Which is all to say: To confess that one sees oneself, all social strife aside, as a “humanist” is not to confess a partisanship with our better angels. It is to willfully ignore history.
It is also to ignore, by the way, the history of the concept of “humanism” itself. “Humanism,” on the surface, suggests the Renaissance, and the flowering of human potential, and the ending of the Dark Ages, and education, and art. It whiffs of both Enlightenment and enlightenment. Humanism, certainly, embodied all that as a historical movement. But that was centuries ago. Today, most commonly, the term functions as an abbreviation of “secular humanism,” or the espousal of cultural values that have been disentangled from belief in the supernatural. It suggests the primacy of social norms over religious ones. “Humanism” suggests, essentially, “atheism that isn’t jerky about it.”
Streep and her cohort, in treating “humanism” as an alternative to other movements, are ignoring that. Perhaps they are even confusing the word with a similar—but also very different—one: humanitarianism. As The Humanist, a site dedicated to this particular incarnation of “humanism,” explained of SJP’s dabbling with the term,
The definition of humanism is often confused with humanitarianism. While both promote human welfare and equality, and even the protection of our earth, humanism includes another aspect that many outside of the secular community tend to overlook: Humanists do not look to a higher power or authority to guide their morality. So, could it be that Parker truly is a secular humanist? Or, perhaps, has she fallen into the common trap of adding an “ism” to the end of any topic she may care about, while disregarding the actual definition of humanism?
I would guess the latter.
Perhaps she has. Regardless, there are many ironies here. One of them is that humanism, in all its incarnations, has historically involved a rejection of regressive thinking in favor of something more “enlightened,” more forward-thinking, more optimistic about what humans can achieve when they strive for something together. The celebrities’ brand of humanism, on the surface, promises to do the same. “Why classify people?” Charlotte Rampling asked in her now-infamous questioning of the validity of #OscarsSoWhite.
But in a time of legitimate struggle and strife—in a time that equates progress with the recognition of social divisions rather than the rejection of them—it’s Rampling’s question that’s regressive. It’s humanism that is, counter to all logic, on the wrong side of history. That’s the real tautology here: We classify people because, well, we classify people. It might not be the world we want, but it is the world we have. Loftiness is lovely, but humans—from our African origins to the present day—were made, in the end, to walk on the ground.
* This article has been updated to clarify the context of Streep’s comments: Her statement was not, as originally reported, a direct response to a question about the all-white jury convened to judge the film festival, but rather to a question about understanding North Africa and the Middle East. For more, Quartz has a good summary of Streep’s comments.