The Humanist Dilemma: Is a Woman Who’s Content to Be Rich and Apolitical onto Something?

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Is Apolitical OK? I work with a team of volunteers, and we enjoy lively conversations as we work. Due to conflicts in the past, we’ve explicitly agreed to avoid discussing politics, but the other day something came up and one person stormed away in anger.

When that happened, a newcomer to the group commented to me that she was glad she was apolitical. She claimed that she avoids all news, and is perfectly happy with whatever government as long as her stock portfolio is doing well, which it is now more than ever. I was appalled at this statement, particularly since earlier she had mentioned her several homes (city, country, beach), and that she has stockpiles of astronomically expensive possessions (including an ostrich designer jacket) that she never uses but hates to throw away. (First-world problems!)

I had the urge to ask her if she didn’t care about others less fortunate, the environment, human rights, or anything beyond her own wealth but feared that would disrupt the usually sunny group dynamics. I’m also asking myself if I might be wrong to judge her. Here’s a woman who’s content to enjoy her luxurious lifestyle, with nothing more to feel bad about than fancy purchases she no longer wants and never needed. Is she off base, or am I? She seems like a nice enough person, and the fact that she’s volunteering makes me think she can’t be all bad—even if she’s only doing it because what we do is fun.

—Who’s the Deluded One?


Dear Deluded,

This is certainly an interesting question. Just as we may be torn between remaining silent or speaking up when someone spouts religious beliefs we find appalling, here you have someone who is essentially professing that her guiding light in life is her own personal wealth. And I suppose people are entitled to their own goals, no matter how misguided or shallow and selfish they may look to someone else. Heck, it seems to be working well for her!

You’re wise to hold your tongue given the delicate group dynamics (which threaten many groups these days) and the fact that she’s a newcomer. Even though this work group happens to be a volunteer situation, all of you still need to exhibit professional behavior (notwithstanding that individuals can storm out in a huff and then return without being fired, as they might in an ordinary workplace). Perhaps as you get to know this woman better over time, you’ll find she has additional redeeming traits, beyond, as you note, that she is personable and doing some good work in a volunteer capacity. Maybe she has a backstory, such as pulling herself up by her bootstraps despite huge odds against her, fiercely determined never to be hungry again. Or maybe she’s just a very wealthy airhead with too much money and strictly material values. As time goes by, you’ll have opportunities to express your own values, not to flaunt as superior to hers, but simply as reflections of your humanist principles, whether they might possibly rub off on her or not.

Not everyone is political. Not everyone who is political shares your political views. And not everyone is a humanist or otherwise focused on helping others, sharing wealth, sacrificing for the greater good, etc. That doesn’t necessarily make them bad people, just perhaps not the kind of people you wish they would be—especially if they have oodles of disposable income that could be supporting schools and impoverished communities instead of high-end designers and portfolio managers.

People can and often do change. Maybe, as your relationship evolves, you can lead this woman to other ways of looking at life, including values beyond her personal comfort, and a deeper commitment to giving back. But certainly don’t do anything to insult or challenge her to the point she decides that humanists are obnoxious, or that volunteering alongside you is simply too unpleasant to continue.