Progressivism and the West


The biggest threat to Western civilization is posed not by other civilizations, but by our own pusillanimity—and by the historical ignorance that feeds it.
~Niall Ferguson

I was wrong.

For a long time, I considered the loose collection of ideas and assumptions I will call “progressivism” to be a regrettable but mostly tolerable side effect of affluence. This quasi-ideology—espoused by prominent progressives from the academy and Vox to Ocasio-Cortez and Elizabeth Warren—holds that, inter alia: (1) All demographic groups are roughly equal on all socially valued traits; (2) racism, sexism, and other forms of bigotry are ubiquitous; (3) almost all demographic disparities are caused by unfair discrimination; (4) diversity is an unalloyed good; and (5) there are many bigots who stand in the way of social progress, but eventually history will redeem the noble and we will inhabit a just society.

Wealth frees a person from immediate survival concerns and therefore increases the importance of symbolic identities. And this, coupled with youth’s natural affinity for rebellion, almost inevitably leads to at least a passing phase of identity-based radicalism. So while others sounded the tocsin, proclaiming this a grave threat to social sanity, I remained skeptical. Of course, I agreed that social justice ideologies were often odious and possibly pernicious, especially inside the elite institutions where they most rapidly proliferated; but, I also thought that alarmism about the problem was equally unhelpful, diverting limited cognitive resources from more constructive activities.

However, I am no longer skeptical. I have come to believe that the hostility to the West embedded in this kind of thinking and activism is a serious and growing problem. It is therefore critical that we understand the motives that drive it and the conditions that enable it, and that we challenge its erroneous assumptions and persuade others of its corrosiveness, preferably without alienating those who find it appealing but are also willing to listen to reasonable objections.  

I’m not predicting imminent disaster. Most cultural threats are absorbed or combatted without causing lasting damage. Instead of ending civilization, they inspire conversations for the comfortable descendants of those who were certain that a cataclysmic disaster was quivering on the horizon. But, my earlier insouciance has been replaced by a steadily advancing anxiety.

Social justice progressivism encourages at least six tendencies that are inimical to the norms, values, and ideas that have allowed the West to flourish. In what follows, I will briefly explore each in turn.

1. Misunderstanding Human Nature

The most fundamental flaw of this thinking is that it is premised upon a profoundly inaccurate view of human nature. Many have suggested that this view is “blank slatism,” or the belief that human traits are highly plastic and largely determined by social forces. However, I think this is only partially correct. Contemporary progressivism is, more accurately, a selectively blank slate ideology. It is eager to posit genetic causes for obesity, addiction, and homosexuality, and only becomes skeptical of genetic explanations when they appear to contradict sacred values or strongly held policy preferences. Instead, it seems to meld cosmic egalitarianism (the belief that all demographic groups are roughly the same on all socially valued traits) with a Rousseauian optimism about the fundamental decency of human nature. These erroneous ideas directly promote at least two dangerous tendencies: (1) blaming discrimination for all disparities in society; and (2) promulgating policies that sound noble but will likely fail because they contradict human nature.

Because progressivism is dedicated to the view that all demographic groups are roughly the same, it sees almost any disparity as a manifestation of bigotry. This is why so many were outraged by James Damore’s “Google memo.” Damore had the temerity to suggest that sex disparities in tech-jobs were likely (partially) caused by genetically influenced differences between men and women, and that approaches to diversity that ignored these differences were doomed to failure. This violated a sacred progressive value about demographic similarity and therefore provoked a furious backlash. Similar stories abound. For progressives, the only just and acceptable outcome, it seems, is absolute demographic equality in all socially valued occupations.

But, because demographic groups are different from each other, the only way to achieve this equality is to contravene principles of procedural fairness and to promote people not because of talent but because of their demographic profiles. This, however, only increases society’s obsession with demographic characteristics, violates basic notions of fairness, inflames ugly resentments, and decreases social productivity and efficiency because it misallocates human talent. Better, it seems, is to stick with the West’s great achievement in promoting a largely meritocratic society in which talent and skill are rewarded with pay and status and employers are encouraged to ignore irrelevant immutable characteristics such as race or sex and to live with the inevitable disparities, knowing that most of them are not caused by malice but by natural variation.

