I watched a very interesting interview on tonight's Daily Show. Jon Stewart and Bill Bennett sat around and "discussed" same-sex marriage (SSM). Now, this post isn't about the actual SSM debate, but I do want to talk about something Jon Stewart kept bringing up: that, like the abolishment of slavery, women suffrage, and the civil rights movement, allowing SSM is simply another step in the march of progress.
I'm fascinated by this "march of progress" argument. But before I can say more about that, we need a little exegesis, because the "march of progress" argument is really just the conclusion of an argument, and not the actual argument itself.
So let's deconstruct the conclusion, to get to the actual reasoning behind the "march of progress" statement: throughout history various classes of people have been treated unequally based on arbitrary characteristics. Treating people differently on the basis of arbitrary characteristics is bad/wrong. Therefore, as these occurrences have been eliminated/reduced, our society has progressed towards a better/more correct way of life.
Now that was really simple. Which I guess makes it even more strange that this deconstruction is so rarely performed in actual dialogue. It truly makes me wonder how many people realize what it is they're saying/hearing when they present/hear the "march of progress" idea. It's a scary thought that people might be running around making arguments without understanding what is really being said/heard.
What I find so interesting though are two things. First, the opponents of SSM (well, the more reasonable, non-bigoted ones anyways) try to respond with an argument that sexual orientation is non-arbitrary with regard to marriage. Unfortunately, if the deconstruction of the argument hasn't happened, then the two sides end up talking past each other. One side is presenting the "march of progress" conclusion as their argument. The other side is trying to address a premise of that conclusion, but is unable to do so because that premise has been left behind in presenting the original argument. Complicating the matter even further, in addressing an undisclosed premise, it appears to the SSM supporter that the SSM opponent is being non-responsive. The two sides go back and forth, and no real dialogue happens. That pretty much summarizes The Daily Show interview, which was simultaneously fascinating and frustrating, given the nature of the problem.
The second thing which fascinates me about this argument is the very notion of progress itself. Or maybe more accurately, the idea that there is a "march of progress". Before I go any further, let's be absolutely clear: I'm not saying that SSM isn't progress. I'm certainly not saying that eliminating arbitrary inequalities isn't progress; I absolutely think that eliminating unjust discrimination is progress (I use "unjust" because I think there are times when discrimination can be just - like in affirmative action plans). Anyways, I just want to be clear that I'm not taking a position against SSM here. I'm just trying to explore this interesting concept, "the march of progress".
I guess what strikes me as so fascinating is the idea the "march of progress" argument implies two things: 1. A certain eventuality and 2. That the eventuality is necessarily good.
First, the certain eventuality. A "march of progress" conjures up connotations of inevitability. The idea that we are marching towards something implies a steady progress towards a destination, that wave after wave will continue to push towards that point, that eventually we will reach that end. There is no question of "if" in a march of progress, only a question of "when?" But is this really the case? Is progress itself (no matter what the destination - SSM, flying cars, cloning, a faster mile run) inevitable? Or can this march be halted? (I'm not saying we want to halt it). Can we choose not to progress? And even more important, can we choose where we progress to?
2. That the eventuality is necessarily good. What is so fascinating about this is that we all know well that "progress" can be devastating. Just think Hiroshima. And yet, arguably that ended the war, saved lives, led to a deeper understanding of our physical world, etc. So how do we delineate a step forward from a step backward? And yet, without seeing the end result, people argue for "progress". The truth is, we can't know progress until we're seeing it as historians. And even then, it's pretty subjective.
But there is something even more chilling: human experience tells us that everything which rises falls. Our history books are full of progress come crashing down. To hold that there is a "march of progress" is to ignore history, to believe that we can escape the gravity of existence. A field grows verdant and wild, it depletes the soil, a fire burns it to the ground and the soil is replenished, and a new field can grow. The cycle we see in life, in biology, in physics, it is also true of society.
And this is why I am fascinated by the "march of progress" argument; because there is no linear growth, only the recurring cycle. To argue that something is part of the "march of progress" is to ignore human history. We call change progress, but is that change part of the upswing or part of the down?
Are we the field? Or are we the fire? How can we know?
There's more to see than can ever be seen