A politics of humanism can help build a just, free and more equal world
Intolerance and bigotry are in the ascendant. Owen Jones surveys the challenges ahead.
This article is a preview from the Spring 2017 edition of New Humanist. You can find out more and subscribe here.
On the eve of the First World War, the British Foreign Secretary Sir Edward Grey is reported to have said: “The lamps are going out all over Europe, we shall not see them lit again in our lifetime.” It would be an exaggeration to say that, today, they are going out: but you can certainly see them flickering. If you are a believer in democracies that entrench the rights of minorities, in diversity rather than conformity, in the well-being of all humanity as our ultimate ambition and endpoint, in liberating human potential from political, economic and social constraints, then it is currently better to feel discomfort rather than complacency.
Across the Atlantic, in the world’s last superpower, a white nationalist demagogue spouting misogyny, bigotry and racism has been elected to the presidency. Here in Europe, for the first time since Adolf Hitler swallowed cyanide, Austria’s far right is a contender for power. In France, the inheritors of the mantle of Vichy thrive: the far-right National Front are all but guaranteed to win the first round of a presidential election. In Sweden – the icon of European social democracy – a party that emerged from the white supremacist movement repeatedly tops polls. In austerity-ravaged Greece, the neo-Nazi Golden Dawn feeds on a nation’s anguish and terrorises minorities. Hungary is ruled by a right-wing authoritarian prime minister who boasts of building an “illiberal democracy” and sends dogs to chase refugees who have already fled unspeakable horror. Some of his opponents are even less palatable: like Jobbik, a neo-fascist party which speaks of Jewish conspiracies. In Poland, too, democracy is threatened by an authoritarian right-wing government. Even in Germany – long apparently immune to mass right-wing populism – the self-described Alternative for Germany is on the march. Research by YouGov suggests that an authoritarian, anti-immigrant nationalism has captured the imagination of hundreds of millions of Europeans.
And then there’s a wider global picture. China’s dictatorship and Russia’s regime flaunt a foreign policy which rejects democratic values. Saudi Arabia decapitates its citizens for being gay or for dissenting against the ruling tyranny. It exports a brand of fundamentalist Islamist extremism which menaces the Middle East and threatens our own national security. It rains Western-supplied bombs on Yemen’s civilian population. Calamitous Western military interventions in Iraq and Libya have led to mass slaughter, the displacement of millions, violent sectarianism, chaos, and the rise of religious extremism. Syria’s agony has sent tides of human misery hurtling over its borders.
* * *
The world’s problems differ in scale and specifics from our own. But it is self-evident that Britain is currently in the midst of its greatest crisis since the end of the war. On 23 June, millions of decent fellow Britons marched to the polling station and voted to leave the European Union. The Leave campaign – and this is not an attack on Leave voters any more than a criticism of the woeful official Remain campaign is a smear on the character of Remain voters – made a strategic decision to turn a referendum on the European Union into a referendum on immigration. In doing so, they offered a toxic mixture of bigotry and lies.
Immigrants were portrayed as criminals, rapists and murderers. Turkey will not join the European Union in the lifetime of anyone reading this; Britain’s voters were told otherwise, and that this country’s fictional accession would allow Turkish criminals to swamp our borders. Nigel Farage stood before a poster of dark-skinned refugees fleeing violence beyond Europe’s borders: the words “Breaking Point” were inscribed upon it. In the aftermath of the referendum, recorded hate crimes soared by 41 per cent.
Britain’s near future threatens to be one defined by convulsions, and the economic grievances that helped spur on the Leave vote may only worsen. Rising inflation points to a return to the protracted squeeze in living standards we have suffered in the last few years. The scapegoats are ready. “Damn the unpatriotic Bremoaners and their plot to subvert the will of the British people,” screeches The Daily Mail, Britain’s second most-read newspaper. Such attacks do not reveal confidence on the part of the victors: if they believed a bright and stable future beckoned, why such fury at those on the losing side? And so millions of people are dismissed as saboteurs, wreckers, fifth columnists, the enemy within. These are not symptoms of a healthy, properly functioning democracy. It should frighten us. Let’s not forget how the murderer of the humanist Labour MP Jo Cox entered his name in court: “Death to traitors, freedom for Britain.”
There is a need for a politics of humanism, and it is urgent. As humanists, we believe that this is the only world we have. We do not have faith in the existence of another world beyond ours, free of the injustice, the hatred, the oppression, the violence that so scars our own. That is what compels us, what drives us to rid our planet of misery and to build societies that unlock the full potential and maximise the well-being of humanity as a whole. “The value of life lies not in its length, but in the use we make of it,” as Michel de Montaigne put it. We do not believe any force can achieve such a goal other than humanity itself. We believe that human beings are social animals, that we are interdependent, that we succeed or fail together.
