Let’s begin with a story.
As noted in a previous essay, this month contained the privilege of my speaking for the first time about humanism. I was invited by Jesse Harden, part of the interfaith leadership team at the University of Virginia Tech, and we set November 13 for this engagement. It was by Zoom, of course — and also set for a Friday evening, because when we were first scheduling this event I was still working in pretty much every other time-slot for the company that did a real number on my visa status here in Colombia.
Suffice it to say, then, we had a modest turn-out, with a few students needing to cancel last-minute. Nevertheless, it was still great fun to talk to folks from the Virginia Tech community who occupied different subject-positions — including one grad student who shared his struggle to have Hindu philosophy differentiated from a spiritual position, the same way that I adamantly detach “humanism” from our cosmologies in turn.
Today, I’m sharing the speech from that event with readers here. I also recorded the talk the morning after (alack, without any special equipment, so the audio and video quality is what it is, even when recording at 4am when highway traffic was at its lowest), to make its contents more accessible for students who might have missed the event but wished to partake in related discourse. [You can find the video at the bottom.]
Most of the arguments in this speech will, I’m sure, be familiar to regular readers of this column, but hopefully the way I’ve organized a few key ideas here (e.g. about information silos in religious, political, and socioeconomic discourse) will read like the happy synthesis of so many prior essays, in which I was rooting about at greater length to get a lock on individual components. (Thank you, then, to all readers and commenters along the way, because you’ve helped me tremendously with learning how to distill and better communicate these points of view.)
Lastly, I do so hope that this little note finds you all faring well and keeping safe. We’re not out of the woods yet when it comes to COVID, or surmounting systemic racism and class-based oppressions, or countering the mounting effects of climate change… but, oh, what a privilege it is to be struggling toward a better future with so many earnestly striving fellow human beings.
However discouraging and frightening the journey often is, I do so hope that you know we’re none of us alone in it. (We just have to get better at reaching out and letting one another know as much.)
Warmth and best wishes,
Moving Beyond Our Information Silos:
A Humanist Approach to Bridging Religious and Non-Religious Divides for Cooperative Action
Good evening, Virginia Tech.
I want to begin by thanking Jesse for that kind introduction, and also for his and Dr. Mouchrek’s initial invitation to speak with the Interfaith Leadership Team and the community it serves. It is a pleasure to be among you, and to share this hour with you.
The way we’ve acclimated to virtual meetings is extraordinary, isn’t it? For years, we’ve had people among us who absolutely needed accommodations like these to share the best of their gifts with others. And yet, for decades, such accommodations, especially for disabled persons, were often considered unrealistic or too demanding. Likewise, we simply accepted long commutes, and the pressures they place on cardiovascular health and the environment, as non-negotiable components of working life.
Then a pandemic came along, and within a matter of weeks—not years, or even months, but weeks – we realized that many people could work primarily from home, and not be the worse for it. That there was no good reason for many of our 9-to-5s, or our 5-of-7s. That companies did not have to send people on business trips all year ‘round in order to liaise effectively.
And this does not even scratch the surface of what we’ve learned about our social contracts from COVID-19. Some articles suggest that everyone this year has been grieving the loss of old routines, and to some extent that is certainly true – especially since working from home has created its own challenges for demographics like the parents of small children.
But I would argue that many of us have also been shocked by how quickly the supposedly impossible became possible. In other words, what many of us have been grieving is the painful realization that, after whole lifetimes of being told that certain things “just are the way they are,” it turns out that a lot of pre-existing suffering could easily have been prevented if only there had been sufficient groundswell, a cohesive public interest in making the change, as we saw emerge around the threat, then reality, of pandemic.
In the last few months, the U.S. has seen a few other shocks of this type. For instance: When the government cut a cheque, a blank cheque, to most every citizen – and when subsequent research showed that this one cheque managed to nudge a great many families from the depths of pre-existing poverty, if only for a little while. What more might your nation have achieved, even in so grave a year for the world, if that recovery policy had continued; if your politicians had fostered more trust in its leviathan of citizens yearning to breathe free?
