» Always twirling, twirling towards freedom ¦ What You Can Get Away With

James notes that we might just have exhausted the possible uses of ‘progressive’:

What’s worrying is the way political discourse has become dominated by these non-words. Pace Obama, “change” including “real change”, “the change we need” and “now for change” has become ubiquitous. Particularly in the UK a lot of people appear to have mistaken the accoutrements of the Obama brand for the core package and assumed that if you copy the former you will magically get the latter. When people on the other side of the world do this, we call them “cargo cultists” and patronise them.

The important thing about these words, and why they get so overused, is that they sound positive and generically good without really committing the user of them to anything specific. By calling yourself progressive, or using the collective ‘we progressives’ in your speech, you can give everyone the warm fuzzies – why, of course, I’m progressive, I’m in favour of there being more good things for everyone – while subtly damning your opponents (or anyone outside the ‘we’) as ‘regressives’, those silly people who aren’t in favour of there being more good things for everyone.

As James notes, one of the problems of using ‘progressive’ is that it carries with it the idea that every bit of progress takes us towards something better, that idea that history has some inevitable final destination waiting for us where everyone can have all the good things that they want. Not that I’m going to get all Burkean here, but the idea of inevitable progress – and, of course, the idea that we must follow a certain prescribed path to get there – strikes me as wandering into ideas of ‘intelligent design’.

But to get back to the main point, it is very easy to slip into using meaningless words and phrases because it’s a lot easier than thinking about what you might actually believe. While ‘progressive’ is increasingly meaningless, my personal bugbear is ‘social justice’. I often find myself feeling like Kevin McCarthy in Invasion Of The Body Snatchers when people start using ‘social justice’ – it seems to be be referring to something vaguely good that everyone wants, but no one is quite able to define what it is to those of us who weren’t replaced by a plant while we slept. Like progress, we’re all supposed to be in favour of social justice – because who’d want to be a supporter of injustice, especially antisocial injustice? – though I never seem to be able to find a definition of it that amounts to much more than ‘good things should happen to good people’, and I’m really not sure that ‘good things are good’ is a workable philosophy.

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  1. Following on from this theme as raised by both James and the Soho Politico, among others, I refer you to my post earlier today on the subject, which illustrates how vacuous the term is in the hands of many politicians, and also digs up an example of a genuine self-styled “progressive” British politician from the 1930s far removed from Osborne or the Blairites who like to wave the word around loosely like so much, er, change…