Postmodernism, Progress, and Social Justice

My very simplified story of human progress is this:

Humans have improved their conditions over time, with incremental growth for most of history and exponential growth in modern times. These improvements have been made in all aspects of human life: technological, economic, cultural, social, political, medical, and ethical. There were grave setbacks along the way but we now live in the best time there ever was for our species.

I think this roughly applies to America as well, which makes the platforms of Trump and Sanders puzzling. As I wrote previously, the slogan “Make America Great Again” presumes that it is not already so, and the idea of “capitalism has failed you” coming from the other end of the spectrum is not much better. Between Trump, Sanders, and Clinton on this topic, only Clinton possesses a sane view, that “America never stopped being great.”

Anyways, I have wanted to write a longer post on human progress for a long time, ever since the bizarrely hostile responses to this 2014 post on social progress. Some people do not accept progress, and I feel like it is mostly because it doesn’t fit their narrative. If you start off with “The West is evil because colonialism,” etc., then it is difficult to also keep in mind all the progress made through human history, largely by the Western world.

The main points are:

  • We made progress.
  • It is easy to forget and/or be unaware of this progress.
  • How postmodernism is related to this.
  • How the “coddled” college student and “social justice warrior” phenomena are related to this.
  • How the presidential campaigns are related to this.

Once again, in anticipation of the response to later sections, I want to disclaim that I fully consider myself a liberal on social issues. I am pro-equal-marriage, pro-choice, pro-feminist, pro-gun-control. I plan to vote for Hillary Clinton.

We made progress

I feel like this section is unnecessary but I also know there are people who deny progress. So let’s do a history refresher. In a prior post I wrote about a few pieces of progress in the last 10 years:

Remember 10 years ago? That’s not even the 1990s. That’s the early 21st century. In these dark ages of 2006, there was no iPhone, no Snapchat, no Twitter. There was neither Tumblr nor Tinder nor Uber, while Facebook and Youtube were in their infancy. 55% of Americans opposed same-sex marriage while only 35% were in support; today, those numbers have flipped. New art and new science have developed. The US emits less CO2, and global wind power capacity has increased by a factor of 6. Global poverty has continued to decline, infectious diseases take fewer lives, US cancer mortality rates have fallen, global childbirth mortality and child mortality rates are down, and even as the world population goes up the number of people undernourished is decreasing.

That was actually the hard part, limiting progress to just the last 10 years, with a start time of just before a global financial crisis. If you go back further, say since the dawn of agriculture, it is hilariously easy to come up with progress. Every item around you, from your clothing to electric lights to the smartphone or computer on which you are reading this post, could not have been created in earlier times. But you don’t have to worry about that, as there was a 25%-33% chance you died before reaching age 5. And if you did survive, you better hope you don’t succumb to illness, as death rates for some diseases were 70-80% and you didn’t have the luxury of modern science and medicine. Tribal warfare often killed a quarter of a tribe’s total population, a figure that makes even World War II seem tame. Assuming you survived, you were overwhelmingly likely to be in a position of no political power, a slave or peasant. The standard of living was, by modern standards, approximately zero for thousands of years.

[Graph 1, Graph 2Graph 3]




The things continued for thousands of years, and then some different things happened in the 1500s–1700s. A Renaissance, a religious Reformation, a Scientific Revolution, an Enlightenment, and an Industrial Revolution lifted the Western world out of the darkness and into modern times. And the standard of living took off, alongside huge decreases in violence and big expansions in human rights.

It is easy to forget and/or be unaware of this progress

It’s so much easier to think of current problems than to think of problems that we have already solved. For example, we used to (and in some backwards regions of the world, still do) accuse neighbors we didn’t like of witchcraft and stone them to death.  We used to engage in ritual animal and even human sacrifice. We used to engage in fatal duels to defend our “honor.”