And you saw another, too, when measures came down ever so swiftly to restrict people’s access to public spaces if they weren’t wearing a facemask, whereas basic protections against civilian massacres caused by a selective reading of the Second Amendment remain an arduous and partisan battle. Not only that, but when certain people protested facemask legislation, some even chose to take to the streets with guns to do so. What this revealed is a culture of political debate in which many rely on legal precedent to leverage greater individual rights in other spheres, instead of one in which people gather to discuss what shape a more just society should take, in general, and then work toward that goal.
In talking about the narratives we are given as a culture, and about the importance of establishing for ourselves a clearer distinction between what “is” and what “ought” to be – to cite David Hume, the Western philosopher who gave us natural fallacy when he wasn’t too busy leaving racist footnotes in his work – I am going to tread today on some uncomfortable terrain. It is necessary, though, to challenge our respective givens, and to become more aware of the information silos in which we reside, if we are truly to do the work of transforming our social contracts.
But first, as I have already alluded to an issue that involves Virginia Tech on a highly personal level, let us pause here to think about even more long-standing tragedies on our soil – yours, that is, and mine.
Virginia Tech lies on the traditional lands of the Monacan and Moneton Indian Nations, which I understand were first occupied by English colonizers, then overrun by Senecan Haudenosaunee, who after driving out existing bands participated in the formal sale of these lands to the British. What a history – and yet, history is always complex, and deserves to be treated as such, without us ever forgetting our duty to immediate action, too.
Today, that action includes honouring and supporting those Indian Nations that survive, and even thrive, at the forefront of some of our species most urgent and global battles. They are not just a part of history, but also of our vital present and all hope for the future, and deserve to be centred and raised up in any discourse about how best to transform our dominant cultural narratives.
As for me, I was born and raised in Canada, a country whose name comes from “kanata”, the Huron-Wendat word for “village.” I now live, and have made my home in Colombia, a country named after a European colonizer who met with indigenous groups, including the Taíno and the Kalina, and ushered in an era of slavery and genocide. Today, that cycle of massacre continues, with more than 250 Indigenous and other social leaders assassinated this year alone, many by armed gangs using COVID-19 lockdowns to their advantage. We are all of us walking on lands of trauma and tragedy. There has to be a better way.
But before we explore what might be done to build better secular stories, to break out of the social contract that has built its history of progress on the sacrifice and oppression of so many… I need to tell you a little bit about my subject-position, because to call myself a “secular humanist” no more suffices to give you a clear idea of my sociopolitical beliefs than to call myself, say, a Christian. Labels build a sense of belonging, of in-group and out-, but often the assertion of citizenship within a given demographic proves more important than precision with respect to what the demographic itself represents.
I am an atheist, obviously. That goes to the “secular” component in “secular humanist.” But I don’t tend to lead with my atheism, because atheism is not a philosophy. It is merely a response, in the negative, to the proposition that a god or gods exist. A person who believes that aliens seeded the Earth can still be an atheist. A person who believes in a cosmic consciousness, a universal soul that we all return to after death, can also be an atheist. And most critically of all, to be “atheist” says nothing meaningful about a person’s relationship to empiricism, or their philosophy of life. Many atheists certainly presume that simply being atheist makes them superior thinkers, but here we fall into the trap of tribalism: the use of a term, like “atheism,” to code for one’s status within a supposedly elite group of human beings.
For many people, this feeling of elitism is enough. It is a rush. It is a way of finding and grounding oneself within a specific community of fellow-thinkers, within a world that seems awash in chaos, ignorance, and a tremendous waste of human potential.
Let me tell you, then, about humanism, as I see it, and as I routinely define it when I discuss related matters in my Patheos column, “Another White Atheist in Colombia,” a name I chose to be firmly self-effacing, and tongue-in-cheek, from the outset. Humanism transcends specific cosmologies. Humanism is a philosophy that Christians, Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Sikhs, Jainists, Bahá’ís, Buddhists, Animists, and persons from all manner of Indigenous spiritual tradition can and do employ in their everyday practice. This is why I call myself a “secular humanist” – the “secular” serving as a modifier to identify that I belong to just one subset of humanist within the world.
Humanism proposes that the most critical site of action lies with us, with the living beings that currently move upon the Earth. When we accept this proposition, that we are the most important agents of change, it follows that we have a duty to maximize our collective agency, to ensure that as many people as possible can take action under optimal circumstances.
