One of the issues with the modern mindset is that forward thinking is deemed to be a sign of moral superiority, or enlightenment. However, even though forward thinking, or progress, allows for the possibility of new alternatives and solutions to ongoing problems, it’s not a moral issue. These are two separate categories.
Progress has effectively become the fourth Western religion. This statement becomes ironic when you take John Gray’s insights of humanism into consideration; humanism posits that humans are special on their own, which extends into the belief that since we can develop technology and advanced social systems, we not only should, but we’re implicitly better than other species that can’t. Thus, Gray points out that those who worship humanism aren’t any more ethical or smart than those who worship otherworldly spirits.
Derrick Jensen hits this again through arguing how the idea of progress has allowed humans to feel entitled to destroy nature even though they are part of it. Jensen further demonstrates that this civilization—“this” because we chose this civilization among other possibilities—is actually perplexed as to why things have always gone to shit in some way, but for some reason doesn’t connect its own entitlement to these destructive results. He thus identifies this civilization as being addicted to madness.
The ideas of progress and morality are two different categories; they are not contingent upon one another in the sense that if one advances the other automatically advances. Within this civilization, the opposite is more likely to be true, considering progress often entitles one to Gray’s humanism or Jensen’s mad destruction. These mechanisms don’t seem very moral.
For some reason we haven’t learned from history that when powerful cultures attach the idea of moral betterment to progress, disaster ensues. What do you think Nazi medical experimentation within the death camps was all about? Or lobotomies on angsty children, and the mentally handicapped? The list goes on even further into our past, which is why it’s so scary that the predominant culture still hasn’t dissociated moral betterment from progress. (I know, I know, they view it as Progress with a capital P…)
If you want to focus on being more moral, knock your socks off. If you want to focus on progressing technology and ideas, knock your socks off. But history has shown that if you think progress is an indicator or moral superiority, then you’re just another adherent of the fourth Western religion; one who has learned to weaponize one when emboldened/enabled by the other. It’s a nasty, humancentric codependence.
Since progress is an intangible idea, it’s easy to perceive that we’re in alignment with it when we’re really not. This is how many social ideologies fail.
Take for example Michelle Obama’s healthy lunch program; in her heart of hearts she knew that physical health is a key factor to improving one’s quality of life. However, the program was a disaster that led to a huge waste of food and even unhealthier eating habits—students wouldn’t eat at school and would instead feed at vending machines whenever they could. On the surface, yes, she was in alignment with healthier living, but what this campaign failed to take into consideration (other than the fact that it’s not the school’s responsibility to impose healthy eating upon students) was that if the students didn’t already have healthy eating habits at home then they wouldn’t seamlessly take to them at school. Habits are habitual for a reason; they’re a continued reinforcement. More food was thrown away than before the program launched, and more kids were eating vending machine (or their ilk) type meals than before it was launched.
I’m not in any way knocking healthy eating, but I am knocking the massive disconnect between Michelle Obama’s progress-driven ideology of health and the reality of students not automatically eating what you put in front of them. To boot, the only way this was passed from a budgetary standpoint was because it was pitched as being “better for children.” See how the righteousness of progress was tucked in there, and completely overshadowed the reality of habit?
The witch trials are another example of the disconnect between the projected results of progress-oriented ideologies, and reality.
Men were so resistant to women being anything other than maids and sexual objects that when illnesses, deaths, or pretty much anything they determined as unordinary occurred, mischievous women were blamed as being the causes, via magic or some other type of intangible divination. (Warlocks—male witches—were persecuted at a much lower rate.)
Evan Andrews of the History Channel documented 7 tests of witchcraft. Note how these “tests” replace objective, repeatable evidence with anecdotal results and in some cases, outright deception:
1: The swim test, where a stone was attached to an alleged witch’s waist, and she was thrown into a body of water. If she floated she was a witch, but if she plunged to the bottom she was not. Accidental deaths occurred, of course, when she wasn’t rescued quickly enough.
