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Frequently we hear talk of racial and other forms of human progress: Women and people of color, once denied the right, are allowed to vote; gay people, once denied the right, are allowed to marry; non-WASPs, once red-lined, are allowed to buy homes where they choose. We note these changes, and we say, often with an undertone of self-congratulations, “Look at the progress we’ve made.”

But is it intellectually honest to describe what is merely the cessation of odious behavior as “progress” (from the Latin pro “forward” + gradi “walk”)? More simply: Is it honest to positively spin the halting of bad behavior by implying it is the equivalent of good behavior? Isn’t using “progress” in this way like saying that filling a hole is the same as constructing a levee? Honestly, isn’t using “progress” this way actually a lie?

In some contexts—say advertising—this kind of spinning is relatively harmless. Caveat emptor. In other contexts, deliberately blurring the distinction between filling a hole and erecting a levee can be—and regularly is—weaponized, and to malignant effect. (Such muddling of meaning, such deliberate misuse of words to manipulate entire communities, is the essence of propaganda.) Black Americans in particular have borne the brunt of this weaponization, have been subjected to nearly non-stop muddling of this distinction from the moment of their commodification and kidnapping to the present: “Be patient,” Black Americans have been ceaselessly told. “Things are getting better. Look at the progress we’ve made.”

The weaponization of this muddling of meaning occurs when an oppressor misuses a word like "progress," a word that generally has a “good” connotation, to describe having made some minimal, incremental effort to halt horrifying practices that should never have been tolerated in the first place. The most extreme, though hardly the only, example of this is describing as “racial progress” the cessation of lynching.

Spinning "progress" in this way—convincing ourselves that the halting of an odious behavior is “progress”—serves as a balm to a dominant population’s conscience because it attempts (and often succeeds) to paint the cessation of awful behavior as an affirmative, implying that merely filling a hole is of some direct benefit to the oppressed. Additionally, it provides oppressors with an excuse, under the aegis of "Look what we've done for you," to do nothing more. (“We’ve stopped dragging you from your beds and hanging you! Isn’t that great?”) Simply put, this misuse of “progress” mischaracterizes something that I have stopped doing to you as something I have started doing for you. Not least among the ways the oppressor benefits from this propaganda is that, because some percentage of any population is credulous enough simply to believe what they are told, this muddling of meaning makes the oppressor’s life easier by reducing the costs of pacifying a marginalized group.

There are myriad examples of this. Some are micro-spins that, like a death of a thousand cuts, are destructive in the aggregate though so individually small that it can feel petty to call them out. Some are based on attempts to curtail malignancies like Driving While Black. All serve to self-justify oppressors’ failures to change society in ways that might actually cost themselves something, to self-forgive their evading making changes that would allow the oppressed to compete. (Thus the determined resistance to affirmative action.)

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In fact, the entire concept of “progress” should be demoted, used to describe only incremental technological or behavioral improvements that are obviously positive or beneficial: Improving the range of electric cars; finding ways to speed the creation of vaccines; developing quicker, less-painful methods of replacing hips or knees—all these are progress. Microwave ovens, non-stick fry pans, and wrinkle-free fabrics are progress. Allowing trans-gender people simple, human dignity? That is not progress. That is halting a travesty.

Some other things that are not progress: Halting—or merely slowing—the wholesale despoliation of the planet; halting—or merely slowing—the killing of female babies (or daughters/sisters because they’ve somehow disappointed or embarrassed their fathers/brothers); halting—or merely slowing—the lynching of black men for perceived slights to the flower of white womanhood; halting—or merely slowing—the casual murders of Black drivers. None of these is, in any sane universe, progress. (Certainly not being killed for driving with a broken taillight is preferable to the alternative, but people should not be expected to say, “Thank you for not killing me.”)*

Claiming that filling a hole is erecting a levee is, as nearby residents will discover when the river crests, not progress but fraud. What we need is a more intellectually honest term to use when describing the cessation of odious human behavior. We need to use a term that more precisely describes humanity’s ongoing, arduous attempts to shepherd ourselves from cruelty to kindness, to climb out of the behavioral hole in which we arose and in which we still linger, to rise to a baseline level of decency. Once there we can then begin to make some actual “progress.” For want of a better term—and I would be happy to hear other suggestions—I propose “pregress” (from the Latin pre “before” + gradi “walk).

To illustrate how “progress” is propagandized, I earlier used a metaphor—calling a hole a levee. A different metaphor, repairing damage in drywall, is useful to illustrate the distinction between pregress and progress: Filling the hole with spackle, letting it dry, sanding it, priming it, all would be stages of pregress; painting a finishing coat on the resulting repair of the drywall would be progress.

Euphemistic attempts to spin lead as gold are the special province of oppressive governments. The attempt to destroy the indigenous populations of the United States was cynically called “pacification.” This particular euphemism achieved its nadir in October of 1877 with the capture of the Nez Perce and allied tribes, that, after a treaty had been abrogated, attempted to reach asylum in Canada. They posed no danger; they simply wanted to leave. But our government decided they needed to be “pacified.” After having traveled more than 1000 miles and having avoided their pursuers for months, they were caught 40 miles from the Canadian border. Their leader, Chief Joseph, speaking for his exhausted, “pacified” people, said, “Hear me, my chiefs: My heart is sick and sad. From where the sun now stands, I will fight no more forever.”

The “pacification” of the Nez Perce was widely touted as progress, but pacification and civil order imposed by compulsion and intimidation is not progress, and spinning it as such retards real progress. As individuals, continuing to misuse “progress” in this way makes us complicit. A hole is not a levee. Patching a hole is not the same as painting a patch. Not lynching people is not the same as creating an open, equal society. Going forward, let’s be intellectually honest and call the halting of horrors what it is: pregress, not progress.

*Sheltered within any group of oppressors are members who will perceive and protest any constraints on their behavior as intolerable attacks on their freedoms. Like a horde of Huns being told by Attila they can no longer rape and pillage on Sundays, law-enforcement officers, citing camels’ noses and slippery slopes, will decry any imposed or proposed constraints (i.e. outlawing choke-holds) as an artificial and unnecessary undermining of their effectiveness. As a result, lynching and the intentional intimidation that awareness of it engenders never really went away; it simply morphed into Driving While Black.