Uncertain Humanism and the Water of Whiteness

IN 2005, one of today’s most revered American writers, David Foster Wallace (now deceased), delivered a commencement address to graduates of Kenyon College, titled “This Is Water.” The twenty-minute speech is worth a listen or read, freely available on YouTube and in Wallace’s eponymous 2009 collection, This Is Water: Some Thoughts, Delivered on a Significant Occasion, about Living a Compassionate Life. Some of what he says in the address about liberal arts education is applicable to humanism. In particular, his words help to color a brand of humanism I refer to as “uncertain humanism,” a way of privileging human possibilities for flourishing that relies on an embrace of and appreciation for uncertainty—for not knowing, feeling anxious, insecure, and unsettled. Uncertain humanism is not just about how we approach “facts.” It involves how we approach our very identities and who we think we are.

Photo by Stephen Caton
It’s about asking: Who are we, as humanists, and will we let ourselves become more uncertain so that we might more fully realize that black lives matter? In what follows, I intersperse several quotes and paraphrased wisdom from Wallace with commentary directed at white humanists. My major point is this: race (and especially racism) has developed largely as a response to feelings of uncertainty that get rationalized away. For humanists, and white ones in particular, confronting racism requires orienting our humanism around uncertainty. If humanism is used to procure a sense of certainty—that God doesn’t exist, that humans can achieve whatever we set out to accomplish, or to procure certainty of self—then it will at best capitulate to a mentality that allows racism to flourish. And at worst, it will directly reinforce racist ways of thinking and acting. Asking “Do black lives matter to humanists?” is a lot like asking if water matters to a fish. Wallace’s Kenyon address begins with him telling a parable about two young fish swimming one day. “[T]hey happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says, ‘Morning, boys, how’s the water?’ And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes, ‘What the hell is water?’” What the hell is water to a fish? What is whiteness or race to a white person? For many whites in the United States historically and today, whiteness is water. More specifically, whiteness is a racialized name for a more fundamental inability to accept uncertainty. The thing that connects whites historically and today isn’t actually skin color, but our trouble with accepting uncertainty. Many of us simply can’t handle not knowing. This whiteness continues to be so pervasive because many of us don’t acknowledge it. We’re fish who have never thought critically about something that is fundamental to who we are. When we hear others talk about whiteness, it often registers as if we’re fish told for the first time that the thing we’ve always taken for granted is, in fact, a thing. Faced with confronting the water in which we swim, the human fish can either ignore the uncertainties posed by taking water/whiteness seriously, or swim towards that uncertainty—unsure of anything save that what lies ahead is a journey into the unknown. To speak more directly about race, this uncertain path is made possible by taking whiteness seriously, as our context, and starting to think through who we will be as race-conscious and racially conscious people. Again, here’s Wallace:

[Humanism] isn’t really about the capacity to think, but rather about the choice of what to think about.

Many of us in the humanist community are atheists who have arrived at that position through a choice. We can neither prove the existence of God or gods nor their nonexistence. This point is often hidden behind fights over the all-too-real political consequences of belief or nonbelief. But it is worth reminding ourselves that we choose what to think about—always. Who will we be, as white humanists, and what will we choose to think about? For Wallace,

Because we prize tolerance and diversity of belief, nowhere in our [humanist analyses] do we want to claim that one guy’s interpretation is true and the other guy’s is false or bad. Which is fine, except we also never end up talking about just where these individual templates and beliefs come from. As if how we construct meaning were not actually a matter of personal, intentional choice.

Humanists and atheists are alienated in a number of ways in the United States. I would be preaching to the choir if I spent time explaining this point. But we tend to toe a fine line between experiences of our own ideological alienation, and expressing tolerance (of other beliefs) precisely because of our own feelings of having been alienated. Do we spend enough time making sense of the ways that ideological alienation (for white humanists or atheists) is a product of a choice—learned, but still a choice—made possible (in many of our cases) by an abundance of educational opportunities? In other words, not all alienations are created equal. Remembering this might help with the next point captured by Wallace.

Plus, there’s the whole matter of arrogance. True, there are plenty of religious people who seem arrogant and certain of their own interpretations, too. They’re probably even more repulsive than atheists, at least to most of us. But religious dogmatists’ problem is exactly the same as the unbeliever’s: blind certainty, a close-mindedness that amounts to an imprisonment so total that the prisoner doesn’t even know he’s locked up.

Certainty kills. And it kills because it has to pretend. There is no actual certainty available to humans, only the means of faking a certain identity that tries to conceal all the myriad intellectual and social uncertainties that mark human life. Rationality is this process of faking it, and it is always secured through violence. Rene Descartes, one of the fathers of rationalism, even defines it as transforming intellectual uncertainty into certainty. But this certainty is only ever an idea; the social world is never certain. So when people like Michael Brown, Eric Garner, or Trayvon Martin­—or places like Ferguson, Missouri; Baltimore, Maryland; or Cleveland, Ohio—cause a person to feel uncertain, when black bodies trouble the “rational” order of things, they get killed. And black folks in this country have been killed by white (and black) believers and nonbelievers alike. Therefore, determining if black lives matter to (white) humanists might require determining the direction our humanism is oriented: towards certainty, security, and facts; or, uncertainty, compassion, and attention to the limits of what is possible as humanists, and as humans. Escaping the prison of certainty and violence is not as simple as giving up on the God idea. It requires concerted effort to swim towards uncertainty. Notes Wallace,

Learning how to think really means learning how to exercise some control over how and what you think. It means being conscious and aware enough to choose what you pay attention to and to choose how you construct meaning from experience.