Regarding torture, here is Steven Pinker in The Better Angels of Our Nature:

[T]he sporadic, clandestine, and universally decried eruptions of torture in recent times cannot be equated with the centuries of institutionalized sadism in medieval Europe. Torture in the Middle Ages was not hidden, denied, or euphemized. It was not just a tactic by which brutal regimes intimidated their political enemies or moderate regimes extracted information from suspected terrorists. It did not erupt from a frenzied crowd stirred up in hatred against a dehumanized enemy. No, torture was woven into the fabric of public life. It was a form of punishment that was cultivated and celebrated, an outlet for artistic and technological creativity. Many of the instruments of torture were beautifully crafted and ornamented. They were designed to inflict not just physical pain, as would a beating, but visceral horrors, such as penetrating sensitive orifices, violating the bodily envelope, displaying the victim in humiliating postures, or putting them in positions where their own flagging stamina would increase their pain and lead to disfigurement or death. Torturers were the era’s foremost experts in anatomy and physiology, using their knowledge to maximize agony, avoid nerve damage that might deaden the pain, and prolong consciousness for as long as possible before death.

And from another post quoting the same book, on the decline in rape:

“Well into the 1970s marital rape was not a crime in any state, and the legal system underweighted the interests of women in other rapes. Legal scholars who have studied jury proceedings have discovered that jurors must be disabused of the folk theory that women can be negligently liable for their own rapes…” (395). Stats from the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics show that the annual rate of rape from 1973 to 2008 had fallen by 80%. Pinker notes, “In fact, the decline may be even greater than that, because women have almost certainly been more willing to report being raped in recent years, when rape has been recognized as a serious crime, than they were in earlier years, when rape was often hidden and trivialized” (402). Thus a decline by a factor of five in reported cases could and probably does mean an even greater decline in actual cases. On the flipside, since awareness of rape is up so much, people generally perceive it as a greater threat today than it was decades ago.

I point this out not to say “Tada, progress!” but to put these issues in historical context. Pointing out that things have gotten better does not mean that the status quo is acceptable. Much of it is not, and there is so much progress yet to be made. But it is delusional to want to return to the good old times because they were free of violence and conflict. They simply weren’t. They were far more violent and intolerant than today (see Pinker’s book).

In addition, we now have social media, where grievances that would have been considered trivial in the past can now instantly rile up thousands of people (perhaps rightfully). This creates a situation where fewer bad incidents cause the world to look worse.

Given how widespread the pessimistic view is, I don’t fault anyone for thinking things have gotten worse, but at the same time, I find the numbers quite startling. Some 46% of Americans believe life has gotten worse since half a century ago, versus 34% better and 14% same (via Pew Research). “By contrast, 88% of economists said the U.S. is better today than in 1960 and 87% see today as better than 1980” (source).

How postmodernism is related to this

One way to deny progress is to argue that progress as a concept is impossible. Progress implicitly assumes an objective measuring stick; thus, it cannot exist as there is no objective truth, only subjectivity—progress is nothing but a social construction. Another way is to argue that progress is a colonialist ideology developed by Western nations to oppress non-Western nations, and that anyone who argues for progress must be automatically racist.

That is my caricature of postmodernism, but I’m honestly not sure what else postmodernism is (as used in popular rhetoric).

Here are some passages from Edward R. Friedlander’s “Why I am Not a Postmodernist“:

The “postmodern” university gurus talk about the “dead white males” who produced the canon of literature that we have treasured over the centuries as cruel, oppressive, stupid, and deeply wrong-headed. But a fair reading of the classics — even before the enlightenment — will reveal a huge range of ideas — many of them far ahead of their times — about the rights of minorities, women, and the poor. There are many deeply sympathetic portrayals of LGBT culture and people, and appeals both for religious tolerance and religious skepticism. And no culture other than the much-maligned “European” (including America and Australia/New Zealand) has ever made a systematic effort to understand and value the other cultures of the world. Anyone who tells you otherwise is taking an obviously false political stance to deceive you.


Postmodernists complain that science is a cultural prejudice, and/or a tool invented by the current elite to maintain power, and/or only one “way of knowing” among many, with no special privilege. For postmodernists, science is “discourse”, one system among many, maintained by a closed community as a means of holding onto power, and ultimately referential only to itself.


We still hear a great deal today about “multiculturalism” and “relative values”. But everybody that I know, regardless of race, gender, sexuality, or religion, seems to want the same basic things. This begins with health, reasonable personal liberty and security, and a reasonable chance to have one’s initiative rewarded. Postmodernists talk about being “dehumanized” by science and technology. If they really believed this, they would trade their academic positions for the lives of subsistence farmers in the world’s poor nations, or (if they could) the short, sickly, miserable lives of chattel-serfs in the ages “before technocracy”. There they will discover that what people want isn’t “cultural integrity” or “multicultural sensitivity”, but health, food, safety, and a reasonable opportunity to choose one’s own course through life. Those who would deny them these basic human needs aren’t the scientists. It is the tyrants and ideologues of the right and the left.


