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Notes About the Politics of Humanism

and a rejection of theleology in politics

Novack George • 11 June 2005 • 1,252 words

Every idea expressed in this essay is provisional and contingent upon a wider reading of history, social movements and social sciences outputs, interpretation of the technological infrastructure and the happenstance of accidents which accumulate and have the effect of shaping actions, limiting or freeing options and inflating and deflating the prospects of one or other organisation, movement or individual. In other words 90% of what is written in this paper is likely to be increasingly flawed -- even fatally so.

The relationship between humanism and politics has a great deal to do with our ideas of progress i.e how progress is achieved, what constitutes progress and how we can decide about basic values of right and wrong. It is in all of these senses that the catch all, "the art of the possibe" allows us to make sense of the basis of Politics as, put simply, private organisation for public purposes. (We'll come back to this.)

However, politics is not defined simply as our stance in relation to social issues and public policy formation/ formulation. It is defined by the problem inherent in democracy : That it is absolutely dependent upon knowledgeable and reasoning citizenry who are engaged and organised. As the social system served by government becomes more complex, democracy requires a continuous growth and replenishment in wisdom, farsightedness and problem-solving capacity in the population at large.

If, on the other hand, a society's culture and socialization process is exerting destructive selective pressures on cognitive ability and emotional stability -- if it is reinforcing a general increase in ignorance and gullibility -- democracy will actually function to further a downward spiral. This means that the quality of the generally available socialization (including formal schooling) is far more critical in a democracy than in an authoritarian system. We simply do not have the option of neglecting to instil in all of our children the scientific way of being in the world.

The scientific approach in politics involves a willingness to see political policies as hypotheses to be tested and evaluated in reasonably controllable contexts before being implemented in any wholesale, nation-wide manner. It implies a rejection of "holistic" programs that are impossible to evaluate until great harm has been done -- regardless of the "motherhood" terms in which these may be proposed. A humanist approach to politics requires a steadfast commitment to clearly articulated ends, and to skeptical pragmatism concerning all projected means.We must emphasize openness of continuing inquiry into the nature and origin of the human condition and we must resist notions which imply that progress is inevitable because both modern evolutionary science and recent history provide compelling evidence that natural selection and social change -- if unguided by human reason and wisdom -- are just as likely to lead to disaster as to improvement. We must also put aside the naive assumption that the society is coincident with the state.

Whatever we are as humans, many of us have come to realise that we are not, and never can all be, the same. We differ from one another in terms of character, temperament, intelligence, physical and moral strength, sexuality, specific skills and talents, facial and bodily characteristics, socioeconomic privileges and rewards, and the pressure of expectations exerted upon us by biology and tradition. We must select and continuously refine a framework within which it is possible to see and to sense how we engage one another on a basis which upholds the rule of law, maximises the protection and opportunities provided to the weakest and most disadvantaged and codifies societal norms in terms which are subject to open contestation.

Trinidad & Tobago 5 years into the 21C

Baldeosingh refers in his paper to religious notions of Good and Evil and shows how these postures are inflexible and this implies how they come to cause great harm politically. This is because Good and Evil are absolutes and, if unchecked, they lead very quickly to authoritarianism in its many forms. What restrains the humanist from her/himself becoming /being so ensnared?

I suggest that it is our concern with praxis, the practical consequences of our actions, which tests of our efficacy and influence. Purely theoretical humanism is easy construed as an abstract concept, without content, of no moment for the real life of Trinis; thus, the relationship of humanism to praxis is central to its politics.

The political dimension to the humanist engagement in public policy debate in T&T

We all know that it is important to pick one's fights. It is also important to decide how we will fight. What weapons we will use. How combative we will be. What will be the terms of engagement. Many of these things can, and are, decided rather automatically, i.e. we make certain assumptions about all kinds of things but mostly -- and most dangerously --we make certain assumptions about our allies and our adversaries. Among the assumptions we make for good or for ill are:

  • That the world is best understood in largely polar terms of libertarianism vs socialism ; religeon or athesism (and its wayward twin science); folk wisdom/practical magic vs education; people vs the state; regionalism vs soveriegnity and -- forgive me dear friends -- materialism vs spirituality.

  • That the distinctively Enlightenment conclusion concerning an inevitable contradiction between the welfare of the individual and that of the group; or between the interest of the member and that of the ethnic tribe; or between the rights of the private person and those of society. -- prevails.

  • That the looming "tragedy of the commons" (Hutcheon, 1995) has brought home to all thinking people the long-term cost of short-term self-aggrandizement. It has opened our eyes, as well, to our inextricable interdependence and connectedness with the social and physical environment, and to our evolutionary inheritance and future prospects as a species. That this is obvious to "us" but not to them "them"

  • That our positions are underpinned by the same definitions of reality and that we talking from within the same frame of reference. More than whether we are talking about the same things, are we even talking the same language? Who, for example, is responsible for the mental cue-cards and sign-posts which call into account a whole series of concepts, programmes, formulations, agendas, beliefs, collaborations, fall-back positions, fashions -- in other words, a whole way of proceeding based on a given and well understood, though not well articulated, interpretation of reality which people have signed on to mostly unconsciously but which they defend vigourously without examination? AND this is as true of humanists as anyone else.

The key message of humanism is not that humanists are nonbelievers in theistic religion—atheists, agnostics, or skeptics—but that we are believers, for we believe deeply in the potentialities of human beings to achieve the good life. Indeed, we wish to apply the virtues and principles of humanist ethics to enhance the human condition. If we indict the theological/messianic claims of the ancient religions for providing false illusions of salvation, then we also need to state that we are concerned with improving the conditions of human life, by improving the cultural, social, economic, and political institutions in which human beings find themselves at various times in history. The underlying premise here is our emphasis on humanist ethics: how we create a better life for ourselves and our fellow human beings in the real world, here and now, and in the foreseeable future.

The politics of humanism have a great deal to do with subversion.

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