The twenty-first century has been one bitter pill after another for those who believe in the goodness of humanity. Is it still possible to be a humanist in a world in shadow?
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Is it still possible to be a humanist today?
Humanism is the philosophy that treats human beings as the standard-bearers of morality and the ultimate source of value. So far, the twenty-first century has been one bitter pill after another for this worldview.
The new century dawned with 9/11. The U.S. and the world enjoyed a brief moment of unity after that shocking act of terror. But the George W. Bush administration exploited it, plunging the nation into a costly war of imperialism. Sickening revelations of torture and black-site imprisonment further tarnished our global standing.
The euphoria we felt at Barack Obama’s election, which seemed like proof that the US was finally leaving its racist past behind, soon ebbed into years of white conservative backlash and obstruction.
The Arab Spring was stamped out. It brought democracy to Tunisia, where it began, but met with brutal repression elsewhere. In Syria, it ignited a bloody civil war that sent waves of refugees flooding outward and left the nation in ruins with the dictator Assad still in power.
Since 2016, the U.S. has taken a sharp right turn away from democracy. Our former president trashed one norm after another, tried to steal the 2020 election when he lost, and instigated a mob to ransack the Capitol. Among one of our two major parties, conspiracy theories and anti-democratic sentiments are sprouting like malignant weeds.
It’s not just America, either. Democracy is on the back foot all over the world. Orban in Hungary, Duterte in the Philippines, Bolsonaro in Brazil, and other thuggish strongmen play on the same theme of fear: fear of outsiders, of minorities, of change. Illiberal China wields more influence than ever on the world stage. Russia has become a flat-out fascist dictatorship, as its tyrannical ruler Vladimir Putin wages unprovoked attacks on neighboring Ukraine and imprisons his own citizens for calling his war what it is.
And for the last three years, a pandemic has ravaged the world. We have a vaccine, created in record time with revolutionary technology, that should stand as one of humanity’s great scientific triumphs. But an angry minority, poisoned by paranoia, refuses it. Their obstinacy has given the virus an open door to keep spreading, directly causing hundreds of thousands of people to die miserable, needless deaths.
If COVID-19 was a test of humankind’s ability to cooperate and work towards a common goal, it’s hard to judge our performance as anything but a failure. That’s a bad omen for the much bigger crisis of climate change, which is looming over the world in the next few decades and which will require cooperation on a much greater scale.
What does it mean to be a humanist in a world in shadow?
Humanism holds that people are capable of figuring out morality for ourselves through reason. But recent history is a harsh test of that philosophy. Time and again, we’ve have chosen violence over peace, selfishness over compassion, bigotry over tolerance. How can we value humanity while acknowledging that humans are often so frustratingly ignorant, hateful, and short-sighted?
It’s true, for those of us engulfed in the headlines of the moment, that the outlook might seem bleak. However, it’s important to bear in mind that this is nothing new.
There’s never been a time in history when everything was rosy and there was only smooth sailing ahead. There have always been crises to menace us, fools and fiends in seats of power, and societies whose poor decisions led them to blunder into problems they could have avoided. Democracy and science have always been endangered by ignorance and fundamentalism.
The specific problems of our era may be new, but the root cause hasn’t changed. Humans have always been profoundly dual-natured creatures. We’re capable of shocking malevolence, as well as mundane, all-too-common acts of bigotry, greed and anti-intellectualism. But at the same time, when we rise above the darker side of our nature, we’re capable of magnificent achievements and heroic acts of goodness. Our entire history is a yin-and-yang struggle between these conflicting impulses.
There have been humanists from every past era, including times in which the world was far more violent and benighted than it is now. If that didn’t dissuade them, we shouldn’t give up either. Humanism isn’t a belief that humanity is morally perfect, or that we’ll never fail or falter. It’s a belief in the enormous potential of humanity to be better than it is, and a determination to help us attain that potential.
This isn’t the time to give up on humanism, but to reaffirm that its principles still matter. In particular, at our moment in history, we need to resist fear.
When people are consumed with fear, they turn inward. They refuse to share what they have. They become small-minded, suspicious and hostile, perceiving enemies where there are none. They fall under the sway of demagogues who promise protection.
These are the opposite of the qualities we need to mend the world. In a climate of rage and suspicion, we need a renewed spirit of goodwill and trust. In the face of soaring inequality, we need those with the most to share with those who have the least. To overcome big, pervasive problems like climate change, we need to rediscover cooperation and the knowledge that we’re all in this together. Lastly, we need a rededication to democracy—real democracy, in which everyone has a voice and everyone’s voice counts the same—which is vital to solving every other problem.
Most of all, we need to hold to a revolutionary optimism. The naysayers will call us naive, but what they don’t know is that optimism is our secret weapon. Only the belief that positive change is possible will give us the strength to persist, to keep pushing forward. We have to dream about better worlds before we can create them.
The cosmos is vast beyond imagining, and whatever happens to us on Earth, the stars will keep shining and the planets will keep spinning in their orbits. On the other hand, we and we alone (as far as we know!) have the privilege of storytelling and meaning-making. We’re the ones who cause the universe to matter.
That’s a rare and priceless talent, and it would be a tragedy if it disappeared from the universe. As long as there’s still a hope of tending that flame and keeping it alive – of us growing to be better than we currently are – I’ll always be on the side of humanity. For that reason, I still call myself a humanist.