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HUMANISM AND POPULAR CULTURE

1/.

AIMS - The BHA should do more to tap into the rich veins of popular social culture to show people from all walks of life who have such interests that Humanism has influences, affinities, sympathies, links, similarities and parallels on much that is there and to ultimately make Humanism itself a popular and fashionable social movement.

2/.

WHY? A/. We must make Humanism more accessible to young, active audiences. We must aim to working class markets as well as the current middle class dominant Humanists. We should show that Humanism as 'A Way Of Life' (as we call it in much of our literature) means more than a monthly meeting, a newsletter or two and Humanity magazine coming through the door.

B/. I believe that there are many potential Humanists out there. By 'potential Humanists' I mean the people who don't know about us, but who are not going to churches, temples and seances, etc. Ask yourself what are they doing with their non-work time. Answer, pubs, socialising, dating, concerts (rock or classical), movies, sports, recreations, watching TV, following fashions, trends and fads, and lots of other cultural activity. Many people don't just do these things, but also read magazines, books, etc, relating to their activities. Look at the crop of material in any newsagents on films, TV shows, pop & rock bands, etc.

C/. The potential for showing Humanism can relate to such interests is extremely high. It should be noted that many records and books, measured in sales alone, and TV shows, judged by ratings, are vastly more popular than Humanism, and religion combined. When John Lennon said The Beatles were bigger than Jesus, he was simply stating a fact. If we can hitch a ride with popular culture we can dramatically increase our own cultural status. At present, we are just a sub-culture; a social backwater and in many people's eyes, merely an eccentricity. That perception must change if we are to survive. It is not really a question of whether or not to become cultural, but of how.

D/. Rejection of this proposal should not come lightly. It would mean a conscious decision to keep Humanism unpopular by avoiding such general, popular mainstream areas of interest. It would be a preference to keep Humanism to the quiet social backwaters and to pick and choose our membership discrimanately rather than openly and largely indescrimanately. (That said, we tend to avoid religious people and people regarded as socially immoral, etc, but we should take care how we do even that).

3/. HOW?

A/. Many more Humanist articles are needed on culturally popular themes, showing clear-cut relevance to Humanism relating to popular TV shows, films, books, comics, pop & rock music, fashion, computer web activity.

B/. It's vital that such work be saturated in Humanism, so as not to be merely a self indulgent, and Humanisticallly irrelevant feature on some favourite band or TV show. My own articles on the net and in some publications on Rock & Roll, TV, Star Trek, Xena and Hercules, The X-Files For Sceptics, Tope Ten Films For Humanists, Skepticism In The Cinema,  read like duck/rabbit optical illusions. Humanists will see a piece on the TV show, film or music, etc, whilst fans of the shows see a feature on the values of Humanism. I am not blowing my own trumpet here, as I believe others could do this kind of presentation much more effectively than I do.

C/. Such work should not be restricted to the web or to Humanism journals, nor should it prevent us from pursuing our other lines of rational enquiry and other projects, but should work hand in hand with them. We should be aiming to get them targeted at pop-culture markets in general. We should show that there is something in common between a rock band, or a film and Humanism, with an aim to getting the fans interested in knowing about us more. Our work must be sincere and not contrived or trivialising. We will also be getting Humanists to look at popular cultural activity in a more critical/analytical light. Articles may also conversely argue for why a particular show, film or song or performer isn't humanistic; i.e., if it has an overtly Christian theme, or gratuitous imagery, etc.

4/. Another commentator may disagree with a view that Superman (in comics or on film/TV) is a Messianic Christ figure, born in mysterious ways, impervious to pain, able to perform miraculous healings and rescues, defying the laws of physics (flying, leaping tall buildings at a single bound, etc), that Kryptonite was introduced to give him a Christ like sense of suffering, and that his much hyped death (literal) and resurrection in the comic 'Graphic novels' make him Jesus in all but name. Some may say otherwise, but that is one example for you. A positively Humanistic Superhero was Spiderman, who's powers were/are limited, and who also has ordinary teenage problems, i.e., girlfriend and acne related situations) to contend with, and that he was deliberately presented as an antidote to Superman and unlimited seem-divine power. Disagreement with any such view should be welcomed and encouraged.

5/. OTHER APPROACH ROADS

A/. We should Humanism related arts and music festivals, possibly as an annual international event, showing films, hearing music (live, ideally) of all kinds, classical, pop, rock, jazz,, rap, trash-metal, etc.

B/. We should sponsor an award for the best contributions to Humanism in various fields; science, art, various fields of music, literature, etc, and give such an event maximum publicity. Pop culture should also count in this.

