Select Page
Peter Briello of New Hampshire Public Radio interviews Steven Pinker, author of Enlightenment Now

Photo: Peter Briello of New Hampshire Public Radio interviews Steven Pinker, author of Enlightenment Now

On Wednesday Jan 30th, I attended a presentation by Steven Pinker, author of the New York Times Bestseller, Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism and Progress. Pinker is a psychology professor at Harvard University who conducts research in visual cognition, psycholinguistics, and social relations. After discussing excerpts from the book, New Hampshire Public Radio’s Peter Briello interviewed Pinker about his latest work and fielded questions from the audience.

The overarching message of Enlightenment Now, supported with impirical data, is that society as a whole, has progressed; however, headlines in the media would lead us to believe otherwise. There are three parts to the book, they are:

  • Part I: Enlightenment
  • Part II: Progress
  • Part III: Reason, Science and Humanism

Part II, Chapter 15 of the book is dedicated to progress made within the area of equal rights. In the excerpt below, the chart shows web searches via Google Trends from 2004-2017 which Pinker cites to back up the notion that society is indeed progressing when it comes to prejudice. Pinker and economist Seth Stevens-Davidowitz view the decline in prejudice jokes as a proxy for society’s acceptance of prejudice as a whole (note: prejudiceis an attitude towards a group, while discrimination includes actions).

For additional supporting data, consider that today is January 31st and would be Jackie Robinson’s 100th birthday. If you are unfamiliar with Robinson, he was the first black Major League Baseball (MLB) player. Jackie played for the Brooklyn Dodgers, making history in 1947 as he broke the league’s color barrier. To begin the 2018 season, there were 750 active black players listed on MLB rosters, or 8.4% of the league.

Based on this data, we can say progress has been made in baseball. By stand talling in the face of racism, Jackie opened the door for blacks and other minorities; however, he also set the stage for progress extending well beyond baseball and sports. Earlier this month, the U.S. celebrated Martin Luther King Day, a tribute to the civil rights leader who inspired millions as he sought equal rights for all, regardless of race, religion or gender. Dr. King’s campaign began in 1954, seven years after Jackie had crossed baseball’s color barrier.

“Jackie Robinson made my success possible. Without him, I would never have been able to do what I did.” ~ Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

A picture of Dr. King (left) and Jackie Robinson (right)

As the Enlightenment continues, the aformementioned isms and phobias will hopefully continue to exit society. However, one form of discrimination that is generally not well-understood and is not mentioned in Pinker’s newest book is height bias or heightism — judgement or discrimination based on someone’s height. In this vein, it tends to be shorter individuals, males in particular, that get the short end of the stick (no pun intended). By now, we’ve learned that judging people based on their physical characteristics is wrong, haven’t we?

Let’s take a look at what height bias is and it’s impact.

The brain interprets height as a proxy for health, wealth and social status. As a result, shorter individuals may experience glass ceilings as they pursue leadership roles, make less than taller peers, and find it challenging in the world of online dating (ironic, if you consider shorter guys largely “own” the Internet as founders of Amazon, Facebook and Google are below 5’10”).

Coincidentally, Dr. King (5’7″) would be considered short or “vertically challenged” given the average height of adult males in the U.S. is 5’10.” Through courage, perseverence and amazing oratory skills, Dr. King was a trailblazer that inspired and led millions. Ethnicity aside, had he pursued an executive leadership role in corporate America, he would have likely been overlooked. While Dr. King may or may not have faced or even considered heightism during his quest for equal rights, I am confident he would support an initiative to shine a light on it.

For an example of height bias at work, consider the picture below of the New York Yankee’s Aaron Judge (6’7″) and Houston Astros’ Jose Altuve (5’6″). Imagine they were wearing suits and worked for the same company. Now if you had to guess, who would be the CEO? Who would be the executive assistant? In 2017, Altuve won the American League MVP (Judge came in 2nd place) and helped his team go on to win the World Series.

Discrimination towards a group based on physical traits or sexual orientation is wrong. And while heightism may not be on your radar, keep in mind the broken window theory the next time you hear a seemingly innocuous or playful joke against a particular group as it may act as a stepping stone to further transgressions against that group or others. For example, I was shocked to learn that a teacher at the high school I graduated from allowed students to recite a holiday jingle about the KKK. How and where did the teacher and students understand this to be acceptable behavior? If their respective friends and family had stepped in, the situation may never have happened. It all starts with one broken window left in disrepair.

While seeking a new Fed Chair, President Donald Trump (6’3″) made it known that he had doubts about hiring Janet Yellen (5’3″) due to her height. Meanwhile, he himself has likely stretched the tale of the tape if you consider the following:

  • His driver’s ID listed him as 6’2″ prior to taking office (height info is self-reported, men tend to add 1″-2″)
  • After taking office and taking a required physical exam, he grew to 6’3″ (after age 50 people will shrink an average of 1″-3″ due to vertabrae dehydration and loss of bone density)

So what’s the big deal about adding an inch? For President Trump, the benefits are two-fold:

  • He claims status as the third tallest U.S. President in history
  • He dodges the “obese” label due to body mass index (BMI)

When psychologists and others discuss equal rights, inclusion of height bias / heightism makes sense given the impact it has on society. Hopefully Nobel Peace Prize nominee Steven Pinker or another world-renowned cognitive psychologist will educate the masses of its importance. To ignore the fact that heightism exists would impede progress and the Enlightenment.