Progressivism, Part 2: Backlash

Quick recap: In part 1, I defined progressivism as the combination of two concepts, analysis and equality. Alternatively: the process of examining society to resolve the inequalities in its composition. Then I asked: Why do some resist this process? Why does progressivism ignite such blazing backlash? I promised you an answer in part two. Then I ended on some stupid joke, as is my style.

Got it? Good! Also remember that I’m not asking why people dislike leftism. That question has too many answers, honestly. The slippery slope of governmental regulation, the communist association, and the abrasive left-winger stereotype – they’re only a few of the perceived blemishes on the left block. Its opposition, while often mistaken, is no mystery. No, I’m more interested in why anyone would oppose progressivism as I described it. Its method seems universally likeable: Analyze an aspect of society, identify inequality, and rectify said inequality. Why isn’t everyone on board? Because progressivism is often confused for leftism? Because some people are jerks who relish social injustice? Partially, but I think other factors deserve greater blame.

Allow me to paraphrase something I said in part 1: Progressivism involves the development of definitions. It takes a seemingly obvious concept, like man, scans it for discriminatory attributes, and reconstructs it as a kinder, more inclusive idea. It’s thanks to this process that, in 2021, being a man doesn’t require a Y chromosome, a dominant position in the family, or an attraction to women. Those attributes haven’t been excised from the definition – they’re not bad in and of themselves – only compounded with a wealth of alternate attributes. The definition has developed. It now accommodates trans men, gay men, asexual men, and more – and it doesn’t presume to place men in command over their families. Much of the inequality inherent to the concept has been rectified. Such is the beauty of progressivism.

But the problem is, we’re all quite attached to our definitions. They’re the building blocks of our thoughts, after all, and we don’t enjoy having them tinkered with. You’ll find it especially unpleasant when the definition being developed is one that encompasses you. Being a man, I confess that I used to feel discomforted by the reevaluation of my gender. Over the increasingly woke 2010s, I’d read the columns, blogs, and poems that stipulated for a wider definition of man, and agree, but still feel as if my manhood was somehow in jeopardy. Would the change throw my identity off balance?

I got over it, naturally. I realized that the inclusion of all kinds of men was more important than my sheltered contentment. Moreover, I found some attributes of man to be harmful (the dodging of emotional labor comes to mind) and started to let them go. The manhood that remained was stronger and purged of many evils. I grew to love the change. But I had the good fortune to be born into a loving, open-minded family. Imagine all those who didn’t. They never got past the stage of discomfort. They looked at the influx of male variety and saw a threat. They confused the rebellion against toxic masculinity for a personal attack. And now they’re congregating on 4chan, in the locker rooms, and in populist parties. You’ve probably heard their rousing gospel about the good old days, “when men were allowed to be men”. No progressive has ever said that men aren’t allowed to be men. But to those who can’t master their fear of change, it feels as if they’re saying that.

Okay, so the backlash of progressivism stems exclusively from bias and delusion? Well… not exactly. There is a tangible downside to the ideology: It breeds chaos. Let’s employ the gender example again. Like I said, we’ve expanded the definition of man, and it’s a wonderful thing. But definitions don’t exist in a vacuum; they’re tethered to a network of norms. One can’t change a definition without throwing its related norms into disarray. For example, how do we approach competitive sports now that men can have female karyotypes, affecting their physiology? To what extent should we regulate the games young boys play, to ensure they don’t cement outmoded masculinity? Speaking of boys, do we still raise our children as girls and boys based on their sex? Or is it not worth the risk of possibly misgendering a transgender child?

I don’t know the answers. One day we all will, but until then, the ambiguity will be putting society under strain. Language, etiquette, and policy will scramble to stay on top of the development. People will wonder what’s okay to say and what’s offensive. Adding to the chaos is the fact that progressives don’t agree on everything. For example, I don’t see much of a problem with a white person sharing a reaction gif that depicts a black person comedically, while some consider it digital blackface.