C/. We should upgrade our distinguished supporters list to include more singers, film stars, TV personalities, etc as well as the scientists, and academics who's importance must not be under-rated.

D/. We should dedicate a page of Humanity to a the purpose of being a 'Culture Corner'. Early issues should outline what we have in mind, define culture, etc, and then it should settle to a

Platform where there will be a main feature; i.e., Is Dracula a Humanist (I have ideas on Humanising the Vampire) and little filler items underneath (such as the above Superman snippet), and this kind of feature should vary in content every issue.

E/. We should consult editors/writers of leading, high profile and best-selling cultural magazines like Q (a leading rock journal), SFX (A Cult SF magazine) and so on to see how they would promote such a concept if it was up to them.

F/. Our web sites (official, local group, and individual) should ideally carry articles of Humanism & culture themes. These will enable people using search engines (a devise that finds web sites through key word searches, and works like a thesaurus) to look for web sites on TV shows, favourite bands, etc, will find references linking them to Humanist philosophy. At present most Humanist web sites are unlikely to be found by people who won't know the word 'Humanism' to be able to key it in anyway, so they'll never find us. The duck-rabbit picture that is a Humanism-pop-culture feature will work both ways and open up a whole new dynamic audience for us.

6/. OBSTACLES -

A/. Costs aside, (though they must be considered) our chief obstacle is our own puritanical squeamishness. Some Humanists think people who like X rock band, Y Film or Z TV show are somehow unworthy to be Humanists at all. This is the biggest obstacle to this 'popular culture' umbrella motion, and I should stress that shows and personalities covered are examples only.

B/. One precaution must be that no Humanist must pronounce in favour or against a show, film or musicians(s) they have not seen or heard personally. The Ayatollah Khomieni may have issued a fatwa against S. Rushdie without reading his book, but we are not in the business of issuing fatwas or of peddling ignorance.

C/. We are not censors, and just because someone says a show is rubbish or immoral is no grounds for us to try to get it banned.

D/. The following comments have been made directly to me in the course of developing this policy. Sadly these are Humanists speaking and writing. I/. "I haven't seen the X-Files so maybe we should stick to things we know are popular. "

Answer - The X-Files ( A tongue in cheek sceptical TV parody of occult belief) is now in its 5th season, and a major feature film, not to mention books, T-shirts, etc. Something doesn't do that well in the ratings without being popular. More people know of it than know of us. Just because we haven't heard of something doesn't mean it isn't there.

Ii/. On hearing me suggest us setting up a leaflet stall in Manchester at a free rock concert to give out Humanism leaflets, a Humanist told me "People only go to that sort of thing to be deafened by the noise. The fans are obviously too stupid to want to join us anyway."

Answer - Garbage! Speaks for itself in sheer prejudice. It misses the fact that I (Humanist of some years standing) am not considered too stupid to be one of us. No one else should be considered unworthy of membership due to liking a different TV show or rock band either. It is flooding the membership with (for example) grunge metal fans,, trekkies, and Xenaphiles that would stop such silly talk. It is one reason why such a move is imminently necessary.

Iii/. On learning that I have links on my web site to a Xena/Hercules fan site on the Internet, and that they see my article on Humanistic influences in the show, one Humanist of note declared himself "aghast" believing (possibly without watching an episode) the show to promote sex and violence.

ANSWER - I sent him the article, and a case for why I believe the violence in the show is cartoon stuff, comparable to the violence in STAR TREK, (a work of late distinguished supporter Gene Roddenberry) shown at pre-watershed times, often justifiable in the story-context, and comparable to the violence in Supporter Terry Pratchett's Discworld stories, one of which (Equal Rites) has a female barbarian warrior who's description might as well be that of Xena too. In one episode, Hercules stops a bloody war from happening by putting the ghosts of the men killed in former battles between two armies to make them see the horrors they are likely to repeat, and then refuses to fight Ares (God of War) who is beaten by Gandhi like acts of passive resistance, but this is a show dismissed as Violently inhumanistic ???? Think again.

Iv/. By drawing more heavily on popular culture we not only attract potential new members, but also stop ourselves degenerating to the level of puritanical snobbery and pompous windbaggery seen often of late. Popular culture is an essential route for us to take.

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The above section is the text of the proposal I set before the British Humanist Association and offered for publication in their magazine, Humanity in Autumn 1998. Here are some additional notes.

