Say what you want about Owen Jones – and I might well agree with you – but he is admirably big-picture. He dares to link current affairs to the largest moral questions.
In a piece about refugees on Friday he supplied a sketch of his form of humanist idealism. Empathy, he explains, is a natural human faculty. We naturally desire the good of all our fellow humans – unless some nasty form of politics interferes with this and teaches us to view some group as less than fully human. This is what colonialism did, and what Nazism did, and what Balkan nationalism did, and what Islamic fanaticism is still doing. And it is what the right-wing press is doing, when it promotes a heartless attitude towards refugees.
‘As social neuroscientist Professor Tania Singer puts it, a “natural capacity for empathic resonance can easily be blocked – not just in psychopaths – but in all of us: simply because we think someone was unfair or is not belonging to ‘our tribe’”.’ Jones sums it up thus: ‘the corruption of shared humanity is at the heart of injustice.’ Unfortunately, ‘restoring our shared humanity isn’t easy, not least because powerful interests – from media outlets to politicians – relentlessly seek to undermine it.’
This exemplifies the flawed humanism of the secular left. It is simply wrong to say that universal humanism is the natural outlook of human beings. Aggressive tribalism is far more natural. Am I therefore dismissing a belief in our common humanity as naïve nonsense? No. I affirm this belief, but I affirm it as a tradition of sentiment that evolved over centuries. And its most robust form emerged in the West.
Jones and his ilk don’t want to ‘go there’, to admit that the West has nurtured a particularly strong tradition of humanism. Why? For two reasons. It sounds like cultural imperialism. And it involves some hard thinking about the nature of this tradition, about where it comes from. And this is uncongenial to atheists, for the Christian roots of universal humanism and human rights are obvious to all except the most blinkered. Easier to claim that all humans are naturally good unless nasty right-wing ideologies corrupt them. It means you don’t have to think beyond the normal lefty tribalism.