In the light of another assault on democracy we need the Humanities more than ever

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When I finally switched off from a day of online meetings on Wednesday I thought I’d relax by watching some gentle TV. Then a prompt from a friend on social media made me switch over to a new channel, the BBC at first and then CNN. Within moments I was hooked in to the drama that was unfolding in Washington as hoards of Trump supporters began their assault on the Capitol building. 

I’m sure you’ve all seen the footage by now – most especially the excellent work by ITV’s Robert Moore – which captured the chaos of the moment and the shock of the news people watching and the Congress men and women trapped inside the building. 

I was fascinated as the language changed during the several hours of the broadcast media I viewed. Those involved were ‘protestors’, ‘rioters’, ‘insurgents’, as well as being described as ‘anarchists’, and ‘terrorists’. The ‘assault’ on the Capitol became an ‘attempted coup’, a violent act of aggression, and – and this point was made repeatedly – an unpatriotic and un-American assault on democracy. 

Personally (and it is a personal view by someone who is fairly skeptical of how democratic the UK is) I don’t think US democracy is very robust at the best of times. I see a lot of political corruption and very little than convinces me that their ideal of democracy is anything but a fig leaf for rule by the privileged and moneyed elite. 

But that is long way from me believing that those ‘storming’ the Capitol and the heart of democratic America were in any way justified in what they were doing. Their champion – the incumbent (well, incumbent as I write this) POTUS – lost the election  and Joe Biden won.  In their version of democracy the result was valid and the process of change legitimate: there was no justification for the law suits, the continual refusal of Trump to conceded, or for the attempt to stop the confirmation of the Biden presidency. 

This was a coup organized or at least incited by Trump and his Republican backers, and orchestrated by a large body of deluded Americans led by some fanatical far right terrorists. You can call them revolutionaries if you like, but I’d prefer to use the language they’d use to describe someone form the left who attempted what they did on Wednesday afternoon. 

Fundamentally though, however worried America or the rest of the world might have been by the scenes beamed all round the globe yesterday, this is not simply about an organized gang of thugs or revolutionaries. It is about the widespread delusion and ignorance of hundreds of thousands, maybe millions, of American citizens who believe that the election was fixed, flawed, or ‘stolen’. 

That delusion has been fed by social media, stoked by Trump, Juliani, Cruz and others, and given weight by Far Group groups like the Proud Boys. Enabled by Facebook and Twitter and Fox we know have a situation where perfectly ordinary men and women in the USA would rather trust in social media lies and deception than believe mainstream media and centrist politicians.   

We can see this here in the UK as well. Brexit was born of decades of lies and untruths about the EU; over a decade of scorn poured on politicians to the extent that they replaced estate agents as the least trustworthy people in the public consciousness. Fueled by the Far Right, by Farage (on the ‘soft’ far right), and the legitimizing of racism and anti-immigrant sentiment by mainstream politicians like Teresa May and Priti Patel. We love a soft target to blame our problems on and Brexit played right into that. 

The polarization of the nation was exacerbated by the Remain/Leave campaigns, both of which played fast and loose with the truth. In the end, unable to work out who to believe people just picked a side, and they have (largely) stuck to that ever since. There is no informed debate about Brexit, there never really was for most people – it just comes down to how you ‘feel’. No one I’ve heard in the many vox pop interviews can explain what they understand by ‘sovereignty’ – it’s a vague thing, simultaneously meaningless and all-important. 

And now we have the anti-vaxxers, the conspiracy theorists who downplay the COVID pandemic or dismiss it as a hoax born of 5G or some other government or Bill Gates type plot. COVID idiots, deniers, call them what you will but for me they are simply ignorant, ill-informed, and deluded people that society, education and the media have let down. Just like most of those storming the Capital building on Wednesday. 

I’m not absolving them of responsibility but I am saying we need to educate people better – from school to university and beyond. And to do that we need the Humanities, by which I mean History, Media, Journalism, English and other related subjects. Subjects which have been sidelined as ‘unimportant’ or ‘luxuries’. 

STEM is all we need we are told – study science, engineering, technology – these lead to a career. Or study Law, Business, and Medicine. All of those are valuable, we need all of them (especially medicine!) but we also need people who can think for themselves, who can evaluate sources, who can convey difficult ideas, walk in other people’s shoes, appreciate political nuance, understand cultures, and recognize when they are being lied to. 

The assault on US democracy, the Brexit ‘debate’, and the antagonism towards lockdown and vaccination in a pandemic all remind us of why we need to be teaching the Humanities at all levels of our education system. 

If we don’t then the risk that we will surrender our freedoms to more and better-organized autocrats than Donald Trump is very real. 

Dr Drew Gray is the head of Culture at the University of Northampton (Humanities, Media, and Performance)

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