The emptiness of ‘Thought for the Commute’

The British Humanist Association have launched a new campaign called ‘Thought for the Commute’. This involves posters going up on the London Underground (initially) with inspirational quotes from famous Humanists.

I say inspirational quotes. The quotes are … well, in my opinion at least, not that inspirational. In fact, to be honest, I think it’s an illustration of how empty humanism actually is as a philosophy. Let’s have a quick look at them.

My notion is to think of the human beings first and let the abstract ideas take care of themselves. (Virginia Woolf)

Does that give you a nice warm glow in the pit of your stomach, and inspire you to love and cherish your fellow human being? … me neither. It’s morally neutral: one could well think of human beings first – in a negative sense – and let abstract ideas (such as ‘justice’, ‘compassion’, or ‘murder’) take care of themselves. It seems strange to me that you could think of human beings without thinking in terms of abstract ideas, such as love, kindness and justice.

If I’m being charitable, I think the sense of the quote is that we need to consider what’s best for human beings first, what is in their interests. But surely, what you think is in someone’s best interests will largely depend on the abstract ideas you have about what it means to be human, what it means to be in society (and so on).

Also, given that Woolf doesn’t seem to like “abstract ideas”… the quote is pretty abstract, isn’t it?

Wear a smile and make friends; wear a scowl and make wrinkles. What do we live for if not to make the world less difficult for each other? (George Eliot)

This is probably the best of the four slogans, but it seems to boil down to “be nice!” It’s a good sentiment but, if the history of the human race has taught us anything, it doesn’t work. Try giving the slogan to ISIL in Iraq and see if that changes anything. Try giving it to rich people who are exploiting the poor and see if it changes anything.

The secret of happiness is this: let your interests be as wide as possible and let your reactions to the things and persons that interest you be as far as possible friendly rather than hostile. (Bertrand Russell)

I’m sorry, but… this is useless. The second half (“friendly rather than hostile”) is essentially ‘be nice’ (albeit with a caveat – “as far as possible”), and so suffers from the same defect that I mentioned above. The first part… let your interests be as wide as possible? Really? That’s the secret of happiness? There are plenty of people whose interests are pretty narrow, from what I’ve seen they don’t seem less happy than average.

The meaning of your life is what you make it. (A.C. Grayling)

There should, of course, be a footnote which says “unless you’re Adolf Hitler, Rupert Murdoch or … any other bogeyman you’d like to mention”. And that’s not to mention that life is not really what any of us make it: life didn’t turn out the way I expected it to be, for sure. I’m sure it’s the same for pretty much everybody. Many people, in fact, having achieved what they dreamed of, end up feeling empty because there’s nothing else to try for. Why do people who win sports tournaments enter them again the next year?

Part of the problem with this statement – and really with all of them – is that they are vague enough that they could be applied to just about anything. In Made to Stick, Chip and Dan Heath talk about why some ideas are memorable and some are forgotten. They cite Jesus as a master example of someone who communicated effectively using their criteria. Things like referring to specific, concrete objects (i.e. trees, farmers, and sowers in Jesus’ parables) rather than abstract ideas. All these BHA slogans seem to fall short simply on the grounds of effective communication. Bertrand Russell’s quote is particularly egregious in that regard – as if anyone ever refers to “things and persons that interest [them]” in those terms! How forgettable is that phrasing?! (As an aside, do have a read of George Orwell’s essay Politics and the English Language for some gold dust on poor use of language).

Many atheists recently have begun to realise that saying “there is no God” is insufficient – such as Alain de Botton’s book “Religion for Atheists” or the atheist ‘church’. Unfortunately, as this campaign demonstrates, it turns out that it’s pretty hard to come up with something positive to replace religion. For my money, I think it’s because human beings are hard-wired to find meaning, meaning which can only be found ultimately in God. Exhorting someone to ‘be nice’ will not really change anything – I think only God has the power to change someone’s life (I wonder how many humanist cardboard testimonies there are, for example).

We’ll have to wait and see what the reaction to the campaign will be. For my money, I’m betting there won’t be much of one!

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4 thoughts on “The emptiness of ‘Thought for the Commute’

  1. I find it amusing that they have had the right effect in the sense that they have made you think about them.

    I sense a lot of misplaced anger in this post that I think you probably could do with addressing.

    The fact you pull out the negatives rather than the positives, again says a lot about you rather than the quotes.

    ‘they are vague enough that they could be applied to just about anything’ – yes. And you applied them in a negative way.

    Well done…

    • Frankly, Darren, I think this comment is quite unfair. You’ve basically accused me of being negative and angry, i.e. that this post reflects badly on my character.

      In all honestly I don’t know what you were trying to achieve with this comment other than to attack me personally. Now that says quite a lot about you… (I’m sorry, I just wanted to demonstrate that saying things like that is really not helpful).

      You know that I’m always happy to discuss things and engage with opinions which are contrary to my own. But I just don’t think it’s acceptable to come here and accuse my character, especially when you haven’t engaged with the substance of what I’ve said.

  2. Ok…

    I was just surprised at how negative you were. Normally I’d say you try to look at the good side of things, (even though I may disagree) here you were just so negative.

    I found it surprising.

    • Well, but the thing is when you disagree with something you do tend to have to be a bit negative 🙂

      I don’t think being negative is a bad thing if it’s justifiable. Perhaps if you wanted to say why the quotes are a positive thing to you we could talk about it.

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