Science isn’t a conspiracy of power-hungry monsters against the human race. The real enemy is superstition, ignorance, and silly lies. And if you live in America, Canada, Australia/New Zealand, or Western Europe, most people in the world would gladly trade places with you.

In the twentieth century, Norman Borlaug developed new agricultural techniques in wheat that are often credited with saving the lives of a billion or more people. Yet almost no one has heard of him. I’m guessing it might have something to do with the fact that despite his huge steps in solving world hunger, his life-saving results appear numeric rather than anecdotal. And his doing this while being a white male Westerner certainly did not fit the postmodernist narrative. I would bet someone has already complained that teaching about him in school is “problematic.”

Postmodernism the movement might be long dead, but its specter continues to haunt us. All of the following can be rooted to the postmodernist style:

  • Science is just another way of knowing, no different from emotion, etc.
  • The great counternarrative, that progress is a myth, that the Western world is evil.
  • The rise of New Age wisdom versus Western science and medicine.
  • The study of STEM fields is often considered inhuman/cold, whereas currently it probably has the highest benefit for humanity.
  • Over-sensitivity to criticizing other cultures.

The last point has to do with criticizing anything that is not Western. Here is an anecdote. (Anecdotes are inherently more valuable than statistical data because the latter implies a tacit Eurocentrism.) My very liberal Facebook feed contains lots of “social justice” posts. Yesterday there was a disturbing CNN headline that read, “Pakistani men can beat wives ‘lightly,’ Islamic council says.” Being someone in a civilized country that cares about the plight of others, I was pretty offended by this and expected a lot of outrage on my Facebook feed, but instead, I saw none. I’m guessing it has something to do with how the typical post fits the narrative of “The West/white people are evil,” and this story, about how an “Islamic council” of non-Whites in a non-Western country has been/is doing something evil, does not fit that narrative and is thus rejected.

How the “coddled” college student and “social justice warrior” phenomena are related to this

Still one of the greatest articles on this is “The Coddling of the American Mind” by Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt. I fully encourage everyone to read that if they have not already. And earlier this week, Nathan Heller wrote in The New Yorker a piece called “The Big Uneasy“:

Aaron Pressman, a politics and law-and-society major, told me that he has always felt free to express his opinions on campus, but has faced “a lot of social backlash.” One of his ambitions is to become a public defender, and he has studied the free-speech work of the A.C.L.U. Last year, when he noticed a broadly worded clause about flirtatious speech in Oberlin’s new sexual-harassment policy, he advocated for more precise language. (His research told him that such broad prohibitions were often used to target ethnic groups.) “A student came up to me several days later and started screaming at me, saying I’m not allowed to have this opinion, because I’m a white cisgender male,” Pressman recalled. He feels that his white maleness shouldn’t be disqualifying. “I’ve had people respond to me, ‘You could never understand—your culture has never been oppressed.’ ” Pressman laughed. “I’m, like, ‘Really? The Holocaust?’ ”


How, then, to teach? Two years ago, when the Black Lives Matter movement took off, “it felt like it was going to be a moment when we were really going to have a national conversation about police brutality and economic inequality,” Kozol said. She was excited about her students’ work in Cleveland and elsewhere. “But then, at some point, it became really solipsistic.” A professor who taught a Comparative American Studies seminar that was required for majors went on leave, and, as she was replaced by one substitute and then another, Kozol noticed something alarming: the students had started seating themselves by race. Those of color had difficulty with anything that white students had to say; they didn’t want to hear it anymore. Kozol took over the class for the spring, and, she told me, “it played out through identity politics.” The class was supposed to be a research workshop. But students went cold when they had to engage with anyone outside their community.

Seriously, what is happening? Have tribalism and postmodernism returned?

Don’t get me wrong—social justice is one of the best things ever to happen, one of the few parts of history that can be universally viewed as good. The affirmation of human dignity for every person regardless of circumstance is the most important one that can be made. But the contemporary movements resemble one-sided yelling more than discussion.

