A beautiful hallmark of any Humanist movement is its emphasis on the value and agency of human beings. Another is that it sides with critical thinking over dogma or superstition. Sadly, Humanists are also prone to error and hymning the same gospels as their dogmatic adversaries. This was evidenced in a recent fiasco concerning Angelos Sofocleous’s resignation as President-elect of Humanist Students. Tweeting ‘RT if women don’t have penises’, and forging other constructive – and well-intentioned – criticisms of the transgender movement, Sofocleous was set upon by members and supporters of Humanist Students.
Sofocleous’s tweet, similar to many comments made by progressive activists, reflects his critical, philosophical position concerning the link between sex and gender. In many ways, despite the provocative nature of the tweet, it was intended to spark a debate. However, arguing for the inadmissibility of such a debate, especially the ornery claim that the debate is ‘over’, fellow Humanists have gone so far as to label him a ‘transphobe’.
Sofocleous is now seen by many in the Humanist movement as harbouring disgust, fear, anger, or discomfort towards people who do not conform to society’s gender expectation. The deeper grounds for the accusation concerns the fact Sofocleous equates gender by necessity with sex. In other words, he believes that only those biologically female can be women. For Sofocleous, the revilement unfortunately shows once again that critical debates about transgenderism, which are important ones to be had for any freethinker, are beyond the pale. If one questions core assumptions of transgenderism, as Sofocleous does, one is swiftly deemed ‘bigoted’ and expunged from the clique.
One need not take a position on transgenderism to recognise the difficulty evidenced in Sofocleous’s downfall as President-elect of Humanist Students – the student section of Humanists UK. This difficulty concerns making Humanism marketable. Humanists UK, under the leadership of Andrew Copson, has witnessed a groundswell of new supporters over the last decade as a result of a slick facelift, transforming the movement into an intersectional communion for well-intentioned ‘freethinkers’. Regrettably, the movement also appears to have become unwittingly ideological, particularly political, to substantiate its appeal to potential supporters.
Of course, one can understand the dilemma facing any Humanist movement. While certain principles cannot be violated, others are fair-game, especially when trying to be marketable in a very dicey and gladiatorial climate of political correctness. When political correctness becomes a marketability ploy, a ploy the majority of active Humanists in the UK seem to be adopting, a movement inevitably stoops to a hazardous form of puritanism. I say ‘puritanism’ but what this amounts to is censorship.
It appears many Humanists believe views contrary to orthodoxy can only be performed with a considerable offence. In other words, be a freethinker insofar as your narrative is sanitary. Too many Humanists are forgetting that censorship creates the kind of environment that is incapable of expending real discretion. People become ill-equipped to extol the difference between independence of thought and subservience.
When political correctness becomes a marketability ploy, a movement inevitably stoops to a very dangerous form of puritanism
Many activists like Sofocleous are all too aware being labelled ‘transphobic’ shares similarities with being smeared as an ‘Islamophobe’. A smearer essentially absolves themselves of the responsibility, both intellectually and with empathy, of learning why someone thinks and acts as they do towards a given ideology, and attempts to modify their perceptions and understandings through engagement and argument. Dogma shouldn’t be disinterred with such little effort in a bevy of Humanists – supposed champions of critical thinking.
While I am in no way lumping together all Humanists in grousing about how Humanist circles are stabbing in the back the very principles that are characteristic of Humanism, one is undoubtedly justified seeing free-speech and open dialogue for the intersectional Humanist movement as a gimmick. They are now spectres of a currently marketable and increasingly politically-correct Humanism. This view is justified when Humanists UK and Humanist Students have resisted issuing an official proclamation concerning Sofocleous’s resignation. This view is also justified with excessive amounts of Humanists from many Humanist groups across the UK have also condemned Sofocleous.
Humanists have a choice to make. Make conversations impossible, making escalation inevitable, or be patrons of an open society founded on debate and criticism. Encouraging healthy debate enforces critical thinking – reducing prejudgement, emboldening openness, and heightening perspective, and in other words, shifting focus to mind over emotions. Humanists must be the bastions of this free society, a climate featuring flashes of dissent, tension, and friction. These flashes are instances of freedom, and freedom is necessary for any successful freethinker.