Thursday, December 6, 2012

Moving Forward

I think one of my least favourite words in the English language is "progressive", and it's not just for ideological reasons. I have no gripe with the word "anarchist", even though I am not an anarchist. I don't grit my teeth when I hear the word "libertarian", even though I have a cordial dislike of the libertarian philosophy (always bearing in mind that everybody should be a little bit libertarian-- indeed, everybody should be a little bit anarchistic). "Egalitarian" is a perfectly businesslike word, and not resented by me even though I am not an egalitarian in the sense usually meant by that word.

But progressive-- what does it mean?

Now, progress is a fine thing. There was a time when I was such an anti-modernist reactionary that I turned against the very notion of progress. I enjoyed quoting the words attributed to the Duke of Wellington: "Reform? Aren't things bad enough already?"

But this is an excessive reaction, and it is not a stance open to a Catholic. The Church does not teach that we should be so focused on heavenly things that we ignore worldly matters. The Church teaches that we should strive for progress, for true progress, which includes economic and social as well as spiritual progress. For instance, Pope Benedict's encylical Caritas in Veritate would provide little comfort for an out-and-out reactionary.

However, being in favour of progress is one thing, but being "progressive" is another.

What is the guiding principle of progressivism? Are we to strive to make society freer? Are we to strive to make society more equal? Are we to strive to make society more tolerant? Are we to impose a particular shape on society, or to strive to do so, or are we simply to respect certain fundamental principles and let the chips fall as they may? It seems to me that all these ideas are muddled up in "progressivism", and they inevitably cause confusion and conflict.

Is progressivism internationalist or nationalist? It is no answer for it to be nationalist when the nation in question is dark-skinned or under the heel of a stronger power, and internationalist when the nation in question is rich and prosperous and seeking to restrict immigration or impose a citizenship test.

Are progressives for or against discrimination? It is no answer to say that they are against discrimination when it comes to discrimination against homosexuals (say), but for discrimination when it comes to gender quotas in parliament. There is no discernible principle at work there.

Are progressives for or against free speech? How does it make sense to be in favour of obscene rap lyrics (say) or blasphemous art exhibitions, but to support "speech codes" that seek to avoid offending various ethnic minorities?

Are progressives in favour of rational hedonism or do they favour a sternly Republican ideal of self-sacrifice and devotion to the public good?

Is progressivism based upon an ethic of maximizing the good or minimizing ills such as intolerance, discrimination, oppression, and so forth?

Does progressivism aim towards a greater individualism, a greater communitarianism, or a perfect balance between the two?

I have no idea.

I am not merely being pedantic here, or trading in dictionary definitions. I genuinely believe that all the above confusions and contradictions are inherent in the term "progressive", as it is commonly used.

I think that scrapping the term "progressive" would constitute genuine progress when it comes to clear ideas and meaningful discussion.


  1. Spot on. People like calling themselves "progressive" . It gives whatever argument you choose to make a fair wind and an air of de facto moral superiority. It implies your opponent is a "regressive". Who wants to be that? So there is undercover but very effective browbeating thrown in with it too.

  2. The unfortunate thing is that some people DO want to be considered "regressive"-- I was one of them for some time. There is a temptation to be so frustrated by political correctness that you decide to be hanged for a sheep rather than a lamb and you obligingly end up playing the very ogre conjured up by the progressive. In my time I have attacked the notion of abstract human rights, of freedom of the press, civil liberties, and other important things just to "get at" the liberal left. Stupid.

  3. One example, perhaps a rather comical example, of my sour anti-progress attitude in the past was that, when it came to the smattering of undiscovered peoples that remain on the Earth, I was of the very firm view that they should be left alone. I thought they were better off without Nike and chewing gum and soap operas and underground carparks.

    However, it occurred to me recently that it is impossible for a Christian to have this attitude, since we must wish that such people will be converted to Christianity.