24 June 2010

Humanism and Politics

I'm often tempted to describe my political views as humanist. This is because for me humanism is all-encompassing. I don't restrict myself to the modern definition, which tends to be defined by what it isn't, but rather embrace the whole of humanity's spirit: literature, politics, philosophy, and everything else in the library. Although there are humanist parties in place (associated with the "Humanist International"), I don't know too much about them and according to Wikipedia -- whose veracity is unquestionable, you know -- other humanist groups view them with a great deal of suspicion. This is not a matter I have looked into for myself because it is a moot subject: there is no Humanist Party in the United States that I know of. If there was, though, what would be be constituted of?

I sometimes identify my politics with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights to make it clear I am human-rights centered. I am a humanist: my concerns start with humanity first, not in endorsing political ideologies. It seems to me that many political groups care only for abstracts -- The Nation, for instance, or The Economy. These things only matter to the point that they help us. I care little for free markets or planned economies by themselves: I want to know what state people can be their best in. I have a few opinions on that subject, but I don't know if this is the place for them. I think human rights is a good starting point for political humanism. I think human rights must be universal, with no distinctions made to seperate those who do not share political viewpoints. To deny human rights to prisoners, even terrorists, is to deny our own humanity. I don't think we can keep someone's face in the dirt without getting down there themselves, in other words. We can't call ourselves humanists and forgoe human rights.

Branching off from a commitment to human rights is the necessity for democracy: among the rights we cherish is the right of every person to think, believe, and act for himself -- to be in control of his or her own destiny. 

Although human rights is a starting point, crucial to modern humanism is the spirit of rationality. Reason must inform our politics -- not vain trust in ideology. It is one thing to explore the consequences of free-market options versus planned options, for instance: it is another to believe that The Free Market is god and that only in it can people be happy. The same goes for planned economies: although they sound splendid on paper, societies are difficult things to plan. I mention these not because of the current political debate, but because this is something I think about a lot: I have a zealous distrust of corporate power and a healthy respect for the corrupting influence that power has on the people who think they hold it, but I also can't underestimate the tendecy for bureacracies to get bogged down or for the system to simply not work because we will never have access to all the information that we need to plan things properly.

I don't need to praise Reason to humanists, but I so very rarely hear it praised in political matters. Instead, we hear a lot about belief and values. I don't condemn these things, but we must temper them with reason. We cannot blindly trust in something because it makes us feel good, or because if everyone trusted in it everyone would be happy. Unthinking praise for beliefs and values is the road to nationalism, for beliefs and values are always personal. Reason is impersonal: we humans may think differently about many things, but we know something is reasonable when we hear it. Our brains understand the language of logic, even if they make mistakes in the translation. Reason cannot be a passive thing: we must interrogate ideas, make them prove their worth. 

You might wonder why I have not yet mentioned church-state seperation, as it seems to be the easiest thing for humanists to rally around. I think this misses the point: we plant the flag and bare our teeth when a religious group attempts to enforce its own values on the rest of us, but try to do the same about corporations influecing the government through campaign contributions and you'll be called a socialist. There is no difference between an oil company and a religious "company" influencing politics or culture: a minority is attempting to rule the majority, or more plainly one group is attempting to dominate or unduly influence another.

Although these are a couple of starting points, there's much room for individual interpretations. Because of my commitment to human rights, for instance, I am a firm believer in universal healthcare. For me, healthcare is too important to not be available to all who need it: it is a moral imperative. I do not want it to be subject to the whims of profit and greed: the starting point for planning the policy must be to meet needs, not to generate profit. Democracy is also not a simple issue: while some believe in representation, others value more direct forms of democracy.

What are your thoughts on how humanism can be expressed politically? 

07 June 2010


"I can't hate you. I'd rather die than hate you." - Dr. Martin Luther King, as quoted in Here If You Need Me.

I remember sitting in the backseat of our family car as a small child, waiting in the parking lot of a supermarket with my sister and her best friend while my mother shopped for groceries inside. When an elderly black man left the story and began walking into the parking lot, one of the two girls -- both of whom were seven years older than me -- used a word in reference to him. I asked what it meant, and they replied that it was just used in reference to black people. With childish excitement at knowing a new word (and innocence at its meaning), I stuck my head outside the open window and yelled "Hey, ni-"

That was as far as I got before being muffled and hauled in by my now embarrassed sisters. At that point I learned that the word was taboo, not to be uttered in public -- especially not in the presence of black people. In the United States, and particularly in the American south where slavery held sway for centuries and segregation lingered for decades thereafter, the word is odious. No other word in the American language, not even that versatile word that George Carlin so championed, is as offensive in the south.  Despite this, it sees heavy usage among both blacks and whites, used in different contexts.  The word may no longer be fit for public utterance, but the meaning -- the emotions -- behind it still lurk in the minds of people.

As I've grown older I've learned to ignore words themselves and focus on their meanings, hence why "cuss" words no longer make me flinch  as they did in my Pentecostal youth, and why I regard the excitement about them as being...silly, almost juvenile. I am more concerned with the malicious meanings behind socially acceptable words than I am the "offensiveness" of words deemed profane. The "n-word" is not the only word in history that has been used to belittle and marginalize people: there are a host of such words, and we use them every day when we use labels to write someone off.

A couple of years ago, I endured a falling-out with a friend over this issue. He made heavy use of  such words, as he enjoyed being the center of attention in a given conversation and typically held such attention by attacking other people in jokes. His preferred targets were "libs" and "Dems", although in truth anyone who disagreed with him or who bothered him in any little way would attract his attention.  I found this behavior boorish and increasingly unpleasant, and so parted ways with him. His behavior bothered me not simply because of the stock I put in simple decency, but because I knew I shared his behavior in some ways. I would never use labels to assault someone in public, of course, but I used them in private when writing or thinking. Just as he had his 'libs and dems', I had choice targets like "fundies".

Shortly after our falling out, I swore off using labels to demean people. I do not want to keep company with the hostility, contempt, anger, and loathing that those words gave voice to, and denying them a voice was the first step. Instead of voicing these emotions, I decided to examine them -- to turn them over and upside down, and sort out why I felt that way toward one person or another. (I became more interested in Stoicism after my departure from this friend, as it turned into a bitter row with emotional fallout that lingered for months.)  I decided that attacking people with labels did no good: it only dehumanized them in my eyes, and that took me down a road I was not willing to travel. As a humanist, I wish to remain charitable toward all, even those who wish me ill will.  It is my way of defending myself, of not wounding what I am capable of. I stand for Humanity: not just my fellow Homo sapiens but for what we are capable of -- for what we may achieve not just in knowledge and in prosperity, but in how we act.  I want a better society than this, and I do not think that can be achieved if we continually attack one another as people.

A year or so ago I realized something else: labels are foolish, not just because they dehumanize others but because they are so frequently unreliable. People are not nearly as consistent as we would like to believe in stereotypical behavior: the man we denounce as a bastard one day may render a kindness the next. Instead of writing someone off, I choose to evaluate their actions. I do myself the same kindness. I can never know enough about a person's personality and character to judge them, but I can think about their actions and judge them for worth or harm. By focusing on what they do, I can avoid demeaning them for who they are and possibly even provoke a change in them by remarking on the destructive tendency of their actions in a more objective manner -- something not possible if I were to attack them. Concentrating on verbs is more useful than employing "n-words" -- nouns in this manner.

In the past year, I have grown in my ability to put aside labels and deal with people as people, and I am happy to report that my desire to understand others quickly overcomes hostility toward behavior I find objectionable (believing in dogma, for instance). Progress along these lines is thus possible, if we are willing to strive toward it.