DEMOCRACY NEEDS HUMANIST PLURALISM
By Yaakov Malkin
Humanist pluralism repudiates the relativism which negates the very principles of humanism and democracy. Men and women are not born human but grow into their humanity in the context of a national culture. They can also be dehumanized—by nationalism and racism…How humanist pluralism is incompatible with the relativism that justifies all ideologies.
Humanity and Dehumanization
Only men and women have the potential for a rich humanity or for the inhumanity of Nazi slaughterers and Gulag camp-guards. Other animals merely realize the genetic potential of their species. In the words of one of the founders of European Renaissance humanism, Pico della Mirandola:
Man possesses the dignity that stems from the capacity for choice given him. In every being in Creation there is a seed which determines its qualities; only man can be as an animal in his instinctuality, as an angel in his wisdom, as a green plant in his indifference, and as God in his insight into the universe and himself, and in the stainlessness of his conduct. (1486)
Humanism takes in all the worldviews that make human beings’ growth into humanity their supreme value, the supreme standard by which any postulate, behavior, or regime is judged and ranked. Pluralism and democracy are the qualities of a society and culture which encourage and empower this growth of men and women into their humanity — as they learn the ways of their society and culture while retaining a critical and independent appreciation of both.
The relativism which says that all parties to a debate are equally right, including the parties that deny other parties the right to express their views or enjoy equality of rights, this relativism puts democracy and men and women’s potential for humanity in real danger.
The Human Personality Develops Within a National Culture and Society
The humanity and inhumanity of human beings can only be realized in the setting of a national (or ethnic, regional, or tribal) culture, since there is no cultural setting in the world that is not on of these. Sometimes different national cultures co-exist within the one civilization.
A national culture is a unique combination of language, universe of associations, consciousness of a historical heritage and the creative works that mediate it, of tradition and custom. It is unique in the shape of its affinities to other national cultures, in the depth of its exposure to international communications and technology, and in the place and role taken by religion in individual and public life.
Culture or Civilization
The ‘culture’ of a people (or nation, ethnic entity, and so on) is to be distinguished, as it is used here, from the term ‘civilization’. ‘Civilization’ is a name for all the organizational and technological means and tools serving the existence of society and providing for the physical and material needs of the individuals making up a society. ‘Culture’ is a name for the complex of phenomena and creative works which make up the spiritual context in which men and women are brought up—language, customs, religious and secular tradition, beliefs and attitudes to humankind and the universe, the meanings ascribed to human life, to natural phenomena, to ethical values, and to life and death. As Buber put it (in The Face of Man????):
Civilization is the intellectual recasting of a scientific, practical, and utilitarian ordering of things. It is the realization and actualization of that ordering in the form of regimes and tools…
Culture is the action of man’s spirit searching for expression, its aspiration and endeavors to give form to its essence. Everything this action and movement finds in the world is but material with which to configure that form. The products of man’s spirit are of their own time but are also symbols perceived as the dimensions of the soul. Unlike civilization, culture cannot accumulate, but has to be renewed in each generation. The works of culture are not means to ends but ends in themselves and their intrinsic, self-contained meaning fills our lives…
Culture contains the configurations which men and women assume, using the materials and traditions offered by their society.
In the masterpieces of a culture we find expressions of the solitariness and uniqueness of their creators and of man himself.
Creative works and tradition are the two faces of culture: only together do the two possess cultural value.
Learning the Ways of One’s Society and Culture While Retaining a Critical and Independent Appreciation of Both
Men and women grow into their humanity in the context of a national culture—a lengthy and complex process comprised of two apparently opposing tendencies: (a) learning the ways of one’s society and culture (the ungainly terms ‘socialization’ and ‘acculturation’ approximate this)—that is, adapting to society and its behavioral conventions and laws, absorbing the values held to be absolute, and learning the culture’s material and artistic products and other prominent features; and (b) developing the independent personality and a capacity for criticism, from which comes the spiritual autonomy that provokes us to review and re-evaluate all that society and culture have inculcated, to develop a creativity expressive our particular uniqueness, and so to fulfill our own unique potentials.
The two strands of this process proceed in the context of the national culture, of the spoken vernacular, in the contexts of family, community ,and national society in which men and women grow from infancy to maturity, and in the context of a greater or lesser exposure to the international communications media and to the inputs from other national cultures conveyed through those media.
In our day, civilization is taking on a global scale before our very eyes—in technology, communications, dress, governance. At the same time, movements of national and ethnic particularism are stirring and exercising political and cultural muscle.
