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Humanism and journalism

Watch humanist Polly Toynbee describe the need for good jounalism in society and the importance of sharing ideas
Journalism is at the core of every democracy. It’s the Fourth Estate. It’s a kind of check and balance. I mean journalism is often terrible and can be vile and intrusive and do terrible things, but on the other hand it also is a check against over-mighty governments, against over-mighty administrations. Journalists are everywhere, burrowing into things people don’t want found out, particularly things governments don’t want found out, and that’s a very important ingredient to knowing about how we’re governed and how we live.
I think humanists are naturally curious about what other human beings are up to and what they think, and so there is an impulse to find out, to listen, to talk to and to spread ideas. When you come across a new idea, to say ‘Look, this is amazing!’ I think that on the whole, people who are of a very strong religious belief want to build a wall around that particular belief, or people who have any other rather limited set of beliefs feel it necessary to barricade themselves within it, for fear that outsider ideas might in any way dilute their own particular passions. And I hope that humanists try to be as open minded and as open to all ideas as possible.
And journalism, in a way, at its best, should be doing its best to spread ideas.
Freedom of speech is really important because you need to be able to promulgate your own ideas, but also you need to be able to hear other people’s ideas. If freedom of speech is impeded, it means that you are being cut off from hearing what other people would be saying that might be very important in widening your own horizons. It’s not just a basic human right, it’s not just a necessity for all democracies, but it’s something that reaches right down into the being of human beings, that we should be speaking freely and listening keenly to what other people say.
As a humanist, I’m very aware of the shortness of life, and no illusions that somehow we’re going to drift away into some better world, somewhere else, this is all there is, this is all we have. We have an obligation to make the most of it. We have an obligation to find out as much as we can about the world around us, and if you’re a journalist, to spread that information and that knowledge as best you can, to introduce people to as many thoughts and ideas and experiences as you can, and to, as many ways as possible, of living life better, of doing things better, running society better, of showing people that nothing is inevitable. Our fate is in our hands.
We can restructure society if we want to, if we have the will, if we can persuade other people of the way we want to do it. Quite often people are very pessimistic and they think nothing can be done, nothing could be changed. I think humanists are well aware that most of life and society is in our hands to shape as we wish.
Being a journalist is about being very curious about other human beings. Sometimes, at its worst, it’s being very nosy, and other times it’s just curious about what other people are doing and thinking, and how they’re living their lives - and the freedom to be able to describe that, to be able to investigate it, that is a great luxury and it’s what I love most about the work that I do.
But it is a humanist endeavour in a way, because you believe that truths are to be found amongst other people’s experiences, and the more you can tap into those - I mean, every week I go and talk to people whose working lives, or whatever they’re doing, is something quite different to what I do, and they will tell me things I didn’t know. They will reveal to me experiences I haven’t had, and it is a great treat to be able to enjoy that, and then to share it with readers. And so exploring other people’s human minds, going to talk to people, investigating other people’s lives, is the most enriching experience.
Who needs the supernatural when the natural is so imaginative and extraordinary?

Polly Toynbee is a journalist and writer. She has been a columnist for The Guardian since 1988. She is a Vice President of Humanists UK.

Questions: How do human beings benefit from their capacity to share ideas? How important is it we hear ideas we disagree with?

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Humanist Lives, with Alice Roberts

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