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Humanist Policy Series: The “Destination” for Our Social Wellness Package

Humanist Policy Series: The “Destination” for Our Social Wellness Package January 31, 2021

White mug full of coffee, with the text "begin" on one side, on a wooden table that fades into a softened background with chairs. Danielle MacInnes, Unsplash.com, CC0 Licensing

Let’s begin with an update. In my last post, I shared two key points: 1) that I was then in legal limbo, and 2) that I was dedicating the next few weeks to exploring what more humanistic policy could look like, in a variety of domains. Thankfully, the tourist permit finally went through, so I am safe until I can apply for a new visa on April 14 (with a buffer until April 29). Huzzah!

As for #2, today we’re going to look at the overall idea of the Social Wellness Package, an umbrella term that establishes a “destination” for all policy contained within it, and offers some standards and parameters for seeking out that better world.

As I noted in that last post, and the one prior to it (the “Social Impact Visa”, which was my first proposal within the broader umbrella), the aim here is not to present any of this discourse as a Final Draft, so much as a first stab into thinking proactively and collectivel about how to put humanism first in our political discourse. This is especially important to me because here on Patheos we often situate our humanism within a limited context: secular humanism, excluding all participants whose cosmology lends them to god-belief; and in combat solely with religious nihilists (those who believe that there is nothing of value outside their faith tradition). Consequently, the great majority of the nonreligious channel does not significantly address the work of unifying people with a shared interest in extending human agency (a key component of humanism in practice), or with the work of calling out secular nihilists (i.e. those who believe that because there is no greater meaning in the universe, nothing matters save self-interest).

Here on this column, I say that those who treat human agency as tantamount are fellow travellers in the cause of humanism.

And that those who, whether from atheism or religious conviction, believe that self-interest or the dominance of their faith tradition is tantamount are perpetuators of earthly suffering.

With this in mind, I do so hope that all my fellow travellers will feel free to engage with the essays in this series constructively, chewing over what works, what doesn’t, why it might not work, and what gaps remain to be filled.

(And as always, if your comment hasn’t appeared, it’s Disqus. I had a rotten week while undocumented, but I’ll be checking the Disqus spam filter daily now that this series is properly underway.)

Let’s begin.

The Trouble with Patchwork Policy

One of the biggest problems I’ve seen in how we manage policy is the sheer fact that we need to make so many adjustments in the first place. While many concrete policies are quite useful inasmuch as they name and connect new organizations to pre-existing projects, or else react to new, unanticipated situations, many are used as “patches” that attest to preceding failures of good governance: either in the original blueprints, or in the institutions charged with upholding them. And yet, because “patches” have become such standard practice, these tend to become our core battleground: the site of conflict between so many competing interest groups, and the leverage used to win or lose elections.

Let’s think about the structural consequence of patchwork policy becoming the central site of political action.

First, this focal point creates industries of politics dedicated to spin, wherein the advancement of new policy is used to generate shock and outrage, or alternately to placate and perform the idea of responsive governance (whether or not genuine action is taken in the end). This means that our focus on patchwork policy often serves campaigns, careerism, and the cult of political celebrity more than real public interest.

Our focus on patchwork policy design also encourages the sort of pedantic in-fighting so often attributed to certain parts of the political spectrum — and quite logically, too! When the formation of patchwork policy is perceived as the site of greatest political agency, then every word counts, and can become an outsized and distracting locus of activist energies.

One really good example of this is the well-intentioned but also hopelessly contradictory state of the Peace Bond. This example is on my mind a lot as of late, because I currently have an extremely abusive upstairs neighbour, who routinely rails and thrashes about, throwing furniture and generally being an horrific bully to their partner. I do as much as I can in the building — inform the front gate’s security team, ask for police, stay alert when an incident is in process — but Colombia is often just as ineffective as other countries when it comes to doing something about a clearly abusive scenario.