All this conflicting deconstruction is rocking the foundations of society. Don’t get me wrong; I think temporary chaos is a miniscule price to pay for equality. But many disagree. They like their norms and definitions static. Like in the good old days, when things weren’t constantly being questioned. At least then there was order. One could speak freely, not tiptoe across a minefield of possible microaggressions. What these people forget is, of course, that the good old days were only good for them. To those less privileged, like trans men, they were days of social erasure. But the fact remains that progressivism launches us all into uncertainty. Not everyone wants to be along for the ride. Especially not the working class, who face enough uncertainty in a world of waning welfare.

What can us progressives do, then, to soothe the fear and anger building in our wake? (Yes, “us progressives”; now that I’m done praising the movement, it no longer feels conceited to describe it with first-person pronouns.) How do we lessen the backlash?

Simple! By being gentle. That’s a skill we must improve. We don’t seem to realize that we’re essentially fiddling with people’s thoughts; thus we don’t offer sufficient comfort. We don’t say “I know that change is difficult.” Or “yes, we should give masculinity a makeover, but you do indeed look cool driving that pickup truck, sir.” Or “I understand that it’s frustrating to be called out on male privilege when you’re a single dad wedged between two thankless jobs.” I said that kindness was one half of progressivism. Let’s channel that kindness in our interactions with the opposition. Let’s not berate them for having gotten stuck in the stage of fear; let’s show them the way out. On top of that, let’s admit that we don’t always have the answers. Very rarely do I hear a progressive say “I don’t yet know how children should be raised with regard to gender, and I’m willing to listen to your opinion on it.” And that’s a shame. I believe even the most hardheaded conservative would find themselves disarmed by that invitation. (Ironically, the example of progressivism I said I disagreed with, about digital blackface, is very gently formulated and even invites the viewer to join the discussion. We should all learn from Victoria Princewill.)

Deep down, our opposition is afraid. They feel their worlds crumble with every norm and definition we call into question. They think we’re out to ruin every facet of their lives, even their darned entertainment. They retaliate by convincing themselves that we’re entitled, attention-hungry harbingers of chaos. That gives them a convenient excuse not to listen. It doesn’t matter that we’re right. Not when half the world needs us to be wrong.

We can only get through to that half by being Thinking SJWs nice. By not being as scary as we seem.

Time for another philosopher faux pas: a non-sequitur! You see, while I was nervously outlining my controversial problem with progressivism above, my definition of it evolved again. I told you that’s a thing that happens. Now, I believe that there are three concepts comprising progressivism, not two as I said in part 1. Unfortunately, the third concept throws a hard wrench into everything I’ve been saying about gentleness. Still, it can’t be ignored. After analysis and equality, comes:

  1. Anger. Progressivism is a response to inequality, and inequality breeds anger. Women, enbys, people of color, transgender people – any group that’s trapped by unjust definitions and norms should be furious. About not feeling safe. About not getting good jobs. About being the butt of every other joke. About being sidelined and stereotyped in every movie. About feeling invisible and powerless to change it. All this anger must be allowed to exist. I can’t ask it to subside just so progressivism can polish its image. Not only would that be disgustingly privileged of me, but it would be mistaken. Just about every movement for equality started with anger. Deconstruction only began after the oppressed collectively muttered “enough of this ****.” Their anger shouldn’t be curbed just to avert misunderstandings. It’s the fuel of the progressive engine, and it should burn bright and strong as such. Even if it scares onlookers away into conservatism’s comfortable embrace.

What a mess. On the one hand, I think us progressives must practice more amiability in our communication. Only then can we convince people that we’re a force for thought and kindness. But on the other hand, we must also practice anger. Only then do we honor the feelings of our oppressed members, and the process of societal change. So, how on Earth should I reconcile the two? How should progressives be simultaneously gentle and aggressive? And how come I always manage to conjure a tangle of dilemmas when I set out to write a simple dictionary definition?

See part 3 for answers to at least two of those questions!

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