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How Should a Manifesto Be Written?

In this continuation of the symposium from the previous issue of the Humanist, we begin with the speeches of Norman and Lucia Hall who, though not original signers of Humanist Manifesto II, cochaired the symposium on the subject conducted at the 1998 national conference of the American Humanist Association, held this past May in San Diego, California. Their contributions are followed by those of two original signers, Sherwin wine and Marvin Kohl. Further explorations into the humanist philosophy will appear in forthcoming issues of the Humanist.

By simple definition, a manifesto is a statement of principles to make public a political or philosophical position. The origin of the word displays a hope that this position is "manifest"--literally, to be grasped in the hand. If we are to construct a new humanist manifesto, we will want the principles it expresses to be grasped, touched, held, and felt, not just by the initiated few but by as large an audience as possible.

How easily grasped is humanism? Humanist Manifesto I was written in 1933. It was forty years until humanists felt compelled to replace it with Humanist Manifesto II in 1973. As published in the Humanist magazine, Humanist Manifesto I takes up about twenty-four column inches while Humanist Manifesto II is about eighty column inches. If we think ourselves ready now to replace Humanist Manifesto II after only twenty-five years, we can only hope that this increase in column length and decrease in interval is not part of a trend. For at this rate of change, today's Humanist Manifesto III would be over thirty pages long and last only about fifteen years--until replaced around 2013 by a tome of over one hundred pages. If we are to avoid a book-length manifesto by 2020, we'd better start working now for more brevity.

Maybe what we should be trying for in a third manifesto is not an expansion of the existing statements but a condensation, even a distillation, of them. How might such a thing be accomplished?

Perhaps we could begin by searching for what might be the core essentials of humanism. If we can find them, perhaps they can be stated briefly. But is there such a thing as a set of core essentials to humanism? Is there such a thing as a statement about what it is to be human, what it is to live a life in which human identity is paramount, that will serve in all situations for all time?

If we look closely at the two existing manifestos, any such "final" humanist statement doesn't look likely. Many of the points in both manifestos, for better or for worse, are dedicated to contrasting humanist concerns with the current concerns of the culture at large. As that culture changes, the ways in which humanism stands in contrast to it will also of necessity change, whether or not humanism itself changes. So an unchanging manifesto is unlikely.

If not permanence, can we hope for more brevity through precision? Another weakness of the existing documents seems to be that, when they do manage to get beyond their preoccupation with what humanism is not, they begin issuing promissory notes on what humanism might become. Not that vision is a bad thing, but one might hope that a future manifesto would be able to pay off on some of the IOUs.

In 2013, Humanist Manifesto I will be eighty years old and Humanist Manifesto II will be forty. Maybe that's the time for a new document. Maybe what we should be doing now, maybe what we are doing now, is beginning a fifteen-year (or more) discussion. Maybe a search for core essentials and permanent documentation of what it is to be a humanist is a literal quixotic quest, based on anachronistic assumptions, born of an earlier age, that no longer hold. And yet it seems it ought to be possible to provide a clear understanding of just who and what we believe ourselves to be and by what road we have come to be where we are. It seems it ought to be possible to make it clear, and manifest, just where lies the road ahead, and how we get from where we are to where we all want to be, without endless laundry lists of examples and scenic commentary.

Manifesto-writing may be a neverending process in need of updates from time to time. But can we at least hope that what we say can be made more concise, be crafted more handily and handsomely, so it might fit more readily, be grasped by more people, held more tightly, and serve as the hand-hold we need to stand upright and human amid the winds of change? Quixotic indeed. Do we have enough lances and windmills to go around?

Norman Hall is the southwest liaison officer for the National Ocean Data Center in La Jolla, California, and past president of the Humanist Association of San Diego. He can be e-mailed at
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Article Details
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Author:Hall, Norman
Publication:The Humanist
Article Type:Brief Article
Date:Nov 1, 1998
Previous Article:Materialism and Morality (The Problem with Pinker).
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