Progressive Overreach and the Procrustes Impulse

Many philosophers, social thinkers, legislators, and those delirious with power have proposed ways to fix the human condition. Societies themselves have often been organized, often by custom as well as laws, to shape the odd ways in which humans behave—odd ways that often emanate from a desire for individual freedom. Those fixes and organizational principles range from inspired or coerced transformation methods to so-called revolutionary and tyrannical programs. Admittedly, we can all be tempted to change the other into clones of ourselves or some fantastical leader.


The Procrustes Impulse

One cannot overlook the infamous Greek bandit known as Procrustes.

He exemplified a demonic overreach. He is a cautionary tale we should consider in thinking about how society should be changed. Procrustes has figured as a metaphor in many literary writings. In all of these, we are called to think of the one with power who fits the other into the same size bed—or value—by either stretching smaller persons out to fit the Procrustean bed or by lopping off an unwanted body part that extends beyond the size of the bed. That is equality by means of equity and fairness. At least in Procrustes’ mindset.

The Procrustes figure has been used to describe strict social standards, spidery villains, film editing constrained to an arbitrary time limit, rhetorical deception, and scientific problem-solving; today, we might add social workers, legislators, and cultural influencers who seek outcomes by way of misguided egalitarianism.

In the past, that misguided egalitarianism was found in the values of eugenics and historical and modern versions of limpieza de sangre—blood purity. Today, we would argue that Procrustes mistook identical forms—or identity—as equivalence—or equality. Making that mistake can be accommodated as a way of thinking, but the mechanism harmed many. He overreached when he imposed a just outcome ─ at least from the point of view adopted in this article and, more generally, from a humanitarian and tolerant way of accepting the other. We can be larger or smaller than the Procruste bed and still be equal or good enough. To be sure, the concepts of equality and equity continue to be debated, but generally not when the power enters the hands of the transformer.

We can imagine that the drive to establish a defined good, whether imposed by the bandit Procrustes or a virtue-signaling social prophet, can be seen as just and equitable—in their eyes. But, once one takes a broader view of the variability of the human condition and the desire to be different and to have agency, that extra step to extract an identical outcome, we can question the pragmatics of the method, the unlikely success of imposed outcome as well as the morality of imposing a just—ie. Procrustean bed—onto others.

Over the last several decades, this social Procrustes impulse has driven current social justice overreach.

This may be called progressive, but it features totalitarian recipes for perfection. When imagined perfectibility or claimed social good moves beyond the visionary into an imposed regimen for change, it takes on the Procrustean impulse.

Consider the following examples. These examples emerge from the outlook of a critical lens—one that is found in a broad range of societal fixes from critical social justice, critical environmental justice, critical ethnic studies, and empowered “diversity, equity, and inclusion” (DEI) programs. These share the same matrix of understanding in seeking to repair the world—of oppressed and oppressor, of the marginalized, of victimhood, of narrative over the larger context of objective change, often leaning into racial divisiveness, dwelling on an unchanging past, and failing to acknowledge attitudinal and actual reform. It is a pedagogy of the oppressed devoid of the realities of merit, achievement, opportunity, and standards of excellence.


The Overreach

Some would argue that this alleged overreach is needed, given the legacy of slavery and the inequality of economic classes.

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), for example, states, “DEI programs recruit and retain BIPOC, LGBTQ+, and other underrepresented faculty and students to repair decades of discriminatory policies and practices that excluded them from higher education.”

However, if we review the consequences of these social fixes, we might ask whether they are tailored to the perceived problem, whether they overreach, and perhaps the perception fails to account for a changed social reality.

Erosion of Scientific Rigor:

The National Institutes of Health (NIH) developed a program to help remedy the problem stated by the ACLU, namely, “to repair decades of discriminatory policies and practices.” For example, the NIH’s  Faculty Institutional Recruitment for Sustainable Transformation (First) program weighs racial diversity statements over singular attention to merit and achievement. Here are two views of First—by an outside observer and a potential beneficiary of this program.

