Tuesday, 15 January 2008

How Does Liberal Humanism Survive in the Age of Fundamental 'Truths'?

This might seem overly philosophical and to some extent represents the fact that my brain seemed to wake up after falling into disuse over the weekend. I thought of a lot of things to blog, but given my poor memory have forgotten most of them, bar this one, but I hope they will come back to mind, probably when I am driving down the motorway and can do nothing about it. Recently at the company I work for I was interviewed by a woman and the only recording device she had was her mobile phone. The first time I have seen an hour's recording captured that way. Anyway, today's posting was prompted by a review in 'The Guardian' newspaper on Saturday of 'The History Man' by Malcolm Bradbury (1975; TV series 1981 - I actually sat behind the author once in a cinema, a nice man, appeared very much as you would expect). A lot of the review was about the economical writing of the book and the focus on the outward perception of things rather than any concern for inner thoughts. However, the part that provoked my thinking was the novel's exploration of the weakness of liberal humanism with, to quote, 'its built-in tolreance and self-doubt' in the face of 'those convinced they have a monopoly of the truth'. When it was written Marxism (represented in the book by the 'hero' Howard Kirk, a university lecturer in sociology) seemed to be the prime source of those who felt they had the monopoly on the truth. Soon after though came two more sources to eclipse the Marxists - the New Right and Religious Fundamentalists. These are the two broad groups who seem to challenge liberal humanism today.

Now, I know for US readers anything called 'liberal' seems dirty, sordid, corrupt even. The USA is the only country in the English-speaking world where you can insult someone by calling them a liberal, maybe because they have more of the truth monopolists of both the New Right and the Religious Fundamentalist categories than anywhere else. For the rest of us, liberal humanism is what marks out life in the early 21st century from that of the early 20th century. It seeks to protect us from the random nature of life which can lay low even the most wealthy and wreck the lives of anyone else less rich. In particular it encourages us to have a 'safety net' for people made vulnerable through disease, poverty, old age, war, ignorance, bigotry and so on. It also tries to stop the spread of violence, corruption, narcotics, etc. reducing us all to barbarians. It makes war seem like something to avoid and embrace instead getting along with people and respecting them. Of course it is a constant battle and one that in many parts of the World is being lost, but that does not mean there is any reason to give up the fight.

People may argue that liberal humanism appeared at the time of the Enlightenment in the 18th century, but it has been around lurking in the background for many millenia. In Ancient Rome you had slavery and gladiatorial fights but you also had the chance for manumission and the grain 'dole'. In the Middle Ages there was constant warring and narrow-minded attitudes and persecution from churches but there was also alms-giving, hospitals and concepts of chivalry (however idealised they may have been) that sought to dissuade people from abusing the poor, slaughtering prisoners and raping women.

Yes, liberal humanism does embrace self-doubt and tolerance. If it did not embrace tolerance then it could not exist, it would not embrace humans and humanity in all of its diversity. To have any feeling for humans obliges you to be tolerant. As to self-doubt, I would argue that it is not really doubt, rather it is self-questioning and self-verifying. You may argue then how does it verify that what it is doing is correct, and certainly approaches can be contested. However, surely it is better to actually seek to verify your actions rather than steam ahead dogmatically. In addition, the truth monopolists are not free from doubt and in fact are often fearful of defeat, part of the motive for driving them on. Take one example, the Nazi regime in Germany. The Nazis argued their empire would last 1000 years, yet on the other hand they were so fearful of the Jews that they felt they had to wipe them out. Yet, in turn, they thought the Jews were weak compared to the Aryan race and corrupt, so you might ask them 'why do you fear these people if they are so weak compared to you?' Thus, to say that fundamentalism lacks self-doubt is wrong. Every revolutionary body or fundamentalist religious group has a tendency to fragment which may show confidence in oneself, but doubt in the self of the broader grouping as it previously existed.

Liberal humanism is certainly under threat, possibly because it is hard to sell the necessary positive image when there seem to so many fears. The threat of nuclear war which it seemed able to address has now been replaced by the threat of terrorism (though of course it has been around for decades, it has just started to be used in a much more aggressive way as a threat) and ironically environmental damage which requires liberal humanism to effectively address. The fact that liberal humanism is still alive at all, reflects the huge leap in communications of the past two decades. Without the internet I imagine we would be living in much more authoritarian times. It is no wonder that dictatorships such as China and Singapore (until it found it was too expensive to continue doing) censor their people's access to the internet. The shift of the post-war consensus, notable in the UK towards the so-called Thatcher Consensus, but common across the Western world with the rise of the New Right in the 1980s matched by similar rise of authoritarian attitudes in many Muslim states made it easier to make the step to the next stage in the 2000s which is a rapid erosion of civil liberties, ironically in the name of protecting freedom in the face of comparatively small threats which have been exacerbated by bigoted, aggressive moves in the first place. In this world it is now normal to accept detention without trial for a month or even years (once you reach Guantanamo Bay), the use of torture by even low-level soldiers, invasion of countries to secure resources, greater control of movement of people and a general sustained hysteria.

How can liberal humanism survive? To some extent by becoming devout. It might seem weird to say 'yes, I am a devout liberal humanist'. Whatever people might say, in fact that is not contradictory with saying 'I am also a Christian/a Muslim/American'. All gods love the people they oversee so any worshipper should love humans too. Religions and the American constitution tend to praise mercy and respect for people and it is there in the Bible, Koran, Torah, US Constitution if you look no matter what people might tell you. The key thing is to see what the key tenets are of liberal humanism. They are few and are easily applicable in many circumstances, it is just that all decent people have to keep saying them loud and proud. The key aspect is to treat people like people. Even to treat people like animals in this age of increased rights for animals, would be a step up in many places in the World. Do not torture, do not detain without charge, do not make people homeless, do not deny them drugs you can afford to give them, do not deny them food you throw away in vast quantities, do not kill or harm someone because they look different from you or follow a different view, let people meet, let people speak, let people travel. Everything we expect for ourselves is the minimum we should allow others.

I passed two postcards in people's windows over the past few months. One showed a refugee family behind a barbed wire fence, with the text explaining how they had fled to the country portrayed to escape repression only to step into repression. The other showed the Statue of Liberty against the Stars and Stripes, and said that the USA that person believes in would never torture people. Liberal humanism is not weak and people need to see that. It is a far better counter to fear and danger than any amount of repression and authoritarian attitudes. What will destroy it is people believing it has no tenets and that it is already dead. The bulk of you know what the World needs because for most people it is what they, as a human like all the rest of us, needs.

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