Diaspora Jews are for the most part brought up in the national culture of their host country and, to a much lesser extent, in the cultures of their local Jewish community. Israeli Jews are brought up and educated in the national Israeli-Jewish culture, which bears the stamp like all others of the global culture but still retains and emphasizes its particularity—a particularity of language, of historical and cultural heritage, of the familiar writings of that heritage, of national and religious festivals, of custom and tradition, and so on. Israel’s Arab citizens, some twenty percent of the population, grow up within a Palestinian-Israeli culture which, while closely related to that of neighboring Arab countries, is also now opening up more and more to the blandishments of the global culture. Within both of Israel’s national cultures we now have humanist movements developing, determined to combat anti-humanist tendencies and so bring about a better and richer quality of life.
Chauvinism and Racism Dehumanize
All humanists, be they religious or secular, repudiate a relativism which tolerates educating people—to the degradation of their humanity— in nationalism, racism, or sexual chauvinism. Nationalism and racism and chauvinism teach their disciples to see themselves as a superior nation or race or sex, a conception that permits them to wreak on others what they would hate done to themselves, to treat other human beings as means rather than ends, and to guide their own behavior by what they defend as ethical principles, but which they apply only to their own sex or race or national group.
Education to nationalism and chauvinism negates the three humanist master-values decreed by Hillel and Kant:
• That you shall not do to others what you would hate done to yourself
• That you shall not treat other human beings as means, but as ends in themselves
• That no behavioral precept is ethical that is not universally applicable.
A humanist education inculcates these three values, fights to ensure equality of rights for every nation, race and sex, recognizes every man’s and woman’s right to dignity and also their obligation to respect the dignity of others.
By contrast, a male-chauvinist education, for example, teaches values of inequality, which allow women and girls to be humiliated, to be distanced to the women’s sections of buses and synagogues, and to be deprived of their right to equality in marriage and in the religious courts of law. In all these acts and in the daily morning blessing of the Creator “that You have not made me a woman” male-chauvinist education fixes in its students’ minds the dishonest conviction in the superiority of man over woman.
Humanist pluralism can find no compatibility at all with the relativist principles, which find legitimacy and justice in all worldviews and in the values derived from them, not excepting cannibalism and Taleban philosophy, and do so on the easy grounds that “having generated from their believers’ cultural environment, they are to be regarded as the products of a different culture”, and certainly not as disgraceful values dehumanizing their adherents. (This line of thinking may lay claim to being new and ‘post-modernist’, but in fact mimics the relativistic arguments of Herder in 19th century Europe, one of the first to define ‘culture’.)
Humanist Values Hold Precedence Over the Halakhic Commandments
Values are, as we have noted, the standards by which we judge and rank.
The halakhic commandments (mitzvot) are not values but laws to be tested in the light of values.
Humanist values derive from the conviction that moral values are human creations devised for the good of humankind.
The values of Judaism are universal values in Jewish dress and are by no means the same thing as the halakhic commandments.
The value “Do not to others what you would not have done to you” is a universal value to which Hillel gave a Jewish context by adding, “That is the whole of Torah”. It is, of course, not the whole of Torah but apparently was, in Hillel’s considered opinion, the ethical essence of the Bible, of the Ten Commandments, of the priority awarded by the prophets to social justice over rituals of worship, and of Job’s protests against the holocaust visited on three generations of his family by a plot concocted between God and Satan for the very reason that he was a righteous man (as recounted in the framework narrative to this magnificent Jewish work, whose central figure, however, is not a Jew).
Hillel’s rule ignores or invalidates many Torah commandments, such as the one to massacre whole peoples, men, women and children. Commandments like these, it seems, Hillel did not locate in the essential Torah, a Torah which he felt could be encapsulated in one universal ethical value.
Humanist anti-relativism demands that all laws, secular and religious alike, be tested against humanist values—and hence that each be modified or limited or, if necessary, annulled until it corresponds to those values. That is why an enlightened democracy, such as ours, has a Supreme Court, which rules on the basis of the fundamental values of justice and not merely in line with laws passed by a passing parliamentary majority.
Separating Mitzvot which Correspond to Humanist Values From Those That Do Not
Humanists, secular and religious alike, acknowledge mitzvot as legitimate, provided that they conform to the values of equality, liberty, human dignity and other values congruent with Hillel’s and Kant’s master-values. Those that do not are rejected. This has brought many religious humanists to live in conflict with mitzvot or traditional usages contravening their humanist values (Yeshayahu Leibowitz made this point in his ‘I Am Not A Humanist’ address, to be found in Free Judaism and Religion in Israel, 1999). There are many religious humanists working to reform halakha to bring it into line with the principles of justice, or to have the blessing “that You have not made me a woman” removed from the liturgy, to have the women’s’ sections of synagogues done away with, to grant equality to men and women, including the right of election to the rabbinate and dayanate [dayan = religious court judge], to liberate the Sabbath from the rules and regulations preventing people from enjoying their weekly day of rest, and so on and so on. Changes like these, now accepted as necessary by the majority of the world’s religious Jews, embody an approach, which repudiates the eternalization of customs and mitzvot merely because tradition has sanctified them and past generations have attributed them to God Himself.
