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May 24 2012

The Power of Coalition

James Croft has his next post in our dialog up, responding to my question about the benefits of creating humanist communities that may outweigh the negatives. Part of the fun of this discussion is that we’re really not arguing, even though we’re challenging each other. This post is no exception.

But how can we create moral communities and avoid most of the dangers of out-grouping and ostracizing? I think the first step is to be honest and recognize that this will indeed occur. We won;t overcome the human urge to enforce group norms to the detriment of others. But we can limit it in two main ways, I think: first, by ensuring that one of the explicit moral values that the community coheres around is respect for the dignity of every person without exception. That is an exceptional benefit of Humanist communities over religious ones – Humanism includes an explicit commitment to the worth and equality of all, unlike most religions.

Second, we can consciously design our communities to have institutional checks on outgrouping. This is another benefit of Humanist communities: we need not bow to any given design or have respect for any particular organizational tradition. We can work with the grain of human psychology and bring our full understanding of our own foibles to bear, so that when we design the community structures we ensure to take account of, and even work against, this problem.

I know where I’m going next with this, but you won’t see it until Monday. In the meantime, James has been very good about answering questions if you have any of your own.

9 comments

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  1. 1
    John Morales

    [meta + hoping Stephanie doesn't mind]

    James, I replied on your blog rather than here, since it’s your contention.

    Please do tell me if my tone is inappropriate there.

  2. 2
    James Croft

    I have responded there. I am not such a tone troll as you imagine – your post was fine ;)

  3. 3
    Stephanie Zvan

    I’m following the discussion wherever it happens, so don’t mind me. :)

  4. 4
    Robert

    OK, so you say we can put checks in to stop out-grouping. What checks would those be?

    Additionally, will there be a meaningful difference between these humanist communities, and say the FtB network and academic campuses?

    FtB is about all the “community” I need (I mean that as a compliment, I like it here).

  5. 5
    James Croft

    Robert:

    I’ve outlined two major checks in my full post, which you will find if you follow the link.

    Your second question I will answer here: there are many meaningful differences between communities like FtB and academic campuses. One signal difference between the communities I envision and FtB is that the humanist communities will be local and physical, enabling people to gather together and share their lives with each other in ways which are simply impossible to replicate online. I think contact between people – close, physical contact – is extremely important for human growth and flourishing, and essential for activism and long-term mobilization for change.

    I often love the community which has gathered on these blogs, but I sometimes find it deeply disturbing – hurtful, nasty, vindictive. The interactions which happen on FtB are, in my view, too often cruel and inhumane, and I think this is partly because people cannot see each other, do not truly know each other, and feel little responsibility for each other. I think that is harder when you are in community with people who you see frequently and whose whole life you take an interest in. It may well be all you need, and that’s great for you, but many of us want something more, and I see no problem with seeking to provide that.

    As for the difference between FtB and academic campuses, there are many, but one central thing is that universities have an essentially epistemological purpose – they exist to generate understanding about the world. And the communities of Humanists I envision would have (and do have, where they already exist) a primarily moral and social purpose. They want not just to understand the world but to change it for the better in line with a set of moral values which the community explicitly exists to promote. In this way these communities are more analogous to religious communities than academic campuses.

  6. 6
    Robert

    What? I have to actually read your post? Thats BS.

    Ok, the only actual check I see is questionnaires after talks to make sure marginalized voices are heard. This sounds like a good idea, but do you have any more? I’m not sure questionnaires and statements about respecting everyone’s human dignity will do enough to stop marginalization and tribalization. There are plenty of examples of organizations totally violating their standing principles (cops and republicans).

    I appreciate the physical space allows people to get to know each other better, but it also places a priority on the lottery of location for who you know and work with.

    I guess what I’m syaing is, by all means create your humanist communities (I do not like the temple or church label, I think community is fine), but I think I’ll keep my involvement online.

  7. 7
    James Croft

    That’s fine – as I said in the response to the previous posts in the dialogue, this won’t be for everyone. People are not going to be forced to attend!

    I think an explicit commitment to the moral equality of all people will help the community stick to the principle of not outing people simply because of the host of studies which demonstrate that repeated public commitments encourage follow-through on values. I imagine I’d want to explore asking members, when they join, to sign a statement of values and go through a commitment ceremony to heighten this effect.

    I also note that many liberal religious congregations exist which do not ostracize people, and in which the desire to come together around shared values does not get twisted into an othering-fest. I have attended many such communities myself in the course of my research. So this is perfectly possible to do.

  8. 8
    Robert

    It’s hard for me to reconcile other people’s need for ritual. Hearing about a ceremony to join just creeps me out for some reason. I recognize that there are people for who this holds meaning.

    I’m not sure if I regret not feeling anything towards ritual and ceremony or not. It’s sort of a curious emptiness.

    At the very least, I am glad that there are people at least considering some of the possible negatives of emulating religious organizations.

  9. 9
    James Croft

    I imagine that some of the creepy feeling is a legitimate response to the potential for harm such events carry. I think a healthy skepticism about such things is very wise – just not an outright rejection.

    I think a lot about the negatives, yes – I consider that essential so that we can build the best sorts of institutions!

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