The Construction of Social Progress: Can Civilization Move Forward?

International_Space_Station

In the past year, I have used the term “social progress” in 6 different blog posts. It referred to various topics, including LGBT rights, women’s rights, and views on race, not to mention advances in medicine and technology. Implicit were the assumptions that civilization can move forward, and that having having a more equal society does constitute social progress.

Progress and Postmodernism

As it turns out, this type of thinking is not a given. Under postmodernist thought (whatever this phrase means), the idea of social progress is taken skeptically and questioned. Granted, the questioning is done with the noblest intention. Postmodernists argue that metanarratives of progress have, in the past, led to the cruelties of European colonialism, Fascism, and Communism. In each case, those who thought they were more civilized or who thought they could bring about a more civilized society ended up being brutal tyrants. Progress was thus a tool by which the rulers ruled the oppressed. Progress was and is, in the extreme, nothing more than a social construct.

I wonder if this fervent skepticism toward social progress is an overreaction. While I could write an entire post or more specifically about this, I reject postmodernism overall and consider myself under post-postmodernism, remodernism, metamodernism, or whatever word you prefer to describe the cultural state after postmodernism. Admittedly, I recognize that my own thoughts cannot be fully disentangled from postmodernist thought (which is itself a postmodernist way of thinking), but I can try to move forward.

The reason I bring this up is that postmodernism and progress are more intricately tied than just a loose sentiment that progress doesn’t exist. Postmodernism also rejects objective truth (either to some degree or often all-out); if you have been in an English class, you’ve probably learned that all truth is subjective. Herein lies another issue, as the concept of progress entails that society is objectively moving forward, that there is some objective truth, a conflict with postmodernism.

To add one more grain to the heap, there is a modernist vs postmodernist dichotomy between prescription and description. The significance of this is that modernism and progress are inherently compatible: modernism tried not only to describe the world, but also to prescribe that we should try to achieve social progress (even if it did not reveal how). Postmodernism, however, as a purely descriptive framework, is incompatible with the concept of progress; it could not advocate for social progress even if it were not a social construction. (This leads to a chicken and egg problem: Does postmodernism reject progress because it rejects prescription, or does it reject prescription because it rejects progress?)

The Existence of Social Progress

Despite the postmodern rejection of progress, it is very easy to show that progress does exist. Ask any postmodernist if they would rather contract polio or measles or chicken pox right now, or not contract any of them. Clearly, everyone agrees there is some objective truth and an objective scale of progress on health and medicine. “But that’s falling into the technology trap,” one might object, “you cannot tie together technology and progress because of nukes.” But this is like saying Einstein’s 1905 paper on special relativity was was the cause of the Cold War. This type of thinking misses the big picture, and it misses the fact that technological advancements have made the world a much better place.

Even then, supposing you are still against technology despite medical or other technological advances, say you are not a heterosexual, white male. Would you rather live in the United States of 2014 or 1814? Does your answer not signify the existence of progress?

What about even if you are a heterosexual, white male, would you rather live in the England of 2014 or 1314? That is, would you rather live in a society with the homicide rate of 1314, or in a society with a 95% lower homicide rate? (p. 61 of this book)

Here is the Social Progress Index, which ranks countries based on aggregate scores on Basic Human Needs, Foundations of Wellbeing, and Opportunity:

SocialProgressIndex

Using numerical data is a modernist approach, and a caricature postmodernist might flinch upon seeing the United Kingdom as being considered more “progressed” than Nigeria. Of course, we must be very cautious at how we interpret this data. For instance, the UK’s higher position than Nigeria does not constitute grounds for invasion and colonization as it may have in the modernist era. But these numbers do form grounds for critical analysis.

Yes, much of progress is socially constructed. Many of the earlier (i.e. modern) approaches were naive and led to atrocious results. But the solution is not to forsake progress altogether, but rather, to gain a matured understanding of it. This first step towards true progress requires the acceptance of progress, the rejection of postmodernism.

4 thoughts on “The Construction of Social Progress: Can Civilization Move Forward?”

