Often, people speak of progress as though it were part of the inevitable development of Western society. We look back on the series of events that have gradually improved the lives of people in the West and assume that this trend is simply the way things must go: the end of slavery, women’s suffrage, decolonization, minority rights, LGBTQ+ rights, etc. When we witness acts and events contrary to this progress, we make remarks like, “Can you believe he said that in 2016?” and, “This election has taken us back 60 years.” The intentions behind these sentiments are good; they express the desire to change our old, conservative, moral misapprehensions and instead have a just society of openness and inclusivity. Overall, I think this mindset is hopeful and indicative of real change in our collective moral character, and so is a good thing.
But, for the most part, this attitude is passive. There is something we must remember, something that we must appreciate the full gravity of: progress is not inevitable. Progress is made entirely by human beings seeking to better their world, and nothing else. There is no necessity, beyond our actions, that the world will improve. As of November 9th, 2016, it could very well happen that a woman’s right to make choices about her own health will be repealed; it may happen that the right of gay people to marry is revoked; people’s freedom to use restrooms in accordance with their comfort and identity will soon be threatened; the recognition of the rights of minority groups will be called into question; progress toward a clean and environmentally sustainable future may soon be halted, or reversed all together. Progress made on these fronts is not an inevitable consequence of the benevolent march of history. That progress was fought for by a collection of brave individuals who sought to create a better world.
That responsibility now falls to us. In light of the recent political disaster, the election of Donald Trump as President of the United States (note: I vomited into my mouth slightly while writing that sentence), we have to face the horrifying, dizzying fact that completing the projects of civil rights, of marriage equality, of environmental restoration, and of ending wealth inequality falls entirely on our shoulders. No one but the people can be responsible for these outcomes. Now more than ever, as we watch what seems to be the decay of our political and economic system, is the time to come together, as humanists, and think critically and carefully about the kind of society we want—and then begin to work toward that.
More millenials must become politically active and must vote. More serious, critical thinkers have to become educated in the critical disciplines, humanities, and philosophy and then begin work in public policy. If we (progressive, forward-thinking people on the left) want to see actual improvement in society, then we have to get out and begin working for it. We have to begin the hard work of convincing people who oppose marriage equality, or fair income distribution, or climate science, or women’s basic bodily rights, that they are laboring under serious misunderstandings—and bigoted ones, at that. We have to begin the daunting task of petitioning representatives, and organizing in noticeable ways to demonstrate the rights and goods that must be protected. It is not going to just happen on it’s own.
I am trying to see the silver lining in this horrible tragedy. Perhaps now, as we face an entirely conservative government (Congress has gone Republican, and so will the Supreme Court, more likely than not), we have received a wakeup call (well, rather more like a wakeup kick-in-the-head). Passivity, so-called “slacktivism,” and the presupposition of a necessary march of progress have clearly failed. If nothing else, Trump’s victory has demonstrated that a populist movement can actually succeed in spite of the system. This time around, it is an imbecilic, hateful populist movement—but it is proof that the people can actually make a change. Next time around, we have to make sure we’re the ones who make that change, and the time to start working toward that change is NOW.