Society must reclaim the true definition of progress
Writing: Vaishnavi Ramu
Truthfully, the first thing that occurs to my mind when I think of progress is my time at school. If there was one concept our teachers all agreed upon - among the complete disillusionment that was the new ‘Curriculum for Excellence’ - it was this. A cult-like chant, sung by our dreary teachers each day, progress appeared to be the central pillar that their teaching was built upon. However, as well-intentioned as some of the teachers were, I feel there is something amiss when I recall these thoughts: was this really progress? Or had this idea once boasted by politicians, philosophers and scholarly academics been reduced to ticking a few boxes at the end of a class exercise?
The second idea that occurs has two aspects. Parents, or the lack thereof, are pivotal in one’s upbringing. There are two ways of looking at this: one, average parents, who generally want you to do well; two, Asian parents, who will inevitably sacrifice you if you get anything below a first. We have an image to keep of course: we are the model minority, aren’t we? Nevertheless, it’s no secret that the ‘Tiger Mum’ phenomenon is spreading to the west, with people across all races and nationalities increasingly pushing their children to do 8 different extra-curriculars a week, hiring academics to write personal statements – all on top of getting A* grades all around. Progress, in this case, has not only become about appearance, but also survival in an increasingly judgmental society.
Finally, the third and last thought that comes to mind is as follows: progress’s derivative word, progressive. Being a progressive is a dominant part of left wing politics today, and while many have dismissed it as ‘political correctness gone too far’ or ‘identity politics ruining the left’ (I agree that there is some truth in both these sentiments), I proudly consider myself a progressive: because at the end of the day, without political correctness or identity politics, people would probably still be asking if they could touch my hair and if I got too gassy from eating curry all the time. Unfortunately, thanks to a small minority getting butthurt all the time, a resulting exploitation from predominantly white, right-wing extremists - who honestly couldn’t care less about the working class if they didn’t have a chance of gaining their vote – has emerged, and is still gaining traction.
We have our trifecta of definitions, but what do they all have in common? In all of these scenarios, progress has become about appearance, reputation, and most dangerously, developed into something too fragile: a trend. All trends have an expiry date, meaning that they eventually go out of fashion; and I have no doubt that, with its current trajectory, the true meaning of progress will go down the same route. In schools, progress now means university attendance rates (Oxbridge preferably), increasing the percentage of students getting good grades – and all while getting rid of those who ‘don’t fit the mould’ as soon as possible. Parents, succumbing to societal pressure and realising that their children are the first to have less than the previous generation, drive their kids to twenty different extra-curriculars a week, hire graduates to write personal statements and pay extortionate amounts to send their kids to a private school, so that their kids can be ‘the best that they can be’. And finally, progressives post the right hashtags, pray for the disasters and go to climate protests, but continue to buy Starbucks frappes and lattes, thinking substituting dairy for oat milk alone will do the trick.
The analysis above, I’m aware, is really quite scathing, but I have my reasons: because I, myself, fall into all three categories: I went to the state school that tried too hard to look preppy, and getting As was all I cared about; my parents, only wanting the best for me, forked out extra money on tuition fees for an elitist public school to the point they could no longer afford it. I confess, rather begrudgingly, for all the climate change discourse I have participated in and support I’ve shown for the movement, I’m an absolute sucker for a Starbucks chocolate cream frappe; but it’s fine! The straw is made out of paper, who cares about the plastic cup?
I don’t blame schools for wanting to improve grades and attendance rates, nor do I blame parents for wanting the best for their children, and I certainly understand the difficulty of practising what you preach among young people; in a world where we are constantly told that our fate is essentially doomed, we’ll have less money and be lucky enough to ever own our own home, focusing our energies on great causes such as climate change while having a frappe on a study break, to me, is a redeemable sin. These actions, in my opinion, are responses: responses to a society that has succumbed to the clutches of consumerism, disposable culture and over-emphasising reputation; all symptoms of the growing disease of neo-capitalism.
It is important to distinguish between neo-capitalism and capitalism itself, because there is a distinct difference here that people often miss. The very core and roots of capitalism are simply no longer existent today in greater society; capitalism originally functioning to benefit both the consumer and seller. It was not founded at a time where companies like McDonalds, Starbucks, Costa and many other chain companies, could fork out billions of pounds tax-free. A society where people have to wait months, and even years, for life-changing surgery or counselling, but where we have 7 different types of coffee at our fingertips, is a society that needs to change.
What has this got to do with progress, you ask? The less we hold these money-sucking companies accountable, the less we hold ourselves accountable. I often find when people are asked why they buy from Starbucks, or why they send their kids to a private school, that the answers are because we have increasingly less choice to do differently: “Starbucks is cheaper than the independent cafes,” or “our local school has no funding and less teachers than ever before,” are common responses. People want to change, but every day they’re given one less reason to, so any chance we can call out elitism in a tweet or demand action on climate change at a single protest, we do it.
So what do we do? Doesn’t everything above indicate that it is already too late? While I have made a brutal analysis of the people, in my answer to all this, I give you, once again: the people. During my recent trip to India, I was telling my stepdad how impressed I was with Tamil Nadu, the state where I was visiting, in their sustainability initiatives. Not only have they completely banned plastic bags, they also got rid of plastic cups and straws altogether – he agreed, also telling me of an initiative in Coimbatore, where people are giving leftover food to the wider community in order to reduce food waste. In a country responsible for a third of the world’s poor, and a state with lower literacy rates in the UK, it is extraordinary what has been achieved: and even more astounding to me that in a ‘developed’ country like Britain, that we still haven’t implemented anything as remotely radical as the above.
Therefore our government, and we as a society, must collectively hold ourselves and others accountable, and take responsibility for the dangerous trajectory we are going down. All the problems above can be solved with radical government policy, changing our economic model and taking the power back for ourselves: taxing corporations the correct amounts, helping smaller businesses to thrive, regulating our housing markets, introducing legal consequences for carbon footprint, investing in state schools, universities and colleges so that teachers, parents and children know that you can attend all and any – and still succeed in progressing forward in life. Everyone, including progressives such as myself, must have the choice to be a consumer and participate in real activism at the same time, without having to choose between one or the other.
We can do this by introducing integrity into our actions; if you tweet about climate change, don’t just stop there. Go to the protests. Slowly change your diet choices, choice of fashion brands, and go support local groups. If you call someone out, don’t just hate on them. Tell them what they did wrong. If you want your kids to do well, send them to extra-curriculars they genuinely enjoy and help them in subjects they really want to excel in; and if you can, give them the options. If you’re a teacher, reconsider if the child in front of you should really go to University, or whether they should actually go straight to work or college instead. Our lack of integrity is costing us dearly, making our actions in the name of progress more pernicious than we realise; if we do not reintroduce this quality into our pursuit of progress soon, it’ll soon be too late to reclaim the word’s true definition.
Image: via Wiki Commons