My cousin was in town from D.C. We had lunch. While waiting for our orders he told me he had a topic I might be interested in turning into a column. He called it: Progress doesn’t leave people behind. As you can see, I liked it as a title in the form of a question, but it wasn’t a philosophical inquiry for my cousin, it was a declarative statement.
He added, “Put your own spin on it, but you get the gist.”
I’m better with big pictures than I am with gists. My mind immediately did a historical analysis surmising that the wheels of progress have crushed civilizations, kingdoms, empires, economies, institutions, and industries for centuries. That’s the nature of the phenomenon. But my cousin’s analysis was contemporary. It stemmed from driving through neighborhoods in the process of gentrification and his frustration with the inequities produced by capitalism.
Since I adhere to Voltaire’s dictum: If you wish to converse with me, define your terms, I said, first, we need a working definition of progress.
My cousin replied, “Progress is a hard process to define.”
This brief conversation illustrates the problem with contemporary political discourse. It’s rooted in terms not clearly defined or used haphazardly. In a talk called: The dying art of disagreement, New York Times Columnist Bret Stephens stated the great debates throughout history were never based on a misunderstanding; they came to fruition through complete comprehension of the matter.
My understanding of progress came from the evidence compiled in the historical record, but my cousin examined the negative outcomes of contemporary activities, like poor people being displaced due to gentrification and took a moral stance. His statement, progress doesn’t leave people behind, advanced the notion that any activity that leaves people behind is inhumane and cannot be called progress. (Fredrick Douglass said without struggle, there’s no progress, my cousin’s version would be there’s no progress, if people are struggling.)
I understand the sentiment, but I didn’t understand how he could make a moral judgment without a working definition of progress. Here are two definitions. 1). A forward movement to an objective. 2). Gradual betterment, especially the progressive development of humankind. Neither definition implies that people will not be left behind. I stated in the beginning, it’s the nature of the phenomenon, but my cousin called progress a hard process.
So, is progress a phenomenon or process? Progress as a phenomenon is a situation that exists whose cause is unexplainable, and progress as a process is a series of actions taken in order to achieve a particular end.
The answer is both. The totality of the political, social, and economic processes creates a phenomenon that doesn’t subject itself to simple explanations. There are literally thousands of variables that contribute to “progress” and “people being left behind.”
The real question is if progress should be redefined by moral outcomes. I’m agnostic on that metric, but my cousin took a leap of faith, making his thought process on the issue more advanced and progressive than mine. In other words, he has left me behind.
(J. Pharoah Doss is a contributor to the New Pittsburgh Courier.)
by J. Pharoah Doss, For New Pittsburgh Courier