Count me out
Laurie Taylor gets ready to resign (again)
An old colleague from York University rings to say how much he's enjoyed the recent editions of New Humanist. "I really like the contents and the style", he tells me. "It's so good to find a journal that has a distinctive point of view but doesn't feel the need to hammer it home at every opportunity."
I mumble something about it being a team effort and mention our plans to turn NH into a bi-monthly later this year. It's only then that he comes to the real point of his call. "I've got a bit of a problem", he tells me. "You see, even though I like what I read in the NH, and even though I've always regarded myself as a humanist, I don't really want to become a humanist. What I mean is that I don't want to become a member of a humanist organisation."
I tell him that I sympathise and explain that we now have plenty of old and new readers who have no affiliations whatsoever to a humanist organisation. In fact our central concern is to make the journal into a magazine of record that is read for its own sake rather than being a membership magazine that addresses, however eloquently, the concerns of the converted. "Anyway," I tell him, "you're in pretty good company.
Only a couple of months ago, Jonathan Miller explained to me in an interview that one of the great pleasures of being a humanist was that you could go on being one without having to have a membership card."
There was silence at the other end of the line so I decided to offer a little more reassurance. "Listen," I said, "I remember once asking a sociologist of religion if he could define humanism for me and he said that humanists were people who got together in rooms above the local co-op shop and sang hymns about not believing in God. That sounds like the sort of thing that's worrying you. You're happy to be a humanist but you don't want your secularism to be institutionalised."
"No, that's not it at all." He suddenly sounded confident. "No, I'll tell you what the problem is. You see, back in the sixties I resigned from the Socialist Labour League because of their view that the Soviet Union was a degenerate workers state. And then in the eighties I resigned from the Association of University Teachers over their failure to make common cause with the polytechnics. And then earlier this year I resigned from the Labour Party because of Blair's pathetic lickspittle attitude towards American warmongering."
"So," I asked, "What's your precise problem?" "Can't you see? My problem is quite straightforward. I only want to join organisations that I can resign from on principle. I can no more resign from humanism than I can from humanity. The whole idea is nonsense, an epistemological absurdity."
After I'd put down the phone I started thinking about the value of resigning. Did it ever really make any difference to anyone but oneself? It was then I remembered an incident back in the early seventies at York when the students had occupied the administrative block in protest against an increase in canteen prices. After the occupation had ended, the Board of Studies met to consider what action should be taken against the occupying students. Liberalism prevailed and it was decided that the matter should be forgotten. This enraged an elderly philosopher on the Board. "We cannot give in to this sort of militancy," he announced. "What those students did violated essential academic values that are our only bulwark against fascistic tyranny. In the circumstances I find only one avenue open to me. I herewith announce my resignation from the Bookshop Committee!"