Because We Need Power

This is my second entry in an ongoing blog dialogue with Stephanie Zvan of Almost Diamonds over at Freethought Blogs, answering the question “Why do Humanists need organized groups?” You can find my first post here, and her reply here.

Communities are dangerous. Intense, moral communities like the Humanist communities I envisage are particularly so. Stephanie outlines some of the dangers in her recent reply: by creating a strong sense of in-group solidarity they also create the potential for out-group exclusion. Indeed, this must be true by definition: you cannot create a strong sense of community without shared values and norms, and any given set of values and norms will exclude some people. It is impossible to create communities which meaningfully include some individuals on the basis of their values without also excluding others.

And this is a big problem. As Stephanie rightly notes, group norms can develop quickly and swiftly come to have pernicious effects: “It seems we will tie our group identity to anything. And then we use it to outlaw people who don’t fit that identity.” And I agree with Stephanie wholeheartedly when she suggests that Humanist communities would not be immune to these potential problems. “I don’t know”, she says, “that Humanist temples would provide benefits that would outweigh the problems a strong group identity creates, but I’m willing to consider the idea. Given all that, my next question for James is “Why organized groups?”

The short answer is “power”. We need political power to achieve the changes in society that humanists have long wished for but in modern times have shown little ability to push for. And only by gathering together in community, I believe, will we generate sufficient political power to make change.

William R. Murry, in his interesting book Reason and Reverence: Religious Humanism for the 21st Century, articulates my position very clearly, so I hope you’ll excuse the longish quote:

Institutionalized injustice can be changed only through the exercise of power…Each person is a center of power. Our task is to use our personal power on behalf of love and justice to effect systematic change. One of the best ways to use power effectively is to form voluntary associations and coalitions of associations. Coalitions are important because there is strength in numbers. In today’s world, groups that do not exercise their power on behalf of their interests and rights are usually left out of consideration by governmental or corporate entities…Justice is won only when power is brought to bear against power. (p. 149)

We live in a world of institutionalized injustice, and we need power to fight it. To generate power, I believe, we need to organize and find strength in numbers – hence, organized groups. In a sense, Freethought Blogs is itself an expression of this idea – the collective voice of all the bloggers is stronger than any individual voice alone.

But how can we create moral communities and avoid most of the dangers of out-grouping and ostracizing? I think the first step is to be honest and recognize that this will indeed occur. We won’t overcome the human urge to enforce group norms to the detriment of others. But we can limit it in two main ways, I think: first, by ensuring that one of the explicit moral values that the community coheres around is respect for the dignity of every person without exception. That is an exceptional benefit of Humanist communities over religious ones – Humanism includes an explicit commitment to the worth and equality of all, unlike most religions.

Second, we can consciously design our communities to have institutional checks on outgrouping. This is another benefit of Humanist communities: we need not bow to any given design or have respect for any particular organizational tradition. We can work with the grain of human psychology and bring our full understanding of our own foibles to bear, so that when we design the community structures we ensure to take account of, and even work against, this problem. One simple example would be the introduction of “progressive stack” methods of taking questions after talks, as used in some Occupy meetings, to ensure traditionally marginalized voices are heard more frequently.

The problem of social norms is a deep one and, I believe, inherent to the creation of any community. Wherever you develop a community that believes in X you open the door to demonizing people who believe in Y. I do not think this sufficient reason to avoid the creation of organized groups altogether, though: there are ways to mitigate this problem, and organized groups are simply too essential, if we wish to meet our goals as a movement, to be cast aside.


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