Recently in a conversation about oppressive masculinities a respected friend and colleague told me she is no longer a feminist. “I'm actually a humanist, because I care about how men suffer from rigid gender roles too.”
This puzzled me. This comment came in the last 5 minutes of our meeting so at most I managed to mumble out: “but feminists care about those things too.”
After stewing about it on the BART and letting my brain sleep on it I now know what I should have said.
It's not that humanism and feminism are in conflict. In my mind they are overlapping and perhaps even concentric movements seeking to reduce the harm caused by oppression & inequality. Much of the work done by feminists serves to support the infrastructure of humanist goals. Part of what I assume my friend has resistance to is the characterization of feminists (or any anti-oppression activists) as narrowly and exclusively interested in a specific and inflexible subset of social inequalities (in the case of feminist 'the concerns of women').
While this characterization does apply to a small minority of modern feminists (and a sad majority of 2nd wave feminists), feminists who refuse to acknowledge how the work on women's concerns relates to addressing the concerns of other marginalized people are being rightfully critiqued and becoming obsolete. Intersectional feminism is the feminism of the future, and it's this exact feminism that secular humanism desperately needs.
Secular humanism provides a useful perspectives on inequality and harm reduction, but it is general and I would argue often assigns too an unrealistic amount of power to an individual's conscious mind. It's not enough for us to just individually acknowledge with our conscious minds that all humans are equal (what I see as one of the core tenants of humanism). In order to build a more humane world humanism needs the the specific and necessary work of more specifically focused lenses and rhetorical approaches to inequality. This is where movements like feminism, anti-racism, disability justice work, and consent education can be conduits to real world actions that contribute to a more humane world.
A humanizing ideology, while providing an excellent foundation, does nothing to intervene in specific or systematic instances of dehumanization. Harm reduction does not happen at the abstract level. It starts by recognizing specific groups or individuals who are systematically marginalized and consistently dehumanized.
This sort of work also requires that we think critically about not only the oppressive systems humans share, but also how we personally have adsorbed these systems into our thought patterns and habits. Intersectional feminists seek out, take responsibility for, and attempt to eradicate the way our personal conscious and subconscious habits replicate and support systems of oppression. By design this is how intersectional, anti-oppression communities functions. I can think of few more humane activities than personally reducing the very real harm I cause to because of the damaging systems of culture I have internalized.
That said. I'm the first to admit that this process is difficult, scary, exhausting, and sometimes impossible. But it is worth doing (impossible or not). It gives us practice in deconstructing oppressive habits and reconstructing new less damaging ways of treating humans together. And as secular humanists we should all want to be less oppressive right?
Rarely if ever do I straight up identify myself as a humanist. The reason I don't is simple. I assume that when when I say “I'm a feminist” or that when someone sees me doing anti-oppression work they can already tell I am. Feminism for me is an articulate lens and tool for doing humanist work.
I am a humanist AND I am an intersectional feminist. My politics aren't confined to women's issues nor do my politics exclude them. My politics are flexible overlapping and have room for all different kinds of humans.
In my understanding humanism regularly contends that the universe and humans especially bend toward complexity. In order to give this principle practical real world application humanism needs to welcome highly focused movements that force us to do more than just acknowledge that complexity exists within the human experience. In order stay honest to this vision of complexity humanism needs intersectional feminism, because intersectional feminism (like many of other specific anti-oppression movements) is in the business of not just recognizing, but making space for all complex humans to exist.