This misunderstanding of human nature also encourages bad political and economic ideas. After a long time down, socialism is making a remarkable comeback among young progressives. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Bernie Sanders, and others openly profess their fidelity to it, while many more on the Left have embraced one-time pipe-dream policies such as Medicare For All and a radical Green New Deal. The relationship between the rise of progressivism and the rise of these policies is almost certainly not a coincidence. Both often rely upon a romantic view of human nature, a view that posits that humans were largely altruistic and egalitarian until tasting the fruit of civilization and being cast out from paradise. Capitalism is therefore perceived to be a monstrous and often destructive force that encourages avarice and destroys cohesion and community. They also believe that humans are fundamentally cooperative creatures and that, therefore, policies that promote cooperation rather than selfishness can fundamentally alter human behavior so long as we properly re-educate humans, steering them from the sins of greed, selfishness, and atomistic consumerism.

The danger with these policies is that they sound morally laudable but are generally unobtainable because of basic and intractable human characteristics. They are then used as evidence of the slightly sinister pessimism of realists who urge caution and incremental adjustments to society. And they may seduce enough people into attempting radical experiments with a social and economic system that, although flawed, works reasonably well for many millions of people. Whatever the policies of the future, they will have to grapple with and conform to recalcitrant facts about human nature. And so long as progressives embrace a romantic vision of humans as largely cooperative and pacific creatures, they will promote policy solutions that are impossible to achieve and quite possibly dangerous to implement.

2. Elevating Victims and Encouraging Victimhood

Progressivism’s most powerful sacred value is the protection and elevation of perceived victims groups such as blacks, Muslims, homosexuals, women, and other marginalized minorities or putatively oppressed peoples. Almost certainly, this sacred value arises from a noble motive: a desire to promote fairness. For thousands of years, according to this perspective, these groups have been oppressed, harassed, maligned, and disrespected in reprehensible ways; and even today, they are subject to overt and subtle forms of discrimination and invidious stereotypes. Therefore, we should work indefatigably to draw attention to injustices, to rectify past wrongs, and to dismantle the machinery of oppression that is built into Western society.

The problem with this view is that, despite some obvious and widely denounced counter-examples, actual instances of blatant discrimination or racism in the West are vanishingly rare; therefore, progressive activists are constantly searching for smaller and more subtle forms of victimization so that they can expose the ugly heart of bigotry that beats behind a facade of tolerance and cosmopolitanism. This search is aided by increasingly elaborate and decreasingly plausible theories of oppression which contend that even though explicit bigotry has waned, new and more insidious forms of “symbolic” racism or “benevolent” sexism have arisen to take its place. A large demand for evidence of bigotry has vastly outgrown the supply, potentially leading to a variety of hate-crime hoaxes, which are dutifully trotted out as proof that the West is still haunted by the prejudices of the privileged.

Victim culture also encourages people to feel slighted by subtle, unintentional infractions because it rewards victims with prestige. Instead of teaching confidence and resilience, it teaches insecurity and haplessness. Perceived victims soak in sympathy and righteous tribalism, while perpetrators of these subtle “crimes” are reviled and ostracized. This creates understandable bitterness and resentment and alienates more and more people from social justice ideologies because they are horrified by their overreach and fearful that they might be accused of some ghastly and unforgivable sin and forced to withstand a public ordeal.

Of course, caring about victims is a good thing as is attempting to rectify the real sins of Western civilization. The claim is not that the West is and has always been a perfect paradise of justice and equality. It is not and it has never been. But, whatever its flaws, it has raised more people out of indigence, misery, superstition, and intolerance than any other civilization in history. Today, it is laudably cosmopolitan and largely free from grotesque forms of discrimination and bigotry. An ideology which fails to recognize this, which insists that racism and sexism are woven into the fabric of everyday life, will probably alienate more people than it convinces and will unfairly malign and misrepresent the state of Western society, encouraging devout believers to seek victimization while disaffecting those who grow increasingly weary of constant complaints and accusations of intolerance.

3. Encouraging the Censorship of Speech and Inquiry

Freedom of speech is likely “unnatural” in that humans do not readily create societies that protect and champion it; consequently, it took many centuries of near incessant battle for those in the West to win it. The temptation, of course, is always to promote freedom for opinions one likes while encouraging censorship for those one doesn’t, especially if the disliked opinions are perceived as legitimately harmful to vulnerable populations. Because of its emphasis on victims and its contention that Western society is teeming with bigotry, progressivism makes this temptation virtually irresistible to believers.

