About 'Alpha+Good'

Alpha+Good (sort of a bad wordplay on Orwell and machismo) is a side project that belongs to 'Onklare taal' ('Unclear language'), the umbrella of several of my literary projects in Dutch. This section is almost exclusively in English and comprises my ongoing thoughts on progress, gender, politics and various other social themes. Are you a little lost? This link will take you right back to my home page.

Friday, January 18, 2013

Becoming progressive

When you discuss politics, ethics or beliefs with people, it's easy to fall into the trap of assuming that the notions they hold have been with them all their lives, as if they magically became what they are. You might assume they were born into an environment that fed these beliefs to them and that they've never really examined why they believe what they do. The thing is, the people you're discussing with will probably assume the same about you.

In some cases, it will be true: there are people born to conservative families who espouse exactly the same beliefs that their parents and their grandparents did. However, there will still be differences, no matter how insignificant they seem to you. For example, you might be discussing gay rights with a conservative person, and you find out they're opposed to gay people kissing in public or adopting kids. That's a backwards point of view, sure, but it may represent progress from what their own parents think - they might be people who even deny that homosexuality exists at all, or believe that being gay is a sickness that therapy can cure.

People tend to instinctively resist their notions being challenged. But progress, as Karl Popper taught us, is more successful if it comes one step at a time. The homophobe you may not be able to convince today, could become the more tolerant parent of a homosexual kid, and the notion that his children should be able to have families, won't be completely alien to them anymore.

As an example, I'd like to share a bit of personal history. I was born into a family of Flemish nationalists back when the separatist wing wasn't calling the shots. Neither of my parents had pursued higher education, and neither had anyone in their families (some misguided attempts nonwithstanding).

I was largely raised by my mother, because she had a shop and was home a lot. From the onset, she tried to teach my brothers and me not to say degrading things about women, or imply that women were somehow less than men. My father was a man known wide and far for his bouts of raucous laughter, but I'd never heard him say anything sexist or racist. There were some problematic aspects to what they believed and did, obviously - my mom still had a bad case of gender essentialism going on, and my dad was a bit too fond of being the final patriarch of the family.

But they encouraged me to read, and to discuss (sometimes to their exasperation). By the time I was old enough to vote, I was that curious bricolage that was the European left-wing liberal: in favour of gay rights but still uncomfortable with some of my uncle's boyfriends, supportive of the struggles of the working class but contemptuous of their lifestyle, anti-racism but able to laugh at racist jokes, and in favour of gender equality but so very upset whenever media depicted men as savage imbeciles. There were and probably are still many men like I was.

This swirling mess of notions began to take shape throughout my encounters with other people at university - friends, opponents, girlfriends and professors. Looking back at it, it almost feels like a great vowel shift of the conscience. One change produced another change, and one shift in thought connected with a new one. It was a slow process. I think it's only by the time I was 27, that I had abandoned most of my rather regressive points of view, and that I sometimes felt ashamed of what I had believed when I was 17.

The amazing thing is that my father, for instance, underwent similar changes. From a centrist, moderate union man, he went full-blown hard left over the course of that same decade. I've seen it happen to friends as well. They start out apolitical, or with some vague, incoherent mess of notions that frequently contradict one another, but as years go by, their beliefs take shape, change and become more and more progressive.

Environment is crucial in this, of course. And yes, frequently I've seen people slide back into the comforts of the right-wing ideas that their parents held, but I've always found it greatly encouraging that even within a rightward shift in attitudes towards class, race and gender, there are islands that move in the opposite direction. So whenever you're exasparated with stupid opinions people hold, realise that they haven't always been this way, and they may not always be this way. True change is slow, but it's worth fighting for.