While the world largely regards COVID-19 as an unusual and singular event in living memory, the reality is that many epidemics and pandemics have swept the world. We can learn from another pandemic in our recent past that has killed millions and changed our cultural and human landscape – or have we already forgotten its many, many lessons?
While flags, uniforms and banners might arguably be seen as aligning with nationalism, elitism, or other forms of division, fabrics can also be used to bring people together in widespread community bonding – none more self evident than with the AIDS Quilt, which formed a strong public testimonial between the late 1980s and the early years of the 21st century. Fighting stigma and prejudice, the Quilt served a public function during a public health emergency.
Today, a COVID-impacted world could learn from the achievements of the activists, mothers, families and volunteers who formed a virtual underground army. Their activism during the catastrophe of AIDS led to reforms in social attitudes, religious homophobia, decriminalisation, anti-discrimination protections, sex education and sexual autonomy, family and inheritance rights, health care, and marriage equality. Will long-term positive benefits somehow also arise from the modern-day catastrophe of COVID-19? Such social and societal reforms could help to improve lives across the developing world in particular, especially in places such as Africa, where LGBTQIA+ people today suffer from the same abominable treatment that they endured in western society during the era of AIDS some two or three decades ago.
As a committee member/supporter of the AIDS Memorial Quilt Project Melbourne for over twenty years, I recall its many educational and support roles for those who were grieving, memorialising, or trying to overcome ignorance, prejudice and stigma. This essay comprises a talk I gave to an LGBT History Conference in Sydney on 24 September 2010.
The Australian AIDS Quilt is our nation’s most evocative public response to AIDS and it remains our largest ever example of activist and community art. Following the 1987 founding of the American AIDS Quilt, called the NAMES Project, the Australian AIDS Quilt was launched on the first annual World AIDS Day, 1 December 1988. Panels were made by families, partners, friends, colleagues, workmates, nurses, carers or others in memory of people who had been lost to AIDS. Panels were sewn into blocks of eight, and these quilt blocks were then displayed individually or collectively. Each quilt panel was a unique testimony to an individual, a group or to a slogan such as “See It and Understand”. Names, dates, photos, personal messages, badges, clothing, teddy bears or more exotic personal items were often included on a panel. It is estimated that approximately 900 panels were eventually produced across Australia.*
Although the AIDS Quilt might be seen as an example of gay activism and a radical appropriation of a traditionally conservative crafting form, it is simply one manifestation of quilts being used for activist purposes. Despite its being an offshoot of the NAMES Project, the Australian AIDS Quilt also has historical and cultural precedents from elsewhere and elsewhen.
Quilts enjoy a long tradition around the world. It has been suggested that quilting may have travelled from Asia, where early surviving examples include grave goods; to Europe, where it became popular as clothing for knights during the Crusades (von Gwinner, 1988, 12 & 13). These early symbolic links between quilting and death or warfare would prove to be a recurring motif.
The 11th century Bayeux Tapestry is a famous example of medieval embroidery. Its pictorial form resembles surviving medieval quilts which suggest that such textiles were commonly used during those times to present information to largely illiterate populations – and once again, we see themes relating to warfare and death.
US medieval historian Norman Cantor reports that tapestries were hung across doorways and windows of medieval churches to alleviate common fears of airborne plague contagion (Cantor, 2002, 22) and German art historian Schnuppe von Gwinner reports that African burial cloths, resembling AIDS Quilt panels, were used in colonial Dahomey and Nigeria (op cit, 29 – 32). Thus we can see that such crafting has been a popular tool in response to plague and in memorialising past lives.
In 17th century France, bed quilts were hung from windows to commemorate religious processions (ibid, 16). This connection between quilts and street marches resembles the AIDS Quilt being displayed in conjunction with AIDS Candlelight Vigils during the 1980s and 1990s.
Socially isolated groups in the USA, such as pioneer and Amish women, included this quilting within their traditions. During the US Civil War, women sewed quilts in order to raise money and awareness for the abolitionist cause (Brackman, 1997, 12). It is also claimed – probably incorrectly – that quilts may have been used as markers for the “underground railway” to guide escaping slaves to freedom (Dobard & Tobin, 1999; Brackman, 1997, 14 & 15; Wikipedia, 2020). Clearly, there is a long association – both real and reputed – between quilting and providing a voice for disempowered peoples.
