I was recently discussing politics recently with a friend who is of the cultural revolution persuasion. We were enjoying a late night conversation on politics and the topic ran to social progress. He invoked the work of social radicals in the 1960s and asserted that social progress — the gains in eradicating racism, sexism, homophobia, and more — were gains that could not be reversed. In other words, no matter how much social progress stalled, it is inevitable.
He also brought up an Abby Hoffman quote:
“The lesson of the ’60s is that people who cared enough to do right could change history. We didn’t end racism but we ended legal segregation. We ended the idea that you could send half-a-million soldiers around the world to fight a war that people do not support. We ended the idea that women are second-class citizens. We made the environment an issue that couldn’t be avoided. The big battles that we won cannot be reversed.”
This sentiment was perhaps first described by American abolitionist Reverend Theodore Parker, who famously wrote the phrase, “The arc of the moral universe is long but it bends towards justice.” The meaning of the phrase was to encourage supporters that the push for freedom and equality was tough, but history was on their side, and was adopted by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and Ghandi.
My reaction: I wish I could believe this was the case. I wish the universe operated as one great piece of progress. But the historical context of this is so shallow. Or as Robert D. Kaplan once wrote about Americans who think their country will last forever, it’s actually lasted “less than a third as long as the Moorish occupation of Spain.” To put it another way, the living standards and quality of life in 4th century central Italy had done nothing but improve for centuries, and at the time they probably thought that things would continue to improve, but that was probably the best standard of living enjoyed by most people in the region until the 19th century. Or as I said to my friend at the time, all it takes is for something to allow people to rationalize and justify their prejudices and bias, and before you know it we could quickly revert to the Dark Ages.
But those are just one person’s thoughts, and I’m sure readers could weigh in with alternative perspectives.