This week’s passage of abortion into Irish law, according to An Taoiseach Leo Varadkar, represents “the culmination of a quiet revolution that has been taking place in Ireland over the last couple of decades.” Quiet or not, a social and political revolution has indeed taken place on our island in recent years. What is less clear, however, is whether it represents the steady march of progress, as Mr Varadkar would have us believe.
Mr Varadkar’s version of events is by now a familiar trope in Irish public culture. Many in Ireland who consider themselves ‘progressives’ of one description or another, feel they are riding a wave of victories, dragging the nation out of the darkness of a benighted Catholic past and into the light of freedom. It is even occasionally suggested that history is “on the side” of the liberal-progressive movement, as though the nation were somehow swept up in an unstoppable march toward a more open, inclusive, and tolerant future.
This progressivist narrative, however, which peppers the discourse of many liberal politicians, journalists, and activists, deserves a bit of closer scrutiny, especially given the fact that history often moves in an awkward zig-zag rather than a straight line of progress. The Enlightened philosophes thought Europe was in a process of being progressively civilized, but the carnage of World War I and II proved that this progressive narrative was naïve and historically short-sighted.
If we take a critical look at political developments in Ireland, the progressivist narrative simply does not stand up to rational scrutiny. Ironically, the narrative is disrupted by the conduct of its most enthusiastic advocates, certain elements of the progressive movement, who have sought to rest social change on the seduction of ideological slogans and groupthink rather than on rational argumentation open to all relevant perspectives.
For over the course of these referenda, many self-styled ‘progressives’ have suggested, or at least insinuated, that anyone with the audacity to question the progressive agenda and its achievements to date is clearly on the “wrong side of history,” and is either morally and intellectually backward, or, worse still, a wilful enemy of social progress.
Progressives would do well to heed the words of John Stuart Mill, one of the fathers of modern progressivist thought. In his 1859 essay, On Liberty, Mill asserts that “the only way in which a human being can make some approach to knowing the whole of a subject, is by hearing what can be said about it by persons of every variety of opinion, and studying all modes in which it can be looked at by every character of mind. No wise man ever acquired his wisdom in any mode but this.”
Mill was optimistic about the possibility of social improvement through free and unfettered rational inquiry. However, his progressivism was checked by a frank acknowledgment of the fallibility of the human mind, and the need for opinion on every conceivable subject to be challenged by the insights of competing perspectives.
From a Millean perspective, the awkward dissenter who rocks the boat and makes the people around her uncomfortable, is not to be shut up or hung out to dry, but listened to with an open mind. For the path of true progress is uneven and winding, and does not neatly track the latest fashions. The most despised social pariah might very well see something that those with a million Facebook “likes” miss completely.
Mill’s insistence upon the salutary role of dissenters in challenging lazy social conventions makes sobering reading at a time when it is increasingly acceptable to evince openly hostile, contemptuous, and dismissive attitudes toward dissenters from the progressive agenda. Indeed, there are many workplaces and pubs in Ireland, where anyone who dares to speak their mind freely on a range of political and social questions, if they evince the slightest doubt about the Progressive Agenda, risk being dismissed and marginalized as irrational bigots by their more “progressive”-minded friends and colleagues, who seem to think no reasonable person could possibly disagree with them.
If self-professed progressives are confident about the soundness of their political and social opinions, they have nothing to fear from hearing dissenters out, and engaging respectfully with their views. And they have a good deal to lose by prematurely stigmatizing all forms of dissent as backward or bigoted. For such stigmatisation only serves to artificially protect their own beliefs against robust cross-examination, converting them into stale museum pieces which might look good from a distance, but have not been properly and fairly put to the test by being confronted with thoughtful and challenging counter-arguments.
Undoubtedly, many Irish people who would self-identify as progressives would not wish to stigmatise fellow citizens just because they hold views different to their own. However, not all of those who don the mantle of progressivism are so tolerant. Many self-styled “progressives” have silenced the voice of dissenters by suggesting that sincere doubts about certain tenets of modern progressivism are simply beyond the pale of civilized discourse.
It is only by keeping our mind open to the possibility that our most cherished opinions may be mistaken, and respectfully engaging with our most forceful critics, that we remain intellectually, morally, and politically alert. Progressives need to hear out dissenting viewpoints, because only open-minded engagement with diverse perspectives can save us from intellectual and moral complacency and stagnation. History has taught us, from Socrates to Martin Luther King, that today’s dissenters and misfits might just turn out to be tomorrow’s heroes.