Humanism and Social Justice

Bigotry, discrimination and racism all contribute undeniably to the suffering in this world. And so we get angry. And so we fight. And they fight back, and we get angrier and fight back harder in our righteous effort to make people suffer less and enjoy life more.

That effort is Humanism in action. We see injustice for other people, we care, so we fight for them because we want to do good, and we want to strive for better. Good stuff.

The heart of the Social Justice Warrior is therefore humanistic - angry at injustice and trying to change the world.

But anger has its limits, or at least it should. Some Social Justice Warriors, angry at the people who do bad things, dehumanize and demonize the other side, looking at the bigots of the world (often quickly labeling people as such with minimal evidence), or even the people who are just in the system trying to make a living or do good (police, politicians, etc) as simply evil. What these people don’t realize is that while hating an outgroup is natural, it also leads to echo tunnels, intolerance, and a life of negativity.

Transformative Justice tasks us to understand the people with whom we are disagreeing. We humanize our adversaries in an effort to better understand them and ourselves, and that leads us to a less hostile society and frankly, better lives for all. As Humanists, we seek to understand the point of view, background, and complexities of even our most hostile enemies. What makes them think that way? Are they evil, or just really misinformed? Is it possible that they really believe their god wants them to be a bigot? Is it possible to be afraid of people of color because of their upbringing? Does that make their behavior OK?

No, but it also means they are not evil, even as we see them do things we call evil with glee.

This is often hard to stomach, because we innately want to outgroup. We instinctively dehumanize and indeed crave the tribal nature of despising the other side. But the hard news is that we shouldn’t do it, because those instincts hurt us and our society.

Nobody is “just another cop”, “just another Christian”, or “just another [insert your least favorite politician] supporter.” Everyone was born into a situation, raised in a situation, and has made decisions based on all those situations. For the most part, people don’t do bad things to be bad, they do things which are bad in a misguided effort to be good.

And so life gets more complicated for the Humanist. We need to try to see complexity under the face of simplicity. We seek to understand with compassion. We feel bad for the people who do bad, and we want to help them change. We seek to grow ourselves by allowing difference while fighting behavior that goes against what we see as good (which again is based on the Practically-objective morality), but in doing so we fight our own inner warrior, who seeks to rage against the enemy forever.

But raging against the enemy forever also increases suffering - in us. Rage and grudges and echo tunnels all lower our quality of life, even though they are all instinctual. So we must understand, and that means we must allow for growth in our enemies as we hope to grow ourselves, and that means we have to allow people with whom we disagree to continue to stay in our society so we can forever learn from their perspective as they learn from ours, always trying to influence for good, knowing that by ostracizing them we allow them to create their own echo tunnels which will prevent them from changing their minds.

Some might object to this idea, clinging to the notion that one should not force themselves to be associated with “one of them” because life is too short to be exposed to that. We say it’s too short not to, because society thrives better when people help other people learn to do better. Indeed, it is activism, a virtue, to keep people in your life that need a positive influence in theirs. If you ostracize, you protect their problems, eliminating the possibility of changing or at least better informing their opinion, while hiding yourself from challenges to your preconceived notions.

A beautiful thing happens, sometimes, when we employ Humanist ideals to conflict situations: minds change, people become better people, and forgiveness flows.

Forgiveness is so difficult sometimes, because we dehumanize the opponent and therefore categorize them as someone unworthy of forgiveness. That makes people hard to forgive, because in order to forgive, we feel like we admit we were wrong to have such a negative opinion of them in the first place. However, when people are seen as complex, they are more easily seen as valid and changeable, they are more easily forgiven because we who are angry no longer have to admit we were wrong to hate them, because we never did.

Say, for example, you are not a [insert your least favorite politician] supporter but your Uncle is and you’re having Thanksgiving dinner. You might be tempted to look at Uncle with disdain because he voted to elect a "[insert your most powerful negative trait]”, which you understandably find a detestable, dead-stop deal breaker. After all, there is no way we could ever have a relationship with someone who supports such behavior. Right?

A Humanist would look at their uncle as a more complex person. Does he really support [that candidates bad behavior]? Is he really a [insert bad adjective]? Maybe, but maybe not. Maybe he just has different priorities than you and that [polician] promises [insert Uncle's top priority]. Is that evil? Is that someone to dismiss forever? If we see Uncle as a complex person, we give ourselves a path to understand him, and keep him in our lives, providing less anger for us, The Uncle, in turn, would be able to see our compassion and empathy and providing a path for him to be open to understanding your position. In the meantime, we become more informed by listening to him, hearing his challenges and not dismissing them, learning what the opposition is saying without anger or dismissal, but rather with compassion and a quest to better ourselves by broadening our knowledge base.

