Is This Progress?

Donhem Brown, JHU

 

Over the past several decades, the idea of successfully fostering progress, particularly social progress, has become a prominent concern across the United States. In more recent years, this has manifested commonly as campus activism in the pursuit of social justice. However, while some people view this campus activism as a tool to foster progress, many others believe that it frequently serves to instigate ‘regress’ instead. This of course makes sense considering how different people have different perceptions of the current state of society, but it doesn’t quite make sense if we presume that all people have at least a somewhat similar perception of what the ideal state of society would be. To account for the disparity between the varying perceptions of progress and regress amongst different people, we must be able to analyze the metric by which we are measuring progress, i.e. we must be able to determine what it is we believe to be an ideal state of society (I don’t phrase this as an ideal society since societies change indelibly with technological and economical variance).

A methodology to determine an ideal state of society would be the analysis of why people find certain actions and attitudes deplorable. For example, why is racism wrong? Why is sexism wrong? It isn’t sufficient to just say racism is obviously wrong, because although there are people who do not care whether or not racism is wrong, there are also some people who simply do not perceive racism to be wrong. If there are people who are bigoted because of this perception, then would it not be in our collective best interests to convince them that racism is wrong? This is possible; over the past 30 years, one African-American man named Daryl Davis convinced hundreds of KKK members to revoke their affiliation as well as their racist beliefs (http://www.npr.org/2017/08/20/544861933/how-one-man-convinced-200-ku-klux-klan-members-to-give-up-their-robes).

Racism is wrong because it undercuts the naturalistic view that all men and women are created equal with certain unalienable rights, among which are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. If one does not maintain this naturalistic view, then there is rarely reason for any individual lacking empathy to establish a baseline level of moral culpability, by which murder and other obvious crimes are considered impermissible. If these crimes and general animalistic behaviors are permissible, then how can anyone go about their day in comfort with not only the possibility, but perhaps even the expectation that they will be the victim of a heinous crime? It is no surprise that individuals who commit crimes tend to inhabit a more selfish, less remorseful mind frame in which all men and women are created equal, but rather that they themselves and their happiness are of unparalleled significance. And if all men and women are not equal, then how do we determine who is and isn’t? Is it by color? Is it by political affiliation? Which set of human beings is it okay to treat like animals and to behave heartlessly toward?

Even if one person does not personally like another, there is still at least a minimal level of respect for their humanity that one should never deny. No one chooses the circumstances of their birth or how they were raised, no one chooses their intelligence or emotional development, and no one chooses how others’ perceptions and actions towards them psychologically impact them. I’ve seen many activists say in regards to conversations of privilege and racism that it’s never up to the individuals of the group that feels marginalized to educate the people in the position of privilege, but that seems absolutely absurd to me. Everyone is born ignorant. To escape a state of ignorance you must be taught to do so. For someone who was born ignorant, raised ignorant (through no fault of their own), and remains ignorant, how do you possibly expect them to eventually escape their ignorance if they are too ignorant to even realize they are ignorant? All men and women are created equal but not everyone is created equally and in equal circumstances. Some people are wealthier than others, some smarter than others, and some more likeable. While I do think there is some validity in the idea of privilege, at many times the conversation seems to exclude people in a way that undermines the previously mentioned naturalistic view.

The problem with the conversation about privilege is that it far too often presumes a ubiquitous perception of hardship, i.e. people believe that obstacles they face would be just as much of an impediment to others if only they’d ever encounter them. For example, if a person was poor their entire life and they viewed poverty as their greatest hardship, they may be quick to assume that anyone who was rich was better off than them in terms of general contentment. And while it is likely the case that, in a parallel universe where everything is the same except the experience of poverty, a poor person’s life would be better off, this line of logic does not branch off to encompass everyone due to the multifaceted reality of hardship.

Let’s assume in the prior example that the same individual, despite lacking material wealth, does feel rich in terms of the strength of his familial bond. There are some people that are very rich from a monetary standpoint, which is his greatest hardship, but they lack a strong familial bond, and that is their greatest hardship. If we were somehow able to realistically give people the choice between the two options, it is unclear what they would pick. Some people in the scenario of the poor man/ close family, would choose to be in the other scenario (and some wouldn’t), and some people in the scenario of the rich man/ not close family would choose to be in the other scenario (and some wouldn’t). In short, this example demonstrates that while all problems are not created equal, the burdens that result from certain problems vary. What you may view as a privilege, e.g. being white, being male, others may not view as a privilege. And what you may not recognize as a privilege, e.g. not being socially awkward, not having depression, not having a family that doesn’t love you, others may view as great privileges.

To normalize for all of this, the best thing we can do is to simply treat everyone as an individual whom possesses individual experiences. If you disagree with someone, try to understand their perspective because either you will realize you are wrong, or you will be able to show them where they are wrong and what they are not understanding about your perspective. At no point should you deny them their basic humanity by attacking them, screaming at them, or bullying them. An ideal state of society would be one in which conversation comes before conflict, and conflict is able to be resolved with conversation, and that is what we should aim to progress towards.

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