Australian quilting historians Annette Gero and Margaret Rolfe report that quilting has enjoyed a long history in Australia, where quilts have been used not simply for comfort but also to convey messages. Some quilting traditions have also provided clear parallels between war, mortality, crisis and AIDS, and have supported disempowered peoples.
Aboriginal women made decorative patchwork cloaks and sleeping covers from possum skins (Gero, 2008, 9; Rolfe, 1987, 14). One surviving cloak includes what may be representations of clan patterns (Beasley & Conte, 1995, 33).
Quilting also offered some degree of self-sufficiency for female convicts and an opportunity for colonial women to provide both bedding and social narrative within their families. Subsequent immigrant women have also made quilts to acknowledge significant life transitions. One recent group of Australian Iraqi women has used quilts to promote compassion for asylum seekers – a marginalised group in our modern society (Gero, 2008, 13 & 14; Marshall, 2004, ii).
The National Quilt Register lists over 1000 quilts from Australia’s history, many of which represent life transitions such as birth, war, marriage, illness, hard times and death (National Quilt Register, 2020) and some include recycled materials due to a scarcity of cloth among pioneer women. Such recycling was revisited and reinterpreted on the AIDS Quilt, through the occasional inclusion of a deceased person’s clothing on their panel.
In the Australian AIDS Quilt, a sampling of 190 panels (an estimated 20% of the entire Quilt) reveals that men comprised approximately 40% of identifiable quilt makers in the sample. Their contribution within a traditional “female” activity gives us another reason why the AIDS Quilt was a significant community project. But it must be stressed that, within this sample, women comprised approximately 60% of identifiable Quilt makers and they extended the traditional “female” roles of nurturing and quilting into activism on behalf of their gay sons, brothers, friends and patients – yet their contribution is largely overlooked by the gay male community’s social appropriation of the AIDS Quilt.
Australian quilts made during times of war provide the greatest parallel to the AIDS Quilt. Both forms of quilting were created at times when many young men were dying, and were a personal response to battles that involved love, loss, community, death and grief. In a break from the traditional female stereotype, war quilts were made by men (Gero, op cit, 129) as were many AIDS Quilt panels. Australia’s first war quilt was made in 1806 by a Prussian soldier who had been imprisoned during the Napoleonic wars (ibid). Later war quilts encompass a range of conflicts including the Boer War, both World Wars and Korea.
During the World Wars, women reclaimed their role in quilting by creating “Red Cross Quilts”, which were fundraisers for the Red Cross (ibid, 161). One example is a World War One “signature quilt” created by women in Williamstown, Victoria, who were inspired by one of their sons who sent home patches of cloth containing signatures from the battlefield. Some of those who were featured, including the young man at the centre of the quilt, did not survive the war (Author unknown, 2010). Further “Red Cross” quilts continue to be made. Although they are intended primarily as fundraisers, they enable local communities to publicly show their support for a humanitarian cause and have parallels with signature panels connected to the AIDS Quilt, which also enabled visitors to leave messages of support.
The Australian War Memorial reports that women imprisoned in Changi Prison during World War Two also compiled signature quilts which included personal messages, the meaning of which has now been lost (Australian War Memorial, 2017). Some AIDS Quilt panels also contain cryptic personal messages.
Australian scholars such as Robert Ariss and Jennifer Power have written of the role of the AIDS Quilt in providing both ritual and structure for shared grieving among the gay community during the 1990s. Ariss drew upon a parallel from the 1980s, when an AIDS diagnosis was often seen as a public and unintended double “coming out”. He suggested that “The Quilt is death coming out” (Ariss, 2004, 282), thereby breaking another social taboo. Perhaps this explains why the Quilt has almost disappeared from public view now that AIDS has largely faded from our collective awareness.
The AIDS Quilt began its decline during the mid to late 1990s. Death rates, activist burnout and the arrival of new medical treatments for AIDS may all have contributed to this decline. Anecdotal evidence suggests that some Australian gay men grew tired of visiting what had been nicknamed, “the doonah of death”. As the era of AIDS gave way to the era of living with HIV, the AIDS Quilt quietly disappeared from public view. It might therefore be seen as a product of its historical context rather than as a major contributor to ongoing discourse. The other Australian quilts discussed in this study also appear to follow this pattern of transitory fame.
Even though much of the AIDS Quilt has disappeared, some of it is still available for public viewing via live displays or on the Internet. Meanwhile, quilting has become a popular method for presenting memorial tributes. Recent examples include memorial quilts for those lost to other diseases, violence or armed conflict. The Australian Salvation Army has launched a “Life Keeper Memory Quilt”, a memorial to people lost to suicide (Benson, 2009). Thus quilting continues its perennial connections with conflict and death.
