Given the debates about whether or not our world is falling apart, It seems to me a good time to suggest to my progressive friends that we consider some of the words of M L King in Washington DC over 50 years ago: "We're not where we want to be; we're not where we ought to be; we're not where we're going to be; but thank God we're not what we were."
If we are indeed to have positive, progressive effects on our civilisation, we must reduce our simplistic tendencies to apologise and denigrate "where we (western civilisation) are." To so apologise and denigrate in the single-minded way which seems common among progressives is to miss entirely the fact that "we're not what we were" and to devalue the hard, often awful losses, sacrifices and efforts by our fellow humans that have allowed us to move even this far on the road to what we think we ought to be.
The hard truth which we ignore at our own peril is that Western European derived societies are the only societies in which the conditions for ending slavery, for the beginnings of social and economic equality for women, for freedom of and from religion, for respect and the beginning of equality before laws and other institutions for folks of non-heterosexual orientation and/or non-standard gender have taken root. Perhaps most importantly, the values of these societies allow people who disagree with the basic tenets of the societies, "progressives" for example, to stay at large, speak their opinion and, indeed, remain alive. None of these are a given in societies derived through other lineages.
Our sins , colonialism/imperialism, cultural arrogance, corruption, nepotism, greed, are the sins of humanity and are not, repeat not, particular to us. Even a cursory reading of history or anthropology provides endless testimony to the consistency of these behaviours across millennia, across ethnicities, across political and economic philosophies and institutions. Our tendency to vilify our own society is psychologically fascinating: We would, for example, fire a therapist whose approach required us to accept that, in our failings and fallings, we were execrable, contemptible monsters. Many of us have rejected religions which encourage just such an attitude. Why in the world do we find such hateful, one-eyed, misanthropy acceptable in what we congratulate ourselves is our supposedly progressive and sophisticated assessment of our society? Why do we want to revert to, even encourage, this hateful mindset?
Almost alone along the history of human social development, our societies take the behaviours I listed above, or at least their extreme expression, as impediments to social progress, rather than as the givens of acceptable behaviour. The social values and institutions that we have inherited, while not anywhere near perfect, are fundamentally instrumental in cultivating this attitude and the efforts over the last 1500 or so years to, indeed, develop society, often unawares, in the direction of more universal participation.
We do not have to apologise for social and legal means aimed at maintaining the social conditions that we have inherited. That is one duty that society owes its members: the maintenance of sufficient stability that relations between people and between people and institutions are reasonably predictable.
And we are far more inheritors than constructors. It seems to me that our challenge is to foster a more mature appreciation of the strengths and weaknesses of our culture. In the past 75 years we've moved from a juvenile, one-dimensional celebration of the superiority of our culture into a later adolescent, though still one-dimensional stance of contempt for its banalities and self flagellating guilt for its failings.
Both positions seem to me radically self-centred and immature: We are the Greatest is only the flip side of We are the Worst. Can we really be so special as to be either the greatest or the worst? Surely this is covert racism/ethnicism? We are humans, like all other humans; each a unique expression of a common template; growing, learning, developing. Some of us are better at some things than others, and some of us aren't. The essence of maturity is learning one's strengths and weaknesses in the context of the complex social world in which we live. So are our societies human societies: churning expressions of the wants, needs, values, glories and sins of the humans and institutions that make them up.
Surely as progressives we are wise to the temptations of our own ego to put ourselves in the position of being oh so wonderfully/awfully special? To continue to do so; to continue to be the constant harpies of our collective awfulness seems to me to be the opposite of progressive. We need to be able to hold the complexity of view that King epitomised: we have come a long way AND we have farther to go. We aren't yet angels AND we're not the devils we were and febrile tantrums on the theme of our collective awfulness do not move us in the direction of the angels.