Values and ‘Progressive’ Thinking
The issue was controversial. One of many where opposing ideas and beliefs collide head on. I was reading about it in a passionately argued piece by a weekend newspaper journalist recently. The topic doesn’t really matter. The writer argued that what we needed to do was to free ourselves from the prejudices of previous generations.
That started me thinking. We hear and read so often of the need for ‘progressive’ thinking to solve the problems facing us in the 21st century. To some commentators that appears to mean turning away from our traditions and heritage towards new ways of thinking and new value systems. Not that I want to argue that we should bind ourselves to our past and never look for fresh perspectives. That is a recipe for stagnation. I do however have some nagging concerns about the way ‘progressive’ and similar words are being used today to denigrate the traditions, faith, wisdom and the humanity of past generations.
Previous generations had different issues and problems to face, but they still had them. No one worried much about international terrorism a couple of generations ago. Few people were talking about their right to die with ‘dignity’. Fewer still thought of climate change as a threat. People had not yet been exposed to marketing professionals who would tell them that the world was ‘all about them’. They had different problems, which they faced with courage, intelligence and creativity, and in the process they made mistakes – sometimes big ones. They also thought, by the way, that they knew better than previous generations. What they didn’t tend to do, apart for some notable exceptions, was to discount their heritage.
New times, new challenges . . . ‘progressive’ thinking?
I have a problem when I hear that earlier generations were shackled by the weight of tradition and superstition, were not as enlightened as we are, and that we are somehow smarter nowadays than they were. I read and hear this sort of thing repeatedly in the media and throughout our culture. The assumption is repeated so often that I wonder if people still recognise it for what it is – ignorant and wishful thinking.
While it might be comforting to think that one’s parents, grandparents, and past generations didn’t really understand, and made such a mess of things that we need to clean it all up and put things right, such a belief is at heart an adolescent one. It makes people feel smug and superior but it doesn’t hold water. Anyone who has tried to learn the complexities of the ancient Greek language or had a close look at the workings of a steam engine will know people in the past were far from stupid. It may be a surprise for some to learn that the present generation was not the first to appreciate the need to protect the environment; the first to be seduced by materialism; or the first to think they didn’t need God.
There is an underlying problem when we regard our current day perspectives and values as ‘progressive’ or ‘enlightened’. The flip side is that it encourages us to see our heritage and traditions as ‘regressive’ and mere prejudice. When we start to believe the propaganda that tells us we know best and that the mass of our history and culture, and not least our faith, is wrong or mistaken, we are in very dangerous waters. When the beliefs of previous generations are disparaged in the media; when our heritage is ridiculed; and when our value system becomes so blurred and ambiguous that self interest and convenience are the only reference points for what is ethical, then as a culture we are in serious trouble.
People of previous generations were far from perfect. They sometimes did awful and stupid things. They also did things that were wonderful and awe inspiring. Are we so very different? If we choose to think we are, and we disregard and ridicule our heritage of faith and values, we do not deserve to be taken seriously by the generations that will follow us.
Did the journalist who called for the ‘prejudices of the past’ to be thrown off really think it would be as simple as that? Did she think that ‘progressive’ thinking should disregard what our forebears knew and passed down to us? She seemed unaware that disposing of the prejudices of earlier generations will not guarantee that we will not be blinded by those of our own.