Notes on humanism

Humanism seems to attract some reactionary connotations nowadays. This is not without good reason: it’s a term of self-identification that has been claimed by many on the right – from Andrew Bolt to anti-feminists in the blogosphere. The reason that this term may appeal to some of these people is the same reason that it is increasingly rejected by many on the left: that it reflects an (at best) apolitical denial of privilege or class, and a refusal to join the struggle of those who are denied these advantages.

The ‘humanism’ of the right may oftentimes be disingenuous (or, more generously, simply blind to privilege). But it would be a grave error to denounce humanism itself. For, if self-proclaimed humanists can be blind to privilege, then it is also fair to say that self-proclaimed leftists can sometimes be blind to humanity. The archetypal example of this is the French Revolution, and its casting of aristocrats as intolerables deserving only to be guillotined.

While this pattern continued throughout many revolutionary uprisings of the previous century, it can’t be said that the average modern-day western leftist – rhetoric aside – would be inclined to actually put the rich up against the wall. But that does not mean that there isn’t a strong vein of contempt directed at the powerful and their perceived beneficiaries. The concept that – even while fighting against their destructive behaviour – we should not treat (say) Tony Abbott, or George Pell, or Gina Rinehart with hatred and disdain, but, rather, with compassion and empathy, would be considered laughable by most people on the left. It’s the sort of fey pronouncement you might expect from a Buddhist monk or a born-again Christian. Surely, this discourse goes, the battle against oppression has no space for such sentimentality.

I am neither a moralist nor a religious adherent. Nevertheless, I do firmly believe that the left needs humanism, and that this is so because our society as a whole needs humanism.

What is humanism, exactly? It has many contextual definitions, some of which have connotations related to atheism or a belief in the inferiority of animals. For me, humanism can be simplified as a belief in human dignity; of the value of the individual unto itself; of a universal human entitlement to fair treatment, general autonomy and protection from harm. Humanism recognises the many common qualities that we share, and recognises the capacity and need for empathy that this grants us. Most crucially, humanism entails an advocacy for humanity in all its diverse (and sometimes dysfunctional) forms. In the Christian tradition, this manifested in doctrine – if seldom in practice – as the universal human capacity for redemption and universal status of all people as children of God.

Is that such a radical position nowadays? It certainly seems to be. From the aforementioned fight-to-the-death approach of the left to the many punching-bags of the right – criminals, ‘dole bludgers’ and immigrants – to the supposedly utilitarian apathy directed at detained refugees to the view, right across the political spectrum, that some people simply deserve to have bad things happen to them, a meaningful humanism seems decidedly unfashionable in our current society.

I believe that this is something that needs to be rectified. To me, humanism is not merely compatible with the progressive project; it is essential to it. The entire point of left-wing movements is to stand up for the humanity of the disadvantaged; to assert that the downtrodden deserve equal respect, equal dignity, equal access to society’s institutions and equal standard of living. Where does this fight come from if not from a deep commitment to humanistic principles? We are not talking mere self-interest of the masses here, and neither are we talking about some dispassionate commitment to a certain school of economics: leftism as a coherent philosophy is founded upon the kind of humanism I describe. A leftism that rejects humanism has forgotten its own reason for existence.

A society in which individuals are treated with contempt, held back from full participation or categorised as inherently evil or inferior is a society in dire need of progress. I think it’s fairly evident that ours is such a society. If we are to become a better society, it’s essential that we bring all members of society with us; not just the ones we perceive as righteous, or deserving, or of the right class or social background. A humanistic philosophy has no space for such binaries; a progressive philosophy has no space for such binaries. So long as we do not use it to minimise disadvantage, we should never be ashamed to call ourselves humanists. For those of us who care about making society a better place, there is no better thing to aspire to.


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