Jan. 21st, 2017

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 This is inspired by a discussion in the car driving back from participating on today's Women's March in Walnut Creek. (I was able to join a group of local friends to march together, which was so much more satisfying than going by myself.)

There's a lot of discussion of how progressive politics get undermined by "ideological purity" or what I've tended to call "portmanteau politics", i.e., the idea that people need to be unified on all positions in order to work together on any position. It's not a new phenomenon by any means. I can still remember back in the '70s and '80s how there were groups that felt you couldn't be a "real" feminist unless you were also a vegetarian. Or that to be truly anti-war one needed to be a complete pacifist and anti-gun. The list goes on and on. As a personal observation, it seemed as if the more closely aligned a particular social or political group was, the less tolerant they became of any remaining differences. And we see a lot of fracturing currently around priorities and intersectionalism and erasure of some of the most marginalized groups from larger movements. It is real, and it is a problem, and it should always be kept in mind.

But I'd like to look at progressive politics through the lens of the sort of conceptual category structure that I studied as part of a cognitive linguistics program. A lens that looks at categories (like "progressive politics") not as a fixed list, or a set of necessary and sufficient conditions, but as structured by things like concept-clusters and linked radial models, and fuzzy "goodness of fit" ideas.

One of the standard student exercises when I TAed classes on this material is to analyze the category "mother". Not as some sort of definitively describable set of characteristics, but in a way that captures all the different ways in which people use the word, and the ways in which they assign value to the relevant characteristics, and the ways in which the idea is extended and transferred and morphed into new uses. How do you describe the category of "mother" such that you could apply it equally validly to two individuals who share no relevant traits between them? This may appear to be a simple question, but even among the six people in the car this afternoon, it was immediately apparent that there was a diversity of opinions on which characteristics "counted most". How much more complicated is it to identify "the set of political principles that best represent liberty, equality, and justice"?

I think this is the sort of thinking we need to start bringing to the progressive movement. I think we need to construct an understanding of "progressive politics" that can see the underlying essential connections between principles, struggles, and actions even between two people who might not share any specific concern in common. I'm obviously not saying that "progressivism" can be expanded to include any sort of principle at all. Only that there are underlying connected concepts that can be found that can join people together even when they may disagree on specific actions. Identifying those connecting principles is not merely desirable, but essential, for we cannot each address every worthy goal simultaneously. And we need principles that will enable us to recognize and appreciate those who are working on a different part of puzzle, who are building a different part of the house, who may be making the dishes on which the food we are growing will eventually be served, courtesy of the labor of cooks yet to come.

These connections will involve constant negotiation and evaluation. They will almost certainly involve occasionally feeling uncomfortable with one's political bedfellows. But a successful progressive movement cannot be a fixed portmanteau of positions that one signs on to, all or nothing. That route leads only to the final schism between the last two "true progressives" once they identify the remaining issue on which they, too, disagree. 

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