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A warning: humanism under threat

Watch Ian Dunt describe some of the recent threats to humanism caused by social media
What we’re really seeing at the moment is a rise in a kind of political thought which is about the group over the individual. Now sometimes, usually, it’s about the nation-state - but it’s not always about the nation-state. Sometimes it’s about religion, sometimes it’s about race, sometimes it’s tribal. Ultimately, what people like this want is to be able to take a group of humans and define for them what their identity is, what their freedoms are, what they can and can’t do; to say to them to look to these other people over there, ‘outsiders’, and to disparage and disrespect them and to look down on them, and sometimes even to attack them. This is a very, very old facet of human nature.
We’ve been doing this to each other for probably as long as we’ve been around, and this is the latest iteration of it. It’s a bit more tragic this time because liberalism had managed to create a system whereby individual freedom, your right to question authority and to think for yourself, and to do the things that you want to do and be with who you want to be with, had succeeded in an extraordinary scale and was starting to spread. Now we’re seeing a retreat and it’s about time that we started to counter it.
Humanist values and liberal values are very easy journey-makers together. They have an extremely intimate relationship. At the heart of them is personal choice for the individual, and reason. Now, reason is core to any open political philosophy. Without the individual being able to make their own decisions, without being able to look at evidence and come to conclusions, the whole thing falls apart like a pack of cards. And what have we seen over recent years? We’ve seen the creation of a political debate where it is impossible for people to even use reason, because they cannot tell what is true and what is false. You look at the Russian programmes.
Starting earlier really, but certainly in Crimea, certainly what has been going on in the Ukraine with troll farms, and then the massive push-out of this disinformation technique online, so that you cannot know what you’re seeing is real as you take in information. But it’s something else as well, there’s something that’s shifted in the technology, in the way that the internet, especially, has allowed us to completely control the information that we get so we’re not subject to new ideas. So we constantly feed into ourselves ideas about our own superiority and the threats that are coming to us from outside, which are out of all proportion to that which exists in objective reality.
And that seems to be producing some rather dangerous outcomes. The stage is set for the strongman to come, sweep it all away, and give you these nonsense fairy stories about how things will get better, as long as you outsource all your thinking to him, give him all the control over your life, and allow him to define who you are. Humanists are under exactly the same threat as all liberals, because they believe in an open society where people can think for themselves, using the reason that they are granted by virtue of their brains. And that, I’m afraid, is under threat for everybody.
Good journalism is essential. At the moment, we’ve seen a rather disastrous process take place. Now the press was never particularly fantastic, it has to be said. And the British press is rather too keen to pat itself on the back for what has frequently been a very mediocre product.
But nevertheless, the internet has had a debilitating effect, taking away the financial model upon which it operates, and providing lots of data into people’s reading habits that push journalism towards a much easier to produce, much cheaper to produce, ‘quick hot take’ approach towards news, than actual investigative work, than journalists who dig down into information and try to provide their readers with a very easy way of getting complex information, so they can understand the world around them. There has to be a reassessment of the way it operates.
We need to see that in broadcast journalism too, which has too often descended into people just shouting slogans at one another with a sort of supposedly neutral referee behind the desk, in the form of a newsreader, at the end saying ‘Well, look, that’s all folks!’, when nobody learns anything, and we basically just watch rocks smashing up against one another, to no particular purpose. There has to be more quality, more commitment, towards showing people the truth of the world around them. That does not mean that it’s all subjective and it doesn’t mean that it has to all be objective either. There’s plenty of time there for opinion, but we need a higher quality journalism.
And unless we get it, we’ll continue to be awash in this sea of half truth and myth, in which we’re currently embroiled.

Ian Dunt is editor of and author of Brexit: What The Hell Happens Now?. He writes for a variety of newspapers and magazines and appears regularly on TV and radio.

Question: How much do recent political and technological developments threaten humanism?

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Humanist Lives, with Alice Roberts

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