On the myth of inevitable progress
We tend to assume progress is inevitable but risk complacency and inaction in belief
Here is a screenshot of the traffic to this blog as of June 23rd, 2020:
Here is a screenshot of the traffic to this blog as of June 24th, 2020:
Most writers or businesspeople may deny you the pleasure of a labeled X or Y axis. I will not engage in petty obfuscation to create inflated intrigue around something as mundane as a random person’s blog statistics.
This chart is not impressive. It does not go “up and to the right” -- never mind that we just have to just say a chart “goes up” to have the same meaning since “to the right” is entirely superfluous for any concept (all) governed by time.
I will admit I refreshed the page almost as many times as it was viewed by other people, hoping that the trend from yesterday would continue. But it did not. Not today at least. But people have come to expect more complexity with progress and we all know what follows. Here are two examples you may be familiar with:
First, there’s the startup journey. This could be a classic “wearing off of novelty” and start of “trough of sorrow”:
Then there’s the more generalized, reassuring, up, down, up, down -- but eventually up -- journey of progress:
Source (it appears like comedian Demetri Martin is the original person who crafted this - correct me if I am wrong! Comedians know better than others about the ups and downs on the path to success).
It always goes up, right?
Consider one more example: President Obama quoting Dr. Martin Luther King Jr (including during the 1965 Selma to Montgomery March) quoting a 19th century clergyman abolitionist and Unitarian minister Theodore Parker:
“The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice”
The full original context from Reverend Parker is as follows and worth reading for yourself:
Look at the facts of the world. You see a continual and progressive triumph of the right. I do not pretend to understand the moral universe; the arc is a long one, my eye reaches but little ways; I cannot calculate the curve and complete the figure by the experience of sight; I can divine it by conscience. And from what I see I am sure it bends towards justice. -- Theodore Parker, 1853, Of Justice and The Conscience
...Not to mention - why does it have to be an arc? Why does it have to take so long? And why “bend” toward justice as opposed to something much more direct, such as achieving full and unequivocal justice? Doesn’t something so core to the soul of society justify a more direct route? Is there some sort of virtue in tolerating and taking time to conquer inequality?
Consider his words. Theodore Parker says he believes the moral universe bends towards justice. That is it. A feeling. A feeling on which we have based deep belief.
We repeat “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice” almost reflexively when faced with hardship or a setback. As if it is either religion we have full faith in or science we have empirically tested. It’s neither.
This is not only simplistic; it embodies the naïveté that Nietzsche warned against when he encouraged cheerfulness to endure the difficult, but discouraged a mindless exercise in blind optimism. He advised a realistic outlook after grappling with the challenges in front of oneself and then forging ahead, well-informed and ready for the task.
The task may be justice, it may be company-building, it may be personal perseverance. But we are supposed to be ready, not blindly or patiently naive and expecting the outcome to take care of itself.
Yes, we need hope, but not at the expense of action. Action sometimes is delayed when we expect the inevitable.
The dangerous assumption embedded in people’s interpretations is that the end-state is indeed success, or moral justice, or anything else. However, the far more common option is failure. It’s beyond the scope of a Twitter chart.
These illustrations and quotations serve to remind us that the path to success is almost always indirect, and they provide us with reassurance and faith in dark hours when web traffic is down, customers say no, or an audience boos the comedian. The dark hours where another unarmed person is murdered. The dark hours when a pandemic ravages a country. There are many dark hours and these illustrations provide reassurance in those times. It is critical that we prevent despair in order to persevere and these ideas help achieve that.
But success is not guaranteed to begin with and averting despair is not an end unto itself. It is a means towards progress. Yet the moral universe does not have to result in justice. Therefore, believing ideas like this that have become reflexive cliches is at risk of a cost, inaction, that is far greater than the benefit of reassurance. That cost is complacence. If we believe that the arc bends towards justice, do we feel compelled to bend it ourselves?
This idea breeds patience more than it breeds action, and that is a negative consequence not worth the reassurance.
Nietzsche tackles this head on in his preface to Anti-Christ:
Mankind does not represent a development towards a better, stronger or higher type, in the sense in which this is supposed to occur to-day. "Progress" is merely a modern idea—that is to say, a false idea. The modern European is still far below the European of the Renaissance in value. The process of evolution does not by any means imply elevation, enhancement and increasing strength.
On the other hand isolated and individual cases are continually succeeding in different places on earth, as the outcome of the most different cultures, and in these a higher type certainly manifests itself: something which by the side of mankind in general, represents a kind of superman. Such lucky strokes of great success have always been possible and will perhaps always be possible. And even whole races, tribes and nations may in certain circumstances represent such lucky strokes.
Nietzsche makes two important points here. First, he asserts that the men he was around were not in fact more valuable than a man of the past. If he is right, he is suggesting that man had not progressed - however he measured that - from the man of hundreds of years prior. Even someone living today may agree that humankind during the Renaissance may have been more ‘valuable’ than at varying moments since then - but would likely assert this is much like the success illustration or the startup journey illustration - that there are troughs but eventually a higher station.
Secondly, he asserts that isolated cases of success and outpacing previous generations resemble more like lucky strokes than the entire advancement of mankind. He’s right. We take outliers and raise them up as if they were the same as higher averages: the runner who breaks a world record or the country that rose out of poverty. In an age of the Internet and social media and filter bubbles, we are even more susceptible to perceiving outliers as averages.
But we should not mistake outliers and individual luck for higher averages and collective progress. Nor should we patiently awake the long arc of justice to deliver us or success to work its ups and downs, as much as we should bravely recognize that failure or moral injustice is the most likely outcome, and do everything we can to defeat it.