Robyn Blumner on humanism vs. identitarianism

May 28, 2022 • 9:45 am

In her terrific new article in Free Inquiry—”a bimonthly journal of secular humanist opinion and commentary published by the Council for Secular Humanism, a program of the Center for Inquiry”Robyn Blumner gives voice to things that have been bubbling up inside many of us but haven’t been expressed, either because we haven’t thought deeply about them or because what she has to say is unwelcome to many. (Blumner is president and CEO of the Center for Inquiry, CFI, and executive director of the Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science.)

And her message is this: identitarianism, which she defines from the Urban Dictionary as “A person or ideology that espouses that group identity is the most important thing about a person, and that justice and power must be viewed primarily on the basis of group identity rather than individual merit”—is, as her title shows, incompatible with humanism, a movement which she characterizes in a quote from Paul Kurtz, one of her predecessors:

“The Affirmations of Humanism”: We attempt to transcend divisive parochial loyalties based on race, religion, gender, nationality, creed, class, sexual orientation, or ethnicity and strive to work together for the common good of humanity. (Paul Kurtz, Free Inquiry, Spring 1987)

Click to read her piece. When I’m writing about a piece such as hers, I first print it out (I can’t read seriously on a screen) and then underline the parts I find most important or quotable. In this case, however, I wound up underlining the whole thing, as there’s not a word wasted. Rather than just give up and say “go read it” (you should and perhaps I should have just written that), I’ll give a couple of quote and perhaps my own take, but read it yourself for free:

Here’s her main message:

The division has to do with a fundamental precept of humanism, that enriching human individuality and celebrating the individual is the basis upon which humanism is built. Humanism valorizes the individual—and with good reason; we are each the hero of our own story. Not only is one’s individual sovereignty more essential to the humanist project than one’s group affiliation, but fighting for individual freedom—which includes freedom of conscience, speech, and inquiry—is part of the writ-large agenda of humanism. It unleashes creativity and grants us the breathing space to be agents in our own lives.

Or at least that idea used to be at the core of humanism.

Today, there is a subpart of humanists, identitarians, who are suspicious of individuals and their freedoms. They do not want a free society if it means some people will use their freedom to express ideas with which they disagree. They see everything through a narrow affiliative lens of race, gender, ethnicity, or other demographic category and seek to shield groups that they see as marginalized by ostensible psychic harms inflicted by the speech of others.

This has given rise to a corrosive cultural environment awash in controversial speakers being shouted down on college campuses; even liberal professors and newspaper editors losing their jobs for tiny, one-off slights; the cancellation of great historical figures for being men of their time; and a range of outlandish claims of microaggressions, cultural appropriation, and other crimes against current orthodoxy.

It has pitted humanists who stand for foundational civil liberties principles such as free speech and equal protection under the law against others on the political Left who think individual freedoms should give way when they fail to serve the interests of select identity groups. The most important feature of the symbol of justice is not her sword or scales; it is her blindfold. Identitarians would pull it off so she could benefit certain groups over others.

To show the misguided priorities of the identitarian project, Blumner slips in a description of an egregious act by the American Humanist Association, a group that, despite its avowed mission, has become too woke to bear.

Good people with humanist hearts have been pilloried if they don’t subscribe to every jot and tittle of the identitarian gospel. A prime example is the decision last year by the American Humanist Association (AHA) to retract its 1996 award to Richard Dawkins as Humanist of the Year. The man who has done more than anyone alive to advance evolutionary biology and the public’s understanding of that science, who has brought the light of atheism to millions of people, and whose vociferous opposition to Donald Trump and Brexit certainly must have burnished his liberal cred became radioactive because of one tweet on transgender issues that the AHA didn’t like.

Blumner will certainly be demonized herself for the piece, as she criticize divisiveness, which is engineered deliberately by many so-called humanists who prefer exhibiting their virtue to improving society, and (like me) favors equality of opportunity over “equity” (equal outcomes):

This is what identitarians have wrought. Rather than lifting up individuals and imbuing them with autonomy and all the extraordinary uniqueness that flows from it, identitarians would divide us all into racial,  ethnic,  and  gender-based groups and make that group affiliation our defining characteristic. This has the distorting effect of obliterating personal agency, rewarding group victimhood, and incentivizing competition to be seen as the most oppressed.

