It is increasingly clear with each passing year that public life has been colonised by the zealots of a progressive creed of equality and diversity. It is a continuously evolving creed and you have to keep up. Fifteen years ago it was racist (or even fascist) to bring up the topic of immigration, and common for Parliament to seek reassurances that we weren’t headed towards gay marriage. Today, immigration is barely out of the news, and it is the height of controversy to raise any doubts at all about same-sex marriage.
The lines are ever moving. But, by golly, do you know when you cross them. Employees who express socially conservative views or dare to question the diversity agenda are summarily sacked or demoted. Business leaders who oppose same-sex marriage find their organisations boycotted until they are removed. Magistrates are fired for articulating the idea that it is better for children to have a mother and a father. University academics gang up on dissenting colleagues in an effort to get rid of them, and university bosses are severely criticised for not taking action against academic staff. States are forced to comply with transgender demands over toilet facilities. Companies are viciously bullied into renouncing support for rational debate and becoming champions of the LGBT agenda. Bakeries and many other businesses involved in weddings are ordered by courts to undertake artistic work contrary to their religious beliefs. MPs are hounded and attacked for confessing to holding (or being suspected of holding) socially conservative views. Religious schools are failed for not acting contrary to their beliefs and pushing the radical sexuality agenda, while government advisers make clear that dissent should not be tolerated. Physicians who offer help to people with unwanted same-sex attraction are verbally assaulted on television. Self-styled anti-fascists violently attack politicians and others who dare to challenge the regnant ideology. Once-feted feminists are pilloried for not embracing transgender ideology. Universities and other organisations impose diversity and equality regulations and training on students and staff. Students’ unions routinely ban the expression of views with which they disagree. Volunteers are made to wear badges promoting the LGBT agenda. Foster carers are barred merely for holding socially conservative views on sexuality. On every level and in every sphere, in school, government and workplace, the progressive zealots are on the march and will brook no dissent.
So why are these so-called progressives so anti-freedom, so imperious in enforcing compliance with their creed? They don’t think of themselves as anti-freedom, of course. They think of themselves as pro-freedom – freedom to be yourself, your gender, your sexuality, your race, your individuality. Just not freedom of speech, conscience or religion – not at least if what you want to say or what you believe contradicts the progressive agenda. But this isn’t anti-freedom, they think, it is merely opposing bigotry, oppression, discrimination and hatred. It is, they suppose, the modern-day civil rights movement – earlier generations fought for racial equality, today that continues but with gender and sexuality added in to the cause.
But aren’t freedom of conscience, religion, speech, and so on, progressive causes too? Didn’t earlier generations of progressive thinkers and activists recognise the importance of defending such freedoms precisely to protect people from being silenced because others find their ideas offensive or hateful? So why do the rules appear to be different now that the progressives are in charge – was it only progressive, liberal views they were ever really interested in defending, and now they are on top they are happy to dispense with the quaint notion of tolerating their opponents?
Tolerance in weakness, intolerance in strength – the classic double standard of ideological minorities, and it no doubt plays its part here. As too, surely, does the baleful legacy of racism in Europe and America, which has convinced many that certain ideas and beliefs are not to be tolerated in public life even amongst the conscientious and religious.
But there is also something deeper going on, something more than a double standard of tolerance or a convicted conscience about race. Ultimately, and not without a whiff of paradox, it is the nihilism and relativism at the heart of modern culture which underpins the progressives’ confidence in their moral superiority and their overactive sense of being justified in suppressing all dissent.
How so? The most important thing to grasp about the progressive creed is that it is not really a positive philosophy at all but a negative one, not an affirmation of truth but a denial of all truth, not a vision of the human good but a renouncing of the very idea of the human good.
The attempt to build a practical philosophy without any foundation in truth or morality was arguably the central project of twentieth century moral and political philosophy. It came in a wide variety of guises – liberal, conservative and socialist, left-wing and right-wing – and was espoused in one form or another by a great diversity of thinkers – Isaiah Berlin, John Rawls, Friedrich Hayek, Milton Friedman, Jean-Paul Sartre, Michael Oakeshott, and many more – but for all its variety it was united by a deep scepticism about the existence of the human good and our capacity to know it and attain it.
