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Conversation #2 between Emmy award-winning journalist Ursula Pfeiffer and Don Thompson of nextPix — some great discussion and dialog, seeking a path forward for society.


Note: This article was updated in November, 2016 and was originally published in 2010.

When starting nextPix in 2000 one of my personal goals was to form a company that produced and promoted ‘humanistic media.’ Exactly what that means has been a work in progress, as the term humanism itself can take on a variety of meanings depending on who is defining the term.

Humanists, in the traditional sense, are secular in their outlook. They believe that ‘people are the center of all things’ and that scientific rationality, not religion, superstition or spirituality, offer the best answers for humanity’s ills. What I have proposed as defining ‘humanistic media’ is different from the purely secular in that it can and should include what might be called a spiritual or New Humanism as laid out by the late Mario Rodriquez Cobos or the ‘common human values‘ supported by the Dalai Lama in laying the groundwork for World Peace.  Moreover, such a humanism can be different from ‘faith-based’ themes that while often inspiring have narrow definitions of what kinds of media messages can and should be purveyed, generally involving the acceptance of a Judeo-Christian god.  The tenets of such a ‘New Humanism’ include:

  • An acceptance of the intrinsic value of all human beings
  • A realization that humanity is interdependent and shares common values
  • Understanding that there should be a balance between social and individual needs
  • Accepting personal responsibility for the social and physical environment and choosing accordingly
  • Seeing non-violence and reconciliation as a world view that can lead mankind toward peace both individually and collectively.

To many secular humanists, this broader definition of humanism is an impossibility. These traditionalists believe humanists should only engage in a rational, scientific process to eliminate the darkness of superstition and religious dogma that has in so many cases burdened humankind. Ideas of spirit do not typically fit within such a framework.

The problem is this. If misinterpreted, a scientific, materialistic perspective can lead to a nihilistic view that sees human value systems as ultimately futile. For science, because people are seen through the lens of physical processes, some conclude no value system exists outside of the desire of humankind to construct it. To the nihilist, morality is not ‘natural’ but may even stand against natural law, which to the nihilist is often simply the survival of the fittest, motivated by a desire to dominate and overcome nature. To these people, power is the only defining element of life; if emotional attachments are allowed, they are generally familial and sentimental. However, the danger of nihilism is that it can and does lead us down the path, eventually, of social disintegration, as the moral dimension is eschewed for a strictly material view and social cohesion based on ethics, morality and the ‘golden rule’ dissolves. To be clear, it usually is not scientists who create these problems, but people who misinterpret science and see science and technology primarily as vehicles for gain.

In our modern era, nihilism often means that we throw the humanist baby out with the religious bath water. Close behind in the dustbin are nuance, the poetic and the beautiful. As we witness nihilism on parade within our recent economic meltdown (2008-2009), and the corruption apparently evident within the halls of finance, we see blatant examples of actions taken without a moral compass to guide them, or that moral compass is simply a legalistic frame where the individual or business man seeks only to adhere to the letter of the law (if we’re lucky), but sees no social obligation to his fellow human being outside of what he can get away with to exploit and/or manipulate people more effectively. Sometimes this exploitation and manipulation is assisted by the clever mis-use of technology. In the extreme, this literally results in an institutionalized pathology.   At best, the ‘meaningless becomes meaningful’ as so eloquently stated by one of the interviewees in the documentary film we co-produced with director Ngawang Choephel, Tibet in Song. At worst, corporate psychopaths prevail. If you think I’m making this up, feel free to read this recent article in the Journal of Business Ethics.

But how does this relate to Hollywood and the media? I would relate Wall Street to Hollywood in this sense. Both have constructed machines to make money that, over time, become self-fulfilling and self-generating. Just as some accuse ‘primary dealers’ on Wall Street of gaming an essentially high-tech closed system, so Hollywood Studios might be seen as gaming the system with special-effects laden blockbuster films that cater to a certain audience, trained one might say to think and feel in a certain way and respond to what is often essentially shallow sensationalism and sentimentality. Once trained, this audience returns like lemmings to the next hypnotic film in the lineup. It’s not unlike the Romans and the Coliseum. Was it always like this? No. We have devolved to the current situation over the last thirty years after making some progress in reaction to the immense destruction of World War II.

But is the current situation in media really that bad? To the crowds at the cineplex or millions of TV viewers, apparently not. And unlike the activities of some of our creative financial wizards, at least it is legal.  Who am I to spoil all the fun? However, over time, I would argue, there is a cultural corrosion that occurs. Why this occurs is that individuals are trained, from very young, to think and feel within a certain consumer framework that is shallow, selfish, lacks critical thinking, and imbues a general lack of empathy for anyone outside of one’s close ties. Moreover, media messages are generally defined within ‘heroic’ stories that are often a melodramatic mockery of the ideals of the hero as put forth in our Western tradition. Such a perversion of the notion of the hero, such a lack of empathy, such a narcissistic over-concern with the individual self and/or the myopic importance of the nuclear family over and above society as a whole, leads to a society that is unsustainable and will eventually fold in on itself in a dark spiral of self-destruction. If you doubt what I say, read the comments on many blogs. See the lack of empathy for the viewpoint(s) raised. See the anger, the hatred. Is this a society that can survive into the future?

