American Humanist Association President Rebecca Hale has a catchy saying to succinctly explain humanism to people who may be sympathetic to the lifestance but have never heard the term. When a famous intellectual or celebrity makes a comment about the moral imperative for treating people justly and equitably, Hale quips, “Sounds like humanism!” As a philosophical tradition, humanism spans centuries of thinking about our shared humanity and how we can derive our morality from reason and empathy without the supernatural. Part of humanism’s moral imperative is to recognize inequality, whether based on economic class, gender, race or sexual orientation or identity, and work to create a society that ends injustice. But that’s a mouthful to say, so the phrase “Sounds like humanism!” is a witty way to identify humanist ethics in everyday life. The American Humanist Association even built a successful Facebook campaign around it.
Unfortunately, sometimes I feel as though I need a similarly catchy phrase to distinguish what is not humanism. Recently, certain individuals have appropriated the term “humanism” in an attempt to legitimize their anti-women, anti-feminist message. Masquerading as “activists” for men’s rights, these people do not concern themselves with serious problems faced by men in the United States today such as the disproportionately high incarceration rates for Black men or the shocking percentage of workplace injuries that lead to fatalities for male workers. Instead, they spout regressive, sexist views on the Internet that blame feminism and women for society’s ills while promoting a version of masculinity that applauds men who can coerce women into dating and having sex with them.
One Facebook group, Humanists United Against Feminism, claims that the majority of women who reported being raped are making false accusations to gain attention, even though research shows that only 2 to 8 percent of reported rapes are false accusations—comparable with the rates of false reporting for other crimes. Another Facebook group, Exposing Feminism, dismisses feminism as “female superiority nonsense,” contrary to the definition of feminism, which is “the belief that men and women should have equal rights and opportunities” and “the theory of political, economic and social equality of the sexes.” Yet another, A Voice for Men: Humanist Counter-Theory, blames women for rape and for the gender wage gap, a pay discrepancy shown by research from many reputable organizations to be the result of societal perceptions of women workers and not the result of individual women’s choices. Users on A Voice for Men’s forum describe relationships between men and women as “hunter (male)/prey (female) mating dynamics,” as though women are objects to be pursued and not human beings, with the implication that successful men are those who can capture as many women as possible.
While these groups may at first seem ridiculous, humanists should not dismiss them completely, largely because they are attempting to claim the term “humanism” to promote their anti-women agendas. Humanists should also be concerned because, even though there are individuals in the Men’s Rights Movement who identify as religious, many also identify as atheists, agnostics or nonreligious. While atheists and humanists are often quick to rightly criticize the sexism of the religious right, the vitriol spewed towards women by nonreligious men’s rights activists (MRAs) should also be a wake-up call to combat sexism within the secular community.
There is evidence that some of the perpetrators of recent mass shootings in the US were motivated, at least in part, by the stud and “tough guy” images of masculinity upheld by men’s rights activists. Elliot Rodger, who a little over a year ago killed six people and wounded fourteen others in Isla Vista, California, left behind a manifesto in which he blamed his rage on his perceived lack of manliness and his inability to acquire a beautiful girlfriend. Just last week, a high school student in Idaho threatened to “kill all the girls” at his school because the cheerleaders wouldn’t send him nude pictures. As the country still grieves with the families of the victims of the Umpqua Community College shooting in Oregon, the media is reporting that the gunman, Christopher Harper Mercer, also left a manifesto for police in which he described his sense of failing to live up to expectations of masculinity or find a girlfriend. Online writings attributed to Mercer also indicate that he admired previous mass shooters, including Rodger.
These young men’s perception of women as owing men affection and sex, as well as their view of women as objects instead of people, mirrors our culture’s continued objectification of women instead of granting them full humanity. That Rodger and Mercer would go to such lengths as to kill others in an attempt to prove themselves men reveals the disturbing definitions of masculinity perpetuated by our wider culture and amplified by the MRA community.
Humanists—real humanists who actively promote human rights for all and equality for women—must be vigilant in defining what the humanist philosophy really is—as well as what it is not. Humanism is most certainly inclusive of feminism, and the American Humanist Association’s Feminist Caucus is an example of individuals of all genders and gender identities who identify as both humanists and feminists working toward women’s equality. The American Humanist Association will continue to defend women’s rights, especially from frequent attacks by the religious right to prevent access to necessary reproductive healthcare such as sexual education, contraception, and abortion. But threats to women’s rights are now also coming from people who claim to be humanists, though the views they hold run contrary to the humanist philosophy. Humanists must not let MRAs dictate the conversations surrounding humanism and feminism. Instead, we must continue our longstanding tradition of working toward women’s equality and affirming solidarity with the feminist movement.