Part I Is progressivism a grandson of communism, or a cousin?
Part II The Nature of Evil
Part III Expanding Brotherhood
I have commented many times on the negative side of the social aspects of progressivism. In later commentary I will tackle again the idea of a good thing gone wrong. Yet it is important to remember that social pressure is often a good thing, and even when it is ambiguous in its goodness, sometimes a necessary thing. If the alternative is to force people or use violence, then society of course does better when it can accomplish its goals peacefully.
This plays out in at least two ways with progressives: picking up social cues, and how one makes one's money.
It is easy to caricature the high school aspect of any group's enforcement of its values. But it is not accidental that this enforcement starts in middle school and reaches a peak in the late teens. Age cohorts in even primitive societies have to learn to work together efficiently, and thus must communicate some important real values for group comity, plus some more arbitrary values for group bonding and distinction from other cohorts. Much of this is not taught to them by their elders, but by each other.
The people who you work with who don't pick up social cues are maddening. If they can't read the cues that a particular joke was not appropriate in this setting, or that certain meetings are supposed to be highly formal, or that everyone is tired of listening to them and they should shut up, everyone else in the group regards their judgment about all matters with suspicion. If he doesn't know when to shut up, we don't want him representing us with our biggest account. In politics, commenting that such-and-such a Senator is "tone deaf" on an issue, if she really doesn't get it why her comment bothered so many people, then we question whether she will hear their legitimate concerns. Reading the social cues accurately is a way of saying "I understand what's important to you."
When we sat in court waiting for our permanent guardianship hearing, Tracy and I noticed young people scheduled to appear who had made no effort to look presentable. In fact, many seemed to revel in their refusal to kowtow to group norms, wearing offensive T-shirts or strongly counter-cultural styles. It's a bad move, because it silently tells the world - and the judge - I reject your values. That attitude may be okay when you are creating a work of art, but when the present discussion revolves around whether you have understood societal norms as regards getting into fights, or stalking your girlfriend, or ripping people off, your attitude reveals that you still don't get it. Your desire to Be Yourself and have your personal expression regardless of circumstances is more important to you than the rights of the other citizens of your society. That's a problem.
It can get subtle. The protester in the park who has a badly-lettered sign with a dumb joke is a goober who has no credibility. But if your signs and presentation are professional-looking, you run the risk of appearing slick. In both popular cultural expression and in conversation, showing that you can read social cues is enormously important to liberals. If you can't pick up on signals they regard as obvious, they wonder what other obvious things you will overlook. They won't trust you to get it right in Congress.
Minor tangent: when Rush Limbaugh first came out, my thought was "He's just doing what political cartoonists do, but he's doing it on radio." To progressives, it was not only his ideas, but his style which infuriated them. If the guys doesn't get that you aren't supposed to talk like this on the radio, then how reliable can he be? NPR responded by developing an even more rigid signature style that was as opposite as possible - to show their listeners that they get it. This is how it's supposed to be done.
Reminder to conservatives: resist the temptation at present to dwell on how these social cues can sometimes be irrelevant but highly valued by progressives. Because we've got 'em too.
As to money, the social pressures around how you made it are a very necessary thing. If you got rich on kiddie porn or arms smuggling, you should not be accepted into polite society. When nothing can be proved against you but everyone knows the approximate reality, social pressure is sometimes the last line of defense against the wicked. Progressives' ambivalent attitude toward wealth often comes from this value. If you made a fortune doing something they don't value, or even worse, disapprove of, they can be quick to let you know that.
Yes, even those on the center-left have a much longer disapproval list than the rest of us, but it is important to keep in mind that this social approval of how wealth is acquired serves an important function in all cultures. Everyone does this to an extent, and an inward look should precede an outward finger-pointing here. You might also pity them for signing on to a culture that sharply limits in what manner you make your dough. Progressives have social sanctions for being plumbers or commercial developers or retailers of unapproved merchandise that puts them down in the social scale in their group. This contributes to their resentment of those who made money those ways, so they attempt to apply the same social sanctions that they are subject to.
Ah, I've gone negative on that. Sorry. Back to basics. The original impulse to use social pressure to curb unseemly, useless, objectionable, or even immoral behavior in others in society is a good thing.
There is an additional money piece. If a company moves an entire division from Maynard, MA to some less-expensive location to save money, progressives also figure in the social cost. Families are uprooted or lose jobs, social networks are harmed. Liberals feel that these costs should be factored into such decisions by the companies. They believe that there is some additional social contract between the employer and employed - that the employer should care about the employees. Both sides of the political spectrum exaggerate the failings of the other on this score. He'd run over his grandmother for an extra few bucks, versus They expect the owner to go out of business and go broke. Avoid the caricatures at present.