In addition to being inherently divisive, this is self-reinforcing defeatism. It results in extreme examples, such as a draft plan in California to deemphasize calculus as a response to persistent racial gaps in math achievement,  Suddenly a subject as racially neutral as math has become a flashpoint for identitarians set on ensuring equality of outcomes for certain groups rather than the far-more just standard of equality of opportunity. In this freighted environment, reducing the need for rigor and eliminating challenging standards becomes a feasible solution. The notion of individual merit or recognition that some students are better at math than others becomes racially tinged and suspect.

Not only does the truth suffer under this assault on common sense, but we start to live in a Harrison Bergeron world where one’s natural skills are necessarily sacrificed on the altar of equality or, in today’s parlance, equity.

Of course, the identitarians’ focus is not just on racial issues. Gender divisions also play out on center stage. I was at a secular conference recently when a humanist leader expressed the view that if you don’t have a uterus, you have no business speaking about abortion.

Really?. . . .

Well, that’s going to get people’s dander up, but it’s good that someone with both power and credibility has said it. It is the drive for equity, not simple equality of opportunity, that is bringing the Left to its knees.

Blumner goes on to affirm that you don’t have to be a cop to have a opinion on cops, a poor person to have an opinion on poverty, and so on.  We’ve tacitly but mistakenly agreed on the Left that you can address problems relevant to an issue only if you have the correct racial, gender, or class credentials to expound on that issue.  And that’s what drives us apart: the notion that society is collection of moieties, each of which can only suggest solutions to its own problems. The basis of humanistic concern, the individual, is effaced, and here she quotes Kurtz again:

If the Affirmation quoted at the beginning of this article that rejects “divisive parochial loyalties” based on facile group affiliations isn’t a rejection of identitarianism, I don’t know what is. In his 1968 essay “Humanism and the Freedom of the Individual,” Kurtz stated bluntly:

Any humanism that does not cherish the individual, I am prepared to argue, is neither humanistic nor humanitarian. . .  Any humanism worthy of the name should be concerned with the preservation of the individual personality with all of its unique idiosyncrasies and peculiarities. We need a society in which the full and free development of every individual is the ruling principle. The existence of individual freedom thus is an essential condition for the social good and a necessary end of humanitarianism.

The individual is the most important unit in humanism. When our individuality is stripped away so we can be fitted into prescribed identity groups instead, something essential to the humanist project is lost. Those pushing for this conception of society are misconstruing humanism, diminishing human potential and self-actualization, and driving a wedge between good people everywhere.

Robyn is not saying that humanists shouldn’t concentrate on alleviating the problems specific to groups like women (viz. abortion rights) or minorities. Neglecting that there are group afflictions is in fact contrary to humanism. What she is emphasizing is that those problems should be tackled together, that no single problem should get overweening attention over others, and, most important, that nobody has a priority of opinion over others based on their gender, race, class, and so on.  If you adhere to the free-speech assumption that a clash of ideas is essential to moral and social improvement, then eliminating all groups but one or two from discussing an issue is a recipe for disaster.

At any rate, this piece is your reading for the day.

 

Dawkins and Blumner; Imagine No Religion Conference, Vancouver, CA, June 2015:

32 thoughts on “Robyn Blumner on humanism vs. identitarianism

  1. identitarianism, which she defines from the Urban Dictionary as “A person or ideology that espouses that group identity is the most important thing about a person, and that justice and power must be viewed primarily on the basis of group identity rather than individual merit”

    I smell a persuasive definition, AKA the worst argument in the world.

    Are there people who fit the given definition of “identitarianism”? Of course. There is no idea so bizarre and crazy that you cannot find somebody out there who believes it. And I’m always ready to prove it 😉

    But are those people central to the “identity politics” that centrists are always complaining about? No. They’re loud but minor factions within (or nominally allied with) groups that have taken a lot of sh** and aren’t going to take it any more.

    To see one example of the kind of bait-and-switch that persuasive definitions pull, look at:

    you don’t have to be a cop to have a opinion on cops, a poor person to have an opinion on poverty, and so on

    What people who are suspicious of hyper-individualism actually argue is that in order to deeply understand racism, for example, it helps if you are routinely located near the target zones of racism. Like for example, being in those target zones. Which I guess is based on the crazy idea that knowledge is best based on direct observations. Outrageous, I know.

