One of the great impediments to understanding the progressive ideology of our age is the fact that it lacks a founding charter. There is no single, comprehensive, and authoritative document that clearly states the end goals of progressivism and ties together its disparate strands. Progressivism’s overarching aims must therefore be pieced together from various sources.
While certain texts are indispensable in this regard—John Rawls’s A Theory of Justice and Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex immediately come to mind—much can be learned from anodyne bureaucratic documents. With students returning to campus this month, I stumbled upon one such little gem: the University of Minnesota Duluth’s guidelines for a “Diversity Awareness Activity.”
The Diversity Awareness Activity is fairly simple and requires no materials or prior training.
- Gather a dozen or so participants, preferably from diverse backgrounds—by which UMD does not mean people who think differently, but people of varying “race, gender, sexual orientation, religion, ability, etc.”
- Check the “activity area for hazards, such as rocks, roots, logs.” Diversity should be pursued, but only in “a safe environment.”
- Have the participants form a circle (preferably) or a line (if you remain attached to phallic symbols).
A facilitator will then read out loud thirty-five statements, pausing after each one to allow the participants to move forward or backward. Statements include:
- “If you can easily find public bathrooms that you can use without fear, please take one step forward.”
- “All those raised in homes with libraries of both children’s and adult books, please take one step forward.”
- “All of those who ever got a good paying [sic] job because of a friend or family member, please take one step forward.”
- “For every dollar earned by white men, women earn only 72 cents. African American women earn only 65 cents; and Hispanic women earn only 57 cents to the dollar. All white men please take 2 steps forward.”
(It seems that “All those attending university in what is arguably the wealthiest and freest country the world has ever known, take fifty steps forward” did not make the cut.)
As they survey the ravages wrought upon their once harmonious circle, participants should share their feelings with one another—“How did it feel to be in the back? What did it feel like when you had to let go of someone’s hand?”—and reflect upon what they have learned.
The point of the exercise, in case you missed it, is to draw attention to what the Left likes to call “the invisible knapsack of privilege.” Only the lucky few—wealthy, heterosexual, white males—are issued a knapsack of privilege. All others—women, LGBTQs, minorities, the poor—are saddled with a heavy knapsack of disadvantage, which weighs them down throughout life. Whereas we should all be holding hands, a chasm separates the privileged few from the disadvantaged many.
The exercise hones in on the two great sources of inequality over which progressives obsess: familial upbringing (fifteen statements) and belonging to a marginalized group (twenty statements). It also reveals the Left’s ultimate goal: a world in which all children, regardless of the accidents of birth, have the same chance to succeed in life and in which all modes of oppression against marginalized groups—including unintentional discrimination, perceived slights, and dominant cultural norms—have been eliminated. Until such a world is created, freedom and equality are but hollow formalisms meant to reassure the lucky few that their privileged station in life is merited, when in fact it is the result of chance propped up by oppression.
The common denominator to the statements in the Diversity Awareness Activity is the idea of “unearned privilege” (and its corollary, unearned disadvantage). Participants step forward or backward not on the basis of any choice they have made in life, but impelled by their unchosen upbringing and group identity (the one exception being religious converts, a category that does not loom very large in the progressive mind).
Strangely enough, one finds here echoes of Edmund Burke: We are defined by the inherited, unchosen ties that bind us to particular families and communities. More than a third of the statements mention parents, family members, and even ancestors. Burke, of course, celebrates these ties, whereas the Left wants to overcome them—but not without first affirming their primacy. Herein lies the great paradox of contemporary progressivism: It both affirms and denies man’s unbounded freedom to define himself.
On the one hand, man is the undetermined being, radically free to be whatever he wants to be. Neither God, nor nature, nor tradition, nor the duties he may have previously contracted should limit man’s endless capacity to reinvent himself, at any point in his life. The state is bound to affirm our choices, subsidize them (as much as possible), insulate us from their unpleasant consequences, and, increasingly, silence those who might criticize them.
Alongside this promethean progressivism, which grows ever more voracious—how long until we can choose our race?—there exists a streak of determinist progressivism. For all the freedoms we have in principle, the Left reminds us, we are all born into families that shape our capacities to act on them in practice. In the great race of life, they say, everything hinges on our parents. And we don’t choose our parents.
According to this strand of progressive thought, we also don’t choose our identity. With apologies to Simone de Beauvoir, one is born a woman. Or a homosexual. Or a Latino. Or a member of whatever-oppressed-group. Individuals, in this view, are deeply imbedded into particular “communities” to which they owe loyalty and which stamp upon them an indelible identity.
The contradictions between these two ways of looking at the world, promethean and determinist, are obvious. Either we are autonomous individuals who transcend the accidents of birth or we are members of whatever identity groups we happened to be born into.
Depending on the circumstances, the Left will either deny or affirm the primacy of nature. The feminists tell us that gender is entirely a social construct with no basis in sex, while the LGBTQ activists tell us that gender identity is grounded in nature. Caitlyn Jenner is celebrated, but Rachel Dolezal is excoriated. The very same Anthony Kennedy who affirms “the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life,” also thinks that sexual orientation is part of “immutable nature.”
One day, it seems, the contradictions between these two strands of progressive thought—autonomy and identity politics—will disappear. One suspects that in the Left’s ideal world, when social justice finally reigns, all identities will be fluid and up for grabs. “The future will widen endlessly,” writes Richard Rorty. “Individual life will become unthinkably diverse.”
Individual autonomy remains the end goal of modern progressivism. Eventually, all individuals—especially members of currently marginalized and disadvantaged groups—will be equally capable of expressing their individuality. If this dream is to become a reality, we will have to control for the effects of the unjust birth lottery and remove every last vestige of discrimination (in both cases, by leveraging the formidable might of the modern administrative-welfare state).
The first step is to become aware of the manifold structures of discrimination and unearned privilege. Hence this silly exercise and others like it at universities across the country. And hence the continued limits imposed by the Left on the ability to choose one’s identity.
For the time being, the fight for social justice requires strong group identity and keeping pressure on the dominant, oppressive groups to check their privilege. Permitting them to change their identity at will or allowing members of certain groups to define their identity differently, might undermine this entire mad project and vindicate the great truth which the Left is so intent on denying: Man’s freedom not only is limited, but requires limits. Were man ever fully to shed what is unchosen and create himself, he would cease to be human.
This piece originally appeared in First Things