But the quest to maximize agency requires a full understanding of the world in which we live – and this means not just drawing from the fields of biology, geology, cosmology, and archaeology, but also history, anthropology, human behavioural sciences, political science, and language studies.
Many of my fellow atheists, for instance, like to assume that we are automatically better empiricists because we can volley biological and archaeological facts against, say, a religious text – but even by choosing to engage in such argumentation, we often overlook key empirical data that illustrates how direct confrontation can backfire, further entrenching people in their original positions. In other words, we ignore the science that shows how living well among one another, openly and collaboratively, is often the more transformational approach to improving social discourse.
It’s no surprise, though, that so many of us are enamoured by facts, and see them as devastating weapons in cultural discourse. Empirical data is especially easy for us to wield against one another. It’s much harder to allow ourselves to be humbled by it, and to learn from it the hard fact that we have, and do, and always will live in communities of widely differing personal beliefs.
Humility is often seen as concession, and weakness, but it is quite the opposite, because when we engage in a more comprehensive empiricism, allowing ourselves to take into account fields of study that may deepen our understanding without granting us easy “wins” in debate, we position ourselves to embody more fully the maxim inscribed in the forecourt of the Temple of Apollo at Delphi: γνῶθι σεαυτόν, “Know Thyself”.
Without a willingness to better understand ourselves and the societies in which we live – by which I mean to name and reckon with our missteps, oversights, and transgressions on both the noumenological and phenomenological level – we cannot hope to effect humanism’s most urgent goal, of maximizing and optimizing worldly agency. Until we are prepared to identify the narrative structures that lead us back to tribalism and the pursuit of personal power every time we engage with discourse in the secular realm, the realm of public speech and action, what greater unification as sentient beings can we hope to attain?
Humanism is a lofty project, then, but thankfully also one shared across the religious and non-religious spectrum. It is not, however, universally desired or sought out – and here is where the tedious dividing line between atheism and theism, especially in anglo-Western discourse, does us all a great disservice.
While so many of us are embroiled in arguments over cosmology, there is another philosophy that lurks within all cosmological positions. We have Christian nihilists, that is, and Muslim nihilists, and existential nihilists – all of whom are strongly convinced that nothing of value lies outside themselves or their spiritual communities. The religious person convinced that lives outside their faith are disposable, just like the atheist who believes that if oblivion awaits everyone there is no point to caring for anyone else, is a danger to us all.
Why, then, do so many of us play into the cultural narrative that names our underlying cosmology, and not what we do with that cosmology, as the most important dividing line of all?
We cannot let this narrative stand. We cannot play into those divisions that serve our current social contract so well, if we’re to confront the tremendous problems that plague the world today.
A PERSONAL ADMISSION
When I talk about this work of surmounting difference, though, I do not mean to suggest that it lies somewhere beyond myself; that it is simply work others need to commit to – to get on my level, so to speak. Rather, I too struggle to rise above some of my issues with other peoples’ cosmologies.
I’m impatient, for instance, with how slowly mosque culture in many North American communities is working to surmount the gendered resource- and space-allocation issues that make going to prayer a marginalizing experience for many women. It is also very difficult for me to see as anything but an insult the strong view among orthodox Jewish, Christian, and Muslim men that shaking my hand would be an act of disrespect to their wives. Some traditions, I ache to see die faster – but I respect, as well, that change simply has to come from within.
One of the most difficult issues I have, though, is with how Christian rhetoric is wielded in North American political discourse, by liberal Christians and atheists alike. In Canada, this phenomenon is less frequent, because we by and large consider it vulgar to bring one’s personal spiritual beliefs into political campaigns. Nevertheless, there is a common refrain in online discourse that troubles me in its self-congratulatory narrow-mindedness.
Perhaps you are familiar with the meme involving Jesus on the Mount, in which someone from the crowd calls out for a qualifier or exception related to contemporary political discourse, only to have Christ reply, “Did I fucking stutter?” There are many of its type online – many memes, that is, suggesting there is only one way to read the Christian Bible, only one party or candidate in today’s political circus that Christ would endorse.
I term this very liberal version of Jesus “Buddy Christ”… and it causes me great conflict, as a humanist, to hear so many people wield him in debate as if his invocation is a sure-fire win for their cause. On the one hand, I am absolutely in favour of the political priorities of those who invoke Buddy Christ in their secular argumentation. On the other hand, reading the Christian Bible makes plain how easily the same text can be used to support completely contradictory points of view, and so it pains me to see our secular discourse rely on religious quotes that are easily deflected by conservative and libertarian Christians with different quotes on hand.
