Why Should We Defend Progressivism?

Taking Back Progressivism from the Regressives

“Conatus” is defined as the inherent drive in something to exist and continually improve itself. Sartre conveyed the concept as the ‘coefficient of adversity’ and Schopenhauer described it as the ‘Will to Live.’ In our modern worldview inevitably coloured by the theory of the 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, we are liable to remain static. These dynamic responses are, in essence, progress.

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 but 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.

The word ‘progress’ is traditionally associated with left-leaning politics- the politics of change, of revolution, of resistance to the prevailing order. The liberal-minded have historically questioned authority, religious and political, and have advocated for freedom of thought and expression at great personal risk. In recent years, however, identity and deconstructionist politics have caused the left to spiral out into a sort of nihilism – is it a coincidence they are frequently associated with anarchists? – advocating for the abolition of any moral consensus in the name of relativity, subjectivity, and a perversion of the ideal of equality. They took noble ideas, transformed them into monsters of hyperbole, and exploited them to lash out with violence against anyone who would suggest the validity of a different perspective; a singularly non-liberal act of silencing and shaming.

Determining what made the regressive left abandon the working class, for example, as ‘reactionary’ and ‘conservative’ in favour of Muslim communities, and conveniently turn a blind eye to their anti-progressive views, was no simple task. But it was generally accepted that the knee-jerk anti-US-imperialism sentiment made for an easy alliance between otherwise opposing groups with the help of a common enemy. The amalgamation of a thousand different causes into one awkward, lumbering, and often self-devouring beast is further proof that this theory holds up. Otherwise, what would a radical, lesbian feminist have in common with a devout, homophobic Muslim preacher other than the butt of a bad joke?

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. It was a relief to note that the focus was on these situations of international importance and immediate concern, and not the petty bickering over privilege.

“Defending Progressivism” was, in my opinion, a call to take back the words ‘progress’ and ‘liberal.’ 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 the left 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 the left was abandoning its ideals. Terry Sanderson referenced the rise of emotional and personality politics. Heather Brunskell-Evans said she had ‘abandoned the left’ and that what was currently happening with it was representative of a deep ‘malaise’ in society. Claire Fox, author of I Find That Offensive!, lamented the state of free speech on campuses and berated those students who, under the protection of safe spaces, hide from ideas and arguments.

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 into 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’ is a phrase that will stay with me. Contrary to the current trend in penning endless neologisms to suit every last variation of the dynamic human personality, we can exist and improve without becoming the sum of our conditions. And we certainly do not need protection from healthy levels of distress. Relevant in an era where Post-Election Stress Disorder is a thing. Peter Tatchell, thankfully, assured us that Trump is no fascist. There are, as of yet, no concentration camps and we still don’t have a one-party system.

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 certainly not be a partisan bone of contention in our increasingly divided politics.

About Sarah Mills

mm
Published fiction writer, poet, and essayist.

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