Freethinking humanism should not mean carte blanche for assuming certainty of thought or of identity. It should involve constant critical awareness of what we are thinking about and what we are swimming in. We might then apply our “free” thinking towards our responsibility to others—even believers. Do black Christian lives matter to humanists? Do black Muslim lives matter to humanists? Or are we so hung up on not believing that our concern for all humans grows cloudy? For months, I have waited to see protest signs that read: “Atheists believe black lives matter.” But what are we doing? For instance, couldn’t the American Humanist Association (AHA) organize a group of humanists to march alongside community folks who are declaring that black lives matter? Shouldn’t we be planning to do this? Not simply because there are black atheists and so we should care, but because humanism—at its best—is for human life flourishing for all, believers and nonbelievers alike. When will black lives matter as much as humanist lives? All of us, and I’m including myself, could do more to put our ideological freedom to work in the service of those who face the brunt of a social world where God has really only ever been a proxy for power, anyway. In this respect black lives are atheist lives. They are humanist lives. And for those white humanists who have already put forth concerted political effort on the racial justice front: At what are our efforts directed? Are we trying to change the world through some sort of self-righteous (and ironic) messiah complex? Do we think we have all the answers and lament that others will not follow us? Or are we holding conversations about how we might change so that the world might be changed—becoming fish that finally feel the full weight of water? [caption id="attachment_12766" align="alignright" width="375"]The “Humanism & Race” panel, presented at the American Humanist Association’s 2015 annual conference in Denver, Colorado, included (from left) Anthony B. Pinn, Monica R. Miller, Sikivu Hutchinson, and Christopher Driscoll. The “Humanism & Race” panel, presented at the American Humanist Association’s 2015 annual conference in Denver, Colorado, included
(from left) Anthony B. Pinn, Monica R. Miller, Sikivu Hutchinson, and
Christopher Driscoll.[/caption] Many white humanists still fight the notion that black lives matter to humanists, and that such mattering requires intense self-reflection. If you think I’m simply constructing a strawman, it’s worth noting that on November 24, 2014, the AHA posted a meme on their Facebook page in support of black lives matter. It got nearly five thousand shares and twelve thousand likes. These numbers are wonderful and ought to be celebrated. But the highest rated comment is this: “I am fully a humanist, and will always fight for equal rights and justice, but putting Michael Brown’s name on this meme is divisive and reactionary. As the evidence comes out, we are seeing that he committed several serious crimes. It cheapens our movement to look at this as a non-gray issue.” Nearly five hundred users liked the comment, and many other comments also worked hard to disassociate humanism from black lives mattering. These comments usually followed some sort of character assassination strategy (e.g. Michael Brown was a “thug”), or they questioned whether it is the place of humanists to “perpetuate a race-war.” Are there still so many of us who are more concerned with securing our own (humanist) identity and increasing our numbers that we’re willing to be complicit with a social arrangement where certain identities are not simply facing various modes of marginalization, but literal death? As a humanist, these perspectives are embarrassing. And as a white person, I am ashamed of them. Are you among the humanists who understand that black lives matter to humanists? Then speak up! The humanist movement does not need more white guilt, and it does not need to place its membership ledgers ahead of black life flourishing. Rather, that guilt could today be transformed into action if we would begin to shame those who hold such thin, archaic, and destructive views on what a humanist is, on what a human is. I return to Wallace once more: Not that that mystical stuff is necessarily true. The only thing that’s capital-T True is that you get to decide how you’re gonna try to see it. This, I submit, is the freedom of a real education, of learning how to be well adjusted. You get to consciously decide what has meaning and what doesn’t. You get to decide what to worship. Because here’s something else that’s weird but true: in the day-to day trenches of adult life, there is actually no such thing as atheism. There is no such thing as not worshipping. Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship. As humanists, too many of us seem preoccupied with fighting against the God idea, when, at the end of the day, in a multiverse where there is no God or gods, there is really no such thing as an atheist, and there is no such thing as a theist either. There are only people who make meaning based on what they choose to worship in the face of what they have been told and conditioned to worship. What will humanists and freethinkers worship as we come to terms with the continued significance of race in America? Will we worship a certain yet blind path where the water of whiteness slowly suffocates us all as it loses oxygen? Or will we worship at the altar of full humanity where #AllLivesMatter only once #BlackLivesMatter? Let us be uncertain, using our relative freedom to choose not to wallow in selfish indifference or guilt-ridden stagnation, but for the sake of imagining new, uncertain possibilities of social life where black lives matter more than a god that doesn’t exist anyway.