20 September 2013

Like Cockroaches, Progress is Hard to Eradicate

In the late sixties in Connecticut, condoms were illegal. It wasn't until 1975 that a woman could open a checking account without her husband's signature. And it was not until 1967 that the Supreme Court ruled that no state could make inter-racial marriage illegal. (And that decision was opposed by 70% of Americans.)

As I'm reading Elizabeth Gilbert's fascinating book Committed and encountering odd facts like this, I feel incredibly heartened. It seems to me that even social progress has a ratcheting effect. That is, not only do things move forward but they seem to do so in a way that suggests it would be difficult - if not improbable - to ever reverse them. Imagine trying to tell young wives today that they didn't have the legal authority to open their own checking account, much less not own property (the situation only generations earlier). Try to tell anyone that they're breaking the law by possessing or using condoms. And try to tell young people who think that same-sex marriage is perfectly acceptable that inter-racial marriage is not. It takes a fairly dystopian imagination to see a future in which minorities are ever again slaves or married women are ever considered non-persons, each losing their legal rights, the slave to his owner, the wife to her husband.

Ideas like religious freedom, democracy, the freedom to take on debt without fear of the debtor's prison, and gender equality come very, very slowly. But once they're adopted, they would be about as hard to eradicate as homo sapiens.

The great Oliver Wendell Holmes once said that a man's mind, once its been stretched by a new idea, never goes back to its original dimension. If he were alive today, he might have modified that only slightly. It's possible that he would have said, "a woman's life, once its been stretched by new freedoms, never goes back to its original dimension.

And that, it seems to me, is reason for optimism. Progress seems to ratchet up, not only moving forward when it can but rarely letting that acquired freedom slip once it is firmly in place.


gustav said...

If you think that progress is irreversable, then you're unfortunately wrong. Just look at countries like Afghanistan and Iran.

Ron Davison said...


point taken. And well made.
Still, I like to think that even a setback as serious as the Dark Ages eventually is overcome. But I guess that's small consolation to the hundreds of generations living between the fall of Rome and the Renaissance.