      1. I like to have definitions of political ideologies that are important movers and shakers in my society, or have particularly good ideas that I’m aware of. “Identitarianism” doesn’t meet these criteria, and I feel no need to have a definition for it.

        1. But just out of curiosity, I found that Wikipedia defines it as

          The Identitarian movement or Identitarianism is a pan-European nationalist,[3][4] far-right[5][6] political ideology asserting the right of European ethnic groups and white peoples to Western culture and territories claimed to belong exclusively to them.

          Not that I’m going to worry about whether this definition is more correct than the other one; neither version meets my criteria for needing a settled definition.

    1. The difficulty with your last paragraph, Paul, is that by privileging the expression of opinions about, say, Indigenous-settler relations to those who have lived experience of being Indigenous, you allow only one side to speak. Indigenous people are the ones awarded identitarian status in this argument just because they claim it. Why not us settlers, too? We’re just as much a group as they are and have our own lived experience. You might immediately respond, “But the Indigenous have been victims of racism.” (So have many settlers but that’s beside the point.*) I would argue that you have yourself bait-and-switched the notion of group identity with a hierarchy of groups in which only some can claim identitarian status. That hierarchy reflects a particular political agenda and obscures the non-partisan theory of identity-based group rights.
      ————-
      * Tuck and Yang (2012) argue that when Indigenous people do retake all the land and push us settlers into the sea, American Blacks will not be accorded any special consideration just because their ancestors were brought here involuntarily by other settlers. They don’t belong here either, however they got here, so into the boats they go. Not enough boats? Not our problem, say Tuck & Yang.

      1. So do I need to rush out and buy books written by settlers? Not really; I read plenty of them in my K-12 education. I can’t believe that you are ignorant of this point; you probably had a similar education. And yet you write as if the settler viewpoint is somehow under-represented or suppressed.

    2. Oops, I goofed. Persuasive definition isn’t the same as the linked “worst argument in the world,” it’s the mirror image of it. Worst argument is when you take something/someone who does fit into a known category, but in a very unusual way, and treat them like the typical member. Persuasive definition focuses on some unusual cases and tries to get you to lump common things/people into that category.

  2. I look forward to reading this. I don’t think I agree, though, that Identitarians are a subset of Humanists. I see them as the opposite. Ideologies that operate at the group level often talk about what they want for people, but seem, in practice, to always discount the individual.

  3. “The smallest minority on earth is the individual. Those who deny individual rights cannot claim to be defenders of minorities.”

    Ayn Rand seventy years ago.

    “Humanism,” when based on the principles of this piece, would somewhat serve to correct the damage of identarianism. Over the seventy years in question, however, humanism has welcomed political positions to the contrary under its tent. The word itself noticeably invokes group-think. It is a collective noun, after all, and the master trick of Woke et al is to act as if the concept (humanity) is an existent with a life of its own, justifying laws rectifying injustice to “it,” or sub-groups comprising “it.” Never mind that this allows trampling of the actual existents subsumed under the concept “humanity.”

    The phrase that smashes through is “Individualism.”

    Ayn Rand has been called, rightly, an iconoclast. Her entire project invoking the metaphysical reality of individual rights destroys the icon of collectivism.

    1. The defining philosophy of Rand was that, since the individual is most important, we each are only obligated to act in self-interest. That is the polar opposite of humanitarianism, and even wokeness, which despite its wrong-headed condemnatory crusades is at least, in principle, attempting to rectify injustices.

      Rand was attempting to make a virtue out of selfishness.

      1. “…attempting to rectify injustices.”

        Morally, injustice is fought with outcry and volunteer activism to help.

        Legally? If a specific, objective crime has been committed against an individual, then government must rectify that injustice.

        However, if a “humanist” believes that non-criminal injustices (such as a person being gifted with privileges of birth) must be rectified by government command and control, that is a contradiction, per the position of this piece, because individual rights of innocent citizens would be trampled. This destroys Left fundamentals, but if Humanism is individual rights, as this piece advocates, then they ought to be destroyed.

        A moral obligation to speak out about non-criminal injustice? I’d be glad to argue this point.

