Humanism and the Disenfranchised

I’ve been having conversations with people lately (and actually for quite a while) about how we, as an organization, should treat people who are marginalized, disenfranchised, or otherwise discriminated against in our culture, or around the world for that matter. Sometimes, we aren’t sure what is the right thing to do or what might actually be counterproductive, offensive, or even hurtful. And different people have different ideas based on their general knowledge and experience with said people. I recently had a very painful experience related to this which, I hope, taught me a valuable lesson but certainly hasn’t diminished my passion for trying to do the right thing. And I know that many of our members feel the same way, maybe even stronger than me.

So what people am I referring to specifically? The people who come to mind immediately include; people experiencing homelessness, LGBTQ people, immigrants with or without official documentation, people of color (according to our cultural norms anyway), and Native Americans (yes, I did separate them out from “people of color” on purpose and for good reason, I believe). I’m not trying to include every group that fits into the category because I don’t think I can for one and for another, that would diffuse the point.

There is one thing that all of these people have in common – they are human. And if Humanism isn’t about having compassion for, and a willingness to help, all humans, then we are nothing more than a country club, and by golly, we are NOT just a country club!! Here’s a short quote from the Humanist Manifesto III – “Humanists are concerned for the well being of all, are committed to diversity, and respect those of differing yet humane views”. I believe that explains what I’m trying to say at least in part and is only one of several places where compassion for all of humanity is referenced when discussing Humanism.

So let me explain why this is on my mind, starting with the people experiencing homelessness. We have had quite a few interactions with these folks at our center over the past year. In attempting to help, we started a team to get organized, figure what we could and could not do, find out what resources are available and where, and learn how to work with these people in a respectful and helpful way as much as we can with our limited understanding and resources. It has been heavy on my mind for a while because I “adopted” a married couple who have been down and on the streets for over a year. To make a long story short, I get a lot of advice from well-meaning people who haven’t interacted with these folks anywhere near as much as I have and may not fully appreciate the extent of their suffering. It has also come to my attention that I may have been unknowingly enabling a very serious problem that may have been keeping them from moving forward. I’m hoping that they have both worked through it and have taken some positive steps toward getting back on their feet, but time will tell. I still feel much compassion for them and I will not judge. I can’t even imagine being in their shoes or what that would do to me.

Then there is the LGBTQ community. We do have some in our membership and I have come to know one in particular who may well be one of the most artistic people I’ve ever met. But that’s not why this is on my mind. We ran a booth at the Phoenix Pride Festival (many thanks to the volunteers and especially Chris Wojno, our VP, for putting it all together) and I heard that there was some discussion about why a group of cis-gendered straight people would run a booth at Pride. I think that the best answer to that was in the overwhelming positive response that we received from attendees at the event! Just in the time that I was there, several people came up to our booth with great excitement that we were there, that such a thing as HSGP even exists in the Phoenix area, and everything that we stand for! They clearly understood that we are “allies” and very much appreciated us being there showing support. Nuff said.

Of course one of the big things in the news lately has been the political wrangling during this election cycle over immigration. So many seem to think these people aren’t human, or don’t have hopes and dreams and talents that would greatly enhance our society. I even had a rather terse discussion with my congresswoman about the Syrian refugees. So yes, this has been on my mind lately too. It’s been brought home even more by my experience meeting a couple who run a coffee shop near where I work. They are from Iran. And they are truly wonderful people whom I’ve had the great delight of having long conversations with (and enjoying some really good mochas!). To think that some people would judge them as not good people just because of where they’re from sickens me. I could say much more on this topic alone but this is already getting long and I think you get the point by now.

People of color: how to reconcile science with culture and history? I’m reading a really great book right now (yes, I’m finding time to read, but it’s hard) titled “The Myth of Race” by Jefferson M. Fish, PhD. This book reaffirms, again, what I’ve always believed. Biological “race” is an illusion. Race, as we know it, is very much a cultural thing which becomes very evident when you understand how other cultures define races. Brazil is mentioned quite a bit as an example. All good but this doesn’t discount or diminish the history of racial discrimination and horrific brutality of people of color in this country at the hands of people with light skin, even in these times. We have so much to do to heal the wounds and set things right. That should be one of our top priorities. Can we do that at the same time grasping the truth that “race” is just a cultural thing? I hope so.

Last but not least in this column is the Native Americans. I’ve always had a fascination and great respect for these folks but only in the last year did I begin to understand that they are the most marginalized people in our country. They suffer from malnutrition, lack of safe drinking water, lack of decent homes, theft of their land and natural resources with direct violations of treaties, and they are also the most likely people to be shot by police (surprised to hear that? I was). And to them, we are the immigrants. And the worst part is that they are hardly even talked about in political circles. There doesn’t appear to be any political will to improve their plight. Granted, it would be a long and complicated process and it would be very easy for well-meaning people to do the wrong thing, but as Humanists,  it seems that there should be something that we could do that would be helful if we focused some attention on them. It would be good for us too. Their varied cultures are some of the most beautiful in our country.

To wrap it up, I think that I’ll just say that we, as Humanists, are positioned with knowledge and compassion to take great strides in making our society an egalitarian one. I hope that we all go forward with that vision and keep on being as good as we can be.

By the way, I deliberately didn’t mention discrimination of, and disrespect for, women in this column. That, I think, is for another column all by itself.