Course-Correction vs. Revolution: Humanism as a Daily Practice

Course-Correction vs. Revolution: Humanism as a Daily Practice October 3, 2019

Let’s begin with a story. This one involves a recent bit of news, even though I’m trying my best not to write hot takes on trending issues. (Yes, snappy rejoinders are a sure way to spike ad-revenue through frenzied online discourse, but this entire post relates strongly to my caution about the overall humanistic benefit of such infotainment pursuits.) Nevertheless, sometimes one sees the “evergreen” even in up-to-the-minute news, and I think you’ll agree that this is one such situation.

Just as Oceania has always been at war with Eastasia, so too is the U.S. always in election mode. As such, even a Canadian in Colombia, when seeking to stay apprised of world events, is sure to be inundated by news of the Democratic candidate’s race. And as a good Canadian (U.S. politics being one of our most popular national sports), I of course have my favourites–Warren and Sanders, though I have bones to pick with both of them on certain accords. So when Sanders was afflicted by a heart condition, I of course soon encountered links to tweets like the following, from the Warren campaign:

And then, so help me, I read the comments for all related tweets: The folks responding to this message by clamouring for Warren to drop out. The folks calling her a wolf in sheep’s clothing and taking these tweets and this issue as a platform to rail against her for poor choices in unrelated political scenarios, to say nothing of her egregious indigenous issue, which will require a far greater commitment to healing and centring affected communities than has currently been shown.

What struck me most, though, were the other tweets: The ones praising her for doing something civil, classy, compassionate, dignified, and in many of their minds presidential. The ones exalting her for showing basic courtesy and respect to a friend who also happens to be a campaign rival.

And how depressing both sets of tweets were to read… because both are extreme reactions to something that ostensibly should be par for the course.

And that’s when it clicked for me: the rarity is our real problem here. We’ve been so long without civil discourse, there’s no way for a single instance of it not to set off a feeding frenzy of excessive praise and condemnation.

Until it’s status quo again, every act of basic courtesy and human decency is going to be treated as a radical act, a drawing of a line in the sand against incivility–and in so doing, it’s going to perpetuate the provocative nature of our political discourse.

So, what’s a humanist to do to buck the cycle?

Humanism: An Everyday Radical Act

When a certain someone entered U.S. office, I made a commitment that I think I’ve only erred in once here: namely, not to mention his name, or promote articles centrally about him, anywhere on social media, so as not to contribute to the infuriating paradox of folks claiming to hate how much he dominates news cycles while simultaneously perpetuating his dominance within them. We can’t seem to look away from so many unfolding horrors–and right now it’s especially hard to tune him out, because the U.S. political situation might finally have reached its tipping point.

Partially, though, this inabiltiy to look away is because we’re addicted to the underlying cadence: the relentless desire for the groundbreaking and the revolutionary in our infotainment. We want stimulation, we want excitement, we want spectacle.

Meanwhile, what we need is something far more measured. What we need is a careful, patient, and serious commitment to improving our local, national, and global neighbourhoods. Because real change doesn’t happen just in one night; rather, it requires longterm naturalization into the fabric of our cultures, until one cannot even imagine life before said change came to pass.

And yet, what often happens is that this steadiness in approach is conflated with conservative/traditionalist mentalities. How can we be for change, the impression seems to persist, if we’re not behaving stridently and provocatively in pursuit of it?

In a way, then, a very legitimate complaint about “tone policing” (i.e. seeking to delegitimize protests by claiming that protesting individuals aren’t speaking with the “right” level of civility against oppressive systems and persons) has also come to stigmatize quieter forms of radical action in turn.

Meanwhile, tone shouldn’t matter as much as content, absolutely. If you need to sing out, sing out.

But as material beings, beings that get huge hormonal kicks from even the slightest perception of confrontation (online and in-person alike), we need to be extra careful not to get addicted to the tonal rush that comes with certain approaches to change.

Example: Protests, Church Services, & Rallies

We atheists–especially those among us who grew up in congregations where there was a groundswell of excited feeling–should know this danger well. Humanity is a group species, and most of us draw a particularly potent form of euphoria/emancipation-from-self-willed action simply from thronging with others.