I want to be clear, though, that I save my greatest finger-wagging on this accord for fellow atheists, because many of us are only using “Buddy Christ” to shame other human beings from that aforementioned position of supposed intellectual elitism. “Look at me!” many of these atheists are really saying: “I’m not even Christian and I’m still a better moral Christian than you.” In reality, a great many of us do not regard Christ, or rather, the words and actions ascribed to Christ by the anonymous writers of the Gospels, as altogether morally sound.
You may have heard a quote attributed to Gandhi, which reads, “I like your Christ. I do not like your Christians. Your Christians are so unlike your Christ.” It’s a fascinating line, because it seems to have been popularized by certain Christians to shame other Christians, and yet we have no evidence of this quote’s veracity. The closest is a quote by Bara Dada, brother to Bengali philosopher and polymath Rabindranath Tagore, which reads, “Jesus is ideal and wonderful, but you Christians, you are not like him.”
Irrespective of the quote’s origins, though, I find that I disagree entirely with the sentiment. I think that many Christians are better than the Christ we encounter in the Bible, when all his words and actions are taken into account.
I do not say this to deride believers, but to explain my subject-position in full, and with more honesty than I fear that many atheists espouse. We need to reflect on the information silos in which we live, and this can only be done by being a great deal more honest about what those silos contain. What I love about the image of the “silo”, by the way – this vast division between individual media exposures, and the impact it has on our ability to advance meaningful cultural discourse – is that “silo” is a word used to describe a space made for either grain or missiles: it’s where we lay in store that which will sustain us or destroy us. So it is with the information we prioritize, to the exclusion of all else. It is vital that we understand the messiness of human experience if we are to unite as humanists against destructive forces in the public realm.
Here, then, is where we venture into difficult territory, because the painful truth is that not everything in the Gospels supports liberal Christianity and its interest in, say, expansive welfare-state reform. The only reason many atheists and Christians think otherwise is because their stories have been curated by their communities, and otherwise shaped within those silos to match the gradual transformation of secular society toward more inclusive conceptualizations of civic responsibility, and care.
This shifting and shaping on its own, mind you, is wonderful. It’s an act of taking the very best of old and deeply flawed documents, and turning them into more proactive storytelling.
And I love it.
I love the Christians who lean hard into these humanist re-imaginings of their spiritual vocabularies.
For example, in Pope Francis’s latest encyclical, Fratelli Tutti (Brothers and Sisters All), the Parable of the Good Samaritan is drawn upon as an object lesson from the Christian Bible to complement a thorough indictment of neoliberal socioeconomics, xenophobic nationalism, and the concerning power gap for global institutions at a time when multinationals are exacerbating poverty, and justice is more often retributive than restorative. Fratelli Tutti is a brilliant work of humanist discourse, and well worth the time of anyone, from any spiritual or non-spiritual position, to read.
What Pope Francis has done here, though, is draw upon the hypothetical case for fraternity in the Gospels. He does not talk about what are described as Christ’s own actions when faced with an outsider asking for aid. But then again, why would he, when Christ’s treatment of the Canaanite woman is deplorable, and one of the reasons I think that many Christians are more humanist than their canonical Christ, while many others Christians can look to the Gospels to defend their response, say, to the treatment of refugees at the southern U.S. border.
In this episode, if you recall, we have a mother with a very sick child. If there are any parents or doting family members in the audience, I’m sure you can relate to her desperation, and I’m sure you understand, all too well considering the state of healthcare insurance in the U.S., how there is nothing you wouldn’t do to save a loved one when all the normal channels have failed you. So this woman hears that Christ is a great healer, and she goes to him begging aid for her sick child. And after initially refusing to answer her, until his disciples ask him to send her away, Christ tells her that he was sent for the lost sheep of Israel, and that it would not be just to toss these children’s food to the dogs.
