decade of the century punctuated the end of empire.

* White supremacy has become indefensible; the N-word unspeakable.

* Male supremacy and patriarchy are in retreat.

* Environmental protection and animal rights are gathering support.

* Homosexuality came to be seen as inborn, like heterosexuality. Lady Gaga’s hit — “Born That Way” — sums it up.

* Disabilities were de-stigmatized and people with disabilities laid claim to equal dignity.

* By century’s end, reflexive acceptance of entitlement and authority was out. Public skepticism, if not cynicism, toward anyone or any nation pretending to superiority was the new norm.

The hateful epithets that fell easily from people’s lips until mid-century have lost legitimacy; they embarrass not their targets but those who utter them. The ethnocentrism of 1900 now seems myopic. In its place is the idea that different cultures, like different languages, are simply different. Each is a complex social system with its own strengths and weaknesses. Ethnic or sectarian differences are not grounds for exploitation or predation.

One person is no more superior to another than a dachshund to a poodle, a dog to a cat, or a butterfly to a rose. Persons, groups, nations are incommensurate.

Individuals and groups react negatively to being labeled inferior, and sooner or later they will get even with those who abuse them. As Shakespeare slyly points out in The Merchant of Venice, the victimized, once they gain the upper hand, are usually inclined “to better the instruction.” To put it bluntly, condescension is a time bomb.

It cost millions of lives, but it seems to have dawned on us that a vital part of a good defense is not giving offense in the first place. What’s more offensive than claiming superiority for your religion or country, and expecting others to welcome your tutelage?


Postscript and Preview

Learning from the past is hard enough. Foretelling the future is impossible. Still, we must take the long view if only because a glimpse of where we’re headed can persuade us to change course to avoid a calamity.

So I conclude with another question and hazard another guess:

Which of the ideas that we now take for granted will do us the most damage over the course of this century? Or, putting it the other way round, for which of our delusions will our descendants most pity us?

To encourage you to formulate your own answer, I’ll give you mine.

The 21st century will reveal that, like superiority, selfhood is illusory.

What I’m suggesting is that there really are no separate selves. The word self is itself a misnomer. Autonomous, stand-alone selfhood is an illusion. Not only are we not better than anyone else, our selves are so entangled and enmeshed with other selves as to make individual selves indistinguishable. Separate selves, like superior selves, are a dangerous delusion.

Senator Elizabeth Warren pleased some and angered others when she pointed out that none of us can do anything by ourselves. That “it takes a village.” That’s an understatement. Actually, each of us is a village. We’ve been internalizing our “village” since our first stirrings in the womb.

Not only can no one do anything by him or herself, no self can even be by itself. To exist is to co-exist. Absent human interaction, minds do not develop or they break down. That’s why solitary confinement is torture. Our selves are either continually, communally co-created or they disintegrate.

During the current century we’ll have to reconceive our relationship to smart machines as their creative intelligence overtakes our own. Dealing with this humbling development will change our sense of self even more profoundly than the 20th-century realization that we’re not as special as we thought.

Reimagining human selfhood will take the combined efforts of philosophers, theologians, psychologists, neuroscientists, artists, and others. I’m sure that the answer I’ve broached here will give way to a succession of better ones. Coming to a new understanding of the relationship between individuality and collectivity — between self and other — and then reorganizing our social and political relationships accordingly will be the defining challenge and crowning achievement of the 21st century.

By 2100, we’ll have very different answers to the age-old questions: Who am I? Who are you? Who are we? Our new answers will cause us, in partnership with the intelligent machines we build, to remake the world.

Robert W. Fuller’s novel — The Rowan Tree — is reviewed on The Good Men Project here.

photo: j / f / photo / flickr


About Robert Fuller

Before he was swept up in the movements of the sixties, Robert Fuller taught physics at Columbia University. In the early seventies, as president of Oberlin, he led the College through a series of reforms that drew national attention. During the eighties, he worked on bridge-building projects with Soviet scientists. With the end of the Cold War, he noticed that others had begun treating him like a Nobody. His reflections on his time in Nobodyland, became the subject of two books: Somebodies and Nobodies (introducing the concept of rankism), and All Rise (on the politics of dignity). For the last ten years, he has been speaking worldwide on dignity and rankism. He lives in Berkeley, CA, and has four grown children.


  1. wellokaythen says:

    An excellent list of lessons that people *should* have learned from the twentieth century, but I’m not so sure that many people have actually learned those lessons. In reality, if we’re looking for example at World War II, a.k.a., the “Best War Ever,” it’s more like:

    Some groups of people who thought they were superior were defeated by other people who thought they were superior. The military victors thought they were superior because 1) they used violence more successfully and 2) they told themselves that they didn’t think they were superior. Apparently bombing civilian cities is a mark of moral superiority as long as your enemies did it first.