And yet, even in Canada there are different ideas about how the Peace Bond, a no-contact order often issued in domestic-dispute scenarios, should be administered. In some regions, the Peace Bond is mutual; if the police have to get involved, both participants are issued a legal requirement to go no-contact with the other. Some feminist lobbying groups disagree with this approach, though, because they feel that it’s not sufficient to treat the issue as neutral, when violence toward women has a far higher track record of leading to stalking, forcible confinement, injury, and death. They argue that the Peace Bond, when placed upon a feminized victim of domestic assault, makes it easy for the masculinized abuser to trick her into doing something that will lead to her being further punished for his violence. These groups therefore advocate for — and are sometimes successful in — creating legislation that is expressly gendered: the victim being a her, and the person receiving a Peace Bond being a him. Which in turn creates problems for masculinized persons in need of recourse from domestic abuse.

(Something, by the by, that I’ve seen firsthand on a few occasions. The most striking incident for me involved a very troubled mid-20s man whose father was a multiple-arrest physical abuser of him and his mother, a young man who had spent his childhood bouncing between foster homes and had two children before he was 18. He was in a rocky relationship with a woman with whom he wasn’t supposed to be in contact, under regional Peace Bond rules that I hadn’t known about before this situation between them blew up. Then I learned that this woman had been extorting him ever since he first broke that Peace Bond, and literally threatened in earshot that she would call the cops, tell them about his having broken the Peace Bond, and even claim that he’d raped her, if he didn’t do what she said. In a fit of rage, she then did exactly that, and he was arrested on the spot, lost his job, and lost the income with which he was supporting two young, special-needs children. They were both… very damaged people, and their damage was both systemically rooted and far-reaching in its consequences. This is why it’s so critical to find ways to restore societal order even and especially in edge cases: to stop harm from spiralling outward; to allow for healing in all our communities. When a policy can be leveraged to create further damage instead of helping to restore societal order, it’s a broken policy.)

What was the problem with this policy, though? Which side was “right”? Well, advocates for both One-Sided and Mutual Peace Bonds were on to something: the former advocates were right to point out that the use of the Mutual Peace Bond can exacerbate abuse; but the capacity to exacerbate abuse also exists within their supposed solution to the problem.

This suggests that the Peace Bond, by itself, is not enough. It cannot work effectively on its own, but rather, requires a broader system of preventative and interventionist supports to help heal any given site of domestic violence and its surrounding communities.

We won’t go into specifics today on that accord, but I hope the example illustrates how easily patchwork policy can lead folks to believe that the most critical site of political action and activism is the wording of discrete policies. We need better overarching frameworks, a guiding set of standards and a destination, to ensure the burden of restorative justice and better-world building never rests on singular pieces of legislation.

One last, critical problem with the central role of patchwork policy in our politics is that it creates a massive gap in civic awareness, along with significant opportunities for political corruption (especially through attempts to “slip” partisan wants into seemingly innocuous policy changes). How can it not encourage civic disengagement, though? What average citizen has time to pore personally through the mountains of policy being generated to patch holes in the existing system? That’s what they elect their officials to do, isn’t it?

We’re still a far cry from finding the right balance needed for direct democracy, but I’d argue that this patchwork policy standard is a key reason for our failure to find better ways of empowering more citizens. After all, much as it might seem plausible, in our digital economy, to give every citizen an opportunity to vote in real-time on every issue that comes up in local governance structures, the sheer semantic nuance of fragmented policy-making, as it currently stands, presents a significant barrier to most citizens being informed enough to make decisions based on little more than trending perceptions of the legislation at hand.

The benefit of an overarching set of standards, and a clearly outlined direction for all future policy, is thankfully not novel as a means of shifting our policy culture to something better resembling full and active democracy. It’s just subject, at present, to a heck of a lot of vicious and counterproductive spin. Even proposed overarching structures like the “Green New Deal”, a set of standards to achieve a specific climate-change objective, joined with tools to help guide the formation of policy and organizations necessary to achieve that goal, has been absurdly likened in surrounding discourse to Stalin’s Five Year Plans.