  1. John Sailer: “That rubric penalizes job candidates for espousing colorblind equality and gives low scores to those who say they intend to ‘treat everyone the same.’ It likewise docks candidates who express skepticism about the practice of dividing students and faculty into racially segregated ‘affinity groups.’”
  2. Kevin Jon Williams: “My quandary comes down to whether I should ‘check the box’ on an upcoming NIH grant application attesting to my recent African heritage. Since at least 2015, the NIH has asserted its belief in the intrinsic superiority of racially diverse research teams, all but stating that such diversity influences funding decisions. My family’s origins qualify me under the federal definition of African-American. Yet I feel it’s immoral and narcissistic to use race to gain an advantage over other applicants. All that should matter is the merit of my application and the body of my work, which is generally accepted as foundational in atherosclerosis research.”

Sailer also points to the attempt by one university to redefine “merit” by incorporating within it being “equity-minded.” However, he concludes that such an approach subordinates merit to political ideology, vitiating the value of medical research and endangering others. Williams’ feeling of being forced into an immoral choice fails to justify, in his view, the remedy intended by the NIH. Both views identify the lack of institutional boundaries to avoid social and individual harm. This lack of boundaries coincides with the overreach of Procrustes’ bed.

Fear of Successful Educational Alternatives:

Many have noted the failing educational achievement scores in national tests.

Several charter and private schools have emerged to counter this educational failure, often located in public school districts. Public school districts have sometimes sought to remedy this gap by trying to stop the expansion of these charter schools, by eliminating tests that would reveal these gaps, or by eliminating advanced classes to avoid some students from excelling. Truly, this is a Procrustean remedy to frame equality. In their mindset, that is equitable.

In Michigan, a public school district provides a telling example of this Procrustean impulse. It would rather raze a building than allow it to become a charter school. Faced with a successful charter, several school district leaders sought ways to block such a charter from ever taking over this school.

[In] February testimony to a Michigan House committee, Carol Finkelstein, treasurer of West Bloomfield’s board of education, said “there is a chance” that developers “could flip it to a parochial school, to a private school, Montessori or a charter.” She said, “We simply cannot afford to have it become a competing school.”

Ms. Finkelstein’s testimony . . . was in favor of a bill to bring back [deed restrictions], which block the buyers of abandoned schools from ever using the buildings for educational purposes. Deed restrictions are transparently designed to prevent charter and private schools from competing with the district.

Instead of focusing on student education, the Procrustes impulse in many public-school districts goes beyond ignoring charter school alternatives, or learning from them, by actively opposing them in order to level disparities with fig-leaf equality.

Animus Toward Religious Freedom in Adoption and Fostering:

While the boundaries between secularism and religion may be contested, both often share social justice positions that can intrude on constitutionally protected practices that offend progressive policies.

The State of Washington requires adoptive and foster parents to support the child’s sexual orientation, gender identity, and expression by displaying pride flags, having LGBTQIA+ workers in their homes, and finding affirming medical care. Much like the Colorado Christian baker who objected to a similar law that required a symbolic celebration of gay marriage, a Christian couple with experience in fostering children objected to the way in which they believed would conform to a positive upbringing of the fostered children ─ an upbringing that conformed to their Christian beliefs. Like the Christian baker, the state—whether an agency or a court—the couple was held to be out of compliance with the law, which embodied progressive policies.

The primary holding in Masterpiece Cakeshop, Ltd. v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission limited the issue: “In showing selective hostility to a baker’s sincerely-held beliefs as a basis for his objection to creating a cake for a same-sex couple, the Colorado Civil Rights Commission violated the baker’s right to exercise his religion.”

The baker’s saga continues as a transgender woman has replaced the gay couple by seeking symbolic social justice to compel the baker to celebrate an ideology that is repugnant to his religious views.

Given the Supreme Court’s decision of a graphic artist who refused to design a website for a gay couple, marking another decision upholding religious belief over a coerced ideology, it is likely that the baker will ultimately prevail. The same will likely result for the Christian couple who want to foster children in line with their Christian values. It is important to recognize that these decisions protect the rights of LGBTQIA+ individuals against being discrimination as well as protecting those with religious beliefs from being coerced to believe what they hold to be antagonistic to their faith. This type of legal result is a sword and shield issue: protection against harm but not an enabling of harm to the other. The Procrustes impulse would have exacted an undeserved tribute should the former have prevailed over those with religious belief to act in discord with their faith.

