Northern Virginia Ethical Society (NoVES)

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Part 1: Reframing Humanism During a Time of Crisis by Randy Best

Sunday, April 05, 2020 7:39 PM | Anonymous member (Administrator)

Dear Members and Friends -

Since my Platform Talk this morning was not recorded, several of you asked me to provide the text of my presentation.  Here it is.  I welcome any feedback that you may have.  It is long, so our website requires me to divide it in two parts.

Yours in Ethical Community,

Randy Best

Part 1: Reframing Humanism During a Time of Crisis  by Randy Best, NoVES Leader

There are two parts to my talk today. 

One part originates in the American Humanist Association’s Master Class that I attended on February 29th and March 1st.  The course title was Intersectional Humanisms: Identity Politics, Justice Work, and the Proliferation of Social Difference.  It was presented by Professors Monica Miller and Chris Driscoll, from Lehigh University. 

This course expanded my horizons by questioning the assumptions underlying my humanism and examining humanism through a different, intersectional lens.  More on that later.  Even though this course was at the end of February, just over a month ago, it seems like a lifetime has passed since then.

The second part of my talk applies one of these ideas to our current Coronavirus Pandemic Crisis and how an expanded humanist approach can provide a basis for action.  I thought about presenting a talk that was a total escape from the issue that occupies so much of my time, the Coronavirus laden Elephant in the Room.  I found that I couldn’t do this.  Not now anyway.  It would be a moral failure for me not to talk about the problem confronting all of us. Maybe someday in the future I will be able not to talk about it.

Before going any further, I want to share where I am at right now.

I fear that I have plunged down the Coronavirus Rabbit Hole and spend a significant amount of time wrapped up in this world-wide human catastrophe.  I do not think that I am unique in this preoccupation.  Nor do I think that staying informed is a bad thing.  Knowledge eases my anxiety, even though the continued self-centered incompetence of the Trump Administration’s leadership makes me angry.

Escape definitely has its appeal – and I find myself doing a lot of that too.  I become rooted to my computer screen, reading articles about this plague and our responses to it.  Too often, my escapism alsoinvolves my computer screen.  Yes, I find that there are a lot of good things to watch out there in the virtual world, and a lot of crap too – I seem to consume both at various times. 

It is too easy for me to stay in my virtual cocoon.  It takes willpower to walk away and interact with my family.  To make a commitment to prepare dinner so that I get out of my room.  To schedule a walk or conversation or time to work in the yard.  I struggle for balance.  Sometimes I fall short.  Often, I am emotionally overloaded by the whole experience and find breaking my inertia to be difficult.

I realize that I am making choices.  I need to be more conscious of the choices that I am making.

Another thing that I do to interrupt my cycle of news saturation and escapism is connecting with NoVES members and friends through Zoom.  These social video meetings are welcome interruptions to my routine, allowing me to share experiences with others and give and receive human connection and support.

I moved from an over-scheduled life of in person meetings and events to an over-scheduled virtual life of Zoom meetings and events.  I doneed to be more conscious of the choices that I make and their consequences.

I have entered a new and different phase of existence.  One of localized, limited, personal connection with only virtual connections to the larger world.  I need to get my act together to consciously shape what I want my life to look like in a post-Pandemic world.  I realize that this is more than I can take on right now.  The future is difficult to imagine.  It will be a rough road to get there.

Now to turn back the clock to my course on leap day weekend.  Seemingly so long ago…

What motivated me to attend a course called Intersectional Humanisms: Identity Politics, Justice Work, and the Proliferation of Social Difference?

I was drawn to it because it was an area of thought that I was unfamiliar with.  It offered an opportunity to learn something new.  I wanted to interrogate and expand my humanist vision.  I wanted to challenge my dismissive view of Post-Modernism and learn what I might be missing.  I found this course to be all of that and more.

The course jammed much of a semester’s academic study into two one-day sessions.  There was a lot of reading, representing different perspectives: from Angela Davis’ analysis in Women, Race, and Class to books from a black feminist perspective and others on the black trans experience.

The class posed such questions as:

What Race is your Sex?

What Race is your Humanism?

How does Transgender identity fit into Humanism?

How do notions of Whiteness create norms that erase expression of marginalized groups?

We examined Intersectionality – maintaining multiple identities at once and how they interact and overlap – and how this is not recognized in American Jurisprudence.

In court discrimination claims, black women experiencing discrimination because they are both black and women are forced to choose to be either black, or women, since the law does not recognize “black women” as a protected class.  The impact of this intersectional identity is not recognized.

The instructors challenged the class to redefine and expand the Humanist Project, altering and enlarging my humanist perspective.

There is much that I could cover from this course.  I am going to focus on how the course changed my ideas about the supremacy of the role of REASON in Humanism.

The course introduced me to deconstructing the Authority of REASON.

“What is that?” you may well ask. Let me explain.

Reason is often cited as an important part of Humanism.  In our own NoVES F-A-Q page, under

WHAT IS THE ETHICAL SOCIETY?  it says:

The Ethical Society is a humanist congregation.  We affirm human dignity, celebrate reason, and work together for social change. We are a place where people come together to explore the biggest questions of life without reference to scripture, religion, or deities. We are inspired by the supreme ideal of human life as working to create a more humane society. We believe in human reason and agency as means to create a better world. This commits us to value the dignity of every individual, recognize their right and responsibility to give meaning and shape to their lives.  We welcome humanists, agnostics, and atheists, as well as people from various religious backgrounds. We come together to celebrate our journey through life and affirm our ability to live ethical lives without traditional religious beliefs. 

Reason appears twice in NoVES’ statement about who we are.   This is not an unusual statement for an Ethical Society.

Humanism often highlights Human Reason as an approach to solving human problems.

This class altered my view of Reason.

Reason can’t be divorced from its social context.  To many marginalized groups, Reason is viewed as a tool that white men use to reinforce their domination and impose their ideas.  Those who hold other perspectives and reach other conclusions are considered “unreasonable”.

Conclusions produced by Reason are seen as universal truths – even though they are often strongly influenced by culturally situated assumptions.

Reason locks us into a problematic normalizing of difference.  Reason can be used to override and erase difference.  Reason can’t be divorced from its social context.

Individuals are not autonomous actors that just happen to think exactly like Rene Descartes.

The course challenged me to recast HUMANISM to be free of this assumption.

Here’s a quick example.

The Golden Rule states “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”

The Golden Rule assumes that everyone wants, what you want.

It universalizes people, and in doing so, loses important differences in backgrounds, experiences, and desires.  It erases difference.

Universalized Truth produced by Reason faces the same problem of erasing difference.

After completing the readings, listening to the professors, and discussing it in class, I landed in a different place.

I do not advocate eliminating any reference to reason or “throwing Reason under the Bus”. 

I do bring a new understanding to the privileging of Reason in Humanism.

Reason is important and Reason has its limitations.

I no longer favor a Humanism that centers Reason.

It is time to put the Human back in Humanism, to CENTER THE HUMAN IN HUMANISM.

How I define the “Human” in Humanism is of primary importance.  Who is included?  More importantly, Who has been left out?

I favor a Humanism that CENTERS the HUMAN, Human Interests and Human Needs, Human Compassion, without excluding anyone.

I needed to see things differently in order to change.  My experience in the Intersectional Humanisms Course, the ideas of Professors Monica Miller, Chris Driscoll, and the thoughts of other class participants, shifted my viewpoint to consider other perspectives.



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