I prefer to be unlabeled, because labels are inherently untrue. By labeling yourself (or even worse, having someone label you), you are affixing to yourself a whole host of connotations, implications, and derivatives that you may have no idea of and certainly no proclivity towards. No matter your intentions, labeling will skew them, or rather those with who you share your label will skew them. The meaning of a label is in the eye of the beholder.
But they get the job done, labels do. They capture thousands of words, and many beliefs into a single bite-size tidbit that saves much time and helps us to identify ourselves based on our beliefs and thereby find others we can relate to. Labels would be more accurate if each was individually crafted and unique, defining each person for exactly the beliefs and values they hold, but that would entirely ruin the point of generalization and saving time. I however, eschew generalization and think time is meant to be used, so I take a bit of a middle ground when it comes to defining myself: I use a common label, but one that I have never read the encyclopedia definition for. Instead, I define it myself, and thereby define myself.
I’m a humanist. Which means—or so I choose to believe—humans are not individually unique but part of a collective known as humanity, and it is holy. Or sacred, sacrosanct—spiritually special—the wording is unimportant to me, and religious words in particular (virtuous vocabulary?) makes me slightly uncomfortable, like putting on a pair of socks that haven’t dried completely. Atheists and deists alike tend to hold humanists such as I in contempt, or at least sneer at the concept as a sort of cop-out belief system. Choosing to avoid the god question by claiming belief in the power of people, eh? You know who else does that—Communists! OK, no one makes that argument any more—sorry; I’ve been reading too much 1950s political history lately. I was raised Quaker, and they fervently believe in the holiness of the individual, but they also have enough moxie to pick a stance on God—he exists, he’s in you (!?!), and that’s why you are so holy. (Or sacred, or whatever). But no, as a humanist I delicately step around the issue of an all powerful being and simply throw my faith into a different abstract entity: humanity. I don’t even capitalize it, to further show my indifference towards choosing what is holy or even deciding what that means.
There are, admittedly, some problems with my self-described state of believing, even beyond accusations of indecision or a lack of believer’s backbone. For starters, does a love of humanity translate into a love of people? All people?? Because there is no way I can subscribe to that, no matter how much the teachings of Gandhi, Jesus, and Dumbledore all agree on the issue. I would love to love all people, but that could only be possible if I lived high on a mountain far away from said people, with no access to cable TV or People magazine. How can I love a humanity that created Hitler, Stalin, Dick Cheney, and Tyler McDonnell that jerk who rode the bus with me in seventh grade? Well, some might say cognitive dissonance, but I disagree; I think it is perfectly rational and reasonable. Here is how:
Humanity is a collective entity; like a forest it is both a composition of individual trees and a singular noun on its own. Conservationists generally love the forest and do what they can to preserve it, even, occasionally thinning some individual trees. Only extremists (and out of date clichés) actually hold true to the moniker of “tree hugger” and chain themselves to future telephone poles, choosing a principled (and spread eagled) stance over the practicality of a larger issue. Just because I love humanity—and the idea of a human—does not mean that I need to love each individual that makes up the whole. People infested with bark beetles, or with far-reaching roots that destroy the street in front of my house, or cast too big of a shadow over my favorite sunning spot are not necessarily deserving of my affections, regardless of their inherent ‘holiness’. This metaphor is running me dangerously close to the topic of eugenics, and I promise that is not my intent. I am not advocating “thinning” the population of diseased persons, but rather postulating that while all people are created equal, some of them are jack-asses, ignoramuses, and dictators. All of whom bother me (yes, in that order).
Since that tangentially allegorical rant got far darker than I intended, let me now take a step back and enumerate the love I have for humans that made me come to identify myself as a humanist in the first place. I love myself, I love my friends, I love my family (no, not in that order). I love characters in movies, and the actors that play them. I love authors of books for the words they’ve created and the way that they speak to me without even knowing me. I love street musicians and people walking their dogs and that cute girl reading a book by herself in the corner of the coffee shop. I love people in the service industry that smile at you even when they hate their job. I love old couples that walk through the park holding hands. I love children that skip down the street and have no sense of personal space and are amazed by all the things that I take for granted. I love anyone that cries in public, and I wish I could shake off social stigma and give them a hug. I love people that smile to themselves when they read, and especially those who laugh out loud. I love anyone who’s laughing, even if it’s just for that moment. I love beautiful people and people with strange faces. I love people who aren’t afraid of eye contact and return my unabashed ogling with a cool stare. I love quiet weirdoes and hipsters that try too hard. I love people whose eyes show their struggle, and those whose hands show their labor. I love anyone who goes hiking.
I will not enumerate the people I do not love, but simply say that the list is much shorter (the tyrants and middle school terror enumerated above make up a good portion of the list). For the most part it is a list of individuals rather than generalities; for in the court of humanism, you are innocent until proven guilty; although I find it hard to believe I could ever love anyone who would fall into the category of wife-beater or child-molester or open-mouth chewer. Humanists (how I define them/me) must embrace the imperfections of humans and be accepting of flaws, mistakes, and excusive behavior. No one is perfect, and therefore part of being human is necessarily defined as such. We are sentient, four-limbed, imperfect creatures. As magnanimous as my humanism may be in its initial judgment of character, however, it is far less generous when it comes to forgiveness. All those who believe in the omnipotence of repentance can find shelter with the Catholics. When you have been put on humanism’s naughty list, there is no coming back. We are imperfect, but that is no excuse for being evil. And where is that line drawn, that cannot be crossed? There is no easy answer; it is up to the imperfect interpretation of humanity.
So yes there is hypocrisy in my understanding of humanism. My love for it is not perfect and my love of people is purposefully incomplete—I dilute principal with rationality and admit flaws in my value system. Yet that is exactly how it should be. If humanism is a celebration of the human condition, it should be unashamedly flawed, and beautifully imperfect; a persistent mix of emotion and logic, no matter how contradictory they may be. Many of the beauties of the human mind exist in its ability to function at such high levels of hypocrisy: to dominate our natural environment and create the idea of conservation; to commit such atrocities against our fellow man and love a dog unconditionally; to believe in God and luck and fate and chance and evolution all at the same time. Certainly our flaws—as individuals and as a species—are not what make us beautiful, or special, or holy; but I do believe they are a vital part of our human spirit that should not be hidden or ignored. I love humans and I hate Christian Laettner. I am a humanist. So don’t label me.