Now, some Christian theologians have attempted to remediate this situation by suggesting that Christ was only testing her – indeed, the episode is even called “The Faith of a Canaanite Woman” – but again, this is a desperate mother of a sick child. What could possibly be learned from such a test? Would you not say anything, do anything, abase yourself however is necessary, in order to see your loved ones healed? And so, the Canaanite woman accepts the premise of Christ’s remark. Agrees with the remark, then counters that even dogs may eat the crumbs that fall from master’s table. And by accepting her lower position in the hierarchy that Christ has outlined for different groups of human beings, the Canaanite woman earns the one thing she wanted, and needed. Her child is saved. But on tribalist terms. As a lesser class of being.
Is it any wonder, then, that some might yet call themselves Christians, and sleep easily at night while doing so, despite viewing certain human beings – human beings like the children irrevocably separated from their parents at the U.S. southern border, or dying after sudden deportation to countries from which they first sought political asylum — as only deserving of the “crumbs” that the ruling class, nation, or culture sees fit to discard from its table of plenty?
I love many policy proposals advanced by the sorts of people who think that the Parable of the Good Samaritan is an easy and definitive win for left-leaning thought within the context of North American political discourse. But when we fail to take into account the complexity of our cultural narrative, and the many ways in which legitimate alternative interpretations can be drawn from the same stories, we cease to be engaged in dialogue at all.
Because the fact is that there are many such episodes in the Gospels, to say nothing of the surrounding books of the Christian Bible, that allow many people to advance highly nihilistic, divisive, and otherwise self-serving politics under that same banner – of being a “good Christian” – and we cannot succeed in moving our secular storytelling forward without a fuller understanding of the intricate waters in which we swim.
If I have been a touch Christian-oriented in these remarks about the ways in which we can and do permit our information silos to limit our understanding of cultural narrative, it is only because of the dominance of this mythopoetic tradition in the conflation of news and entertainment media that shapes public conception of North American issues.
In his famous 2005 commencement speech, “This Is Water,” the late David Foster Wallace shares this eponymous anecdote: that two young fish are swimming along together, and encounter an older fish. “How’s the water?” he asks them. “What’s water?” asks one young fish to the other, after the old-timer has swum on.
It’s a cute anecdote, but it has its limits. It fails to take into account, for instance, how rarely we are actually swimming in the same water. The fallout of the U.S. presidential election, for instance, offers an illuminating look at cultures that have spent so long in different information silos that they no longer share certain foundational premises. This has been deeply painful for many families who have seen members fall hard for infotainment news sites that cultivate xenophobic, nativist, and above all else tribalist conspiracies that depict the other side as, essentially, baby-killing or pedophilic cultists out to take their guns, seed the U.S. with Communists and Islamists, and otherwise destroy the white race.
Where does one even begin?
Where does one even begin to establish a baseline for improved democratic discourse when, at the same time that some conspiracy theories aim to undermine confidence in mainstream experts… still others, the self-titled “moderates” in academic, literary, and journalistic circles, have also dug themselves into information silos. I’m referring here to folks who sincerely believe that their spheres of influence are under growing attack – and not by anti-intellectual QAnon types, no, but by radical leftism. Not by accusations of being pedophiles and baby-killers, but by online mobs so caught up in the fervour of social-justice discourse as to have poisoned the well of free speech, such that a professor or author can’t question various leftist assertions now without fear of losing his job or her book sales in the process.
Let’s take a closer look, then, at the curious positioning of “cancel culture” within this spectrum of dangerous information silos, because those who believe in the existence of this intensified phenomenon tend to establish themselves as the reasonable centrists: the only people still fighting for a measured calm within a cacophony of dissenting points of view.
And yet, this narrative of white-collar professionals losing their middle-class platforms rose to prominence in the same year when others were driven to the streets to protest the literal loss of life to police violence, neighbourhood lynchings, and other forms of systemically sanctioned disregard for the well-being of specific racialized demographics. This fear of de-platforming also exists at striking odds with the reality that very few people are permitted access to such platforms in the first place.
We’ve heard about the scary “PC police” since I was a child – and always with the same insistence that the problem is now worse than ever — but pay close attention to how few average joes, with average minimum-wage jobs, are ever defended by the cancel-culture crowd when they lose their livelihoods because they had the audacity to espouse their own opinions – and especially opinions on the left side of the political spectrum – on the clock.