Which is great for most of us–a real mood booster!–so long as we’re aware of what’s happening, and all its potential consequences.

Because that feeling of togetherness in a church that leaves parishioners feeling that “God is in the house”?

That feeling of togetherness in a climate-change protest that leaves attendees feeling that they’re on the unstoppable side of right and reason?

That feeling of togetherness in a Klan rally that leaves racists feeling that they’re an unmovable force to be feared?

They’re all drawing from the same behavioural well: a force for good (sometimes), a force for depravity (at others).

And even when we’re not gathering in person for a given cause–even when our sense of togetherness comes from social media pile-ons–it’s that same basic chemistry at play. That itchiness to find and lend fervour to “our” side. That tethering of personal ego to broader social verdicts about our words, our actions, and our cause.

The Daily and Much More Daunting Task of Course-Correction

Can we live without the desire to be exhilarated, offended, and otherwise provoked by the slings and arrows of our political moment?

Can we act without automatically giving in to those actions that most seem to get the blood pumping?

Can we remember that just because a given action feels invigorating doesn’t actually mean it’s the most necessary or effective?

I sorely hope so. And I sorely hope these are easier feats than they sometimes seem.

Because Warren was doing nothing radical by wishing a colleague and friend a swift recovery and return to the campaign trail.

But until we’re all re-acclimated to a baseline of human decency, in-person as online; until we’ve come to see the road ahead of us as something requiring constant course-correction rather than a dramatic swerving from one side of the asphalt to the next…

Well, the road itself is never going to matter as much as it should, is it?

We’re all just going to be expending precious time, energy, and resources on bracing for the next sudden lurch.

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  • guerillasurgeon

    Unfortunately these days distance doesn’t give you much immunity to American politics. I’ve had to radically cut down on Trevor Noah and Stephen Colbert because their political commentary almost exclusively focuses on Trump. When you can’t blame them because as one of them said this stuff writes itself. But they keep playing clips of the man, and I find myself being embarrassed for him – which is an emotion I don’t particularly want to feel – at least on his behalf. And the lack of civility seems to be catching. The Overton window has simply shifted way to the right. Anyone who questions the efficacy of unregulated capitalism is considered a “socialist”. And neoliberalism is the new normal. And it’s not helped by the way that people say things online that they wouldn’t dream of saying to your face. There was a question on Quora the other day something like “Can we have a civil debate about gun control.” The answer was “no” with both sides accusing each other of irrationality and unethical behaviour. Mind you this is a subject that seems to engage people’s passions. But even so, a civil conversation about pretty much anything should be an option, and it’s gone. It seemed to disappear in the US when Obama was elected. Enough said.

  • Major Major

    Good post. I tried to comment, but the nanny filter got me.

  • Jim Baerg

    I’ve been listening the “History on Fire” podcasts & am currently in the middle of the 3 part series on Jack Johnson, the 1st black heavy weight boxing champion. The ‘incivility’ of the quotes from the very common white supremacists of the time (early 1900s) is appalling.
    Did we actually get a period that was more civil in between then & now?

  • Cleared out the nanny filter pile! Sorry about that–Disqus moderation wasn’t letting me log in for a while.

  • “I find myself being embarrassed for him”

    I’m experiencing this myself. While I hear quite a few people crowing about him maybe being on the path to dying in prison, that… doesn’t feel at all like a triumph of justice to me. The humanist in me just sees the sheer waste of ever so much human potential in it all, and I just feel… tired. Very very tired of the farce and its horrific longterm consequences. Thanks for sharing. I feel a little better knowing I’m not the only one.

  • Would that your system made it easier for more parties to emerge as strong contenders on the federal level, so folks could more clearly sort out their political allegiances by party lines!

  • I highly doubt it. Remember, too, that historically legislators used to get into actual fist fights with one another during government discourse.

    We cling to a myth of a Great Civility, a Great Peace, and a Great Justice that never did exist in generations prior. Nevertheless, it’s not out of the question for all three still to lie ahead.