Most Humanism based web-sites (and there are lots of them) fall into the same trap, of using their web sites exclusively to make policy statements about Humanism, or argue against religious believers on various theological points. That is important, and there are examples of such even on my web site, but I also aim to present material of an overtly humanistic nature that is also and equally overtly about other aspects of social popular culture.

Most people who visit a humanism web site do so because they have asked a search engine to find references to ĎHumanismí, atheism or agnosticism. To start such a search they will already have some idea what humanism, atheism & agnosticism are about. They are probably on the most part, already humanists. That is fine, in so far as it goes. But what about the many people out there who either donít believe in God, or who are troubled by their beliefs in a given religion, but donít yet know what to actually believe or disbelieve? What are they doing? many would-be-humanists-if-they-heard-of-it people, and many where-have-you-atheists-been-all-my-life people are passing their time away going to the movies, watching TV, listening to popular recordings, reading books, etc. It is worth noting the high ratings of TV shows and record sales and how much more time is spent in relation to those activities than on church going, or even on Humanist activity) Most card-carrying die-hard Humanists do these things too, when not at a weekly or monthly meeting, or reading the current local newsletter. What then, if we can show them Humanism in relation to their favourite TV shows, books, films, etc. My site therefore carries articles showing cultural subtexts to shows. My web site has deliberately set some of its sights outside the charted waters of Humanism, to intrigue and fuel the curiosity of potential Humanists elsewhere. Itís no good waiting for Xenaís fans to stop browsing her many sites to come and see us; why not show that Xena is actually saturated in Humanistic references, as youíd expect from a TV show about the conflict between ancient gods (the Greek myths are the inspiration for the show) and mortals. Itís time Humanism transported itself beyond the ivory tower academic roots of its origins. Its time to do more than denounce religion from a perch clearly labelled Humanism. It is time to get hip, to the beat, street wise, and take ourselves directly to the people.

For some Humanists, references to religion are in themselves off-putting. We like to think we do more than just being negative about beliefs and superstitions, but ultimately Humanists tend for the most part to be atheists and agnostics. It is that which is the starting point for our involvement with organised Humanism, so many shows, films, TV presentations, songs, etc that mention some form of dissatisfaction with belief, such as REM's song 'Losing My Religion' are a good place to start.

As a young(ish) Humanist, itís my growing belief that Humanism is all too often out of touch with the rapidly changing cultural and fashionable trends in society. At local and national Humanist meetings in Britain, older members often bemoan the lack of younger Humanists, but when you mention things that are of interest to younger generations, such as rock and roll music, or popular SF novels, the old guard will sometimes wrinkle their noses in something highly akin to snobbery and disgust. It seems there are some who want younger Humanists. only as long as they are younger versions of the old Humanists. That will never happen.

There is no doubt that people born post 1970 (Gawd, is the 60ís nostalgia retrospective over already? Yup, Ďfraid so.) are not inclined towards religion in the way they once were. The punk music scene promoted a healthy disregard and mistrust for all forms of authority; parental, religious, social, political, monarchical, and commercial. The Sex Pistols even told their own fans that they were being swindled by rock and roll. "Ever get the feeling youíve been had?" Johnny Rotten shouted to a cheering crowd after one of their gigs.

Religion does not escape from the revolution. Marilyn Manson recorded Antichrist Superstar (sadly for us, their lead singer is a Satanist rather than a Humanist) and their fans wear tee shirts bearing the legend BELIEVE. highlighted letters speak for themselves It's a healthy antidote to the 1990's 'Religious Chic' fashion trend current at present for wearing gaudy loud crucifixes, and symbolic trappings of the new age, such as crystals and ankhs, as many young people do.. See my article Rock & Roll Humanism for many further examples.

The social trend set by much literature, music, and art geared up to the younger audience is one of cynical, sceptical mistrust of everything and everyone. "Trust No One" is a slogan used frequently on The X-files. Bob Dylan told us "Donít follow leaders. Watch the parking meters." The Who sang "Meet the new boss; same as the old boss." on Wonít Get Fooled Again, their anthem of the fact that revolutions only ever replace one corrupt, inadequate political leader with another one, just as bad or worse.

Popular culture is an extremely potent force and only a total fool would dare ignore it. So what exactly is culture? Sociologists define culture as every aspect of the way of life of any given society, group of people or class division of people. This umbrella term Ďcultureí takes in all patterns of thought, belief, behaviour, customs, rituals, traditions, fashionable dress, language, (colloquial and slang included), art, music and literature.

Humanists tend to cling to their traditional 1th-15th century roots in the Humanities, and focus all too heavily on challenging religious beliefs. (that challenge is important but should not be our exclusive goal) This leaves so many other aspects of social interaction and activity as virtually uncharted territory. It is time to redraw the maps and charts.