Crucial to the war of cultures now being fought out in Israel at the close of the 20th century is the battle between those who support the precedence of humanist democratic values over halakha and its commandments and the representatives of the Orthodox minority, who demand precedence for halakha and its mitzvot over democracy and its laws and courts, the Supreme Court included. A relativist approach that justifies and encourages anti-democratic attitudes and supports the right to incitement of the sects broadcasting such attitudes thus threatens democracy’s very existence, not to mention the pluralism which is its chief guarantor and mainstay.
Rational Arguments for Negating Relativism on Pluralist Grounds
It seems on the face of it to be contradictory that humanist pluralism, which demands freedom of expression and welcomes a range of opinion and belief, should be so categorically opposed to relativism, which after all lends legitimacy to all opinions and beliefs. The answer to the paradox is that the paramount value for any humanist is the expansion of men’s and women’s humanity: humanists can neither justify nor reconcile themselves to dehumanizing ideologies that destroy democracy and wreck the fabric of the society that allows relativism to exist.
This is a scale of priorities that has only emerged the stronger from rational analysis and empirical testing in the laboratory of real life. Look at the outcomes of applying the principles of pluralism and democracy, at the conditions necessary for humanity to develop and flower, at the contradictions and constraints that in real life bring people to justifiably violate rules of behavior deriving from humanist values; for example, defending oneself by force against a lethally-minded attacker, or exercising the compassion to kill someone begging to be released from incurable and useless suffering. “You shall not kill” derives from the value humanism attaches to the sanctity of life, but in the two instances cited, even this value can be breached with justice.
Rational analysis of the facts of history shows that people expand their humanity in an open, freely evolving society. The ideologies of egotism, such as the racism of sociopolitical movements or of dictatorial regimes, attack the social fabric and teach dehumanization, as happened when racist Nazism took over Germany and most of Europe, or under the communism of the Stalinist empire, or under Mao Zedong’s ‘cultural revolution’. We protect democracy and the capacity of a democratic society to draw people towards a wider humanity by educating all citizens in humanist values and by combating the legitimacy of racist and chauvinist movements.
The indulgence that democracies grant to racist and chauvinist incitement endangers their own existence, witness the fate of the Weimar Republic in post-First World War Germany. Education that inculcates humanist values by making individuals aware of the obligations they owe to other individuals and to society at large, including the duty to defend their rights, will foster a positively critical standpoint and resistance to any movement preaching egotism and anti-humanism.
Replace Relativism by a Guarantee of Democratic Rights to All Minorities
There can be no justification for exploiting democracy and its resources to operate anti-democratic educational systems, systems which teach blind obedience to a leader—religious or secular—and deploy the mechanisms of demagoguery along with threats of hellfire, devils and ghosts to incite and frighten people into waging war on the institutions and principles of democratic society.
The relativism that regards all opinions and all contradictory readings of reality as equally correct negates itself by denying the existence of a reality discoverable by experience, research, debate, and putting up hypotheses for refuting or confirming by empirical testing.
A democracy of majority decisions is committed to defend every minority and individual from arbitrary treatment and any form of compulsion, other than those vital to the society’s own existence. In line with this, it will permit a minority to educate its children according to its own lights, provide that it fulfills its duties to the wider society and makes one component of that education acknowledgement of the laws of the wider democratic society and of the rights it grants to every individual in it. Without this proviso—that to qualify for the rights society should grant to every minority and individual in it one must first fulfill one’s obligations to that society—no open society and no democracy can exist.
Humanist pluralism is an acknowledgement of the rights and liberties of men and women to hold opposing opinions and profess conflicting beliefs. To realize and defend these individual rights and liberties a society will require its individuals to fulfill their obligations towards it and to maintain its standing as a society allowing every person to develop his or her humanity. This being so, it cannot admit a relativism, legitimizing beliefs and opinions which deny everyone’s rights to liberty and equality and which undermine the very existence of society as a context in which humanity can flourish.
Humanist pluralism—a framework for conduct for those who stand by humanist values—contains no justification for the teachings of egotism—racism, nationalism or male chauvinism; nor does it admit any right to incite people in the name of such teachings, even if “they are a component of a tribal or communal culture and tradition”. Acknowledging the legitimacy of controversy subsumes an acknowledgement of the illegitimacy of the totalitarianism which would silence all controversy.