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When 'Humanist' Is a Cop-out (And When It Isn't)

Tina Fey was definitely on to something when she called BS on those who respond to the question about whether or not they are a feminist with "I am a humanist." In an interview with Rachel Simon, Fey said, "It's not the question, hotshot, the question is do you want to be paid the same for the same work? The question is do you want to control your body?" Since egalitarianism is foundational to humanism, it's inherently a feminist philosophy, so claiming one isn't a feminist but a humanist instead isn't just a slap in the face to feminist struggles--it's also nonsensical.

The current issue of Elle includes a discussion with Beyoncé about the need to work for equal pay and access to healthcare for women. Beyoncé says, "Working to make those inequalities go away is being a feminist, but more importantly, it makes me a humanist." Beyoncé is closer to the mark about humanism than others, since she explains, "I don't want calling myself a feminist to make it feel like that's my one priority, over racism or sexism or anything else." But she still seems to be using the term "humanist" as a non-label, something that somehow won't offend.

Fey was undoubtedly responding to a number of other statements in recent months. When asked if she was a feminist, Meryl Streep said, "I am a humanist; I am for nice, easy balance." Sarah Jessica Parker said, "I don't think it's just women anymore. We would be so enormously powerful if it were a humanist movement." And Susan Sarandon said, "I think of myself as a humanist because I think it's less alienating to people who think of feminism as being a load of strident bitches and because you want everyone to have equal pay, equal rights, education and healthcare." Using humanism as an excuse for not being bold enough to embrace feminism is a cop-out, but this cop-out isn't limited to avoiding feminism.

Black Lives Matter co-founder Marissa Johnson called "all lives matter a new racial slur" when interviewed on Fox News, and she was right. When a movement finally rises up to confront generations of institutionalized bigotry and rallies around the Black Lives Matter banner, to respond with "all lives matter" is similar to the cop-out suggesting humanism should replace feminism. Humanists certainly value humanity as well as the web of life of which we are an inseparable part, but we should be smart enough to recognize what it means when we respond with overarching generalities to specific injustices. Doing so suggests that those specific injustices are somehow selfish or unworthy of public outcry. If we don't mean to communicate that kind of belittling message we shouldn't say it.

Humanism is really a philosophy based in reason, compassion, and egalitarianism. So humanists don't rely on any gods or other supernatural powers, and we are committed to improving the lives of others and treating people equally with dignity and respect. Part of doing that in a meaningful way is supporting a variety of social liberation movements that tackle specific forms of marginalization: from women's rights to racial and LGBTQ equality to the rights of minority faiths and philosophies and more. It's time more people realized that there's a natural tie between humanist thought and support for social justice.

As activists, as journalists, and as those simply interested in making this world a better place, we need to ask men, as well as women, whether or not they are committed to feminist aims. We need to ask everyone to get behind the Black Lives Matter movement. And we need to call out those who would hide beyond generic humanitarianism in order to avoid addressing the pressing issues of the day.