Questions of justness and fairness are hard, but you do not gain voice by preventing others from voicing theirs. A democratic society should not base its decisions on whose echo chamber is bigger, or by whichever group can frame the narrative to disqualify the other group on the basis of race or sex or other identity. The way to counter a bad idea is to present a good idea, not to call for tribal hatred and witch hunts against its proponents. Some of the most intolerant people are those who preach tolerance the loudest.

One paradox here is that as more progress is being made in social equality, the bigger an issue it becomes. From “Microaggression and Moral Cultures” (Campbell and Manning 2014):

According to Black (2011), as noted above, changes in stratification, intimacy, and diversity cause conflict. Microaggression complaints are largely about changes in stratification. They document actions said to increase the level of inequality in a social relationship – actions Black refers to as “overstratification.” Overstratification offenses occur whenever anyone rises above or falls below others in status. […] a morality that privileges equality and condemns oppression is most likely to arise precisely in settings that already have relatively high degrees of equality… In modern Western societies, egalitarian ethics have developed alongside actual political and economic equality. As women moved into the workforce in large numbers, became increasingly educated, made inroads into highly paid professions such as law and medicine, and became increasingly prominent in local, state, and national politics, sexism became increasingly deviant. The taboo has grown so strong that making racist statements, even in private, might jeopardize the careers of celebrities or the assets of businessmen (e.g., Fenno, Christensen, and Rainey 2014; Lynch 2013).

Basically, places that have progressed the furthest toward equality are precisely where further microagressions feel like they matter most.

In this sense, one might be delighted that the university ruckuses are going on as evidence of increasing equality. But it is also the dangerous arm of postmodernism where feeling is regarded as highly as fact.

I am frightened that this movement is not only ignoring progress, but also actively trying to reverse it. You saw the self-imposed seating segregation from earlier. Freedom of speech is gradually receding in favor of oversensitivity, especially of criticizing cultures that are blatantly regressive compared to the Western world. Diversity of ideas is frowned upon, and even the idea of democracy is now considered part of a sinister colonialist agenda.

How the presidential campaigns are related to this

Here is Bernie Sanders yesterday:

As cited before, 88% of economists disagreed, saying that living standards are better than they were in the 1960s (and 87% say better than in the 1980s). Yet from popular sentiment, it would seem like Sanders is right.

To be fair, Sanders supporters are still more grounded in reality than any group of Republican supporters. Here is a poll via Pew Research on whether life has gotten better or worse than 50 years ago:


Basically, Republicans generally are more pessimistic than Democrats, with Trump supporters the most pessimist. Democrats are more optimist, with Clinton supporters the most optimist.

This is kind of surprising as everyone I know who is against the progress narrative is Democrat, but then again, I don’t know many Trump supporters, nor do I expect many people reading this to be Trump supporters. The one I really want to address is Sanders and the tendency to pin all of society’s problems on capitalism.

Two years ago, when I graduated from college, I never thought I would quote a former hedge-fund manager on capitalism non-ironically. But here is Andy Kessler to college graduates [via WSJ]:

Those of you I hear gagging in the humanities section are going to have to unlearn a few things. Harvard recently released a survey showing that over half of Americans ages 18 to 29 do not support capitalism. Ouch. You can almost feel the Bern.

Don’t be fooled. Capitalism is what allowed you to wander around this leafy campus for four years worrying about finals instead of foraging for food. It delivered the Greek yogurt to your cafeteria and assembled your Prius. The basic idea is to postpone consumption. Then invest in production to supply goods and services that delight customers. Next, generate profits. Rinse and repeat.

It’s widely known that Sanders supporters tend to be young people. I feel out-of-place as a 24-year-old that supports Clinton, but in 2012 I voted for Jill Stein, whose platform is essentially identical to that of current-day Sanders. I definitely felt the Bern (the Stein?) when I was in college, so I can understand where all the Sanders supporters are coming from. I learned a lot about economics and capitalism since 2012, and I no longer support the Stein/Sanders camp. When you look at those three graphs from earlier where the line is roughly zero for most of human history and then skyrockets to the current day, that is the force of capitalism in action. That is progress. That is the constant exchange of bad ideas, systems, tools, governments, and moralities for better ones.

It is difficult to talk so much about what seems so obvious, but yes, humans have made lots of progress, especially in the very recent past. It is easy to forget about this progress with the 24-hour news cycle and social media, but it happened. We may live in the best time there ever was, but we have to be careful to not seek return to a false mythical world of the past. Instead, we should work to better the very real world of the future.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s