Author and journalist Owen Jones delivered the Holyoake Lecture 2016 in Manchester last night, to a sell-out audience of over 400 people. In the lecture, introduced by Andrew Copson, Chief Executive of the British Humanist Association, Jones asked how we might move ‘towards a humanist politics’.
Jones said the lecture was ‘a defence of humanist values in politics at a time when they are under siege’. ‘If you are a believer in democracies,’ he said, ‘then it is better to currently feel discomfort rather than complacency.’
Jones asked us to consider the political situations in America, Austria, France, Sweden, Greece, Poland, and Hungary – the latter of whose Prime Minister boasted of building an ‘illiberal democracy’ and sending dogs to chase refugees. In Germany, long thought to be immune to mass far-right populism, the far right political party ‘Alternative for Germany’ was on the rise. Authoritarian, anti-immigrant nationalism had captured the imagination of hundreds of millions of Europeans, he argued. The varied situations in China, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Iraq, and Syria only served to reinforce a gloomy analysis of the current state of democracy across the world.
Jones referenced John Stuart Mill to argue that, as humanists, believing in democracy did not mean submitting to ‘the tyranny of the majority’; we believe in the protection of the rights of minorities, even if that was not a popular position at a particular time. Jones compared the struggles refugees currently faced to those of LGBT people in the past, with state-enacted repression backed by majority public opinion.
Turning to Britain’s decision to leave the European Union, Jones declared it to be ‘a democratic decision [that] must be respected and implemented’, but poured scorn on the current attitude expressed towards those who voted to to remain, treated as ‘a routed internal opposition, deprived of a say over the future of their own country’. He argued that rather than a ‘democracy of conquerors, we need a democracy of deliberation’.
Jones went on to argue that poverty robbed individuals of security, and therefore of freedom: ‘An individual who lies awake staring at the ceiling in the early hours wondering how they will pay a gas bill is not free,’ he said. Technology had previously created more jobs than it destroyed, but this may soon no longer be the case; a universal basic income merited consideration, ‘giving us more freedom to work less, spending time watching our children grow up, loving our partners, playing sports, and expanding our cultural horizons.’
We face an oncoming battle for human rights in the UK too, he said, with the Human Rights Act under threat. The proposed repeal of the Act – which enshrined the UK-drafted European Convention on Human Rights, devised after the Second World War, in UK law – was an attack on human rights that weren’t given, but fought for. In a humanist society, said Jones, free and varied cultural expression was essential, along with secularism, which entailed the defence of minorities. Many Jews felt threatened in modern Britain, he said, including in progressive circles, and many of those who would never dismiss similar concerns among other groups, nonetheless ignored anti-semitism across the country today. ‘Anti-semitism,’ he said, ‘is a sickness that must be driven from our society forever.’
He then talked about Muslims, today’s target for abuse from the European far-right. In the 19th century, it was said that antisemitism was the ‘socialism of fools’, appropriating leftist rhetoric about financiers and turning it to direct hatred of Jews. In a not dissimilar way, Jones argued, Islamophobia could be today’s ‘secularism of fools’ – the misappropriation of our arguments about church and state to stir up bigotry against a vast swathe of humanity. He was very clear about his definition of ‘Islamophobia’: ‘prejudice and bigotry against Muslims’. Furthermore, such bigotry played directly into the hands of ISIS, he argued. In the wake of each atrocity, the terror group wanted society to turn in on itself, and for hatred and bigotry to fuel tensions. Quoting Nicolas Hénin, imprisoned by ISIS, who after the Bataclan attack said: ‘Central to their world view is the belief that communities cannot live together with Muslims… Cohesion, tolerance – it is not what they want to see.’
Noting the difficulties society faces at the present time – insecurity, fear, bigotry, and rights and freedoms imperilled across the world – Jones ended on a note of hope. ‘Humanism is a light,’ he said, ‘building societies that maximise human freedom and wellbeing, allowing us to freely develop our potential, unencumbered, and which also emphasise our common humanity rather than the artificial barriers that divide us.’
‘Many of the noble aims of humanism may seem imperilled today, but,’ he offered, ‘this age too will pass.’ He closed by declaring that a world that is free, equal, and just is not inevitable: ‘We all have a role in creating it’.
The British Humanist Association (BHA) is the national charity working on behalf of non-religious people who seek to live ethical and fulfilling lives on the basis of reason and humanity.
Owen Jones is a regular columnist for the Guardian and the New Statesman, having also written for the Independent in the past. He is the author of two books: Chavs – one of The New York Times’ top ten non-fiction books of 2011 – and The Establishment. He was named Young Writer of the Year at the Political Book Awards in 2013.
The Holyoake Lecture, held each year as part of the British Humanist Association’s annual lecture series, explores political thought, especially as it relates to contemporary political and societal discourse, on secular and humanist issues, and more broadly. Previous Holyoake Lecturers have included comedian and writer Natalie Haynes, theoretical physicist Jim Al-Khalili, and epidemiologist Kate Pickett. It is part of the BHA’s annual lecture series, which includes Darwin Day, Voltaire, Rosalind Franklin, Bentham, and Blackham Lectures.
Video from the event will be on the BHA’s YouTube channel in the future.