Friday, 30 March 2012
This idea is something I've been thinking about for a while, and tried to express to a friend recently, but didn't make my point particularly coherently. We were discussing the internet at the time (which I'll come back to later) but the idea is more general than that.
So it's pretty clear that, as a whole, society has progressed pretty far in the last few hundred years. I'm not talking here about technological progress, but progress in terms of social justice, morality, and how we treat people within and outside our own social groups.
However, it is also clear that many examples of progress have been opposed, sometimes actively hampered, by those who disagree, for whatever reasons. A recent example is the debate in the UK about the right of gay couples to marry: to many (myself included) this is a natural and essential step towards a more tolerant and inclusive society; but the nay-saying from some groups, in particular the Catholic Church, seems to seriously threaten the progress of this piece of legislation, and shows why it has taken so long to get this far.
Numerous other examples illustrate the reluctance of a vocal few standing in the way of what should be conisidered as enlightenment: the ongoing debate about women's reproductive rights, freedom of religious expression, and to go back further, full suffrage and the abolition of slavery.
And so it's easy to conclude that the fight for equality and justice for all is a constant uphill struggle against those who wish things to remain as they are, to enjoy their privileges while denying them to others (whatever their motivations may be, which I won't go into here); and that if we let our guard down we risk a slide back to an unenlightened dark age, with the persecution and exploitation of minorities ignored, or even endorsed, by society and government.
However, I think this ignores a fairly important force for progress, that is, the tendancy of people to take their rights for granted. Now usually, to be 'taking something for granted' is seen in a negative way, and implies it is not being sufficiently appreciated, or that we are not appropriately grateful to those who's struggle bought it for us. What I'm getting at here though, is that once a group has a certain freedom or right, they tend to think of it as normal, and find it hard to concieve of a time when they did not - it simply becomes the way things are expected to be. We will even complain about it, wishing for better days, and use it as a starting point for further gains. It becomes inconcievable that this status could be lost or threatened, it will feel as if it has always been so, and as a consequence, we expect the same or better for our children. Moreover, as the groups of people with which we associate grow - with ever increasing opportunities for communication and travel - we naturally come to expect the same rights to apply to others as to us, not so much as an active spreading of our views but as common decency. We insist that the liberty we hold should apply to all people we coexist with, forgetting it is something only recently gained for ourselves.
I'm not saying, of course, that everything is currently fine for all, or even most people; but even those who in our society don't enjoy as many freedoms as the priviliged few (poor immigrants, say) have certain expectations that they do not expect to be violated (being forces into slavery).
A few examples are in order to clarify this point. Until recently, in some places, interracial marriage was not permitted; now it seems obscene to think such a thing could have been denied; this we see the concept of marriage being expanded to a wider group again. In the not too distant past, it was unusual for a woman to have a career other than child-rearing, and access to education was limited; now consider how alien the thought of treating undergraduate students differently based on sex would be, for example; the priority has progressed to working out why certain fields (such as engineering and maths) are still male dominated. And it is now almost universally accepted that anyone of sufficient ability should be eligible for employment in their chosen profession (in practice, still a bit of a work in progress, but rarely is such discrimination openly admitted or actively defended).
An example which stands out from having read a number of classic novels, as is exemplary of this whole concept, is how the divisions of class in British society have so much less relevant and prescriptive. While social classes still broadly exist, the divide between the rich upper classes and the working masses remaining painfully obvious, class is no longer a fixed and irrefutable obstacle (I would argue that in most cases, inequalities derive from more tangible things such as discrepancies in wealth, opportunity and access to good education). Contrast this to the case a hundred or so years ago, where 'breeding' was deemed all-important, and those born of less affluent families were seen as inherently less respectable, able, and worthy as human beings. On reading of such things now, it is almost beyond belief that people constrained themselves like this.
More recent political examples also illustrate this trend. We now take it for granted that, if we are ill and in need of healthcare, it will be available, for free and at a high stanard (recent changes to the NHS notwithstanding). When the treatment we receive does not meet our high expectations, we are rightly outraged. But clearly it was not always this way, and before the advent of the NHS a visit to the doctor was a coslty experience, and for many only sought in cases of dire need. Our naturalisation to this state of comparative utopia is such that we complain about the system we have, and demand that improvements be made, bewailing any failure and cry that lessons must be leared. Similarly, the concept of a minimum wage is now pretty well ingrained into our work culture, and I think to many of my generation it would be considered almost a basic human right; and yet this is something introduced less than twenty years ago (to much protest from certain quarters). Our expectation is not that we should fight to retain this hard-won privilege - but that it should be raised.
Of course, I should make it clear that none of this is an excuse for complacency. While much progress has been made without us overtly appreciating it, that doesn't make it inevitable, and horrendous backwards slides are always possible. We can't sit back and assume the relentless march of progress will sweep us all forward into a new utopia without lifting our collective finger: but I'm saying that, in general, things tend to get better as we expect more, and as we become accustomed to it, this acts as a ratchet on society, allowing us to drive frwards without slipping backwards at the same time.
Back to what I mentioned at the start of this piece: the current state of the internet. The internet, with its relatively short history, is a useful way of contemplating the development of humanity in general, but on a short and well documented timescale(something I might think about more and write about in future). We can clearly see the rapid progress being made (in terms of data quantity, transfer speeds, and access), and consider our rapid acclimatisation and sense of entitlement to it. We have gotten so used to the idea that we can find out anything whenever we want to know it, that the recent blackout of Wikipedia (or indeed any temporary loss of connectivity) makes us wonder how we managed without it; and of course we want more.
But the point I want to make is about recent proposals to heavily constrain the internet - namely PIPA and SOPA. These indeed are rather horrifying in their extent, potantially stifling a lot of the creativity and cooperation that makes the internet what it is. But now that we have such access to information and such freedom to use it, we can hardly remember a time when we did not, and will not condone anything that limits it. While such laws, if enacted in the early days of the web (crippling such endvours as youtube or Wikipedia before they begun) might have seemed natural and sensible toward regulating this new frontier, that's only because we would never have known what we were missing. Now, we assume this is the way the information age works, and imagine a future where our potential to use and share data only gets better. I certainly don't mean to trivialise the possible threats or claim we can ignore them; but the tide of expected progress would be hard to hold back.
So to summarise: things generally get better, often without us consciously being aware of it; as we become accustomed to our improved way of life, we refuse to accept or even admit the possibility of going back to a relative dark age, and expect things to at least get no worse. From our newly familiar vantage point, we naturally expect progress to extend to our peers and descendants, driving further advancement. We shouldn't depend or rely upon this, and assume a perfect society will emerge effort-free, but I think it is an important part of how change comes about, and that this is an integral, and most optimistic, part of a free and stable society.