Against ‘Humanism’

Meryl Streep’s “we’re all Africans, really": right, but not really.

The word has been overused and taken out of context. Mona's right to side-eye it. (Wikimedia)
Updated on February 22, 2016
Meryl Streep, at the Berlin Film Festival this week, was asked by an Egyptian reporter to describe her perspective on North Africa and the Middle East.* “How do you see this part of the world?” the reporter asked. “And is it easy for you to understand that culture? And are you following any of the Arab movies?” Streep admitted that she did not know much about the region. But “the thing that I notice,” she said, “is that there is a core of humanity that travels right through every culture,” she said.And after all, we’re all from Africa originally, you know. We’re all Berliners; we’re all Africans, really.”
This wasn’t terribly surprising. Streep talks about that “core of humanity” a lot. When she was asked, last year, in the course of promoting her extremely feminist film Suffragette, whether she is herself a feminist, the actor replied that, no, she isn’t. Instead: “I am a humanist,” she said. “I am for nice, easy balance.”
In a culture navigating its way through the fraught fields of race and gender and class and power and privilege, Streep has gone out of her way, in her capacity as an artist and as a proximate public-intellectual, to reject the categories that might seek to divide us. She prefers to see the world from a loftier view.
And she isn’t the only celebrity to use her status as a “humanist” to explain why she is not an “ist” of another ilk. Sarah Jessica Parker recently met the business end of the indignation Internet when she explained, in an interview with Cosmopolitan, why she is not a feminist. (“As [the playwright] Wendy Wasserstein would say, I’m a humanist.”) Shailene Woodley and Marion Cotillard have espoused similar logicI like men! I believe in everyone!—in explaining why they, too, reject the “feminist” label. Humanism, that warm and welcoming alternative to “isms” of a more divisive strain, has lately served celebrities not just as a branding play (as when Stephen Colbert’s Late Show house band, Stay Human, kicked off the show’s first episode with a song titled “Humanism”), but also as a single-word dismissal of the social movements that are trying to bring about a more equitable world. Not always, but often. “Humanism,” used as an anti-ism, is a lexical version of all those people who claim, as if they are unique in the sentiment: “I think all lives matter.”
If transcendence is your aim—if you happen to prefer the soaring over the searing in your rhetoric and in your life—then “humanism” is an ideal term. It is soft and smooth and inviting and historically inflected and, above all, conveniently unfalsifiable. Who doesn’t believe in the value and the potential of collective humanity? Who wouldn’t be excited by all that might be achieved by, as Sarah Jessica Parker put it, “a humanist movement”? Humanism is the stuff of the Taj Mahal and Leonardo da Vinci and “one giant leap for mankind.” It is also, today, the stuff of cultural utopianism. Who wouldn’t love a world in which the seams of our great human tapestry are rendered effectively invisible?
In that sense, “humanism” makes for a self-contained tautology. But it also makes, as a piece of rhetoric, for a sentiment that is extremely glib: It is concern trolling, essentially, in the guise of inclusivity. Used as an alternative to feminism or any other civil-rights movement—used, broadly, as a justification for convening an all-white film-festival jury in the year 2016—it suggests that those movements are somehow petty or point-missing. That they ignore the beautiful human forest for its trees. That they insist on strife and manufacture drama and, all in all, have no chill. I am for nice, easy balance.
In all that, the deployment of “humanism” effectively forestalls conversation about gender or race or power or privilege or any of the other things that, especially right now, desperately need talking about. What do you say to someone who refuses to acknowledge divisions? To someone who seems to see social movements that fight systemic injustices as awkwardly thirsty? To someone who ignores the ongoing nature of the civil-rights movement, and the battles women have fought for equality? Streep’s recent film, Suffragette, features a character willingly martyring herself so that her fellow women might one day win the vote. “Humanism” treats that sacrifice as, effectively, a little bit awkward.
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.