        Ayn Rand

        1. Whoops, accidental post, not done …]

          ends:

          Ayn Rand has made this clear for seventy years, and with much deeper edges than “humanism.”

    2. Jeez, when I accused you not long ago of being a Randian it was merely an educated guess based upon some of your more highfalutin pronunciamentos.

      But now i see you’ve flounced fully from the Objectivist closet.

      Congrats, man, you be you. 🙂

      1. @Ken Kukec,

        Another useless scribble, although with less rude language and structure this time. Still, it is far too pitiful to engage me — I cannot think of a rejoinder that would not reduce my cogitation skills.

  4. I do wish at times that we hear more noise from the traditional Humanist perspective, as a regular reminder that they are still a significant part of the liberal world. Its like the political Right can always bash “the left”, as if it were a monolith, because most of what we hear is from the far left.

  5. If identitarianism were confined to “loud but minor factions”, as poster #1 suggests, then phony claims of indigenous identity would not occur because they would gain nothing. On the contrary, the identitarian superstition is so pervasive in the academic establishment that Ward Churchill (Colorado) and Carrie Bourassa (Saskatchewan) were able to make use of it. These episodes also show the
    weakness of self-identification, which underlies a contentious issue in sexual politics. I think the worship of self-identification—accepted in some arenas of law and sport—-reflects the woke assault against the very idea of objective reality, and against standards for its measurement and representation.

  6. Thank you. Thought provoking. But who is the individual? Is the individual to be lauded merely because they exist and in what objective reality (their own?). I thought I was a humanist but now I am reconsidering this.

  7. Both (humanism and identitarianism) are designed to make us feel good, nothing wrong with that. But it does that at the expense of other living things. I would reject humanism because it does instrumentalize non-humans; identitarianism is probably even worse because it does also instrumentalize humans.

    1. Huh? Are you saying that being humanitarian makes one insensitive to other living things? By what logic did you cross that thought chasm?

      1. A bit late, sorry.

        “Are you saying that being humanitarian makes one insensitive to other living things?”

        Wikipedia : “generally, the term refers to a focus on human well-being and advocates for human freedom, autonomy, and progress. It considers human beings as the starting point for serious moral and philosophical inquiry”.

        Humanism is biased and opinionated; not based on facts. The opinion that humans are morally superior is not supported by evidence. Freedom, autonomy, and progress is still a privilege almost exclusively for humans.

        I’m not saying that people are intentionally insensitive, it is mostly unintentional. We see a lot of emotional empathy, unfortunately seldom a rational thought.

  8. Excellent article. One other point I would make. Identitarian ideology flourishes in multicultural societies but is ultimately destructive to them. It encourages the sort of Balkanization and factionalism that can rip a multicultural society apart into feuding groups, each proclaiming that its identity merits greater resources and support than others. Do we want the United States to go the way of Lebanon or Rwanda?

    Humanism is the way out of Identitarianism, because it releases the individual from the prison of identity: the insistence that because you share the same religion/sex/ethnicity/race etc. you must automatically think or be like the members of that group. Identitarianism ultimately turns into tribalism, and humanism is against both.

  9. I saw Ms. Blumner’s piece yesterday (great minds think alike! – hehehe) and it struck me as a particularly succinct and well written piece. I was disappointed I didn’t write it myself. I was going to send it to you/PCC(E) or post it here! 🙂
    D.A.
    NYC

  10. If you could somehow arrange it so that all identity/minority groups received exactly the same treatment from the political process as everyone else, you wouldn’t have to have identity politics. Unfortunately this isn’t the case. It’s never been the case, and it’s identity politics that got women the vote, black civil rights, and gay rights. And yet you talk about it as if it’s a bad thing.

    1. I’ve clearly specified over the history of this website that I mean by “identity politics” WOKE (i.e. Performative) identity politics. And yet you talk about my views as if you’re wholly acquainted with them!

      1. Well, this is the first time I have been on your site. So I don’t see how I could know your opinions on this. And given this reception – probably the last. 🙂

        1. Nope, not the last but I advise you to look up previous posts on “identity politics” or the like before you come barging in as a first-time commenter, cannons loaded for bear.

          Don’t most people read websites for a while before they start offering comments?

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