Wikipedia states that “Progressivism is a philosophy based on the Idea of Progress, which asserts that advancement in science, technology, economic development, and social organization are vital to improve the human condition”.
Who could argue with that? We all want progress don’t we? I for one want advancement in science, technology, economic development, and social organization. But if this idea of progressivism is good, we’re left to wonder: why be so unambitious? Why not advocate “goodism” instead, which they can claim means to make all things good? So there’s something wrong with Wikipedia’s characterization of progressivism – it doesn’t actually distinguish itself from alternate viewpoints. Clearly, this is just the marketing brochure, aimed at partisan simpletons who want to think that they are on the right side and everyone else is on the wrong side.
So just what is progressivism, really? The particulars of progressivism (in the contemporary sense) can vary, but they all vary around a certain rigid theme. To analyze this we can dive in anywhere, even where they claim to, so let’s start at the term “progress.” To call something “progress” is to say that it is better than before. But “better” implies an answer to the question: by what standard? Since one person’s standard of “better” is different from another’s, one person’s progressivism is going to be different from another’s. How do we know that one person’s standard is better than another’s? Herein lies the common and primary tenet of progressivism: Their answer is that they don’t have a clue on principle, that if anyone claims that their standard of “better” is objectively better (as in rationally demonstrable as being morally superior) then progressivism decrees that they are blasphemous at best and evil extremists at worst. (Under the Marxist variant, they’d claim that claims of objectivity were mere bourgeois pretense aimed at subjugating other classes.)
There is nothing more sinful to a progressive as a person who actually thinks that his moral viewpoint is sanctioned by reason. Is this a hopelessly hypocritical stance, since it both advocates a standard as correct while denying that any standard can actually be correct? Absolutely. Indeed, the fact that this sort of hypocrisy does not bother the progressive is a crucial key to understanding his psychology. To him, the idea that there are right answers to moral questions is a hateful, vicious idea – and this is regarded by him as the right metaethical viewpoint. If you recognize this as the ultimate embodiment of juvenile delinquent hypocrisy then you understand the progressive philosophy.
Presumably there are going to be those who deny this, to which I say: Fine, then present your rational demonstration of why progressivism is both true and moral. State what it is, beyond saying that it’s good. Provide a specific characterization and defense of reason – otherwise your argument lacks a basis. You will, of course, need to reject moral and cultural relativism, for you will have just argued that a rational culture is superior to an irrational one. I look forward to reading this.
Given the metaethical ridiculousness of progressivism why would anyone even begin to entertain it?
Consider the child raised by abusive religious zealots, who thereby grows to hate religion, to believe that all moral authority is evil, and then from this perverse background attempts to build an alternative religion, an anti-religion religion. This is the autobiographical essence of a progressive. He has been abused and broken, and instead of healing normally (i.e. becoming firmly pro-reason), he’s uses his tragically broken psychology to create an equally broken philosophy. This is of course the reverse of the proper procedure: we don’t create philosophy by examining our psychology; we create psychological standards by reference to philosophic truths. Healthy psychology is a handmaiden to philosophy, not history (whether autobiographical or general).
The highest virtue of a progressive is diversity (inclusiveness, pluralism, toleration, and heterodoxy are allied concepts). In the normal maturation of a child, he makes a lot of false steps, which are normally corrected by parents. But when the parent is a religious zealot, these corrections are deranged, and so the budding progressive, recoiling against the arbitrary standards inflicted upon him, learns the falsehood that all restraints on his impulses are arbitrary and that anything he wants to believe or do or be should be allowed, which breeds his perverse desire for all-inclusiveness.
And yet, an unconstrained diversity or inclusiveness is not possible in the real world. Most progressives know that it’s absurd to support a diversity that allows murderers or rapists to run amok (unless those criminals belong to another culture). But all progressives knowingly exclude a certain very important category of people – those who disagree with their fundamental tenets; namely, those who are pro-reason and pro-morality, who reject metaethical hypocrisy as a badge of virtue, i.e. those who claim there is such a thing as The True and The Good. Herein lies the deepest reason why progressives attack Western culture – its many successes are precisely the result of its having learned to a significant extent that it is reason that leads to what is good.
But reason is not heterodox, it is orthodox. Given a specific set of facts and context of knowledge, there is, in principle, only one right way to reason about them. (Whose reason? That’s a question only a progressive would ask; rational adults have learned that reason is universal.) Diversity, inclusiveness, pluralism, and so on, are only good while we are confused and only if they rest on a foundation of pro-reason orthodoxy; once we have found the correct argument given the evidence, it is folly or lunacy to dispute it. We know that the Earth revolves around the Sun, that bacteria cause infection, that species evolve. We of course retain a mind open enough to entertain alternative theories and we certainly don’t outlaw dissent, but without serious evidence to the contrary, we do not alter our decision that the aforementioned theories are correct. Would most progressives deny that on these issues? Perhaps not. Generally, they arbitrarily reserve their perverse attitude to a restricted class of truth: moral truth. This can make them appear sane – some of the time.
