Posted: 2020-05-02

The Humanist Challenge to Current Inhumane Ideas


AS a new decade begins, the all-Ireland Humanist conference later this year will address the Humanist challenge to inhumane ideas. It’s a huge topic: there are so many bad ideas floating around the globe at the moment and threatening to engulf the human race. Many of these ideas are mutually contradictory or the theory and the practice do not coincide. Climate change denial is an obvious example. Most people no longer reject the science and fully accept that global warming is a real existential threat. But in practice there is a reluctance to change habits in order to tackle the crisis. Why?


One reason is that there is still an adherence to possessive individualism, the theory that individuals are the sole proprietors of their skills and owe nothing to society for them. These skills are a commodity to be bought and sold on the open market. It is a society in which there is a selfish and unending thirst for consumption which is considered the crucial core of human nature. The unspoken assumption is that selfishness and greed are good. Humanism is a philosophy that challenges this worldview, arguing very strongly that we are social animals who care for one another and care for the planet and all the creatures in it.


Possessive individualism is intimately related to free market capitalism which is basically the law of the jungle in which the wealthy become ever more wealthy and the poorest have to resort to food banks or the streets. It also means that minimal regulation leads to tower blocks going up in flames and planes falling out of the skies. This kind of economics delivers for the few, not the many.


Another bad idea embracing large parts of the globe is ethnic nationalism. Here possessive individualism coexists with a strong sense of national identity (see page 6). Nationalism is not necessarily bad if it is open and inclusive, but the dominant form today seems to be a closed and exclusive nationalism, which all too often has strong elements of racism and religiosity. 


Examples abound throughout the world: we see it in countries as far apart as Brazil, India, America, Myanmar and England. Humanism, on the other hand, is essentially internationalist: we believe that the characteristics that unite all humanity are more important than the factors that divide us. Therefore solutions to many of the world’s problems require international action and cooperation.


Another bad idea is the wave of populism engulfing large parts of the globe. This can be defined as a political philosophy that appeals to ordinary people who feel that their concerns are disregarded by established elite groups. It poses ‘the people’ against ‘the elite’. Since ‘the people’ cannot themselves rule, a strong leader inevitably emerges who embodies ‘the people’ and understands their wishes. It is, of course, a myth: almost invariably the leaders are not ‘of the people’ or even for the people but for themselves and their own crazy ideas. 


Populist leaders communicate directly with their followers through an anarchic social media. It exploits cognitive biases to the hilt, creating digital echo chambers and the weaponisation of the media by political actors. Both Trump and Johnson promise to make their country ‘great again’ by unleashing its potential. They become tantamount to Messiahs leading their people to the promised land, effectively telling the people to trust them and think like them. This approach is antithetical to freethinking and Humanism which place a stress on people thinking for themselves and taking individual responsibility for their actions.


Humanists also stress the importance of reason over emotion. Yet another bad idea in the modern world is to treat politics as entertainment. A notable feature of leaders like Trump and Johnson is that they are showmen who appeal to emotion and appearance: the politics of optics, as it has been called, where seriousness and complexity are banished and replaced by simplicities, slogans and soundbites.


There was a marked contrast in the recent UK election between the campaigning of Corbyn and Johnson. Corbyn’s approach was to appeal to reason in set speeches; Johnson, however, toured the country chatting and joking with workers, taking selfies with them and assisting with their tasks. In so far as Johnson outlined a policy, it was largely a matter of repeating the same few slogans. This strategy was more appealing to people whose ‘intellectual' lives are defined by talking about soaps, reality TV and football and who judge ‘important people’ entirely on the basis of their media image. This cynical and superficial philosophy can only be defeated by a commitment to real philosophy, which should be a compulsory subject taught in all schools.


A further bad idea is the growth of intolerance in which we seem incapable of living with opinions that differ from our own, and which threatens to lead us along a dangerous path that could even end with human annihilation. That is a measure of the task before us. Humanism is ready for that task. If ever the world needed its philosophy, the time is now. The imperative of the 2020s is to return humankind to the path of Enlightenment, reason, science and compassion, and Humanism is ready to lead the charge.


Brian McClinton, January 2020