Black Lives Matter has been one of the great phenomena of 2020, with huge demonstrations taking place in support of the movement from North America and Europe to Australia. There were no protests in Malaysia, however, partly because the general view was that mass gatherings of any kind could be fatally foolish in the middle of a pandemic; the virus wasn't going to give you a pass because you believe your cause is just. But also because, as is the case in many Asian countries, there is little popular appetite for progressive politics of almost any kind.
That may turn out to be truer than expected in some western countries, too. A recent survey by the UK polling firm Opinium found that 55 per cent of British citizens thought the BLM protests had increased racial tension in the country, with only 17 per cent disagreeing. Remarkably, that view was shared by 44 per cent of minority ethnic people who were asked – not an overall majority, but far more than the just over 20 per cent who disagreed.
Whatever one thinks of BLM, in one very important way its impact in the UK has clearly been highly counter-productive. If this is also the case with many of the other "new" progressive causes – such as identity politics and gender fluidity – as I suspect it is, its proponents need to ask what has gone so badly wrong with their approach. They might also question why they have made at most negligible inroads into that vast majority of the globe who live in developing countries.
One answer, I would suggest, is that while many are open to reform, far fewer are keen on the idea of revolution, still less on revolutionary compulsion. Many of the new progressive causes – I am distinguishing them from more traditional left-wing concerns about poverty and economic inequality – spring from worthy sentiments. We should be inclusive and kind, and not discriminate on the grounds of difference. We should do far more to acknowledge the effects past injustices still have on many today.
In their execution, however, these campaigns in mainly western countries have been revolutionary and have sought to compel. Centuries-old norms, such as what it means to be a man or a woman, for instance, have been torn up, and feminists who argue that the old distinctions must be maintained have been subjected to vile abuse and threats. "Taking the knee" has become compulsory for figures in sports and politics, for fear of being condemned as racist should they wish to convey their support in another manner. (Thus removing real meaning from the gesture; for if the act is not carried out freely, why should it be deserving of praise?) The new progressives brook no nuance or dissent. They are Stalinist in their insistence that all should agree with and act according to their "truth".
Now, thinking that what you believe is right is also right for everyone else is nothing new. That is the essence of adherence to any system of “universal values”, and proponents of western liberal democracy – with all the suites of “rights” that entails – are just as committed to that principle. The latter, though, have generally been a little more diplomatic in promoting their worldview. While lecturing countries in Asia and Africa on human rights (their version of that concept, naturally), they still concede – at least a little – that countries differ on what liberties should be enshrined in law or where the parameters of acceptable behaviour should be set.
So, for example, western universalists may not agree with the Cairo Declaration on Human Rights in Islam, published by the Organisation of Islamic Co-operation in 1990, but they would deal with the fact that it ends with lines that indicate a significantly different set of values: “All the rights and freedoms stipulated in this declaration are subject to the Islamic Sharia. The Islamic Sharia is the only source of reference for the explanation or clarification of any of the articles of this declaration.”
The new progressives’ approach, on the other hand, is simply to label anyone who disagrees with them as “bigoted”. Both in the West and in the rest of the world, this alienates liberals who might otherwise be quite sympathetic to where they are coming from, and it refuses to give any credit to the vast number of people who are fundamentally “small c” social conservatives.
The latter represent the overwhelming majority in all four of the Arabian Gulf and South-East Asian countries I have lived and worked in both as a child and as an adult. I have been lucky to learn much from these societies, and have gained enormous respect as a result for traditions, customs, ideas about cohesion, and attitudes towards religion and authority, that varied from my own. But the new progressives seem incapable of admitting that those with traditional values – who don’t want to overthrow capitalism or disrupt the nuclear family – can be decent and admirable people, too. Their very conservatism is deemed a “sin” for which they cannot be forgiven.
It is likely that such people make up the majority in countries like the UK and US as well. Many in the past voted for left-wing parties, but are baffled why the new progressives who hold such sway over Britain's Labour Party and a wing of the Democratic Party in America appear to have abandoned the struggle for the working class and labour, for issues that seem to them to be less central, and which sometimes affect a tiny minority. They are put off, too, by the divisiveness and the harshness with which those who are not signed up to the very latest iteration of progressivism are treated.
I am sure that most of the new progressives are well-meaning people. But they have lost their way, and their efforts are becoming self-defeating, as the survey on BLM shows. For a start, they might look to consensus and emphasis on communal harmony so valued in the Asian countries in which I have lived. They might not agree, but they could surely learn from them how to fight a better fight – or better still, to persuade without rancour.
Sholto Byrnes is an East Asian affairs columnist for The National