It’s humanistic to want to right wrongs for other people, to have empathy for them, and to fight for the rights and equality of the downtrodden. It’s instinctual to outgroup and dehumanize those that oppose us. But if we are to create a better world for us and our fellow humans, we must fight the urge to hate haters, humanize our enemies and take the far more productive and difficult approach to understanding conflict resolution.

The principles of Social Justice are in general good and important, and we need to see and acknowledge that for the most part, Social Justice issues are Humanist issues. Racism is real is all societies (and not just limited to majority races), members of the LGBTQ community regularly face oppression, bigotry, and threats of violence, and women face unique challenges that limit their ability to have equal outcomes as men.

These are all facts, and we must fight for the resolution of these issues for the greater Good.

Fight the Good Fight, but remember Humanism doesn’t stop with intent to do good. Get better results with better activism by humanizing your adversaries, allowing redemption, and forgiving wrongs based on different perspectives.

Humanists are Activists

As with every movement, Humanism starts with people. Whether you believe a god is watching or not, people run the show, and it is our job to use our wonderful brains and resources to further the cause of good.

Humanists, in general, seek to be and do good for the sake of good. Humanists understand that if good is actually good, then we must do what we can to make the world better, and so we seek to transform society for good. For us, activism is a virtue, and apathy is a vice.

We are not just “good for goodness’ sake,” we are good for the sake of the well-being of all conscious creatures, especially humans, now and in the future. This is very important to Humanism, because it shows we realize that sitting idly by is a negative and harmful thing to do, because permitting evil is helping it.

This does not imply we all have to become activists or evangelists for Humanism, but it does imply that we want to help, and will try to help improve the world whenever we can. The important parts here are the intent and the action, not the scope or intensity of the action itself. Ralph Waldo Emerson (allegedly) said “to know even one life has breathed easier because you have lived—this is to have succeeded,” and this creed in in perfect alignment with our ethics. It is not just about being good, it’s about being good because being good reduces suffering and increases well being and helps the world, even to the smallest degree. Doing good transforms society.

And naturally, because we humanize each other, it’s completely antithetical for one Humanist to criticize or judge another because they’ve taken a different, stronger, or weaker path to helping the world. We are not here to judge each other the the paths we take, because we practice what we preach inside and outside our community. So Humanists have the attitude, drive, and intent to improve the world, but the way we do it, and the extent to which we do it, is individual, because we are all complex and have different priorities.

The Ethical Mandate for Civil Discourse

Yes, it’s a far better strategy to use civil discourse in even the most hotly contested subjects. Yes, it’s more effective in multiple ways, disarming your opponent and surprising them with logical reasoning instead of the vitriol they are spewing and in turn expecting. Yes, civil discussion can be ruthless and allows you to dismantle flawed arguments more easily.

Because civil discussions are so much more effective than vitriol, a note has to be made about the ethics of civility.

In today’s political environment, the separation of church and state is under siege, abortion rights are being reduced regularly, and racism and bigotry are being bolstered and becoming more and more of the norm. In short, we are being besieged by attacks on multiple fronts by forces which are clearly anti-humanistic, and those who defend those positions only make their points with vitriol and “alternative truth” (indicating the weakness of their positions).

In short, it’s a time of extreme attacks on the civil rights of all people, is causing an increase in suffering on a large scale. It makes some of us want to scream, panic, and attack, because we are good people who want to do good. But that kind of response makes things worse.

The ethical position is to take seriously the fact that vitriol doesn’t beat vitriol, it only creates stalemates (and in such situations, the status quo wins). It feels better in the moment and allows us to vent our anger, but it wastes an opportunity to attack a real problem that affects other lives.

When the stakes are this high, we cannot waste time fighting with kindergarten tactics. We must fight for the rights of others to reduce suffering using the best methods available, even if they rob us of our instinctual gratification we get from yelling, dehumanizing, and venting. We will get much more satisfaction from defeating the argument and converting the supporters. We will get a much better high by keeping calm and defeating those who push for bad policy for the wrong reasons. But most importantly, we will efficiently use every opportunity to help people who need it by defending their rights with the most effective methods possible.

Extreme times don’t call for extreme measures. They call for thoughtful, intelligent, and intentional methods which solve the problem.

As Humanists who seek to do good, we have the social responsibility to use these best methods to defend ourselves, our rights, and our neighbors. We are responsible for not doing what gives us the short term dopamine hit of zingers and instead choosing the greater good by choosing the greater weapon to defeat the many attacks we are facing: the civil discussion.

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