As I write, highly civilised human beings are flying overhead, trying to kill me. They do not feel any enmity against me as an individual, nor I against them.
With these gripping phrases, George Orwell opens his “England your England”, an analysis of nationalism under the Second World War. And while the words date back to 1941, they have an uncomfortably actual ring, as people, worldwide and on a daily basis, are the victims of exclusionary group mentality.
Wether it’s those Moroccan gay men who merely survived an attack by Muslim extremists, those refugees in Darfur and Southern Tchad who live under daily threats, the Saudi woman who is sentenced to 200 lashes after surviving group rape, they are guity of nothing but belonging to an out-group – a sexual minority, an ethnic or religious minority, simply being a woman can be enough to be discriminated against. Their individual dignity is made inferior to the group they belong to, prejudice and ideology come to stand in the way of appreciation and understanding of the other as a human being.
The commitment to human dignity is a fundamental value of humanism. A human being is seen as an individual with own motivations and desires which must, as much as possible, be valued and stimulated. Reducing an individual to the group he or she belongs to paves the way for prejudice and discrimination, just as surrendering one’s own mind to group loyalty blocks out sound reasoning.
But let’s read a bit further. Orwell avoids the trap of a blind individualism as he understands that his attackers “are ‘only doing their duty’, as the saying goes. Most of them, I have no doubt, are kind-hearted law-abiding men who would never dream of committing murder in private life.” We may of course judge that they have given up their own mind. Orwell, on the other hand, invites us to look at the bigger circumstances under which individuals act. And, as the article goes on to analyse the conditions of the Second World War and possible futures for Great Britain, we may want to have a closer look at the examples given above.
All the examples, at least partially, stem from the Muslim world. The fact that they are brought to my attention may well be related to the perceived global opposition between the West and this Muslim world. To which extent are my views conditioned by the Western newspapers I read? Don’t they force a view upon me, don’t they stimulate me to say that these cruelties are related to Islam?
All the examples took place under regimes that range from semi-authoritarian to cruel rule of war. These conditions may well be related to the same perceived struggle between the West and Islam. Is this perceived opposition not a new disguise for Western dominance and control over global resources? Don’t the Moroccan and Saudi regimes receive support from the United States? And knowing this, can’t we better understand the extremisms that see themselves as a reaction to this dominance?
These questions have no easy answers. Humanism stresses the fact that we are individual human beings in a bigger world and the duty to make informed judgments and choices. With this come great responsibilities, but also great hopes, as humanism has confidence in the ability of human beings to act responsible, and good. Against the atrocities that come with nationalism, extremism and totalitarian ideologies, Orwell maintained his belief that “decency” may prevail in human interaction.