As Donald Trump and Brexit show, progress is not inevitable

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President George W. Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair shake hands after a joint press conference following their meeting at Hillsborough Castle near Belfast 8 April, 2003. © REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque/File Photo

When Tony Blair was campaigning to become the UK prime minister who would drag the country into an illegal war costing hundreds of thousands of Iraqi lives, his campaign theme tune ran with the chorus line ‘Things can only get better’. It might be the most dangerous sentiment politics has ever known.

The feminist movement knows this all too well. Women’s rights are like drinks in a nightclub: it takes an unfair amount of time to get them, and then, if you stop paying attention, even for a few minutes, they’re gone. And if you ever have more than three, some scumbag will probably use it as an excuse to assault you.

Things cannot ‘only get better’, they can also get much, much worse. Anyone who laughed at the ridiculous prospect of Donald Trump being the Republican nominee, or of Britain leaving the EU, realizes that now, I hope. Progress is not inevitable.

The attitude that it is does a disservice to those who fought to bring us the rights and freedoms we enjoy. Nelson Mandela didn’t casually mention that apartheid seemed like a shitty idea, only for FW de Klerk to laughingly put down his sherry, mutter ‘Why didn’t you ask sooner, dear boy?’ and whip out a plan for dismantling it that he’d already been working on.

It might seem obvious to 21st-century eyes that apartheid was wrong and awful, but it wasn’t obvious to the South African authorities in the 1980s, or to a lot of people around the world only a few decades ago. And gender apartheid is practised today in places like Iran and Saudi Arabia and widely viewed, if not as ideal, at least as tolerable in a climate of religious and political relativism.

The ‘inexorable tide of progress’ belief system also risks the assumption that whatever is going on must be progressive.

We celebrate gay and lesbian marriage rights rather than asking why, in 2016, anyone wants their relationship to fit a model designed by patriarchal religions to control women. We cheer as Caitlyn Jenner is declared Woman of the Year rather than asking why the title is still reserved for women who conform to feminine beauty standards rather than challenging restrictive gender roles. Internet pornography is hailed as free speech and sexual liberation – and woe betide anyone who questions the influence of images of explicit violence against women being widely accessible to young children.

None of these are simple matters. As well as forwards and backwards, progress can also go sideways – such as when one set of freedoms is gained at the expense of another. To quote every hip teenager’s relationship status: it’s complicated.

Figuring out what we want progress to look like needs reason, thought, research and debate. But the really hard job is making it happen. The biggest lie of ‘things can only get better’ is that we don’t need to get up and fight, or that it won’t make any real difference if we do. And that’s exactly what they want us to think...

Kate Smurthwaite is a comedian and activist. katesmurthwaite.co.uk / @Cruella1

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