The basic idea was to find an approach to human life that did not claim to be true but only claimed to be neutral between truth claims, did not assert itself to be right but merely allowed everyone to live according to their own beliefs about how best to live. In this way, scepticism, relativism and nihilism could, paradoxically, become it seemed the basis for a public philosophy, namely one founded entirely on the concept of the individual expressing his or her own distinctive individuality. For it turns out that while the human good may not exist, or we may not know what it is, we can always let people make up their own minds about it and ensure they are free to do so.
The sinister shadow side of this progressive project is its totalising nature – though this is not a consequence which its intellectual architects necessarily foresaw or would welcome. Yet it follows inescapably from the relativist and individualist premise. For if the one principle which a sceptical, relativist world can affirm is individuality, then at all costs any principles which undermine that because they continue to peddle the old ideas of truth and goodness must be resisted and suppressed. Not, note, disputed and refuted – that would be to play the moralists at their own game, to accept the discredited idea that there is a truth to be established to which reason can lead us. No, forcibly silenced, for that is all that is left when rationality and truth have been jettisoned as unreliable relics of superseded ways of thinking. This silencing appears to be all the more necessary, furthermore, when it is seen how easily people are led into believing that their own peculiar ideas are true for everyone and ought to be imposed on society, how seductive ideas of truth and goodness are to human beings.
The deep irony in all this of course is that the progressive creed is, in truth, the very thing it opposes. It may claim to be neutral and avoid all grounding in ideas of truth and morality, but it cannot succeed, for that is impossible, a flatly incoherent idea. It is therefore, by its own lights, no more justified in imposing itself on society than any other set of beliefs.
Thus progressivism becomes the very thing it stands against. It denies the truth can be known, yet asserts this as unassailable truth; it opposes the imposition of morality, yet intransigently imposes its own ethical code; it stands against the authoritarian and autocratic, yet stripped of reason that is the only way it knows how to rule. It becomes inexorably a dictatorship of relativism. This self-contradictory nature flows directly from the error at its core: the idea that leaving things up to the individual is a neutral, value-free approach to life, when clearly it is no such thing.
Now, as Christians it is important to say that our alternative is not to deny the significance of the individual and individuality, but to put them in a proper perspective and to stand them on their true ground. God created humankind in his own image – conscious, rational, creative, free – as individuals and not just as collectives, as persons and not just as a species. It is as individuals that we take responsibility for ourselves and others, and as individuals that we will stand before our Maker and give account for our lives. It is this commitment to personal responsibility that ultimately leads Christians to support religious freedom and freedom of conscience.
But this is not at all the same as the progressive creed of individualism floating free on a sea of relativism, scepticism and nihilism. This is the freedom of those who are made in the image of God, those who are created equal and endowed by their creator with certain inalienable rights. This is a freedom founded on the truth about human beings and on a vision of the human good, not on a denial of these things. This is why at its heart is a commitment to freedom of conscience, speech, expression and religion – the very freedoms so often denied by adherents of the progressive vision. It is also why alongside its commitment to freedom, or rather as part of it, it remains resolutely committed to truth – truth which it is well to stress given present disputes includes biological realities such as the humanity of the unborn child and the nature of male and female and the relationship between them. Progressives regard these and other facts as socially constructed, products of unconscious bias which ‘bigots’ and ‘fascists’ use to override the personal autonomy of individuals. But Christians know better than this, and hold that true freedom is freedom that keeps hold of what is true.
Christians can of course be progressive in the broader sense, of being committed to a vision of human progress and improvement. But words are defined in large measure by usage, and these days to be progressive typically means to be an adherent of the ascendant ideology of the individual – relativist, sceptical, nihilist, cut free from any moorings in truth or reason. If some Christians wish to call themselves progressive and try to reclaim the word for a true vision of progress then that is a noble endeavour. But be under no illusion that what currently passes for progressive ideas is far removed from a Christian vision of the human good. Indeed, it is by design far removed from any vision of the human good, for it has replaced it with a mushy therapeutic relativism that aims to keep everyone happy by telling them they can’t be wrong and cosseting them from anyone who might try to tell them otherwise. Yet it conspicuously does not extend this delicate treatment to dissenters, whom it means to silence without pity. The way things are going, it is hard to see what will stop it. Lovers of freedom, time to wake up.