Many Humanists panic and froth at the mouth at the very suggestion of entering the popular arena. The fact that I am quite happy to be deafened by roaring guitar riffs, and that I am a not stupid, but a philosophy degree bearing working class Humanist is lost on some who assume no rock fans can be Humanistic. It is time our tendency to pick and choose our target membership was irradicated forever. Humanists, whether they be young or old, hip to the beat or devoted only to Beethoven, party animals or off to bed at 10 PM with a cup of warm milk, have only two common unifying bonds -our lack of belief in God, coupled with a desire to see the world become a better place than it is. Beyond that we are each a unique individual.

As someone coming to Humanism from religious cult involvement (see my article BRAINWASHING) my immediate fear was that Humanism itself would prove to be a cult, but such fears were quickly dissolved when I attended my first public Humanist meeting. That fear has gradually given way to a new one; that Humanists, if they can be criticised at all, have a tendency to behave like academics, lost in an ivory tower. I have on many occasions seen newcomers and some members, leave (sometimes in mid-meeting) because the discussion, or debate has been so highbrow and learned that it has simply gone right over their heads. They have found themselves baffled and bewildered by the intellectual prowess of some of the more articulate speakers, and audience members. In some cases, members are given to making loud pompous windbags of themselves. This is not good. We need to be able to relate to all comers. We should not expect potential Humanists to meet our often prattling academic pretensions. I wonder if one day we might set an A-Level examination paper for newcomers. Those who indicate a liking for Oasisís Donít look Back In Anger rather than Ovidís Metamorphosis will presumably be sent elsewhere. NOT while Iím here they wonít. There is room and need in Humanism for the appreciation of both, and of all.

Far from seeing me as having joined another 'cult', many of my friends at work, in pubs, etc, look on my Humanism as a social eccentricity. Say with pride that you are a Humanist and you will be looked at as though you have announced you are into trainspotting or civil war re-enactment societies. (not that there is anything intrinsically wrong with those pursuits.). It comes across as an odd offbeat harmless activity. Such perception needs changing. Humanism is harmless, but it is far from being a hobby.

Sociological culture studies are divided into two arenas. 1/. All areas of a givenís societies activities and interests. 2/. Examining the system of values inherent in a given social cultural society.

The academic study of the Humanities was from its beginnings, concerned mainly with cultivating the second and more narrow area of cultural values. The aim of a Humanities study was and to many extents remains a means of passing the best and most appreciated values and knowledge areas of a given culture on to successive generations. Our Universities and other academic institutions arose as the centres of excellence where such knowledge could be disseminated, shared and cultivated. The problem was of course that until recent years, higher education ( anything beyond basic schooling) was and in many areas remains, beyond the average would-be student of life. The halls of academia can be a hotbed of inverted snobbery and class based conceit. A 1st class honours degree in The Humanities gained after four years of intense study at Kingís College Oxford is often venerated more highly than an equally high academic diploma from The Open University, even though students from each may have worked and studied equally hard.

Humanism has largely separated from its roots in the Humanities. In fact it barely gained a mention during my three years at Bolton Institute in The Department Of Humanities, and I only discovered Humanism was for me when I read a copy of The Freethinker a few years after leaving academia. Many of Humanism's organised members and potential members do not have the benefit or luxury of a formal academic education, though many prove extremely knowing from what they have taught themselves anyway. Others are approaching us straight from school, and in some cases, probably without an education worth shouting home about. This does not make anyone stupid by any accounts. We should not be afraid of the Humanist who prefers a tabloid newspaper to the Sunday Times Literary Supplement. A different cultural taste does not make them lesser citizens, and we should not spend our meetings or waste our magazine and internet resources just showing how dashed-clever we are. We merely make ourselves seem pompous and overbearing by doing so. We should never and must never talk down to people. Humanism should feel as comfortable in discussion in the pub, club, cafe and in bus stop conversation as it does at present in hired meeting halls, and lecture theatres. It is such a grass roots level of Humanism I am aiming to promote.

In the 18th and 19th centuries rich merchant families allowed and encouraged their sons to take a year out of their studies to go on an expenses paid trip across Europe (known as The Grand Tour) to take in the centres of fine art, taste and decency that were regarded as high culture at the time. This was supposed to take the student on the tour to the galleries of Venice, Verona, Vienna, etc. Many such students, it is less commonly recorded, also used the expenses paid Grand Tour to visit the brothels and fleshpots of Paris and other cities on the way. As the song by The Police goes "There is a knowledge you will not get in college".

