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:
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.