Isms are dangerous things when used thoughtlessly. The most obviously dangerous is racism: advocating for the rights of one group over another, with corresponding denigration of those not belonging to the racist group.
It is easy to point to American racism, typically white-on-black hate so endemic to parts of our culture. It is equally easy to see the culmination of racist ideologies in the wars of Hitler and the “ethnic” cleansings of Eastern Europe in the last decade. Here we have big-E Evil, a clear boogieman, an obvious lesson in the danger of isms.
More benevolently, we have feminism. Feminism began as a sexist reaction to sexism. Gloria Steinham can see the danger in advocating for women over men, and has evolved her philosophy to include the liberation of men from social injustice caused by injustice against women – the enslaver is himself a slave craving freedom. Men need to be free to experience their emotional side, to work in caring professions, and to experience harmony with the other 50.1 percent of humanity.
Practiced thoughtlessly, feminism can be a danger, its own form of sexism. Attaining equal rights for women need not mean attacking the rights of men, unless those rights are to have power over women based on their sex. Almost no form of feminism has been in much danger of crossing this line. Few if any feminists have advocated revoking the rights of men and subjugating them to women.
Additionally, not every woman shares the same background or has the same needs or potential for freedom. Agitating for American-style freedoms can, in some places, lead to painful punishment or death. Blanket values without cultural consideration are not the sort of thoughtful advocacy proposed by modern feminists.
Advocacy has to be tempered with reality. Authenticity cannot be just honesty but must include congruence: it has to match the environment and our intentions.
This is clear in combating heterosexism. When treating a homosexual client, we might be tempted to advocate for coming out. In fact, the authentic decision depends on the reality that person faces; they have to be congruent with their social, historical, familial environment and make a decision they can live with, which might not always mean perfect honesty. It might mean lying to protect feelings – sometimes the right thing to do.
In each of these kinds of ism – racism, sexism, and heterosexism – one group is privileged over another. Their rights are advocated at the cost of another group. In responsible feminism, advocacy is for the human in the human condition, with awareness of sex inequality and agitation for that equality as a human right, not a woman’s right alone.
This brings us to humanism. Race is too small a category for responsible advocacy. To have and protect status and power over others based on this accident of birth is immoral – a word I do not use lightly. In sexism the situation is identical. To advocate for a group based on their genitalia and suggest they ought to have power over another group enslaves both groups. And heterosexism – hate for a person because of their sexual preference and advocacy for special rights for straights only (like marriage) is exceedingly dangerous. The time is long past when we would consider voting for a political candidate who ran on a racism platform, but there is a whole party now seemingly obsessed with heterosexist rights, and they have a real chance to gain more power next year.
Each of these categories is too small. It is time to embrace an older kind of ism with fresh eyes. The thing we all share together is our basic humanity. Each of us is human, and that is the level at which to advocate and agitate. What is unique about you? What makes you human? How are you repressed and held down? How can I advocate for you? More importantly, how can I help you advocate for you in a way that matches your reality?
I am not just a humanist but an existentialist. This means this advocacy has to include all the things that are human about you, not just the wonderful things but also the wondrous things. All that you find unacceptable about yourself – your hates, fears, inadequacies, obsessions, perversions, envies and dark desires. To begin to embrace these parts of your humanity, to accept both the angel and the worm in your nature, is to advocate for your human-ness. Perhaps it is not good to hate – but it is human to hate, and only through examination and acceptance of that hate can you begin to be choiceful about it. And choicefulness is freedom; choicefulness is humanity.
Humanism means advocating for the human, for each individual human, one at a time, one hour at a time. I can think of no better use for my life today than this.
-- Jason Dias