The Australian gay community founded and operated the AIDS Quilt as an assertive activist entity for over a decade, and the high participation rate of other groups of people provides a testimony to the creation of a memorial which promoted respect and diversity. A study of its place in both history and society enables us to fully appreciate how gay people operated in neither a cultural vacuum nor social isolation, and it also enriches our appreciation of the AIDS Quilt within a wider historical and cultural context. With its disappearance from public prominence, we are challenged to consider how best to ensure that its people do not fade from the rich tapestry of our lives, cultural memory or folklore.
*Estimate provided during conversation by the Secretary, Quilt Project Melbourne on 6 September 2010.
The above talk was preparation for my PhD Studies on, “A Social History of HIV/AIDS in Melbourne During the ‘Crisis Years’ 1981 to 1997”. This work was supported by an Australian Government Research Training Program Scholarship.
Robert Ariss, 2004. ‘Re-Inventing Death: Gay Community Memorial Rites in Sydney, Australia’, in Robert Aldrich (editor), Gay Perspectives II: More Essays in Australian Gay Culture, University of Sydney.
I look up at the sky, at the complexity and wonder of our natural Universe – so much more than we currently understand – and I marvel that I am a part of it.
What does Humanism mean to you? A #hashtag campaign being run by Humanists UK encourages people to publicise what Humanism means to them: “share and celebrate the values and convictions that underpin [your] approach to life.”
For me, I see Humanism reflected in people and events from my past, present and future – even those who may not self-identify as Humanist, because their attitudes and actions reflect the basic philosophy of respect for common humanity and other Humanist precepts.
For a start, Humanism allows us to balance our scientific curiosity with our sense of wonder and transcendence:
I recall one woman whose children were students of mine. She was a friendly, happy woman who instilled in her kids a happy countenance and a keen desire for learning and knowledge. Sadly, she passed away from cancer, and I attended her funeral as a mark of respect. Her teenage son greeted me with a pleased smile, a warm handshake and a friendly chat. Even in his grief, he was facing reality with a cheerful disposition. We talked about his studies and his hobbies in Science. He told me that the night his mother had died, he had gone outside to study the stars and to marvel at the Universe. I wished that I was half the educator his mother had been.
An elephant or a dolphin or a chimpanzee isn’t worthy of respect because it embodies some normative form of the “human” plus or minus a handful of relevant moral characteristics. It’s worthy of respect for reasons that call upon us to come up with another moral vocabulary, a vocabulary that starts by acknowledging that whatever it is we value ethically and morally in various forms of life, it has nothing to do with the biological designation of “human” or “animal” (Natasha Lennard and Cary Wolfe, The New York Times, 2017.)
Humanism can be found in a future for which we must strive:
Whether it is #MeToo or #BlackLivesMatter, the Global Climate Strike or Marriage Equality; whether it is peaceful protests and call for political change in Hong Kong or Nigeria or Thailand or USA; we see progressives – especially younger people – demanding change. They want to live in a better future, and they are prepared to make it happen. I see the same in the ongoing saga of local Humanists as they seek to expand beyond their traditions, and in the imminent birth of Humanists Australia, a (hopefully) twenty-first century form of activism that focuses on common humanity. I find inspiration in popular literature that optimistically conflates science with the human condition. Our future visions are perhaps best encapsulated by Star Trek creator, humanist Gene Roddenberry, who proclaimed: “We are a young species. I think if we allow ourselves a little development, understanding what we’ve done already, we’ll be surprised what a cherishable, lovely group that humans can evolve into.” For Roddenberry, and for millions of us who look to the future, the human adventure is just beginning.
For me, Humanism is greater than a faith-based philosophy. It reflects the evidenced reality that humanity is evolving into a better species due to the rise of Humanist thought and values. I am proud to add my own small, humble contribution to that quest.
And perhaps most exciting of all – we are all on that journey together.
There are many reasons to commemorate this time of year, including many events which usually occur between November – February as a demonstration of the fact that humans love to invent excuses for celebration and solemnity. During this season of impending holiday greetings, I invite people to commemorate whichever of the following holidays or other events are most special for them. Or please add one of your own. Enjoy!