In other words, we are currently so far removed from understanding how democracy can be collaborative without relying on patchwork policy, that even a campaign intended to coax discourse into more communally generated policy directions struggles to be understood as such.

Let’s be super clear, then, about the guiding principles overseeing our conversation about what more humanistic policy might entail.

The Social Wellness Package: What’s Our Destination?

Our humanist aim is the maximization of agency for all sentient beings, under the quintessentially humanist principle that we are the most important agents of change in our cosmos. Our “destination” is therefore the development of a society in which everyone is minimally hindered in their enactment of personal agency, that we may all become the best agents of change possible.

Known hindrances to personal agency impact all facets of our lives, from our health and mobility; to scope of community; to access to solid formative educations and life-long accurate intel; to ability to participate democratically on all levels of society influencing our lives; to opportunities to make a living wage or otherwise live without precarity around covering the essential living costs in our communities; to means of recovering from trespass (our own, or someone else’s upon us); and to protection from physical violence up to and including death.

This destination’s key roadblocks are often presented as questions about “the limits of personal freedom”. We then encounter an immediate discursive contradiction, the moment some decided to claim that “maximal freedom” means “the freedom to do anything I want without consequence”. Historically, we’ve countered by establishing that “maximal freedom” has a maximum (an upper bound) defined by the point at which one person’s enacted agency infringes on another’s. We’ve then lost ourselves (for centuries) down the rabbit hole of arguing over whose agency is infringing on someone else’s, and whose call for redress takes greater precedence.

But that immediate derailment isn’t necessary, because there is absolutely no reason to accept the premise of “maximal freedom” as “the freedom to do anything I want without consequence”: no reason, that is, to shape all of our approaches to policy around reacting to this claim.

The Social Wellness Package establishes freedom from the outset as a functional attribute: a tool on the path to another end. We must be minimally impeded in our self-expression, so that we may be the best participatory forces possible within our societies.

Freedom is a means. It is not the humanist’s end.

What does that mean, concretely, for the policy we create?

Well, let’s try this set of ideas on for size:

SWP Standards and Parameters: A Roadmap for All Policy to Come

A humanist policy suited to the aims of the Social Wellness Package will abide by the following standards and parameters:

One, it will avoid over-specialization, maximizing the capacity for democratic decision-making on the local-implementation level while providing effective and comprehensive guidelines serviceable for a wide range of similar and future scenarios.

Two, it will outline explicitly how it operates within and relies upon a whole network of related policies, across political portfolios, rather than be presented as something that could ever succeed or fail on its internal robustness alone.

Three, it will seek to accommodate edge-cases in its original parameters, rather than postpone such considerations in the interest of getting “anything” into law at all (and in so doing, invite destructive redress for various exceptions in later amendments).

Four, it will take as a guiding principle the idea that what addresses the needs of one demographic may very well address the needs of other known and unknown (i.e. future) demographics, and seek a shape for its propositions that reflect this more anticipatory full inclusivity.

Five, it will not only present itself as expecting good-faith actors within the system, but also actively incentivize the cultivation of good-faith actors in its reward structures and (in conjunction with #2) its explicit invocation of other policy’s checks and balances to deter exploitation.

Six, it will ever and always favour groups of actual sentient beings and their outcomes over the well-being of artificial legal entities (e.g. corporations), even if it is necessary to acknowledge the existence and use of artificial legal entities to improve human agency.

The Take-Away

I think that’s plenty to start with, no?

Surely, over the course of these next few weeks, we’ll find plenty of “edge-cases” together that need to be incorporated into all of the above — but that’s part of the splendidly democratic nature of the exercise.

Today I’ve outlined some of the major failings of patchwork policy, as a general approach to political discourse that can undermine our best efforts at improving democracy; and given a destination to our Social Wellness Package; and proposed some of its broader considerations.

Next week I’ll post another policy proposal that I think might fit well under this umbrella.

Looking forward to your insights on any of it, or all.

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