These counter-examples, of leftists losing livelihoods and lives due to their opinions or maybe even a core aspect of their identity, do not fit the narrative of a rising liberal tide of thought-police suppressing all dissent, and so these situations are often simply rationalized as being the inevitable consequence of marketplace pressures: the employer being well within their rights, that is, to make decisions about whom it wants to be the face of their brand.
And yet, for those quick to cry “cancel culture!” when freedom of speech does not translate to absolute freedom from criticism, consumer decisions in the newsroom, university, and publishing industry (including administrative decisions to cut their losses rather than defend employees from attack) are somehow seen as exceptions to this rule. Marketplace dynamics are for other people—but the intelligentsia must surely be exempt.
I call attention to this other silo, of course, because it’s easy to point fingers at radical right-wing extremists. Oh, those ignorant fools! Why can’t they see how much their worldview has been formed by propagandist organizations with blatant agendas?
Much more difficult is learning to pay attention to how even mainstream and highly coveted information silos can also shape extreme points of view. The academy is especially sneaky in this regard, because like any good capitalist enterprise, it knows that embracing even rhetoric that sounds radical can help to reinforce its classist status quo. This is how you end up with high six-figure-salary earners who’ve talked a good, elaborate talk about various injustices within our social contract… as a means of gaining tenure.
And so, if you’re not careful as you move through this sphere, the academy’s information silo will instill in you, too, the belief that some people’s participation in democratic discourse is more valuable than others’, and that those with greater platforms in the first place should have greater immunity from critical feedback than those human beings who will spend most of their working lives, for whatever reason, on other labours. These other people perhaps do not employ the trendiest neoliberal labels when speaking of justice, but by and large they still wish to be engaged in democratic chores – and need to be engaged in them, if we are to build a more robust secular sphere. Their agency has to matter, too.
None of which is to question, mind you, the value that the university brings to cultural narrative. Obviously, education is vital to the building of better discourse. However, rather than resting our laurels upon its possession, we have to remember the ending of Plato’s Allegory of the Cave, in which the man freed from his confines, freed from a lifetime of believing that the shadows of things are the only real things in the world, is then supposed to return to the cave – imbued with ever so much knowledge of the world that lies beyond it – and there suffer the mockery of those who never got to leave the cave, and who therefore consider him quite foolish for his different point of view.
Only in this way, the text argues – by living with greater knowledge as an equal to those who have not also seen the light – can a person learn how best to lead.
A WAY FORWARD
So how shall we lead, then? Let’s discuss solutions to the problem before us, of living well in a culture of information silos. One of them has been built into the nature of this talk – which is not just a talk, but also direct action. Just as I have committed to donating my speaker’s fee to the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR), a global non-profit helping displaced persons in a world where climate change is only exacerbating local resource-allocation and political pressures… so too has your community committed to fundraising for Micah’s Backpack, a local food-security initiative that ensures children reliant on the school system for food will go home on weekends with enough to eat. In this way, our being here tonight, together, already affirms that there need not be any tension between acting globally and locally, or between our various cosmologies. What matters is the enhancement of human agency on every scale we can manage.
And yet, the lofty goals of humanism are easily forgotten while living in a culture enamoured by words, and labels. There is a reason why the tedious atheist and theist divide, and the conservative and liberal divide, occupy so much of our attention: It makes for good infotainment. Clickbait thrives on sensational contrapuntal debate, a relentless repudiation of what “the other side” has just said about a key issue. And yet, there is so much collaborative practice that we could be embarking upon instead – once we set aside our addiction to the rush of tribalism.
Here, then, is my appeal for more direct action: we have to reframe our news diet, obviously; but we also have to reframe how we see the activity of “staying informed.”
The idea of reading up on the world’s hardships is discouraging for many of us. When we learn that 2020 has only exacerbated famines and related food-security issues around the world; or that the persecution of Uighur, Rohingyan, Nuer, and Yazidi persons continues apace; or that religious militants are targeting both religious minorities in their own countries as well as secular societies abroad; or that people are dying of entirely treatable conditions due to government indifference with respect to healthcare and economic policy reforms; or that environmental disaster is already reshaping life outcomes in devastating ways… it is easy to feel helpless. To ask ourselves, what’s the importance of staying up-to-date with any this, if I can’t do anything about it?
We’re often given to believe that “staying informed” is about improving our readiness to act; about ensuring that, once an opportunity arises to do more, we’ll be prepared to meet it.