Evolution Day Samhain (Celtic New Year’s Day) World Vegan Day All Saints Day/All Souls Day/All Hallows’ Day (Christian) Culture Day (Japan) Armistice/Remembrance Day National Independence Day (Poland) Universal Children’s Day International Migrant’s Day World Television Day Diwali (UK – Hindu Festival of Lights) World Soil Day Al-Hijira (Islamic New Year) Thanksgiving Day (USA) Hanukkah (Jewish Festival of Lights) World Diabetes Day Bodhi Day (Buddhist) White Ribbon Day (Australia) Armed Forces Day (Bangladesh) Day of the Dead (Latin America – syncrectic Christian) National Day (Bosnia and Herzegovina, Albania, Mauritania, Central African Republic, Romania, Laos, United Arab Emirates, Burkina Faso, Bahrain, Kazakhstan, Bhutan, Niger, Sudan) Independence Day (Suriname, Barbados, Finland, Haiti, Burma) Proclamation of Independence Day (Timor-Leste) St Andrew’s Day (Scotland) The King’s Birthday Anniversary (Thailand) Jamhuri Day (Kenya) Guy Fawkes Night (UK) National Youth Day (Albania, India) World AIDS Day The International Day for the Abolition of Slavery Kwansolhaneidmas (Facebook) Marie Curie’s birthday International Day of People with Disability Karen New Year Celebration (Burma) World Fisheries Day Human Rights Day Las Posadas (Mexico – Christian) Black Awareness Day/Black Consciousness Day (Brazil) Makar Sankranti (Hindu) World Pneumonia Day Feast Day – Our Lady of Guadalupe (Catholic Christian) Day of Reconciliation (South Africa) Pongal (Tamil) Calan Gaeaf (Welsh) Koliada (Slavik) Lupercalia (Ancient Roman) Christmas and Boxing Day (Eastern/Western Christian) Christmas and Boxing Day (secular holidays) Christmas and Boxing Day (Coptic Orthodox Christian) Indigenous Christmas (Australia) Kwanzaa (African American) Yule (Wicca-northern hemisphere, Pagan) Litha (Wicca-southern hemisphere) Humanlight (Humanist, secular, atheist) Chalica (Unitarian Universalist) Montol Festival (Cornwall) Yalda (Persian Winter Solstice) Rosa Parks Day (USA) Darwin Day National Day of the Horse (USA) Anti-Bullying Week (UK) Luci d’Artista (Italy) Id el Maulud (Muslim) World Kindness Day National Blood Donor Month (USA) Zamenhof Day (Esperantist) Festivus (Seinfeld secular) Newtonmas/Isaac Newton’s birthday (secular/scientific) Quaid-e-Azam’s Day (Pakistan) Lohri (Hindu) Martin Luther King Jr Day (USA) International Human Solidarity Day National Sorry Day (Australia) Intersex Day of Remembrance Hogmanay (Scotland) Laba Festival (China) Solstice, or Midwinter (various cultures) St Stephen’s Day /the Feast of Stephen (Catholic Christian) International Day of Zero Tolerance to Female Genital Mutilation Wren Day (Ireland) Puyuma New Year Ritual (Thailand) Movember (Australia) Transgender Day of Remembrance New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day (secular holidays) Berchtoldsta (Switzerland, Liechtenstein and the Alsace ) Gantan Sai or Shogatu (Japan – Shinto) Mahayana (Buddhist) World Cancer Day New Year (Russian Orthodox) International Polar Bear Day Bikarami Sankrant (South India – Hindu) Liberation Day (Cuba) Feast of St Basil (Orthodox Christian) Heart Research Day (Australia) Imbolc/Brigid’s Day (Gaelic) Lantern Festival (China – variable date) Armenian Christmas (Armenia) Nativity of Christ (Orthodox Christian) Spring Festival (Chinese New Year) World Radio Day
Seasonal school holidays (varied nations) World Religion Day (Baha’i) Blessings of the Animals Day (Hispanic Christian) Australia Day/Invasion Day Birth of Guru Gobind Singh (Sikh) Tet (Vietnamese Lunar New Year) Tu Bishvat (Jewish New Year of the Trees) World Wildlife Conservation Day International Holocaust Remembrance Day Ramadan (Islamic) – variable date Losar (Tibetan New Year) – variable date Hmong New Year Festival – variable date Saturnalia (pagan) International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women Sesame Street Day Republic Day (India) Midsumma (LGBTI festival, Melbourne, Australia) International Day for Tolerance World Choral Day Antarctica Day National Science Fiction Day/Isaac Asimov’s birthday (USA) Valentine’s Day (Christian/religious/commercial) Groundhog Day (North American) Hogswatchday (Discworld) Life Day (Kashyyyk – Wookiee)
“Let us think the unthinkable, let us do the undoable, let us prepare to grapple with the ineffable itself, and see if we may not eff it after all.” – Douglas Adams.
