What does it mean to be progressive? In a true philosopher faux pas, I’ve snuck the word into my writing more than once without defining it. Now, in my defense, its definition is anything but static in my mind. It keeps evolving as I ponder the political intricacies of our time. But I do owe you something, dear readers, if I want you to keep reading those ponderings. (Please?) Thus…
At the time of writing, I define progressivism as the combination and political application of two concepts:
- Analysis. To be progressive is be an avid societal analyst, and “societal”, refers to every facet of society. Language, nationality, gender, sexuality, family, friendship, art, science, education, work, crime – every domain is a vast floor of unturned stones to the progressive. A cluster of questions. How many genders are there? Can art be ugly? Should children be well-behaved? The progressive challenges the traditional, simple answers (“two”, “no”, and “yes”, respectively), not in defiance but out of respect for complexity. Simple answers simply do not do. Not when you’re trying to understand society.
- Equality. That philosophical endeavour isn’t progressive in and of itself, however. Progressives don’t seek to understand society just for intellectual gratification. They do it because society discriminates. The norms and definitions that it’s built on were fashioned by those in power, and consequently exclude everyone else. In order for society to be truly equal, definitions must become democratic, and norms must become nondiscriminatory. Thus we need to ask how many genders there are, for the sake of all those who don’t identify as women or men. We need to reevaluate our expectations of children, for the sake of all kids whose minds don’t conform to the reigning model of brain development. We need to examine the norms that govern our sexuality, for the sake of the millions of victims of sexual abuse.
The progressive method goes as follows: 1. Deconstruct society. 2. Identify inequality. 3. Combat said inequality. 4. Repeat. That third step is the most important and can be operationalized in a variety of ways. Media representation, reassessment of language, protests, political campaigns, research, debates, and good old self-scrutiny are but a few examples. As a progressive myself, I use this blog as a venue for my equality-oriented analysis. How you realize yours is up to you! One guideline, though: Listen to those who suffer more discrimination than you do, before you speak. 🙂
Of course, no definition of progressivism would be complete without addressing its rough synonymity with leftism. Most people use the terms interchangably, after all. Those who identify as left-wingers probably don’t mind being called progressives, and vice versa. Those who hate left-wingers also hate progressives. None of this is without reason; the left wing emerged in response to the oppression of the working class and thus incorporates the virtue of equality, much like progressivism. But the way I see it, progressivism has evolved beyond a body of opinions, into a way of thinking. And this way of thinking doesn’t preclude typical right-wing opinions. It’s entirely possible to think “progressively” and still reach the conclusion that trigger warnings and welfare programs are detrimental to society. What matters is that ample analysis preceded that conclusion, and that the person truly wishes to mitigate the discrimination of one or more oppressed groups in the name of universal equality. If both those criteria are met, I still won’t agree with that person, but they’re just as progressive as I am. And both our voices are needed in the progressive movement at large. We both care deeply for humanity and want what we believe is best for it.
With that said, some right-wing opinions are more or less incongruent with progressivism. I don’t see how a progressive could, say, oppose gay marriage. That opinion is so discriminatory that it couldn’t plausibly be the fruit of deconstructive labor. But not all left-wing activity is progressive either. I don’t think the rampant online “cancellation” of celebrities who expressed themselves clumsily at one point seems especially analytical, for example. Also worth considering is the divide between the economic and cultural left. Someone could be a left-winger in issues regarding workers’ rights, but still live in vehement denial of racial inequality in the job market. So, while there’s substantial overlap between progressivism and leftism, they’re not one and the same. As for exactly what leftism is, well, I think both “the left” and “the right” lack meaning of their own. Each is a vague umbrella term for a host of opinions; outside of hastily outlining a person’s political identity, they aren’t as useful as they once were. They’re both archaisms and colloquialisms, and I’ll try to stay clear of them in future posts, at least the serious ones.
Thank the stars I don’t write dictionaries, because this was a mighty long definition! Perhaps a recap is in order: Progressivism is a method for eradicating injustice, one for which both analysis and a vision of equality are required. It’s a painstakingly complicated process, but a beautiful one too. No other ideology or movement, that I know of, incarnates both human thought (analysis) and human kindness (equality) so well. It’s a uniquely powerful combination of mind and heart. That power is why progressives, despite the resistance they’ve always faced, never give up. Why they stay ever true to their etymologically evident pursuit: pushing humanity forward.
Of course, that begs the question: Why does progressivism face resistance at all? If the ideology is as wondrous as I’ve described, why hasn’t it seduced everyone yet? And why doesn’t everyone listen to progressive rock?
See part 2 for answers to at least two of those questions!