The Procrustes’ impulse and its overreach find their way into numerous social justice projects. A short list includes:

  • The concept of truth is distorted by narrowing a broader systematic understanding, often limiting it to personal narratives as my truth.
  • Language is gaslighted, becoming Orwell’s feared newspeak.
  • The physical harm to children is ignored by the excessive use of puberty blockers in the quest for a sex-gender change.
  • Attempts to force a rapid transition to EVs and eliminate gas and coal-fired plants. Pragmatics are ignored with the likely failure of the national electrical transmission grid and the inability of industrial plants to have a necessary constant energy source. Climate change predictions resemble crystal balls instead of an appreciation of the multiple natural systems affecting climate over geological than human time.


The Challenge:  Detering the Social Justice Procrustes Mindset

Our Constitution embraces free speech. Visions of social justice are welcome but once they are enabled with the power of the state and the heckler’s shouting, those visions become the Procrustes impulse. What we find are the individual and social harms of the overreach attendant to the social justice Procrustes.

What can be done?

The first bulwark against overreach is a judiciary able to maintain the boundaries of the Constitution and to monitor legislative and administrative overreach. However, the tension within competing cultural norms as well as the illusions, hopes and fears that tear at individual rationality require something other than courtroom litigation.

The question is not about engaging in a tit-for-tat but of returning to an even playing field about who we are as social beings.

Consider the following analogy: If one drives on a highway, one can get a ticket for driving too fast. One can also get a ticket for driving too slowly. In this analogy, social justice warriors see conservatives as driving too slowly—even though their speed might be within acceptable limits. Here, the question is also about perception, often without a radar gun to give an objective reading. Similarly, conservatives see the social justice warrior as driving too fast. Looking at history, social justice warriors would have had a better assessment before the 1960s. After the 1960s, the assessment shifted over the decades until those social justice warriors were now driving too fast while conservatives had taken the legal speed limit. Perhaps the analogy merits fine-tuning; it may well require flying cars or limiting movement to mass transit. However, the idea is to recognize social change and ignore it, which can lead to social and individual harm depending on one’s practices in the flow of cultural change and stability.

Unfortunately, recognition of one’s position within the context of cultural change and stability is often clouded by illusion, naïveté, the entanglement of cross-currents in ideas and allyship, and sometimes a demonic quest to stay in power.

Shame and shock are sometimes a sufficient wake-up to recalibrate one’s sense of social well-being.

Google’s Genesis provided a comical example of how shame can work. The bias in AI platforms was sometimes difficult to discern until the visual portrayal of 1943 German soldiers as only ethnically diverse soldiers. The strangeness of that result caused Google executives to rethink if its algorithms went too far. They had suffered the Procrustean impulse. The visual overreach was far more immediate than text replies.

I posed a question to a longtime advocate of social justice: How would one know the boundaries or stopping points of social justice programs? The shock of October 7th became central to many social justice advocates, catching them in a whirlwind of drastic harm. That event spilled over into the United States and led to questions about ideology and allyship. Were there any boundaries to advocates and advocacy?

A very thoughtful question that I don’t know how to answer. And I think whatever answer I might have had, the whole thing changed after October 7th. A lot of the liberal Jews you have in mind were kicked in the gut by the reaction, or lack of, from interfaith and social justice “allies.” All these so-called alliances are no longer intact. I was so eager to have an Imam as a clergy colleague/partner/ally (though that word wasn’t as prominent a few years ago) that I never explored the boundaries … There’s no relation that I can discern now.

However, shame, shock, and likely other surprises are not sufficient upon which to rely. As the list of progressive social justice issues above argues, issues are often entangled with others. An individual might well take a position antithetical to one ordinarily advocated.

