What do we mean when we identify ourselves as humanists? HP Editor Gary Bauslaugh writes his answer to this question, as does Elka Enola of the Humanist Association of Toronto. We invite other Canadian humanists to give us their own thoughts on this matter.
We all have identities that we build for ourselves, as well as identities that are cast upon us. In both cases these identities have a profound effect on our behaviour. If one sees oneself as a moral person then that will have some impact on what one does – perhaps not decisively, because factors such as fear and self-interest may intervene. But one’s sense of identity as a good person will likely have some influence. It provides a landing place for conscience.
However, what if our notion of ourselves as good people is misguided. What if we are not so good? What then of the influence of our identity? Thinking of ourselves as good, when we are not, provides not a landing place for conscience but a hiding place for selfish misdeeds.
How does our sense of our own goodness become corrupted and lead to immoral rather than moral behaviour?
Steven Heighton, the well-known Canadian poet, musician and essayist who contributed to our issue # 216 on “Abuse of Power”, recently introduced me to the German word “LEBENSLUEGE” (also used by James Alcock in his article in this issue of HP) which he explained as follows:
LEBENSLUEGE means, literally, life-lie–the convenient if sometimes fatal fiction around which you build your life. I see the Lebenslüge as a primary illusion around which other, lesser illusions constellate. Naturally the term can also be applied in a larger, collective way, suggesting the lie or illusion around which a nation shapes its identity. The American life-lie is the belief in American exceptionalism: land of the free, the greatest nation on earth, etc. The Canadian life-lie is the fantasy that we’re the good ones, the nice guys, fundamentally better than Americans or Brits because, allegedly, we’re innocent of such atrocities as slavery, empire-building, and Indigenous genocide.
The mythology surrounding the emergence of the United States as the world’s superpower is full of such lies. Yet, as Steven suggests, many Americans (including ones who should know better) continue to strut and crow about their greatness – about how wonderful and prescient their founding fathers were (George Washington had over 300 slaves who, apparently, were treated with cruelty and indifference), about how a small band of freedom fighters subdued the tyrannical English (actually victory came mostly from the aid of the French) and so on. Now, after about 250 years, the country is still riven by racism. Over 70 million Americans, in their recent Presidential election, were either racists or could not recognize one when they saw him, or didn’t care. And all the while their revered Declaration of Independence proclaims “all men are created equal,” a document written by Thomas Jefferson, another slave owner.
And, as Steven points out, our Canadian identity as the good ones is not exactly well-earned. Our history with our native people is marked by incidents that are our National shame. Our life lie works to counter this ugly realization, but it is difficult to be sanguine about our own history of racism.
There are all sorts of ways lies corrupt the identities we adopt. Conspiracy theorists think of themselves as insightful truth-seekers but instead, for the most part, are deluded and deeply ignorant. Their “truth” comes from late night American talk shows, the egregious Fox news and rants on social media. Recently, while out on a walk, in the midst of the pandemic, I was accosted by a maskless woman because I was wearing a mask. She claimed I was spreading the virus. As I write this in the late spring of 2021, an American congresswoman is in the news for drawing a parallel between being required to wear a mask in the House of Representatives and the Holocaust.
I am my brother’s keeper not because I will be rewarded in an afterlife for my good behaviour but because I want to live in a society which is characterised by such kindness and compassion.
The goons in the American white supremacy movement (and their less visible but equally abhorrent friends in Canada) think they are inherently superior to any people with darker skin pigments – as pernicious and ridiculous a notion as has ever plagued the earth. This movement, in considerable ascendancy in the Trump years, shows just how destructive life lies can be. Followers of Donald Trump have not just latched onto an intellectually and morally bankrupt leader, somehow construing him as the opposite of that, they have done so with a ferocity that can only come as the result of living in a vast wasteland of mendacity and ignorance, a wasteland known as the United States of America. We in Canada live by our own lies, to be sure, but in our lifetime we have never seen anything like what is going on to our south. If our life lie is that we are the good ones, perhaps at least we are not as bad the worst ones.
I like to think that humanism, as weak a force as it may be, is a force for goodness and human decency. Humanists believe that this is our only life and only world, and therefore we must make the best of this life and this world. This entails not greed and self-serving behaviour but kindness and compassion. I am my brother’s keeper not because I will be rewarded in an afterlife for my good behaviour but because I want to live in a society which is characterised by such kindness and compassion. We care about the future because we care about the lives of those who come after us; they will be humans just like us – they will love, laugh, suffer, experience joy and sadness and all of the emotions we have all inherited.
But is this – that humans are inherently decent and kind – some sort of life lie as well? Is empathy only a manufactured feeling designed to make us feel better about ourselves while we merrily go about serving our own interests?
I think not.
