Does accepting (or celebrating) social progress hinder future progress?
I was recently talking to an ultra-liberal friend who admitted that today is a better time to be born than any other time in history, regardless of race, gender, and let’s say 99% of nationalities. While the world is far from perfect, it is a better place for the greatest number of people. That includes higher life expectancies, education, and literacy rates, and remarkably less death, disease, poverty, war, crime, dictators, and injustices.
Nevertheless, this same friend expressed fear that acknowledging said progress might encourage conservative society to stop making progress. I argued that most conservatives have made social progress, albeit slower than liberals, since forever (especially since the industrial revelation). Furthermore, there’s no evidence suggesting that conservatives will suddenly stop once a tolerable threshold of social equality has been reached. And yet I suspect this liberal fear exists in more than just my friend.
I don’t know the exact number, but I do know many outspoken liberals feel the need to qualify any acceptant that the world has gotten better. They almost always couch it with, “Yeah, but we still have a long way to go!” I sense many of them share this fear that by acknowledging our social progress, we’ll suddenly stop perfecting the other flawed areas of social inequality.
To get to the bottom of what I believe is an unfounded fear, I interviewed several people on the subject. This is what I learned.
- Recognizing past progress does not hinder future progress. There is simply no evidence for this. “Although I’ve noticed many political parties and alignments clutching to conservative views and traditional values, there is seemingly complete unanimity from all political ideologies that change in moderation is essential for the progression of society,” says Veronique Ehamo, a Ph.D. student at the University of London with a focus on women’s rights and public policy. Harry Morton, a podcaster from the UK, added this: “Progress may slow down but it will never stop. What makes us unique as humans is the ability to keep striving for more. We’re never truly fulfilled unless we’re going beyond what we already know. For this reason, I wholeheartedly feel that the efforts we make towards bettering the quality of life and society as a whole will never cease to exist.”
- Meeting everyday people (not talking heads on TV) reinforces this. “I’m not a PhD, an Ivy-Leaguer, or a renowned scientist, ” says Ron Blake from Phoenix, Arizona. “I’m a blue-collar, disabled, gay guy who stumbled upon pretty darn convincing evidence that social progress happens when people have no intention of making social change. Simply, they just get to know each other. Empathy takes care of the progress.” As Blake puts it, he’s gone out for several hours every single day for the past seven years, meeting strangers one by one, with no social progress agenda. “When we stop trying so hard to change things, and focus more on understanding each other and sharing our feelings, that’s when progress occurs,” he concludes.
- Political rhetoric is not real—it’s manipulative by nature. Explains financial consultant Michael Taylor, “Unfortunately, political rhetoric on both sides is geared toward taking advantage of our humanity in that we are emotional beings. How we feel doesn’t always equal truth. I agree with you that today is the best time in history to be born, but in my travels, I have seen that there are still a lot of destitute places and people in the world. Rhetoric doesn’t improve social progress, however, action does. And the fear that your friend expressed seems to be more concerned with a social conservative construct that his political views have created, rather than the reality that almost every rational being thinks social progress is a good thing.”
- Living “heads down” further blinds us to progress. “The problem is most people don’t have time to consider these issues,” says Ron Spalding, an ex-military consultant from Washington D.C. “They instead focus on what they want or need: a good-paying, steady job, earning enough to own a home and safely raise a family, education, and perhaps even vacation. They want to know they are providing more opportunity for their children than they had. This includes liberal and conservatives, immigrants and people with lineage back to the revolutionary war.” So even though social progress will continue, many of us don’t recognize it because we’re too busy worrying about the problems in our immediate vicinity, which is totally understandable. But it also makes us short-sighted and perhaps less averse to accepting the ongoing reality of improvement.
Still, some critics I spoke to are discouraged by what they perceive as a slowing of social progress. Garth Watrous, a hat maker from California, agrees that our imperfect world is “definitely improving with time” and “today is undoubtedly a great time to be born.” But he worries that the inaccurate perception of the good ole days might prevent us from measurable progress in the future.
“Societies that have achieved social progress are now converting into traditionalists,” he believes. “On one hand, we are witnessing a greater acceptance of women being equivalent to men. On the other, incidents of rape, dowry, and violence against women have increased. Yes, social progress is a reality. But we aren’t heading towards a very bright future.”
To be sure, that’s not an encouraging stat to confront. But does that considerable outlier suggest a dark future overall? I’d say “concerning” is the better word and secretly hope that rape reporting has gone up while actual numbers may have declined, at least when compared to past decades and centuries.
Either way, I appreciate Spalding’s concluding remark. “We should live in a world where equality of opportunity exists and achieving anything outside of that is based only on our merit, not the color of our skin, gender, political beliefs, or religion. That would seem to represent the culmination of social progress.”
I, for one, believe we will get there. Accepting our past progress will never change that.