Several states have restricted or abolished DEI programs at universities. The state of Indiana enacted a law to encourage intellectual diversity in college classrooms. Governor Holcomb’s statement read in part:

The bill requires free inquiry and civil discourse programming for new students, strongly encourages academic freedom and protects faculty to express differing viewpoints from their colleagues and university leadership … The Senate Bill statutorily recognizes faculty tenure and tasks each institution to develop its own review process … I have faith in our public universities to faithfully implement this law to foster the successful growth and intellectual vibrancy of academia while protecting the rights of all individuals.

Regarding the highway analogy, the Indiana law returned DEI social justice ideology of oppressed and oppressor and its associated hiring practices and curricula back to the lawful highway speed—that is, back to the normal sense of being able to “express differing viewpoints.”

However, when viewed from the perspective of a social justice advocate, this pulling back to “normal” was perceived quite differently:

“It’s racist, how’s that,” Rabbi Aaron Spiegel, executive director of the Greater Indianapolis Multifaith Alliance, said of the bill. He’s one of the signatories of Thursday’s statement condemning the new law.

“The Black community has said this is racist, I don’t get to decide that,” Spiegel said. But neither do white legislators, he said: “When the Black community says this is racist, then it is.”

Spiegel and I talked about the Indiana law in March and his response to it. “You have to understand that I have had problems with DEI. It does not include religious diversity.” However, he went on to point to multiple advocacy issues, such as affordable housing, and that issues generally aligned along partisan lines. He added, “Black faculty feel intimidated by having to consider what they are teaching.”

Rather than pointing fingers, such a conversation can be a useful step forward. Both sets of advocates can explain where they are on the highway, how they perceive each other, whether they understand the dynamics of a sword and shield advocacy, and what time frame they believe they are driving in—1619, 1776, 1865, 1960s, 2020s? Maybe it’s about going back to the future.

Art by Joe Nalven


2 thoughts on “Progressive Overreach and the Procrustes Impulse

  1. Meanwhile, even after 108 arrests, the Hamas Fan Club at Columbia is reportedly still prancing around and munching on donated pizza. (Am I the only one who wonders why there are never legal consequences to merchants who donate pizza to unlawful assemblies?)

    As to October 7th, my reaction is simple: Raping hippies and beheading babies is — dare I say it — WRONG. It’s a level of depraved savagery that civilized nations have agreed to be beyond the pale for hundreds of years. And people somehow seem to think that Higher Ed has suddenly gone anti-Semitic and anti-American — no, it’s been that way for 30 years, likely longer…

    Long before I knew what it was, I learned that persons wearing a keffiyeh were likely to disrupt conservative events. The late Justice Scalia put it best — one side of a debate should not be permitted to fight freestyle, while the other is required to follow Marquis of Queensberry rules. I don’t want a conversation with people who want to kill me.

    Exodus 22.2 comes to mind in that regard…

    At this point Columbia has closed its gates, hoping that 19th Century Iron can keep out 21st Century Video — that ain’t gonna work, the days of things happening on campus without the whole world knowing are over. (If nothing else, the Hamas Fan Club will post the incriminating video themselves, just like the January 6th Fratboys did.)

    I’m not sure it is a good thing for university policy to be dictated by a House Subcommittee, but we’re neither living in an ideal world nor is Columbia truly a “private” college — only Grove City and Hillsdale are. If the US taxpayer is going to subsidize the largess of Columbia, then the taxpayer’s representatives should have the right to direct how it is spent.

    Columbia is threatening to suspend those students who were arrested — Columbia will soon discover what MIT did — if you suspend an International student, that revokes the student’s visa and he/she/it has to go home. However, I don’t see how they can suspend the daughter of a US Congresscritter (Ilhan Omar’s daughter Isra Hirsi) without also suspending the International students involved.

    The NYPD reported being confronted with 500 hostile students in addition to the 108 it arrested, so unless the Columbia admin backs down, and it really can’t, they’re going to be arrested too. The NYT seems to think this will then spiral out of control — and?!?

    I see no benefit from trying to have rational conversations with people who want to kill me and to destroy my country. Nor do I see any reason why I should try…

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