Hyperallergenic

So, I’ve been a bit lax in posting recently. In part, I’ve been busy with various other things–Passover, classwork, grading student papers, working, parenting, etc. But in part, my podcast consumption has been down. I usually find something of interest in podcasts, but I just wasn’t listening to them as often because, during the winter, it can be hard to concentrate on driving safely and on keeping continuity of attention on the podcast. With winter mostly over, though, I’ve got a bit more mental bandwidth during commutes, and podcasts are coming back into the listening diet.

I subscribe to a number of podcasts–lots of New Books Network podcasts, some Jewish-oriented ones, some humanism-oriented ones. I try to enjoy what I find, but in the humanist-oriented podcasts, especially, I find this difficult because much of it is shrill and self-congratulatory.

In the most recent IISHJ rabbinical student seminar, we discussed some of the issues that come with a secular humanistic approach to Jewish life. One of these is what I would call iconoclasm: refusal to be defined or pinned down and an insistence upon undercutting what has come before, just because. (My understanding is that the Yiddish for this is af tzeloches–doing something out of spite.) This can extend to knee-jerk negative responses to religion in all forms.

Unfortunately, I find this all-too-common in many humanist settings. It’s in the combination of triumphant discourse of the Four Horsemen (particularly Harris, Dawkins, and Hitchens–I generally find Dennett much less obnoxious) and the “I LOOOOVE REASON!!!!!! Isn’t it great to LOOOOOVE REASON!? HOOOOORRRRAAAAAAY FOR REASON!!!!!! Oh, and our weird made-up holidays. And Darwin!” articles at thehumanist.com.

The most recent article that annoys me? The Rules are for Schmucks column at The Humanist.

In part, this is because I have always–always, from my first encounter with them in the 1990s–disliked the “Darwin Awards.” If we really value human life, and think every person is important and every person’s life has value, then what are we doing ridiculing others’ mistakes–particularly when those mistakes have caused someone to die, as if that one mistake is defining of an entire life? And if, from the humanist perspective, we are to truly value Darwin’s insights (setting aside the personality-cult thing going on in the AHA with Darwin–I mean only the legacy of his work), do we want to look like a bunch of people who feel worthy to judge whether someone is entitled to belong in the “gene pool”?

Unfortunately, this is of a piece with so much of what passes for acceptable talk in the humanist world. It is very disappointing to me, and not only because I intentionally pair my humanism and my Jewish identity. I worry that this kind of talk indicates an inability to communicate effectively. And that is worrisome because it may mean that a good many humanists are missing the “human” part of the equation from their discourse, or because it may mean that too many humanists are fighting the battle for acceptance by taking a defensive posture similar to the one they criticize among supposed theist “opponents.”

So, here’s the basic principle: If you don’t want to be regarded as a smart ass in every conversation, don’t act like an asshole. If you act like an asshole, don’t expect to be taken seriously.

I don’t understand why this is so hard. And I don’t understand why so many in the humanist community don’t adopt other ways of communicating in a world where in-group discourse is readily accessible to out-groups.

I recognize, of course, that the American scene is not especially humanist friendly. I get it; it’s hard not to notice. I also appreciate the kol kore ba-midbar (“voice calling out in the wilderness,” Isaiah 40:3) aspect of conveying an unpopular message you think needs to be heard. (Note, though, that that’s not what that verse in Isaiah is about–it’s in a passage of consolation.)  The kind of in-group-only, defensive, aren’t-we-so-smart discourse that both philosophically-minded and scientifically-minded humanists engage in solidifies group cohesion. But it likely hinders communication with the outside world.

It’s almost like sneezing. It must be some kind of allergy.

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One thought on “Hyperallergenic

  1. Funny you should write this. Since yesterday started the Week of Action and I picked a project to try, I mused about the fact that Humanism needs a human focus, that if they aren’t actually out there doing good for others, then they’re just a bunch of assholes sitting around talking about stuff and congratulating each other that they’re so superior to the theists, and the joke’s definitely on them. Judaism’s Tikkun Olam should be a guiding principle, as much as Reason. Maybe more so because hey, it’s right there in the name! HUMANism. Duh.

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