    It’s not so clear to me that the twentieth century destroyed people’s sense of superiority over each other, so much as gave us all more reasons for self-righteousness. Unfortunately, things like fascism didn’t collapse under their own contradictions nor did they fail from the inside out, which is what they would have done in time. The Nazis were defeated by force much more than moral persuasion, which is why the threads of fascism are still around, woven into various parts of the modern world.

    Don’t get me wrong. I’m glad the Allies won. Give me the EU over the “thousand year Reich” any day of the week. But I can’t help thinking that I’m glad the Allies won because I’m an American and that’s “my team,” more than the idea that America was on the side of angelic egalitarianism.

  2. Valter Viglietti says:

    “Gentiles deemed Jews an inferior race.”

    Sure thing, but let’s not forget that Jews saw themselves as superior people (and they still do).
    (see “Jews as the chosen people”: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jews_as_the_chosen_people )

    And I believe that attitude is one of the reasons Jews have become somewhat unpopular or hated.
    Nobody likes being looked down.

  3. We split the atom, walked on moon, invented silicon wafers and mapped out the human genome. ..maybe that genome thing was early this century.. not sure. But we were well on our way at least.

  4. PursuitAce says:

    And who will give these intelligent machines the morality they’ll need? Or is morality derived from intellect? The future world you’re describing sounds like the Borg collective. Will there be a choice to join or will resistance ultimately be futile?

    • We ourselves will provide the moral education that, as you rightly note, intelligent machines will need—in the same way that our elders provide moral education for us.

      The reason humans resist seeing their machine-like nature is that they only think of machines as we already have known them: stupid machines like watches, cars, guns, digital serial computers, etc. We are just now beginning to build learning machines, ones that work something like brains. By mid-century we will be building intelligent learning machines and by century’s end these machines will be as intelligent and creative as humans at their best. We can teach them either to be predatory (like most humans have been till recently) or to be dignitarian, that is to respect and protect the dignity of every last person. The morality of such machines will not be borg-like. Rather it will be based on the principle of equal universal dignity. It’s motto might be: “Dignity is your right; it is also everyone else’s.”

      • PursuitAce says:

        While I always admire optimism I feel your vision may break even the ancient record of Alexander the Great’s world conquest plan. (I always believed if he’d headed west instead of east he’d never have made it out of Italy alive, but that’s another story.) I think the least of your challenges is human resistance to their machine-like-nature. The blending of humans and machines is already happening for the handicapped to great enthusiasm. It’s a very small step to go from equaling the quality of life for someone to enhancing the quality of life for everyone. The real obstacles will initially be legal. What you’re predicating, supporting, or describing is a species self-evolving. That’s a formula for hyper-interesting times as our Chinese friends might say. An interesting in this vein often equates to chaos which is at least a half brother to suffering. Humanity is not even close to the morality and unity required to pull off such a feat. This is the deficiency I see being passed on to the machines. And the timeline you’re describing is rapidly approaching. No, sir. I feel your optimism is unwarranted and incredibly Sonny (see iRobot the movie for the reference here).
        Speaking of elders, we might want to first reach out to any and all older civilizations that presumably have faced this transition. They may have some morality we haven’t considered. Better to pause then to press into this brave new world.

        • Robert Fuller says:

          I don’t disagree that it would be better if we approached this epochal transformation slowly and mindfully, but, we can’t control the pacing. What we might wisely NOT do, others will brazenly go ahead and do. Developments in neuroscience already suggest that human beings are on a fast track to building machines that work as brains do. Here’s a free short eBook on the subject:
          Once those machines — parallel computers, in contrast to the serial ones we’re using now — begin to show real intelligence, others will jump into the game and WHEW! Watch out. My reference in the essay to these foreseeable developments is not meant to cheer, or egg, us on, but rather to raise exactly the kind of questions you are raising. But how to effectively raise these questions in the world at large—China for example—that is the real question.

  5. “Although there were some who disagreed, far more were eager to believe that their own kind were exceptional, and they were willing to degrade and exploit those whom they saw as their inferiors.”

    American exceptionalism?


    Americans absolutely believe that they know better than Afghans or Iraqis. America believes that it has a right to bring democracy and freedom to other countries who may or may not want it. Then, after bringing “democracy” it exploits them for their natural resources.

    The difference is that the propaganda in the invading country used to be honest. The British empire was honest, and openly about British superiority, and taking money and tribute from the countries that it invaded.

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