There is a wildlife rescue organization in Nova Scotia called “Hope for Wildlife” which is the subject of a television show of the same name, documenting the extraordinary efforts of a woman named Hope and her supporters to rescue injured and orphaned wild animals from the region where they live. In one episode some people in a nearby town noticed a seagull impaled on a lightning rod at the peak of a high roof of a church. The creature was alive and still struggling to free itself, but the rod, about a foot in length, was an unyielding trap. The Rescue Centre was called and some volunteers went to help, but the bird was far out of reach of ordinary ladders that might have been nearby. A local firetruck arrived, but its ladder was too short. Then a landscaping truck arrived with a slightly longer ladder – but again it was too short. Finally, a bigger fire truck came from Halifax (hours away) and a rescuer was able to reach the bird, risking his own safety to climb up with a box, extract the still-living creature, get it into the box, and climb back down. Taken to the wildlife centre, the seagull recovered and was eventually released.
Seagulls are very plentiful in Nova Scotia; it was not as though an endangered species was being protected. It was that a living creature was suffering and needed help, and that a group of humans went to extraordinary lengths to give it help.
So how does this notion of a compassionate human society square with the emergence of fascist movements that are not at all based on caring and compassion? Policies like separating children from their parents on the border are based on creating terror, not giving comfort and showing kindness. But how can we explain the many millions of people who apparently support such cruelty?
Admittedly it puts a serious strain on my argument here. It supports the idea that human goodness is a life lie. But let us look further into this.
First, there clearly are individuals who have somehow missed out on the empathy gene, or whatever it is that gives us compassion for other humans. It is clearly something not all of us have. There are, amongst us, sociopaths who are simply indifferent to human feelings – they just do not care about others. They probably make up around 5% of the total population. They feel none of the moral, conscience-driven constraints that most people feel. While a normal person might tell a lie in order to gain some advantage, he or she will usually have some reservations about it – some part of them will feel at least a hint of guilt. But sociopaths do not– what they do is driven by whether or not an action is in their personal interests and whether or not they can get away with it. Such people often rise to positions of power because they are single-minded in pursuit of their goals, and ruthless. They often make successful corporate leaders. Stepping on others to get ahead is normal practice in the corporate world, and it is easier to do this if you are oblivious to the feelings of those you step upon.
But why do others, most of whom would go to lengths to help a stricken seagull, follow such sociopaths? It is, in part at least, because of life lies. One of these is the widespread and conveniently self-serving notion that selfishness is good not only for you but for society as a whole. Serving my interests will ultimately serve yours. I am my brother’s keeper, yes, but not by helping him directly but by helping myself. Thus, I can be selfish and moral at the same time.
This drivel has caught the public imagination of the capitalist world, and is smugly promoted by followers of Ayn Rand, who feel absolved of any guilt they might otherwise feel for their single-minded pursuit of their own interests, and their callous disregard for the poor and homeless. The cruel treatment of refugees, throughout history and continuing today, shows this uncaring side of human nature.
Another life lie that leads otherwise decent people to support a fascist leader is allegiance to a deluded notion of unfettered freedom. Fitting nicely with Rand’s idea of the virtue of selfishness is the American credo “give me liberty or give me death” which at one level is an eloquent plea for democracy, but at another represents an absurd quest to eliminate the rules and regulations, and laws, that are necessary for a civilised society. This idea of freedom, like Rand’s promotion of selfishness, is a life lie that favours exploitation and diminished empathy.
In response to these tiresome, inflated claims about personal freedom, so distressingly common during the pandemic, I wrote the following (ironic) comment to my local newspaper:
Social distancing, masks, vaccines, control of the pandemic, saving lives – these are all for chumps. The important thing is my personal freedom from government interference in my life. Next, let’s go after driving laws that insist, for example, that we stop for red lights. And why should we be told what side of the street we must drive on?
Why can’t they just leave us alone?
Why indeed? Let ignorance flourish! It seems like we cannot stop it anyway.
The late American philosopher Joseph Tussman, writing on the topic “Morality Without Religion” in issue 157 of Humanist Perspectives, put it more elegantly:
The Human Unit is a group. It is only necessary to remind us of this obvious fact in a culture infected by the delusions of individualism . . . Individualists are persons afflicted by some combination of amnesia and ingratitude. They have forgotten that we did not create, nourish, sustain, or develop ourselves; that we did not invent our mother tongue and the mind or consciousness so dependent on it; nor the arts and skills embodied in the habits that constitute our character and culture; that “growing up” is essentially “growing into” ways of life waiting hospitably to receive us. Each of us is an individual person but we are all group generated, group shaped, group sustained, group dependent.
Humanists, in their better moments, acknowledge their vast debt to the “group”; their sense of identity, at least in those moments, is rooted in human kindness and is morally determinant.
Humanists hold to the belief that a better world is possible, that life lies can be beaten back, that our identities can be a force for good, not for the evil we commonly see. Humanists reject dogma and seek the truth. They believe that truth can be found in rationality, science and respect for evidence. In building a society based on reason and human compassion, they ask us to check our life lies at the door. In their conviction on these matters there is a glimmer of hope for our future. That is why I am a humanist.