Our young people, enveloped in video games, are urged to continue because, according to studies their skills are increased. Per a recent article on NPR’s website:

“…studies show that video gamers show improved skills in vision, attention and certain aspects of cognition. And these skills are not just gaming skills, but real-world skills. They perform better than non-gamers on certain tests of attention, speed, accuracy, vision and multitasking…”

Not a word here about being a better human being. In fact, the values described above seem more appropriate for a machine. Of course, we don’t value the inefficient and contradictory ‘human’ values; rather, it is the utilitarian ‘skills’ acquired for our businesses and military (obviously what is really important) that we value. And video games are certainly cheaper than college.

As for the movies, what may not survive our urge toward utilitarian values is the type of independent film that, as of late, generally expresses humanistic ideals. If funding becomes more difficult for independent film, humanistic voices in media will become fewer and fewer, at least in the mainstream media. And when we see humanistic messages, they are more likely to appear, ironically, in the cartoons from Pixar and Disney. All the better for Wall Street, because these images cannot be generated cheaply and must be controlled by major corporations. Human qualities are apparently expensive to create and only commercially viable when people are turned into digital avatars.

So what would be anti-humanist in its content?  In my mind, any film or story that promotes a villain or the ‘other’ as a ‘bug to be squashed’, while fun to the adolescent video gamer, may not be the best model for adult humanistic storytelling. But since our adolescent audiences are often key to modern cineplex, modern villains and the notion of a mythical evil that can be ‘terminated’ or ‘removed’ so that others can be ‘happy’ (translated to bonding sentimentally with their tribe) leaves us open, in my mind, to a fascistic mindset where we need an ‘enemy’ to unite us, be that a Jew, an Islamic terrorist, an Alien from another planet, an Orc in Middle Earth, or (for the Chinese government) a Tibetan Nun in a prison camp. In our politics, the political ‘other’, whether on the left or right, takes on the same anti-humanist attitude, with the hatred stemming from both sides reflecting no empathy whatsoever.

Perhaps this is just the nature of things. Perhaps I am too utopian and naively optimistic in the hope that people can and should live with empathy for one another, to have mutual respect for one another, and to value each human being equally. In other words, to see ourselves in the eyes of the other and to have a culture that expresses those ideals. While I might seem a little serious, these are serious times.  Perhaps even too serious for films to really matter any more – although I continue to hope that’s not the case. I’d like to think good films matter now more than ever. Our recent (2016) political turmoil tends to back this up.

I’ve attached below a link to a great blog debate by Dr. Cornel West and Dr. Robert George (both professors a Princeton) that, in my opinion, lays out the arguments for a spiritual (in this case Christian) humanism. There could also be a Buddhist Humanism and a Jewish Humanism and an Islamic Humanism. My point is not to covert, but to show the potential within human consciousness to come to a conciliatory stance that looks toward compassion, not endless conflict, as the answer to human ills.

I urge media people to consider these ideas and the give and take between the media and the mass audience. I urge media providers to have a sense of social responsibility to those that they promote their messages to. I urge us to move beyond an us/them framework and toward a ‘we’ framework that supports both justice and reconciliation – and will therefore support tolerance and forgiveness – a forgiveness that moves beyond the merely sentimental to the compassionate.

If we do not support this kind of media, be that within our news, our films, our books or our video games, we will continue to see society erode to the point where no compromise is possible, no unity is possible, and only force and fear are recognized as organizing principles of society.  Some people in our society might like it that way, but they are not wise in their conclusions.

In my estimation, we must obtain wisdom, and we as media providers can put into the mix of our media messages those that support justice with reconciliation and do not perennially polarize us into camps that cannot agree and cannot move forward into the future. While some may argue that ‘heroes and villians’ are the best framework for storytelling, there are numerous examples of humanistic film that have conflict but do not promote a simplistic us/them viewpoint of the world. Some of the films we consider humanistic can be found here.

Also, here is the link to the Cornel West/ Robert George debate. Dr. West explores some ideas and themes regarding ‘non-market values’ similar to those outlined in my play Tibet Does Not Exist as well as the nature of compassion as set forth by the Dalai Lama. You might also read the comments to the George/West debate, as they illuminate the head wind that any serious discussion of these topics can encounter. I personally would try to give the ideas a chance and listen, as academic and spiritual leaders like Cornel West and the Dalai Lama provide ideas that can offer an alternative to the endless wars, economic and social injustice, and lack of unity that we find today. Taken into media and art, they provide an alternative to nihilism, cynicism, and general lack of faith in our common future and instead give us a much-needed vision of hope.


D.R. (Don) Thompson is a producer, playwright and essayist. This essay and others are included in his new book, A World Without War (Del Sol Press).

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