As humanists, we believe that democracy does not mean, as John Stuart Mill put it, the tyranny of the majority. We believe in the protection of the rights of minorities, even if this is an unpopular cause at a particular time. It may be against the grain of public opinion to argue that refugees need more help than they are currently being offered. That does not mean such an argument is wrong: indeed, it makes it more urgent. In the past, our own laws repressed LGBT people with the approval of most of the population. LGBT activists had to confront not just their own governments but public opinion too. Rather than a democracy of conquerors, we need a democracy of deliberation.
As a socialist humanist, I believe in collective solutions to collective problems. But collectivism does not have to mean conformity. As Mill put it: “Human nature is not a machine to be built after a model, and set to do exactly the work prescribed to it, but a tree which requires to grow and develop on all sides, according to the tendency of the inward forces which make it a living thing.” Collective security gives the individual the potential to flourish.
Human freedom is imperilled by economic constraints. Poverty limits the choices an individual can make, like living in warmth, having a house that provides comfort as well as shelter, having regular holidays, inviting your children’s friends round for dinner. It robs the individual of security, and therefore of freedom. An individual who lies awake staring at the ceiling in the early hours wondering how they will pay a gas bill is not free. An individual driven to a legal loan shark to pay the rent or put food on the table is not free. An individual who is told at 7am whether they have any hours at work that day is not free. Our aspiration must be a society that puts human need and ambition before short-term profit.
* * *
One of the pillars of a free, open, humane society is of course secularism. It is an objective that our ancestors have been persecuted for. Organised religion has no role in the affairs of the state, and vice versa. It is for the good of both state and religion to separate both. That means a state that protects the right of the individual to religious conviction, but a state that expresses no preference for any. Yet while I am an atheist, I don’t have contempt for the religious. There is an aggressive form of atheism that simplistically reduces the world’s many problems to religious belief and treats believers and belief – however moderate – with contempt. This is not conducive to a harmonious society, and can often lead to bigotry. People of faith have made astonishing contributions to our society. Today, people of faith are instrumental in supporting those condemned by government policy: food banks, for example, are frequently organised by those with religious convictions.
Indeed, a secular society must defend its minorities. Today, there are all too many British Jews who feel threatened in modern Britain, including in progressive circles. There are those would never dream of dismissing the lived experiences of Muslims or black people who treat all claims of anti-Semitism as a means to shut down opposition to the occupation of Palestine. Sinister tropes with a heritage going back hundreds of years are indulged, of Jews wielding sinister, secretive global influence. There are all too many British Jews I know personally – none of whom could be accused of being apologists for the Israeli government, or even close – who feel genuine fear.
There is another minority which faces mounting hatred. Muslims are increasingly portrayed – and not just by the far right – as an enemy within. Polling in Britain has suggested that approaching half of our fellow citizens believe there are too many Muslims. The research also suggests that millions of Britons regard Muslims as being synonymous with extremists, and having beliefs that are incompatible with democracy. In the 19th century, it was said that anti-Semitism was the “socialism of fools”; today, it could be said that Islamophobia is the secularism of fools: the misappropriation of the great cause of separating state and religion to stir bigotry against an entire group of humanity. And to be clear, by Islamophobia I mean prejudice and bigotry against Muslims.
It is what the extremists want us to do. When groups like ISIS launch atrocities, they wield a script they expect us to follow. They want us to express hatred and bigotry. They want us to turn on each other. It is the reiteration of our common humanity that repulses them the most.
We live in an age of insecurity, of fear, of bigotries and deceits that are indulged, of rights and freedoms that are imperilled. Building societies that maximise human freedom and well-being, that allow us to develop our potential unencumbered, that emphasise our common humanity rather than the artificial barriers that divide us: these are aspirations we must realise. It will be a struggle, but social change always is. In the decades ahead, future generations will look back at these turbulent and difficult times, and they will ask what we did. Our history abounds with great humanists who helped build a society that was more free, just, creative and informed, like Marie Curie and William Beveridge, like Mary Wollstonecraft and Clement Attlee, like George Eliot and Stephen Hawking. Here is a tradition we should feel proud to stand in. It will mean courage, determination and resilience. The illusion of every age is that it will last for ever.
Many of the noble aims of humanism may seem under threat today. But this age, too, will pass. A politics of humanism can help build a world that is free, just and equal. It is not inevitable – but it is necessary, and we all have a role in creating it.
This is an adapted version of a speech given by Owen Jones for the British Humanist Association’s 2016 Holyoake Lecture (see video above) and is reprinted here courtesy of the BHA