Nowadays, it can feel like the precious societal progress we thought we’d achieved has been inexorably slipping backwards. Extreme conservatism and hate in the US, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, and the unwillingness to act to ensure our species’ survival keep dealing blows to our image of an enlightened society. But such stumbles are nothing new, because progress is not a straight line that goes up. It’s closer to a sine wave, which should give us hope.
First, so that we’re all on the same page, a definition. By societal progress, I mean “a trend toward a more open and welcoming society better equipped to deal with the challenges it faces.” An open and welcoming society does not discriminate against minorities; rather, it welcomes them with open arms because they are also people. This society can adapt and take necessary measures to counter—or, more simply, deal with—challenges such as climate change, increasing economic disparities, housing shortages, etc. This is how I define societal progress, as changes that benefit the many.
The way history is taught in schools, at least the ones I attended, makes it seem like societal progress is a natural phenomenon, a law of worldly affairs whereby humanity made huge mistakes in the past, but learned from them. Conquests, imperialism, even world wars are a thing of the past, topics we learn about in class, much like the ravages of unchecked industrialism which can choke a city with deadly smog and raze forests. But as we learn later in life, the world runs by a different textbook.
The forces involved in the actual mechanism of progress are complex. They tend to be geographically localized, with cities acting as centers pushing forward while the surrounding areas push back. Class, gender, race, and many other factors play a role, but the specifics are not our main preoccupation here. What matters for the purpose of this discussion are the top-level forces: the push forward and the push back, because change is really a series of reactions.
Putin and his war of conquest are a reaction to the hit Russia’s power and influence have taken over the decades, as David Brooks argues in a New York Times op-ed: “Putin invaded so Russians could feel they are a great nation once again and so Putin himself could feel that he’s a world historical figure.” The rise of white supremacy in the US is a reaction to the steps toward equality and justice we have striven to make for those among us of the female, BIPOC, and LBTQIA+ persuasions. Seyward Darby, author of Sisters in Hate: American Women on the Front Lines of White Nationalism, agrees in a guest essay also published in the NYT: “White Citizens’ Councils and other organs of resistance emerged in reaction to the civil rights movement. Hate fed on opposition to second- and third-wave feminism, the expansion of L.G.B.T.Q. rights, and shifting racial demographics.” Small and insufficient though these steps have been, they’ve been eroding the base of the white man pillar, making him fear for his place in a society where he’d actually have to put in the work to enjoy any success.
While developments such as the war in Ukraine and Trumpism have shocked many of us—myself included—there is good news. This push back and forth is not an equal and opposite reaction. If it were, there would be nothing to do about it, knowing that whatever you did to push the pendulum to one side, it would swing back just as far to the other side. It would also be a comforting thought, that no matter how bad things got, they’d get better in time. Sadly, there’s no guarantee that our efforts and outrage will be enough to overcome this wave. Wait, didn’t I say good news?
Here is the promised silver lining: If we keep at it and work hard enough, we can keep the surge from overwhelming us. Will there ever be a world where all humans are content? Sounds more like fantasy than science-fiction. It stands to reason there will always be those among us who are discontent with the way things are. But if we keep fighting for what’s right, we may be able to keep moving forward without stumbling back with every other step. That will be progress: not a linear, natural phenomenon, but a climb up an unending hill where we have to push for every inch.