In a recent podcast episode I was listening to, the hosts were speaking glibly about progressivism. I won’t name the show because who was saying it is ultimately unimportant. At the crux of their tangential discussion away from Plato’s Greater and Minor Hippias was their dismissal of progressivist attitudes towards the flow of history, that those who come later in history will assert some sort of superiority (technological, moral, intellectual) over less developed, unenlightened peoples of the past. While I think they were onto something in thinking that any sort of change is not prima facie better, I was unconvinced of their move to dismiss it because they didn’t adequately set out a criteria by which to judge advancement. Instead, they proceeded to discuss (within the context of Plato’s dialogue) the relative comparisons of Athenian and Spartan laws. And when they came to a discussion in the text about the relative merits of spoons according to function and form, the one host came dangerously close to undermining his rebuttals of progressivism in my estimation.
But this isn’t a post about their podcast episode – truthfully I haven’t taken the time to go back and listen to their post for the fidelity of the above paragraph because that’s not what I want to write about. It serves as a frame from what it made me think about.
Instead, their conversation reminded me of folks who complain about changes to our understanding of the world, especially as it relates to mental health and/or personal identity concerning gender. There is a resistance to keeping an open mind because it doesn’t harmonize with a worldview they hold that’s often formed and set in ones late teens or early twenties. You see this come out in a number of ways in the way they talk about these issues, but a canonical refrain is “back in my day, they didn’t have x,” whether that is expanded definitions of mental health issues or nonbinary categories of gender. Instead, the proliferation of new words to capture experiences is seen as a self-evident refutation of these developments because they think the relative plurality of new understandings of the world must not be grounded in anything solid or universal. That is to say, if they haven’t experienced it, then it must clearly not be real in an ontological sense.
When I say real in an ontological sense I mean that the phenomenon the word is attached to doesn’t carry existence attached to a concrete thing1. In the podcast, they discussed this in the context of trees and trying to identify tree types. In the Platonic tradition, trees are trees because the thing I’m seeing out my window that grows tall, has a solid brown body covered in a rough exterior that is thicker near the bottom and branches out at the top, terminating in green thin pieces, participates in the Form of tree or tree-ness. The concept of tree is tied to the physical object, but to Plato the Form of tree exists independently of the tree in front of me. In biology, living things are categorized according to common, reliable traits that distinguish different types of organisms from another. A maple tree and a pine tree don’t share many common physical appearance traits, but they share a sufficient number of them that we call them both trees. The concept of tree is an abstraction used to describe something about the physical object. If we are being rigorous, there may be a debate whether the concept of tree as described above (as a Platonic Form) has an ontological existence, but for the purposes of our discussion, tree as a category is real because it is tied to a thing that physically exists out there in the world.
And so to circle back, the anti-progressivist disclaims new labels on people on the thinking that the label/category doesn’t map to something real. There is a reduction problem in their mind – the mental disorder or gender identity (in this sentence, I treat them as two separate concepts that are not intended to be inclusive) are not mapped to anything that can be pointed to. To them, gender identity is reducible only to secondary sexual characteristics (genitals), and mental health is based on stereotype behaviours easily observed (signs) rather than reported (symptoms). In the anti-progressivist mind, creating a new name or category means creating a new phenomenon; a phenomenon that did not exist before.
Here we come to the title of this post’s line of thinking. What the anti-progressivist is confusing is the difference between creating new categories, and giving words to describe something already existing but had yet to become clarified. For this, I invoke the late Paul Virilio and shipwrecks. The anti-progressivist2 treats mental disorder and gender identity as concepts invented wholly new like the concept of a shipwreck. Before the invention of the ship, there was no concept of shipwreck, or train derailment before trains, car crash before automobiles, etc.3 These concept categories did not exist previously, and their existence is contingent on us inventing them (even if by accident). But I think this is the wrong way to capture what is going on when we create a new category of understanding.
It is not the case that more children are coming out as transgender because its faddish, trendy, or a socially acceptable way of acting out against social norms. To the contrary, it’s more likely that more children (or people generally) are publicly identifying as trans (or nonbinary, or homosexual/bisexual/asexual, etc.) because we’ve given them language to make sense of what they are feeling within. I do not have a source to provide, but I read a lament once that because of previously draconian crackdowns on LGBT communities, many people did not live long enough to allow their existences to be counted. The number of people who identify as LGBT is not growing because people are suddenly “becoming queer.” Rather, our language and society is moving towards a place that has space for a plurality of lives.
And I think the same thing is happening as we redefine and clarify mental health issues – these issues are likely not new4, but instead we are better able to understand the internal lives of others because we are listening to what these individuals are saying about their experiences. We aren’t inventing new categories so much as we are finally recognizing things that can now be counted. As the saying goes, what gets measured gets managed. The old terms that were used to medicalize people’s internal lives were insufficient to either understand or treat the person, and so we refine our language to better capture their experiences.
When we reclassify our language, we create nuance. We create a more interesting and vibrant world. This is a good thing – we understand the world in new ways and can appreciate the diversity and complexity that comes from this understanding. I agree that progress for its own sake is not automatically good. Progress must be paired with wisdom and experience if we want to avoid creating harm in the future. But progress should not be halted on the belief that change is flippant, nor should it be dismissed because it introduces complexity to our worldview. The anti-progressivist seems to hold that society is sliding from order to disorder, away from some ideal that we must actively work to return to. To them, anything new is to be distrusted merely because past progress yielded harms. They place more weight on the mis-steps and ignore the improvements to the quality of our lives. This view is just as false as assuming a teleological bent to society evolving – that society is always aiming at getting better.
Society is neither sliding away from perfection nor building towards it. It is moving from simplicity to complexity; from blunt and clumsy to fine and precise.5 As our understanding of the world grows, so too must our language to describe it. With understanding comes language, with language comes empathy, with empathy comes diversity, and from diversity comes strength.6
[P.S. – A few days after publishing this, I read a post from Seth Godin on Cyber-realists that says some of what I say above about wisdom tempering progress, but much more succinctly.]
1For those who have studied metaphysics and ontology, I apologize if my take comes off as uninformed – I must admit that this is me working through the ideas in my head.
2I’ve typed this word many times in this post without critically thinking whether this is the appropriate term to give to the person/line of thinking to which I’m responding. However, this post is mostly a first-draft attempt at clarifying my thoughts, and so I leave it for now with the understanding that this is all mutable upon further consideration.
3This is perhaps one of the few areas where I’m sympathetic to the anti-progressivist – not all progress is devoid of negatives or downsides. With any effect, there will be unintended or unanticipated side effects and consequences. The technology that helps preserve food and makes it cheaper to produce might also be causing health problems from fast food, for example.
4Here I’m talking about reclassifying old or outdated diagnostic methods, rather than genuinely new classifications that are the result of modern life, though this might be up for debate – is it genuinely new or merely a sub-classification of already existing conditions, such as video game addiction. I’m out of my expertise here, so I can’t say anything with authority on the matter.
5There is a conversation to be had here that brings Kuhn into the party, but this post has groaned on too long. I like Kuhn’s ideas that rather than a steady march of progress, science changes through the adoption of new worldviews, but I think this is less about knowledge and more about the sociology of knowing-peoples. People, ideology, and politics makes science messy.
6Admittedly, this is appears to be a slippery slope that requires a lot more argument to make clear. As with Kuhn, this could be left to a different post, but my main argument is that diversity is good because it hedges against downsides. I think there are limited cases where uniformity and homogeneity are preferable, but those are exceptions that prove the rule.