“I don’t think one has fully enjoyed the life of the mind until one has seen a celebrated scholar defend the “contextual” legitimacy of the burqa, or of female genital mutilation, a mere thirty seconds after announcing that moral relativism does nothing to diminish a person’s commitment to making the world a better place. … She: What makes you think that science will ever be able to say that forcing women to wear burqas is wrong? Me: Because I think that right and wrong are a matter of increasing or decreasing well-being—and it is obvious that forcing half the population to live in cloth bags, and beating or killing them if they refuse, is not a good strategy for maximizing human well-being. She: But that’s only your opinion. Me: Okay … Let’s make it even simpler. What if we found a culture that ritually blinded every third child by literally plucking out his or her eyes at birth, would you then agree that we had found a culture that was needlessly diminishing human well-being? She: It would depend on why they were doing it. Me [slowly returning my eyebrows from the back of my head]: Let’s say they were doing it on the basis of religious superstition. In their scripture, God says, “Every third must walk in darkness.” She: Then you could never say that they were wrong.”— Sam Harris
From this we can with some reflection understand the cultural emergence of progressivism and its symbiosis with religious orthodoxy.
When Enlightenment thinking demonstrated the power and success of human reason in the scientific realm (most gloriously in the work of Issac Newton), the natural next step would be to try to apply reason to the moral realm. But to do so would radically upset the existing power structures – putting State and Religion in the cross hairs of Reason is inviting epic events to unfold, and indeed, we are living through this; a general rational ethic is still on the horizon (The Fourth Plane is a distant potential reality). Great thinkers of The Enlightenment era, such as David Hume or John Locke, had to cloak their philosophical arguments; otherwise they faced severe institutional persecution. It is no surprise then that they failed to make the case for a rational morality.
So we see that on the surface, while progressivism can seem to be anti-religion (since it is anti-moral standards), in truth both progressivism and religion are enemies of reason. And they are completely allied in terms of method, resting upon the same ultimate foundation: ultimately, they believe what they believe for no other reason than that they wish to believe. One might argue that religion is infantile because it offers up soothing images for a people too weak to face a harsh and unconsoling reality, but even then, most religion has traditionally paid some dues to the value and necessity of reason as a standard of truth. Traditionally, religion embraces to some extent this adult necessity to face reality, but progressivism utterly and explicitly denies such responsibility. Progressivism is, in essence, a thin facade of intellectualism surrounding a solid core of infantalism; it is the adult version of a continuous temper tantrum par excellence.
Given progressivism’s insidiously corrosive force in today’s society, you might wonder: why did this problem start, and what’s to be done about it?
Have you ever noticed how people who spend a large amount of time exclusively with small children tend to start to talk like them? I intend no slight – those who raise children well deserve a lot of praise. But it’s an occupational hazard, a human tendency to acclimate to the current environment. And have you also noticed that the most vociferous progressives tend to be college professors? Here are a group of people who, typically, have made their way to the top of the academic track, but never bothered with real-world experience, and therefore have little experience with the world of mature adults – they have been surrounded by juveniles or overgrown juveniles like themselves their entire lives.
Obviously there are exceptions – those great college professors with plenty of real-world experience. The cure then is obvious. No one should be permitted to teach the youth at the highest levels or be thought-leaders of our culture, until they’ve demonstrated that they themselves have matured. They should be required to spend around a decade in the real world, doing real and meaningful work, and they should prove that they are good at practicing in their area of expertise (why should anyone but the best practitioners be allowed to teach?), before they start preaching to the youth about how they are going to be doing it. Few things would frighten a progressive so much as the prospect of doing real work – which is precisely why they shouldn’t be allowed to teach until they do.
For simplicity I am going to stick to using the term “progressivism” to refer to all three here, for even though there are distinctions, those are not relevant to this analysis, and “progressivism” is the popular front for all of them.
Historically, progressivism is associated with classical liberalism (if you want to lodge nonsense into university, packaging it such that it resembles classical liberalism makes it easier to swallow.) In a future article I may consider the history of “toleration” in relation to John Locke’s A Letter Concerning Toleration, but observe the frank parallel between the autobiographical process that creates the progressive and the historical reason for John Locke’s Letter: a reaction to religious zealotry.
Also see Plato’s program for the “Guardian Class”, which required not only intensive academic training but intensive real-world experience.