Do not underestimate the power of social culture. As the Oxford Companion To Philosophy observes "Culture may be thought of as a causal agent that affects the evolutionary process by uniquely human means. For it permits the self-conscious evaluation of human possibilities in the light of a system of values that reflect prevailing ideas about what human life ought to be. Culture is thus an indispensable devise for increasing human control over the direction in which our species changes. "

The liberal Humanities of the Renaissance & Enlightenment led to an unquestioning faith in future human achievements. That we used our scientific and military skills to perfect the killing apparatus of WW1 trench warfare left modern society cold. Ezra Pound observed the young soldiers "believing in old menís liesí and dying. ĎFor an old bitch gone in the teeth. For a botched civilisation." Older need not mean wiser.

Young people fail to see why their parents decline to accept new trends and social change which they and their friends find so exciting, vibrant and dynamic. As we mature we tend to prefer a constant in our lives to a state of fluidity and flux. Youth thrives on chaos and variety. If anything, a young person is afraid of becoming static, and stationary. Younger people are more likely to experiment and more likely to welcome change. Older people dream of a lottery win to be able to escape somewhere and relax, quietly away from the madding crowd that threatens their growing sense of social quietude. Young people dream of a lottery win giving them sufficient wealth to get them to more parties, and into a wider social circle of activity. "Hope I die before I get Old, " sang The Who, arguing that they never wanted to find themselves slowing down or losing their sense of dangerous social energy. Of course, many older people are quite happy to enrich their lives in just the same way. My Mum asked me to take her to see The Rocky Horror Show recently; she dressed up for it (it's a theatrical equivalent of a tarts and vicars party) while I didn't). All too many Humanists would look on such harmless fun as vulgar and crude beyond reason. It's their loss. Not ours. . The old guard all too casually see and dismiss the next generation as mindless, indulging in hedonism, and debauchery. Rock and roll is for many synonymous with sex and drugs, and violence. But younger people do have a social conscience, and a highly potent one. The ecological concern for the environment epitomised by the work of Greenpeace, Friends Of The Earth, Campaign For Nuclear Disarmament, and The Green Party are the socially-inspirational work of young people. The loudest voices of concern for the environment at first were pulp-science fiction writers, (see John Christopher's The Death Of Grass novel (1956) who showed us what would happen if the Earthís resources ran out or we polluted, irradiated and overpopulated our world too much. The famine of 1985 that devastated Ethiopia and Sudan was drawn to the world mediaís attention by a rock concert, Bob Geldofís Live Aid. Similarly, rock concerts and rock stars were among the most vocal opponents of Apartheid and supporters of the Freedom of Nelson Mandela campaign.

Humanism must strive to become culturally diverse, or we will remain at best a subcultural eccentricity and a social cul de-sac. We have the rich potential to become a cultural superhighway instead. Imagine finding a primitive social culture on some previously uncharted island who are not yet aware of the medical benefits of penicillin. Now imagine two scenarios. 1/. We offer them penicillin, but they refuse to take it. 2/. We recognise that they have their own cultural life to live, and that we would be changing them and making them more like us, so in order not to rock the boat we decline to offer them the penicillin in the first place.

I believe that young people have a need for Humanism, so scenario one is non-applicable here. Many Marilyn Manson fans are looking at web sites promoting Humanism and unbelief because their Satanic rock-idol has challenged established religious beliefs in his songs. I first discovered this when I contacted a site promoting aspects of unbelief, only to be (politely) informed that a link to my site might provoke more unsolicited Marilyn Manson related fan mail to be sent to his e-mail facilities. Others might not want cynical cyber-Goth anti-Christian rock fans to ask them what atheism is about, but I relish such a call. Such fans are genuinely interested in us. Manson has achieved something here. He has made his fans more curious. Many see his Satanism as showmanship and atheistic play acting. We should avoid flirting with Satanists of course, but for many people it is the wakening lack of faith in God and organized religion that puts them on the road to Humanism. Manson's fans are looking for meanings and sub-textual analysis to what Manson is doing. Humanism provides a first class means to give them such a subtext and to show what atheism, agnosticism and Humanism mean to many people. We should, and must show anyone and everyone what Humanism can mean to them. We must never use someoneís music, film or book tastes in culture to gauge whether or not they are worthy to join us. In fact, any Humanist who wants to regulate the membership in such a way, should move aside quickly before the floodgates are opened. Go with the currents and waters of the cultural flow, or be swept away by them. Itís really that simple.

© Copyright. Arthur Chappell           

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