2: The prayer test. If the alleged witch made any kind of mistake, or even hesitated, during reciting the Catholic “Lord’s Prayer,” then she was determined to be a witch.
3: The touch test, where alleged witches were told to touch a “possessed person,” aka those who succumbed to uncontrollable fits. If the possessed person had a fit, then the alleged witch was viewed as an actual witch.
4: Witch cakes. Urine was collected from victims of possession and then mixed with other ingredients and baked into a cake. Upon feeding it to dogs, who were viewed as witches “familiars,” it was hoped the dogs would speak in English the name of the witch who caused the possession. The concoction never worked, surprisingly. In one instance, in an effort to aid witch hunters, the slave Tituba told them of this concoction, and was then put to death as a witch, because according to the witch hunters this “knowledge” indicated her status as a witch.
5: Witch marks. Witches were said to be physically marked in some way upon making a pact with Satan. Do you think birthmarks, blemishes, or even scars from the hard life they lives were mistaken for these marks? Oh no…never.
6: Pricking and Scratching tests. Specially designed needles were used to locate numb spots on the body, which indicated the location of a witch mark, since those marks were said to lack sensation. However, in England and Scotland, well-paid “prickers” used dull needles and other cons to send the alleged witches to their doom. Scratching tests were also used, where a possessed person was forced to scratch the witch alleged to have possessed them. If the possessed person stayed calm, their accuser was determined to be a witch, because scratching their alleged accuser, even to the point of bleeding, was believed to give them reprieve.
7: Incantations. When alleged witches were forced to speak to the devil about releasing his control over a possessed person, third party onlookers judged the effectiveness of the incantation. And as alleged witches were forced to address to the devil in particular ways; “As a witch, I…”, then it’s not hard to see how this test led one from being merely alleged of being a witch to proven to being a witch.
The witch trials, although admittedly trite as a historical citation of idiocy, are an effective piece of evidence of how drunken humankind can become when we latch onto the idea that it’s our duty to impose our perception of progress upon others. During the witch trials, the cultural leaders truly thought they were preserving and protecting their beneficent, moral community. Since they claimed society as their own, they viewed it as their duty to protect it as they deemed fit. So it didn’t matter that the tests were rigged; to them they were seeking out the devil through its chosen vessel: women.
This is how you justify killing many innocent people on the path to catching one guilty person.
Even though the witch trials weren’t as secular as modern progress has become (Technology! Science! Economics!), it was indeed applied in a secular fashion. This sounds paradoxical, but it’s chillingly accurate: in quoting otherworldly powers, humans in charge of hunting witches dominated other humans for the purpose of directing the world toward what they thought was a morally better place. Only people who believe they are anointed can do this. The Nazis were no different with their medical experimentation; they openly admitted to working toward producing a purer race.
Whereas today we, like Michelle Obama, impose certain progress-oriented things upon others that we preconceive as being indisputably good, in past times, like those of the witch hunt, we imposed progress-oriented ideologies upon others who we believed were holding humankind back. These two orientation differences are different enough on a topical level that we don’t view them as similar in any way. But that’s problematic, because the seed germ in this case is the same: a conviction that our idea of progress is better, more pure than everyone else’s. How do you think religious zealots have, and still do, kill without scruples in the name of God?
As such, dominant cultures are still imposing their idea of progress…sorry…Progress…onto others, because they’re fueled by the idea that they have excusive access to valuable moral insights. The reason for this is simple; as both Gray and Jensen would point out, humans have for a long, long time been averse to conceding our belief that we are an anointed race. The idea that we are an anointed race allows us to merge categories like morality and progress without a second thought. It allows us to take on twisted social ideologies and campaigns and movements and be baffled when they don’t work out the way we believe they should. This should is very troubling, because it creates a nook where moral obligation and superiority seats itself, and lays deep roots.