These Are the Times That Try My Humanism

These Are the Times That Try My Humanism January 25, 2017

Man looking into the distance (image via Pixabay)

Last night¹ I thought of Orlando.

With all apologies to the city of Orlando, this was not a pleasant thought for me. I was recalling the morning of June 12, 2016, when I awoke in a relative’s house in Missouri and sleepily checked Facebook on my phone, only to find out about the horrors that had unfolded at the Pulse nightclub in the early hours of the same day.

I remembered what a gut punch that had felt like, and more importantly, I remembered how many of my friends — especially those who were LGBT or people of color (or in many cases both) — were in such deep mourning over the attack.

I finally took to Facebook that morning to put this message out on this blog’s page:

A friend of mine who’s an Episcopal priest said today what I’d been thinking all morning: “When will we ever learn?”

Here we are at yet another tragic moment in America. I feel like I’ve spent every second since waking up to the news of the massacre at Pulse, a gay nightclub in Orlando, in this liminal space between outrage, despair, and sheer heartbreak. I can’t help but feel immense sadness and grief for the LGBT community in Orlando but also all the LGBT people for whom this represents an act of terror to them and a reminder of all those who consider them abominations.

And I fear we won’t listen this time, either. We won’t listen to those talking about the homophobia, biphobia, and transphobia that exist both in many religious communities but also outside them (sorry, atheists and other secular people, it’s our problem to deal with, too). We won’t listen to the people reminding us that tragedies of this scale don’t happen without easy access to firearms capable of this carnage. We won’t listen to the people urging us to wait for a second and make sure our anger and blame is not misplaced.

These are the moments that try my humanism, but you know what strengthens it? Seeing others step up in solidarity, across our “tribes.” That’s what we need right now. We need to stand up against intolerance and violence. We need to protect those who are marginalized. We need to remember what binds us together in a common humanity.

That, I suspect, is the only way we will ever learn.

Orlando was not the only moment that has tried my humanism. So did November 8. So did January 20, and practically every day since January 20.

I have long struggled between cynicism and optimism, and never more frequently than in the past six months. To be honest, cynicism isn’t probably strong enough a word to describe the depths of what I have felt — outright misanthropy is maybe a bit closer.

It’s the kind of irony that would be almost amusing under other circumstances, but it’s true: My humanism would be a lot stronger if it weren’t for all these damn humans.

I don’t think I’m alone in this, and in some ways I take small comfort in the fact that humanists have had to grapple with the double-edged sword of humanity in the past as well. Take for instance, the preface to the second Humanist Manifesto:

It is forty years since Humanist Manifesto I (1933) appeared. Events since then make that earlier statement seem far too optimistic. Nazism has shown the depths of brutality of which humanity is capable. Other totalitarian regimes have suppressed human rights without ending poverty. Science has sometimes brought evil as well as good. Recent decades have shown that inhuman wars can be made in the name of peace. The beginnings of police states, even in democratic societies, widespread government espionage, and other abuses of power by military, political, and industrial elites, and the continuance of unyielding racism, all present a different and difficult social outlook. In various societies, the demands of women and minority groups for equal rights effectively challenge our generation.

As we approach the twenty-first century, however, an affirmative and hopeful vision is needed. Faith, commensurate with advancing knowledge, is also necessary. In the choice between despair and hope, humanists respond in this Humanist Manifesto II with a positive declaration for times of uncertainty.

Sound familiar at all?

I think I can say with a fair amount of confidence that this is one of those “times of uncertainty,” when America’s newly inaugurated president has, in the course of only a handful of days, issued executive orders undercutting the Affordable Care Act, expediting the review of both the Keystone XL and Dakota Access pipelines, and reinstating and expanding a Reagan-era policy on federal funding to foreign NGOs that is often called the “global gag rule.” He’s silenced federal agencies and proscribed the dissemination of actual scientific facts, most significantly (and alarmingly!) about climate change. He’s vowed to strip funding from public broadcasting, humanities and arts endowments, minority-owned business development, the actual Office of Violence Against Women (I wish I were joking), the Civil Rights Division of the Department of Justice, among others.

And if reports at the time of writing are credible (and they appear to be), Trump is also planning to move forward with his campaign promise to build a wall on the southern border with Mexico and to additionally block refugees from Syria and all visas from six majority-Muslim countries — Iraq, Iran, Somalia, Sudan, Yemen, and Libya — which would undoubtedly endanger many innocent lives.

I agree with the manifesto that “humans are responsible for what we are or will become. No deity will save us; we must save ourselves.” What has always bothered me is how little evidence there seems to be for the idea that we will save ourselves.

If humanism requires faith of me, then I confess that I am a doubter — not in the rightness of the vision of humanism, but in humanity’s ability to carry it out.

I only hope that humanity manages to prove me wrong.

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Image via Pixabay

¹ Well, more accurately “last night,” as I was writing this piece.

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