  1. I think you understand why the progress narrative is flawed.

    I don’t really understand, then, why you went on to write the rest of the article. It’s everything that work that problematizes progress brings up as misleading, and you’re not actually proposing why that work is wrong, why progress is not misleading but correct. To do that, you’d need to respond to some of those actual arguments, or at least respond on some such terms. Maybe you don’t really know what those arguments are about; they’re certainly not at odds with the facts you went on to cite, which, unbegrudgingly and obviously, are true.

    It’s as though the point of this article is to communicate that “people problematize progress, and I’m gonna talk about some of their ideas to show that I can, and, because I can, you should take seriously my rejection of those ideas. But I’m not going to argue with those ideas, or even engage with them.” You’re just not personally invested in this idea, and you think that that’s an argument against it. Whoa. Get over yourself 😀

    Buying into the progress narrative is not what enables things you’ve cited as progress. Vaccines aren’t created because people believe in progress. While belief in progress can be motivational, so can the alternative: “the future, like the present, is filled with newly terrible things. Let’s build an arsenal of vaccines to deal with some of them”, etc.. Progress suggests that life is not a constant fight for survival from impending doom, but that doom is beaten back further each day. It’s not. Progress is a relatively new argument, invading political arguments and our brains to protect the status quo, which “progress!” celebrates by contrasting it with worse past alternatives. E.g. in the not so distant past, huge corporations were kept in check, but thanks to this narrative, most people don’t think “Oh no, huge corporations run by hyper rich people control everything” but rather “PROGRESS! Thanks, Apple!”.

    Your last paragraph suggests that while you might understand why the progress narrative is flawed, you don’t see the purpose of arguing that. You wrote “earlier (i.e. modern) approaches were naive and led to atrocious results”. Try this: Every currently powerful institution is in place because it doesn’t threaten the status quo, which works against the interests of almost everyone, some much more than others (not you maybe). Rather than marching confidently into an imagined bright future, whose brightness is extrapolated from the contrast between an imagined dark past and an imagined excellent present, let’s be critical of everything we have done, are doing, and will do.

    Your stakes in this critical project are low, and you’re yelling that from your desk chair for some reason.

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    1. You’ve completely missed the point of the article. The goal is to advance past the status quo, not to preserve it, as you straw man my argument to be. All the ad hominem attacks aside, your comment is entirely unsubstantial. Would you deny the delegitimization of torture, a morally accepted everyday occurrence in the Middle Ages, as progress? The decline of absolutism? The advancements of the Civil Rights and feminist movements? The more recent LGBT movement?

      Having low stakes is generally a good indication of objectivity. High stakes would include more susceptibility to biases and personal opinions. In addition, I’m not sure how a reasoned approach represents yelling from a desk chair, yet your ad hominem attacks including sarcastic smiley faces aren’t. It seems like you are much more caught up in this than you accuse me of being.

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      1. You are not caught up in this – you don’t seem to be personally invested in it, and I never accused you otherwise. Also, we live in the same reality and these ideas have the same implications for us both; by stakes, I guess I meant personal investment, which yeah you don’t seem to have, except I guess in that you wrote a blog post about it.

        Again you’re bringing up all these advances in certain things. Criticisms of the progress narrative don’t deny those, but those are literally the exact things they engage and contend with. You are not engaging with them, but just bringing them up, which is what I was saying before (along with one aspect of these progress critiques, which notes that bringing these things up doesn’t necessarily make more good things happen, and may have the opposite effect, i.e. talking about progress is not necessarily useful).

        I don’t know you at all – ad hominem? Also don’t be such a jerk to people engaging with yer blog.

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        1. Given that you said “You’re just not personally invested in this idea, and you think that that’s an argument against it. Whoa. Get over yourself :D” and “Your stakes in this critical project are low, and you’re yelling that from your desk chair for some reason,” and that you repeatedly claimed that I don’t understand without offering any examples of what it is I allegedly don’t understand, it’s hard to take your original comment seriously. Furthermore, your focus on personal investment is strange, because high personal investment is generally a negative in rational discussion as it leads to bias. So I take your statement that I have little personal investment as a compliment, even though it seems that you are trying to use it in the opposite manner.

          Seeing that you admit that social progress exists, it seems we are in agreement overall.

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