Evidence suggests that support for censorship, in some form or another, is increasing on college campuses. This should not be surprising, because many college students and professors enthusiastically embrace progressive ideology, championing it in writings, at meetings, and in the classroom. As one would predict, the decline in support for free speech among more recent college students is driven mostly by the desire to promote cosmopolitanism and to protect perceived victims groups from the threats posed by particular speakers or ideas that challenge Woke orthodoxy about diversity and the ubiquity of bigotry. This intolerance for certain forms of speech appears to be spreading, infecting elite corporations who often posture as socially righteous businesses and who likely fear besmirching their images by allowing heterodox opinions to go unpunished (see James Damore, for example).

More alarmingly, this kind of thinking has begun to infect the sciences, especially the social sciences. Battles about freedom of speech and inquiry in science are nothing new, of course, and stretch back to its very inception, becoming acute at the dawn of the scientific revolution as intellectuals began to challenge the dogmas of the Catholic Church. More recently, these battles have focused on new sacred values about human nature. As noted, progressive ideology appears to adhere to notions of cosmic egalitarianism, or the belief that there are few or no genetically caused demographic differences. Therefore, adherents are particularly offended by science that contends that there are such differences and often morally denounce the scientists who pursue such topics, accusing them of unseemly motives or “fetishes” and potentially even malignant biases. These accusations are potentially damaging, causing professors to self-censor and, what is perhaps worse, to encourage others to self-censor. Creating a stifling atmosphere and fostering resentments and suspicions, this current tendency to moralize inquiry has likely thwarted progress in the social sciences and has potentially created entire disciplines whose chief function is to provide theoretical support for progressive ideology rather than to pursue the truth wherever the evidence may lead.  

Of course, words can cause emotional distress and science can shatter comforting myths. Indeed, in many ways, science is a great destroyer, mercilessly reshaping our narratives about reality. But, these emotional inconveniences are more than recompensed by free inquiry and exchange. Free speech allows us to test ideas by having them encounter skepticism. Sometimes they triumph. Sometimes they transform. And sometimes they perish. Without this clash of contradictions, ideas become bloated and stale and errors and imprecisions accumulate. Even good ideas congeal into uninspiring dogmas. And, worse, as we stifle scientific freedom, our ability to understand the world is diminished, potentially depriving us of effective solutions to vexing problems. Disparaging scholars who pursue taboo topics might be temporarily satisfying, but it is ultimately damaging to the entire scientific enterprise, which requires us to steadfastly protect the pursuit for truth whatever its discomforts.

4. Eroding Due Process and the Presumption of Innocence

Like free speech, due process and the presumption of innocence are likely not “natural,” and were won through many centuries of struggle among citizens, parliaments, and kings. Humans are vindictive and desirous to punish those perceived or accused of violating social norms. Perfunctory assessments of the evidence will often satisfy any lingering doubts about guilt, especially if the accused is disliked or a political enemy. Therefore, it is imperative that society insists upon the presumption of innocence and the rights of the accused. Without such insistence, natural propensities lead to cycles of incriminations and punishment with little concern for guilt and with little protection for those wrongly accused.

Progressive ideology, because it focuses so strongly on victims, has started to encourage a shift from presumption of innocence to a presumption of guilt (so long as they are members of victims groups). This is especially prominent in discussions about sexual assault allegations. Popular hashtags such as #believewomen imply that women are incapable of lying or misremembering. Popular public figures compete to show support and assert their unconditional belief in the word of accusers. And those who don’t enthusiastically endorse this dubious moral philosophy are assailed as sexual assault apologists or obfuscators who protect the powerful. Perhaps worse still, some contend that the wrongful public shamings are a tolerable side-effect of the pursuit for justice. The wheel of righteousness must crush some butterflies on its path toward a better tomorrow.   

The appropriate way to protect potential victims and to make society more just is not to eschew important legal principles, but rather to highlight the crimes and carefully document the evidence. It is true that in many cases the people accused of these crimes will never see a courtroom, so progressives argue that the principle of due process is irrelevant. They maintain it is not applicable to public shame or to destroying the career goals of a judge or a politician. But, if careers can be ruined by mere accusations, even if the accused is not thrown into prison, then we incentivize false allegations and ruin the emotional security that respect for presumption of innocence provides. At bare minimum, it seems prudent to promote a preponderance of the evidence standard and to maintain the West’s strong support for due process and presumption of innocence against the retrogressive insistence that we should “believe the accuser.”

