To put it simply, it’s three things. Number one, my own experiences – losing a couple of jobs and twice spending two months scrambling to find new employment – which, while not nearly as harsh as what many are going through, helped open my eyes. Those experiences made me see that I need to not be judgmental about those who go a good length of time without finding work. There are many reasons why that is possible. It showed me how important empathy is.
That empathy makes me want to see society work for everyone. Not just those who are wealthy and well-connected. I, like the vast, vast majority of progressives, do not advocate any kind of enforced equality of income. I’m all for hard work, ingenuity, initiative and creativity being rewarded, handsomely. What I object to is corporate CEOs making several hundreds of times more than those in their employ. I’m opposed to companies laying off people in order to increase short-term profitability. Especially when those layoffs happen in years of record profits. Gross economic inequality goes hand-in-hand with gross political inequality. I watch sports, but real life should be nothing like a sporting contest or a game show, where “to the victor goes the spoils” and if you’re not the victor, too bad, so sad, it sucks to be you. To be a progressive is to believe that those who have the means to exploit the rest of us must be held in constant check, be they in government, or captains of industry.
People make mistakes in life regularly. All of us do. Should those mistakes, though, necessarily condemn us to living paycheck-to-paycheck, or even hand-to-mouth, for the rest of our days? Should those mistakes create for us artificial roadblocks or more onerous hoops to jump through to be able to make our way? I have a real problem with that. I’m not saying that nobody should face any consequences for the choices they make. I just question the need for making those consequences be like millstones hung around peoples’ necks for the rest of their lives.
We will never be able to 100% eradicate all suffering, but I believe in the adage “strive for perfection, and you will achieve excellence”. If you strive to end all suffering, you may not actually achieve that, but you increase your chances of drastically reducing it. As Martin Luther King put it:
On the one hand we are called to play the good Samaritan on life’s roadside; but that will be only an initial act. One day we must come to see that the whole Jericho road must be transformed so that men and women will not be constantly beaten and robbed as they make their journey on life’s highway. True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar; it is not haphazard and superficial. It comes to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring
And while I want society to work for all of us, for us to work together for the common good – the greatest good for us, I am a progressive because I believe individuals have value. Individualism is not a dirty word. It has just been corrupted by some to mean “I’ve got mine. If you don’t have yours it’s your own damn fault, so screw you.” Individualism done the right way means that we recognize everybody’s right to a space that is their own, that we respect differences among us. It’s none of our damn business whether someone is physically attracted to the opposite sex, the same sex, or both. It’s none of our business whether one believes in a god, or multiple gods, or doesn’t believe in any gods. It has no effect on us. The greater good means that all of us have skin in the game, that all of us have something to contribute. Our personal religious beliefs, or sexual orientations, or our private sex lives, have absolutely nothing to do with it.
I’m also a progressive because of the way the word progress is defined. A key definition:
the development of an individual or society in a direction considered more beneficial than and superior to the previous level
The human condition can only be improved if we give ourselves the permission to question authority. That means questioning not only people in positions of authority, but the “authority” of conventional wisdom. Religious liberty would not have been possible if nobody had the courage to call into question the seemingly prevailing attitude that one’s personal religious beliefs were the state’s business. Would chattel slavery have been disposed of, at least when it did, had it not been for people willing to question the idea of treating anybody as property rather than as fully equal human beings? Would we have such things as the 40-hour work week, paid overtime, pensions, sick days, paid holidays, workplace safety standards, you name it, if nobody questioned the idea that if you work for somebody, your ass belongs to them and they can deal with you as they please?
So, to crystallize this, I see being progressive as consisting of three things:
- Do your part in making society work for everybody
- Respect individual differences
- Give yourself permission to question authority