Sunday, February 28, 2010

Progress.... seriously?

Over the holidays, I had a deeply troubling conversation with someone that made me realize just how many people still hold problematic views that work toward creating the bigger world that we live in. I have few words to express my frustration over it.

The person I was speaking with argued that linear progress is important for life because time is dynamic and things change all the time. This view fails to understand that while space and time change, human values such as “linear progress” remain. The colonial mindset has always been the same, thus the concept of “linear progress” has always been the same.

The Oxford dictionary describes ‘progress’ as a noun which means the process of improving or developing, or of getting nearer to achieving or completing. The following question arises: whose point of view are we considering when we are discussing ‘progress’?

So what is linear progress? During the 19th-century, classical social evolution theories claimed that societies start out in a primitive state and gradually become more civilized over time, and equated the culture and technology of Western civilization with progress. This theory is considered obsolete in academia, but apparently there are people who still believe in it. I would say that it is rather a general mindset which is still found in our environment. Some forms of early sociocultural evolution theories have led to much-criticized theories, like social Darwinism, and scientific racism, used in the past to justify existing policies of colonialism, slavery, and problematic issues such as eugenics.

The European view of human progress is that a civilization begins with hunting and gathering, transitions to a pastoral life which is left behind for an urban life: civilization. North Americans have generally applied this study of progress to the indigenous land, in the exact same way it was applied to the rest of the world by British and other colonial empires. The indigenous population of all those lands were ‘savages’ in the eyes of ‘colonizer.’ They needed ‘progress’! In short, the native populations around the world were forced to change their ways so that they could be ‘civilized.’ This concept of progress was imposed on people without knowledge or understanding of their land, their values, or their way of life.

John Ralston Saul talks about progress in his book A Fair Country. He adds context by applying it to Aboriginal traditions in Canada. He writes that “one of the oldest Inuit traditions is that the first thing created out of primeval chaos and darkness was a word. If anything, oral cultures are more deeply intellectual than today’s reigning form of utilitarian linear society in the West. It is towards this equilibrium expressed through the oral that our Supreme Court is slowly making its way, while shoving linear parsed details to a secondary level. In other words, we are making progress, even breakthroughs, even normalizing, these Aboriginal ideas. And we are progressing in spite of the intense resistance of our governmental and intellectual structures.”

It’s not just about the aboriginal cultures, if you consider world history. You will see similar situations and patterns marked across the globe, because the sun never set on the colonial empire for a sinfully long time.

This is the exact same way Islamic culture has been stigmatized and stereotyped for the past few decades. It is considered a very juicy topic of discussion because Islamic civilization is founded upon strict rules and regulations and my people are considered ‘savages’ and ‘non-progressive’ because we have resisted Western norms and its ‘progress.’ And as a Muslim woman, I take offence to it! I take offense to all of the socio-cultural Western norms which constantly work towards defying my cultural values and my existence.

Just because we don’t follow your lifestyle, or our cultural values are different, it doesn’t mean that we need ‘colonial progress’ or civilizing. It’s a circle of life. We might see it differently but it’s still the same.

It’s not mathematics. Life is not a graph which can be divided into x, y and z scales. It’s neither linear, quadratic nor polynomial in 2-dimensions, or a hologram in 3-dimensions. It’s not an algebraic equation where you can plot time against standard/quality of life. It’s life! One needs to understand life from different perspectives and accept them.

So I will end with this thought by Outlandish;

Look into my eyes
Tell me what you see
You don’t see a damn thing
Cuz you can’t relate to me
You blinded by our differences

My life makes no sense to you
Each day you wake in tranquillity

No fears to cross your eyes
You worry ‘bout your education

And the bills you have to pay

I worry ‘bout my vulnerable life
And if I’ll survive another day

Move beyond your academic notions of ‘progress’ and start looking at life the way it is.

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