What I would argue, though, is that “staying informed” is not just an action unto itself, but also one of the most important actions that we can commit to, in a time when so much of our media is dedicated to market segmentation, and with it, a compartmentalization of democratic discourse into tribes.
What happens when we commit, instead, to reading the world?
For one, we become better innoculated against the totalizing rhetoric of false urgency that specific information silos feed us. So much of 24/7 news media needs us to feel as if the most critical days of our lives are now upon us — and not just for the big issues, but also for the tempests in the teapots.
Is it really surprising, then, that people raised in a culture of such rhetoric either believe that everything truly is life or death, or that nothing the media claims can be trusted?
Read the world.
Test the rhetoric you find within your information silos against other media narratives.
And pay particularly close attention to any narrative framing that thrives on the illusion of “balance” by giving equal weight to both sides of an argument. Is it warranted in that situation, or simply a means by which the media is leveraging tribalism, as if this is the only effective way to talk about complex subject matter?
Secondly, reading the world helps us to recognize the world’s fraternity. When you follow the news priorities in other communities, certain trends start to emerge – with similar class-based pressures cropping up all over the place; and similar routines of disenfranchisement yielding familiar results in state violence; and most of all… families, all over the world, wanting more or less the same thing for their loved ones: safety, security, and opportunities to improve livelihoods through common industry.
Which means that, thirdly, whether or not you’ve had the opportunity to live outside the culture of your birth, exposing yourself to the world outside your information silo will help you to recognize the social contract that you’re a part of: the water, that is, in which you swim. By awakening yourself to the fact that your social contract is just one of many, you’re growing the narrative vocabulary with which you can then seek societal transformation. You’re granting yourself – and everyone else in your discourse community – greater agency to change the story going forward.
COVID-19 unmoored a great many of us this year from the bedrock of our daily lives, by revealing how quickly some aspects of this supposedly set-in-stone social contract canbe transformed, if enough people wish it to be. But now the work falls to us, to ensure that we never forget how much our democratic societies are made, and remade, every day through either a conscious or an unconscious acceptance of certain foundational narrative premises.
Like the idea that “atheist” versus “theist” debates are a reasonable use of our precious time alive in the cosmos.
Or the idea that words like “Christian” and “humanist” have any intrinsic meaning, save as ways of identifying, in the loosest possible terms, the tribe to which one belongs.
Or the idea that it’s only “the other side” that has foolishly trapped itself in a heavily curated information silo.
What I am advocating for is, of course, the work of a lifetime, because we who grew up in this cultural context will always have to resist the comfort of certain kinds of storytelling in our lives. How tempting it is to fall back on rigid binaries; to rely on simple tribalism to tell us who is safe and who is not. How much more challenging, and often discouraging, to live instead within a rhythm of sociopolitical discourse that is always holding in tension so many dissonant perspectives and points of view.
But when Hannah Arendt defined the “banality of evil” for us, by isolating how a single Nazi could think himself removed from moral culpability because his job was simply to make the trains run on time, she was speaking to a facet of the human condition that even today we often allow to overtake our best efforts at societal transformation: that little voice inside our head, which wants us to believe that the cultural current carrying us along is the only possible current, inevitable and immutable.
That everything just is the way that it is, and couldn’t be otherwise, or else it already would be.
The work of humanism is the work of enhancing the agency of sentient beings, and that work begins with ourselves. It begins with giving ourselves the freedom to see social contracts as a series of choices; and as such, to see our societies as works in progress — or even better, as works that can progress.
If we’re ready, that is, to live with greater discomfort. If we’re ready to recognize that the cultural narratives we take for granted are not the only ones that can be built around the same facts, documents, and contexts. If we’re ready to name the thrill of tribalist thinking for what it really is: an addiction to living within specific information silos, when the world needs us to raise our heads above ground, and pay attention to the full lay of the land.
Thank you for sharing space under that wide open sky of possibilities with me tonight.
(With thanks, again, to Jesse Harden and Dr. Najla Mouchrek for making this event possible — and to the VT community that was both present for this talk, and engaged in the discussion that followed. My speaker’s fee is being donated to the UNHCR, while the local community fundraised for Micah’s Backpack, a food-security program for children reliant on the school-system for consistent meals.)