Humanism for a Globalised World


A segment of Priyamvada Gopal's forthcoming article in New Humanist:

While he was a fierce critic of empire, Said was profoundly interested in what could be done with a concept like humanism, laden as it is with the baggage of colonial civilisational missions and Eurocentrism, the worldview that assesses the rest of the world through the lens of European and white superiority. Perhaps surprisingly, at least for those who (despite his vocal protestations) read him as the originator of a postmodern and postcolonial approach to culture, Said describes himself as a humanist, insisting that “attacking the abuses of something is not the same thing as dismissing or entirely destroying that thing.” He himself remained unaffected by the antihumanism that characterised academic postmodernism with its “dismissive attitudes” to ideas such as enlightenment and emancipation. What then is the humanism that Said wishes to not have thrown out with the bathwater of discredited colonial or racist projects? For him, “the core of humanism is the secular notion that the historical world is made by men and women, and not by God and that it can be understood rationally … Or to put it differently, we can really only know what we make.”

Given that terms like “reason” and “secularism” have often been and continue to be used as sticks with which to beat apparently backward cultures and communities, what would prevent this reclaimed project of “critical humanism” from falling prey to precisely the same abuses that bedevilled a more familiar Western “high humanism”? Integral to Said’s advocacy of a critical and democratic humanism is the understanding that the ideas underpinning humanist practice are not, in fact, exclusive to one culture or the other; they are part of a “collective human history”. Engaging carefully with a variety of traditions and contexts across the world will make clear that aspirations to liberty, learning, justice and equality are genuinely universal. All societies are capable of change and change is always enacted by those who resist the depredations of power, whether in the form of despotism and tyranny or unjust war and military occupation.

Humanism has also to be wrenched from its association with and deployment by selective elites, “be they religious, aristocratic, or educational”, and returned to its democratic provenance because it is ultimately about the capacity of the human mind to free itself. The human capacity for discovery, self-criticism and engaging in “a continuous process of self-understanding” means that no one is incapable of humanistic thinking and nothing is exempt from humanism’s critical reach, whether religious fanaticism, atheist dogmatism or “manifestly imperial plans for domination” that might otherwise pass for entirely rational and necessary. Those who use humanism or secularism as weapons for asserting dominance or superiority over other cultures generally miss “what has long been a characteristic of all cultures, namely, that there is a strong streak of radical antiauthoritarian dissent in them.” What makes all cultures and civilisations interesting is actually “their countercurrents, the way that they have had of conducting a compelling dialogue with other civilisations”.

More here.