When the Media Gets it Wrong: Misunderstanding Humanism


Every once in a while, I do a Google News search for the terms “Humanism” and “New Humanism.” I am almost always disappointed—not because humanists around the world are behaving poorly (we’re not, I promise), but because of the misuse of the word itself. Journalists and columnists use the term “Humanism” to describe the phenomenon of aspiring to be “human-like.” This really pisses me off.

Take, for example, The Washington Post. Kirsten Ostherr recently wrote and published a piece called, “For tech companies, ‘humanism’ is an empty buzzword. It doesn’t have to be.” Here are her first two sentences.

Even as tech companies have weathered scandals, many have also redirected attention toward their more socially redeeming activities by promoting the concept of humanistic technology. Tom Gruber of Apple describes Siri as “humanistic AI—artificial intelligence designed to meet human needs by collaborating [with] and augmenting people.”

Immediately, we, the readers, know that Ostherr is not privy to the fact that Humanism is a set of morals and ideals—not a way of describing human-like technology. The pieces continues on to discuss the implications of AI and the racist, sexist legacy of Genius bots. Ostherr writes that AI is an opportunity to get beyond the “rhetoric of humanism,” saying instead that we are moving toward a truly human-centered approach. That part sounds correct enough, but she continues to write, “Doing so would involve calling out, critiquing, and correcting the legacies of racist classification that enabled this error.” That’s where I lose her.

Or how about Majalla, the online British publication. A Culture piece published several days ago declares in its headline, “Messages of unity, humanism at Tony Awards.” There was only one use of the word “humanism” in the entire piece, and it popped up in this sentence:

Despite the aching national wound the performance opened, its underlying message was one of unity and humanism, both themes that provided the foundation for a night in which winners made bold, heartfelt statements in support of LGBTQ rights, diversity, feminism, immigration, the perils of depression and the healing merit of art itself.

That’s not necessarily humanism.

My point here is simple: Don’t use words and terms you don’t understand. Don’t undermine an entire ideology or category of thought just because it sounds like the right word. Understand the implications of your writing and speech and act accordingly. The New Humanists will thank you.



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