5. Encouraging Mobocracy and Disproportionate Punishment

As noted above, humans are vindictive creatures. One of the great achievements of Western civilization is to sublimate the desire for vengeance into a system of impersonal and carefully calibrated punishments. Barbarism is subdued but our ineradicable thirst for revenge is at least partially slaked. However, the new tools of social media are beginning to encourage a new kind of mob justice, which is neither rational nor proportionate, but which promotes frenzied passions and the unremitting humiliation of its targets.

Although there are many examples of this lamentable trend, Justine Sacco’s remains representative and chilling. In 2013, on a layover before a flight to Africa, she Tweeted an acerbic and ironic joke about white privilege: “Going to Africa. Hope I don’t get AIDS. Just kidding. I’m white!” By the time she had landed 11 hours later, her life was absolutely uprooted by zealous online justice mobs who had apparently confused her witty tweet for a literal one, believing she was declaring her ethnically conferred immunity from HIV while mocking an entire race for their vulnerability to it. One sample from the many thousands of frenzied and outright appalling tweets about her: “We are about to watch this….bitch get fired. In REAL Time. Before she even KNOWS she’s getting fired.”

At worst, Sacco’s tweet was unfortunate and possibly deserved a friendly “maybe you should consider how people might take this” message. Moral righteousness, however, is a powerful and blinding emotion, impelling individuals to inflict horrible suffering on others to “balance the scales of justice.” And so thousands of Twitter users, encouraged by narratives about ubiquitous racism and the urgent need to battle against bigotry, delighted in destroying Sacco’s reputation and her career while causing her unknown and unimaginable amounts of suffering. This example has replayed many, many times since, leading to the term “cancelled,” in which justice mobs jettison a transgressor from decent society altogether (and then brag about it).

Some people deserve punishment, and some tweets deserve scorn. And undoubtedly progressives are correct to draw attention to some cases of intolerance and bigotry. But vindictive moral righteousness can quickly get out of hand. We should be wary of promoting an ideology that dresses our demons as avenging angels and relishes the righteous suffering they cause. History is full of unfortunate examples in which a fever of sanctimony led to the destruction of thousands, even millions, of lives. People in the West have worked sedulously to discourage such moralistic barbarism and have rewarded its lucky inhabitants with a largely enlightened criminal justice system. 

6. Encouraging Contempt for the West and Its Icons

According to the progressivism, the West is today’s predominant culture because of its rapacious imperialism. It brutalizes and exploits people and then uses their blood, sweat, and tears to fuel its insatiable lust for conquest. Furthermore, it is a racist patriarchy, a civilization built on war abroad and on oppression and injustice at home. Celebrated intellectuals eagerly encourage this narrative, documenting the myriad crimes of the West, from Columbus to Clinton. One-sided books contribute to a Manichean history of an unflagging battle of the overwhelmed but never-vanquished forces of justice against the rulers of Western civilization.    

One time heroes of the West such as Washington, Jefferson, Wilson, and Churchill are now pilloried as grotesque white male racists, unambiguous oppressors who deserve obloquy for their heinous crimes and beliefs. Even quoting one of these once revered people approvingly, astronaut Scott Kelly discovered, can invite intense criticism and scorn. Healthy but complicated discussions about changing the names of certain buildings or taking down the statues of Confederate war leaders are routinely escalated as ideologues search for a wider pantheon of historical fiends to be stripped of their status and removed from history.

The West is not perfect, of course, and its history is littered with crimes and injustices. Furthermore, none of its heroes are saints. They were all men and women of their time, bound by the concerns and prejudices of the world in which they lived. But, the West has also created prosperity and freedom for millions of people, establishing law-based, cosmopolitan societies in which ordinary men and women live lives that would shame the ostentatious pomp of many kings. And its heroes, however flawed and myopic, contributed to the great project of Western Civilization, a project which has succeeded only because of their talents, skills, and sacrifices. Individualism, markets, the rule-of-law, and representative government were not the generous donations of the gods, but rather the incalculably expensive gifts of our ancestors. If we do not cherish them, nurture them, and protect them against attack, then they will perish, and our descendants will be justified in denouncing their forebears as furiously as today’s progressives denounce ours.

Bo Winegard is an essayist and an assistant professor at Marietta College. You can follow him on Twitter @EPoe187

Featured Image: “Explusion from the Garden of Eden” by Peter Paul Rubens [wikicommons]