From seat belts to hockey masks: 7 changes that once seemed unthinkable

Author and linguist Steven Pinker joined NHL legend and author Ken Dryden for a wide-ranging discussion about what it takes for social change to happen.

Steven Pinker and Ken Dryden talk about what it takes to effect change in society and sports

Steven Pinker and Ken Dryden. (Rose Lincoln/Harvard University & Sergey Smirnov)

How fast or slow is the pace of social change? Can a democratic society turn on a dime, or does it take entire generations to achieve real progress?

Author, psychologist and linguist Steven Pinker argues against a seemingly "invisible hand" moving the pieces of human society around – he believes ultimately its people who move it forward with their ideas and initiative.

That's the thrust of his latest book, Enlightenment Now, which argues that despite the constant headlines about war and conflict, life has in fact improved for most people around the world.

Similarly in his book Game Change, NHL legend and author Ken Dryden tackles some of hockey's seemingly intractable problems – head shots, concussions and injuries.

In fact, when Dryden was about to publish his book last year, he got in touch with Pinker because he saw some overlap. Their common ground: what does it actually take to change someone's mind? They agreed on Dryden's belief that "where there's a way, there's a will."

The two joined Ideas host Paul Kennedy for a wide-ranging discussion about what it takes for social change to happen.

Here are some of the most important changes in modern society, and hockey, that initially seemed unthinkable – until people made them happen.

Seat belts

Technicians adjust a crash dummy with an inflatable seat belt on a demonstrator at Ford Motor Co. in Dearborn, Mich., in 2009. (Paul Sancya/Associated Press)

In the 1950s and '60s, Pinker said, wearing a seat belt would have been considered "neurotic."

In 1976, Ontario was the first province to pass legislation that mandated anyone aboard a car wear and fasten a seat belt while driving. A year later, a CBC survey found that only about 62 per cent of drivers regularly wore a seat belt.

Today, seat belts are mandatory for everyone in a car in Canada.

"There are people who invent seatbelts, and there are legislators who pass laws, and there are carmakers who install them," Pinker said.


Smoking cigarettes is banned in all public places in Canada. (Toby Talbot/AP)

It wasn't until the early 2000s that many provincial and federal anti-smoking laws banned cigarettes in all indoor public spaces, including restaurants, bars and casinos.

"When I was a student, people smoked in the classroom – including the professors! And they eliminated that. But … there was still, for decades, smoking in airplanes, which now seems insane," said Pinker.

According to CBC's Digital Archives, nearly half of all adults smoked tobacco products in the 1960s. But as the health hazards of cigarettes added up, governments have slapped the products with taxes, age restrictions and graphic warnings on packaging.

"At the time, I couldn't dream of a time when smoking would be outlawed in all restaurants. Now, of course, we take that for granted," said Pinker.

Drunk driving

Pinker recalled the 1981 film Arthur, starring Dudley Moore, which features a comedic scene that might have shocked modern audiences had it debuted today.

"One of the funniest scenes was when the protagonist gets drunk and cracks up an expensive sports car. It's almost horrifying to watch that now because we think of drunk driving as something that kills children," he said.

Pinker credits awareness campaigns, like those led by Mothers Against Drunk Driving, that reframed the practice "from an act of comedy to an act of criminality."

The 'manly' war

Troops of the 2nd Canadian Motor Machine Gun Brigade prepare to go into battle during the First World War. (Yukon Archives)

In past centuries, war wasn't seen as a necessary evil in the Western world, according to Pinker. On the contrary, as he asserts in Better Angels of Our Nature, it was seen as a public good.

"In the 19th century … it was just good to have a good war now and again to keep the men manly and to keep people from becoming too selfish and consumerist," he said.

The First World War, with its devastating number of casualties and the horror wrought by new weaponry and killing machines, tore down that façade.

"You couldn't say any more that war was inherently spiritual, or noble, or heroic or thrilling," said Pinker. "It often takes some public event that everyone agrees is horrific to have the change in norms and sensibilities that makes a permanent change."

A veteran salutes in front of the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier following a ceremony to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the Battle of Vimy Ridge at the National War Memorial in Ottawa on April 9, 2017. (Chris Wattie/Reuters)

Fast hockey

Most people still think Maurice (Rocket) Richard was fast. But the hockey of 1950s was a snorefest compared to now.

The game "has evolved unbelievably since 1875," said Dryden – in ways that few realize.

Most important was the speed. As kids, Dryden would watch highlight reels of players like Richard and Jean Beliveau, darting across the ice at what seemed like incredible speeds.

Gordie Howe (9), right-winger for the Detroit Red Wings, lifts his stick high in the air after scoring the 545th goal of his NHL career against the Montreal Canadiens in Detroit's Olympia Stadium, Mich., on Nov. 10, 1963. (The Associated Press)

"It wasn't until several decades later that I looked at full game action – not highlights, because everybody looks fast and great in the highlights – but full game action, and saw how unbelievable slow the game was!" recalled Dryden.

As time passed, players actually got faster thanks to improved equipment and fitter players.

"The game got faster because we decided we didn't want to have the puck with us anymore. We could get to the centre line, we would dump it in, and we would chase after it."

As players got faster, their shifts also shortened from two minutes to 30 seconds.

It also meant that collisions between players got harder – exacerbating the risk of injuries and concussions.

Goalie masks

Sports, like war, were seen as a test of one's manhood or valour. "They were this test to make a man out of you," said Dryden.

But as hockey became faster and the hits became harder, players adapted. One of the most notable changes, especially for goalies like Dryden, was the introduction of masks – and helmets for defencemen and forwards.

Famously, Canadiens goalie Lorne (Gump) Worsley was the second-last goaltender to wear a mask in the league.

Montreal Canadiens goaltender Lorne (Gump) Worsley makes a save against the Toronto Maple Leafs during playoff action in Montreal in 1966. (The Canadian Press)

"He said, 'My face is my mask,'" recalled Pinker.

"It did kind of look that way," joked Dryden.

Stand-up style goaltending

With the introduction of masks, Dryden notes, goalies slowly phased out what was called the "stand-up" goaltending style. Players would usually block shots while keeping themselves upright, instead of kneeling or diving to the ice as many do now.

"I never understood until later how the stand-up style wasn't just for effectiveness. It was also to protect your head" from pucks being lobbed in their direction, he said.

"The mask now is so perfect that the goalies realize that they can play with their head below the bar. And if their head is below the bar then all of their body is below the bar and they're able to cover that much more of the net," Dryden explained.

Tampa Bay Lightning center Brayden Point beats Toronto Maple Leafs goaltender Frederik Andersen for a goal during a shootout on Feb. 26 in Tampa, Fla. (Chris O'Meara/Associated Press)

'All problems are solvable'

The key to all of these sea changes – in Pinker's examples of Western society, and Dryden's examples of hockey – is that they did not happen out of some unconscious collective will. People instituted the changes because they believed they were achievable.

"One of the reasons that I have spent so much energy in publicizing the beneficial changes that have occurred it to convince people that trying to improve the world is not futile. We're not doomed," said Pinker.

"We have to treat problems as problems to be solved – that all problems are solvable."


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