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Why Should We Defend Progressivism?

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Taking Back Progressivism from the Regressives

Written by Sarah Mills

“Conatus” is defined as the inherent drive in something to exist and continually improve itself. Sartre described the concept as the ‘coefficient of adversity’, Schopenhauer as the ‘Will to Live.’ In evolution, it is struggle that allows us to change for the better, or adapt to our environment, at the biological level. Without the impetus of hardship steering us toward dynamic responses, or progress, we remain static.

You might have come across #defendprogress on social media. In a day-long event entitled “Defending Progressivism,” organised by Conatus News and Culture Project, a series of panellists dissected the theme from a number of angles. Renowned activists and academics, including A.C. Grayling, Peter Tatchell, Claire Fox, Phil Pearl, Sara Khan, and Gita Sahgal–to name a few–brought to the table their perspectives on an array of hot topics, including Brexit, mental health, feminism today, the refugee crisis, and the future of activism.

Sara Khan, author of The Battle for British Islam, blamed identity politics, in part, for her precarious position as a Muslim woman taking a stand against Islamic extremism. It is identity politics, she said, that make people dub her a sell out, a traitor, for defending secular values. She criticised British politicians for appeasing the regressive left and silencing progressive Muslim women who speak out against fundamentalism. ‘I do not wish to be seen through the singular prism of my religion,’ she declared.

The panel went on to discuss the relationship between corruption and the lack of implementation of women’s rights in countries where extremism thrives. Khan said women are the first to pay the price of both fundamentalism and extremism. The first thing religious extremists do is curtail women’s rights, and countries that deny women participation in political life and in the social sphere through segregation are more prone to extremism.

“Defending Progressivism” was, in my opinion, a call to take back the word. Healthy, lively debate and constructive exchange were the salient features of Saturday’s conference. What struck me as I listened was the sense of disillusionment with the state of politics today. The panellists hardly agreed with each other over every matter –that was the beauty of the debate that, while animated at times, never descended into disrespect–but there was a general consensus that progressives seemed to be abandoning their ideals. Terry Sanderson referenced the rise of emotional and personality politics. Heather Brunskell-Evans said that what was currently happening with politics was representative of a deep ‘malaise’ in society. Claire Fox, author of I Find That Offensive!, lamented the state of free speech on campuses.

Millennial fragility and the frequent abuse of terminology associated with mental health–the ubiquitous ‘trigger’ comes to mind–led nicely into Phil Pearl’s humorous yet incisive delivery on the topic. In no uncertain terms, he made clear his disdain for the ‘label’ culture that reduces people to conditions through self-diagnosis and an exaggeration of the ills of mental distress. Anxiety, he said, is our friend. It is a sign that we need to address something. Without anxiety, no one would get out of bed. Naturally, he distinguished between this healthy form of anxiety that serves as motivation and chronic anxiety. Pearl warned the audience that, as a society, we are over-medicating and silencing healthy cues that should otherwise be the stimulus for improvement: “Labels exclude the possibility of change,” he said. We can exist and improve without becoming the sum of our conditions. And we certainly do not need protection from healthy levels of distress.

I would have liked to ask a few questions of the panellists, meet more people, and take more pictures. But I’m grateful I was able to attend. I wholeheartedly put my name in with the appeal to take back the word ‘progressivism.’ Human rights should not be a partisan bone of contention in our increasingly divided politics.

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About Author

Sarah Mills is a managing editor and writer at Conatus News.

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