History Didn’t Start With You – Prologue to Humanist and EU Societies Talk

Adam Frisk, Edinburgh University Humanist Society President delivers a prologue to the debate on integrity with Robert Jacek Włodarski, European Union Society President.


Issues of identity and heritage are difficult to approach, and they have become more so in the last few years. And perhaps this is understandable. We did just leave one of the bloodiest centuries of human history behind us. A century where skewed revisions of history allowed for the torture of millions of people, perceived by tyrants and demagogues not to have been privileged by it. To question the dogmas that led us to hell has been the only obvious redemption for a civilization tormented by guilt.


Eventually, a society dedicated to protest its past, will protest its way back to it. We can already see how our political discourse is hijacked by the ugliest forms of identity politics, which places a person’s skin colour, sexuality or faith above the quality of their character, in a bizarre attempt to repair past injustices. In the US and Western Europe, once bastions of enlightenment ideals, free speech is questioned as a necessity for a functioning political discourse. Said discourse is getting more and more polarized by the day. Cultural tensions and religious violence are now all too familiar features of European life. All this on a continent supposedly dedicated to the eradication of the nastiest expressions of human prejudice.


In a few weeks, I will sit down with my good friend Robert Wlodarski, President of the EU Society of Edinburgh University, to have a discussion on the issue of identity in Europe. The conversation will be recorded and uploaded on Pondering Primates, a podcast run by the university’s Humanist Society. If I am not completely wrong, I believe Robert will make the case that the old remnants of European identity, like nationalism and patriotism, are obsolete. Perhaps even dangerous. In their place, Robert wants to see the establishment of modern European values, those not defined by past wars, conquests and myths, but those embodied in the political union both of our homelands, Sweden and Poland, belong to. A union he hopes will one day cement itself as the European Federation. While having the utmost of respect for his intellect and genuine empathy, I can not shy away from what I perceive to be an unflattering naïveté in his reasoning.


As a proponent of secular humanism, I cherish the liberal values we are accustomed to in the West. They include individual property rights, liberal democracy, the rule of law, the scientific method, freedom of religion, of assembly, and of thought. But I also try to be humble to the fact that I didn’t invent them, nor could I have, had I been given the chance. These phenomena, incredibly rare on the larger scale of human history, have a long and difficult history behind them. Born in the cradle of Ancient Greek philosophy, washed in the river of Judeo-Christian values, and purified in the fire of the enlightenment, they are long in the making. They are unique to our time and, sadly, unique to our part of the world.


They are lacking in places where the Christian teachings of love and forgiveness did not gain traction. They are lacking in places where enlightenment thinkers like John Locke were not around to formulate the first coherent argument for religious toleration. And indeed, our modern form of liberal democracy grew within the framework of the nation-state. This original brand of nationalism, essentially liberal, stressed that power belonged to the people, not their rulers. These people, in turn, were united not by belonging to the same political entity, but by sharing language, history, culture, values. Identity. In some way, civic nationalism is the greatest tale of liberation ever told.


I bring this up, as I fear that without reminders, we will forget what deeds of the past led us to where we are today. Sadly, I believe we have already entered the process of forgetting. You can see it in our tendency to see the worst in our own culture, and only the best in others. You can see it in the pathetic behaviours of European leaders bowing to religious authoritarianism as it sweeps the continent. When dispensing with its past, Europe seems to have thrown the baby out with the bathwater.


Before we seek to expand the European Union into the Federation envisioned by some, and ultimately denounce the nation state as a legitimate form of government, I think a bit of reflection is necessary. We should ask ourselves: what is it that we want from our societies? What is, ultimately, most important to us? I think, that the answer can be boiled down to individual freedom and liberal democracy. As of now, nations have been the most successful entity of facilitating that freedom. They are the most dynamic of cultures, enabling care and respect across imaginary lines of class, gender, sexuality, religion and race. Unlike the American one, which has its devotion to individual liberty enshrined in its constitution, a European federation would, I fear, move power even further away from its people. It would put even more power in those countries now dominating the EU, and I fear that kind of power would corrupt, and corrupt absolutely. That is not the type of international order that the greatness of Western civilization grew out of.


History didn’t start with us, and it hasn’t ended with us either. Any attempt at constructing an all-encompassing super-state should be looked upon with suspicion. The chances of it going terribly wrong are after all much greater than those of complete success. And in a hundred years, our descendants will look back at most of what we consider to be moral absolutes, however sympathetic and progressive they may currently seem, and shake their heads. So let’s be appreciative of the intellectual and moral heritage of our civilization and cautious and humble as we enter its next phase.


The views presented in the article don’t represent views of the European Union and Humanist Societies. They are entirely private.

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