What does it mean to be human?
My background in science fiction demonstrates my own intersections of the personal with the political. In 1999, as the founder of a Melbourne-based LGBTI science fiction club called Spaced Out, I authored the club’s draft charter. Its goals included a recognition of diversity and a challenge to our science fictional friends and peers:
“We recognise that science fiction is a fun and popular medium and we no longer wish to be excluded from its fiction, art, cyberworlds or other creative forms…” Spaced Out, 1999.
I recall the energy and enthusiasm of the club’s early days: we published a number of newsletters and two fanzines, and our website won an Australian science fiction ‘Ditmar’ award. A professional author and other local luminaries became guests at our meetings while we, in turn, hosted panels at a Worldcon (Aussiecon 3). Our very existence, as both geeks and queers, identified us as a minority grouping within both communities; it was fun to confront double prejudice and it was interesting to see who supported us in either context.
Within a few short years, however, our creative impetus dwindled and our club focus narrowed, until the group became little more than a social locus for queer consumers of media science fiction – removing us from the stereotype of affective fans who appropriate culture and relocating us within the more commonly-held stereotype of passive consumers (Grossberg, 1992, 51 & 52). Thus we redefined our aspirations from Worldcon to Comicon. In hindsight, it can be asked whether our original club aims may have been, in some perverse way, too self-defensive: to reinterpret the ‘other’ in both real life and speculative fiction as being merely a figure worthy of acknowledgement and tolerance.
This was not my first adventure into such territory: the figure of the ‘other’ was more than an academic concept to me. I recall, as a child, watching a TV series from the late 1960s, The Invaders, which combined the ‘flying saucer’ craze with anti-communist fears from the McCarthy era. Even at my young age, I somehow knew that its conspiratorial warning – that ‘they’ were among us – held a more ubiquitous meaning.
Within a few years, as a teenager coming to terms with my awakening homosexuality, I would come to understand the larger metaphor of the ‘other’ in the midst of our heteronormative culture, wherein queer identities were (at the time) subject to both moral and legal sanction – an isolation that was most empathically evoked in such tales of alienation as Ted Sturgeon’s short story, A Saucer of Loneliness. In 1975, I instinctively recognised kinship with the young man who silently and momentarily cruised Logan within the cyberspace ‘Circuit’ from the film Logan’s Run. Later in my teens, my enthusiasm for Star Trek reinforced the concept of the alien being both within and without. By then, however, I had also started to question why science fiction explored the diversity of alien life forms but somehow managed to often overlook genuinely bohemian human characters and cultures.
The irony of how life can come full-circle was emphasised to me in 2012, when the Australian Broadcasting Corporation commissioned a six-part series entitled, Outland, telling the story of an imaginary ‘gay science fiction fan club’ that was curiously located within the Australian city which really did have such a club. The series was advertised as being an exploration of inclusion but it excluded its real-life counterparts: its generic disclaimer dissociated its fictional characters from any real-life role models, and its fictional ‘otherness’ was further emphasised by its predominantly white male characters displaying very little real diversity. To me, its stories lacked the excitement of our real-life exploits in Spaced Out, where we had taken ‘one small step’ into groundbreaking territory and attempted to ‘boldly go where no fan had gone before’. Ultimately, Outland inverted media science fiction subtext: whereas LGBTQIA+ SF fans had traditionally sought to interpret ‘otherness’ as metaphoric queerness; we could now interpret our queerness as comprising metaphoric ‘otherness’.
This challenges us to ponder the nature of ‘queer science fictions’ and our place as creators, audiences, and participants. More than that, it reveals science fiction at its most humanistic: encouraging us to shape a better future – from the pages of his most famous story, we can find inspiration in the words of humanist and SF author Arthur C Clarke, himself purportedly gay: “For though he was master of the world, he was not quite sure what to do next. But he would think of something.”
Literary Science Fiction: A History of the Future
“Science fiction encourages us to explore… all the futures, good and bad, that the human mind can envision” – Marion Zimmer Bradley.
Science fiction is an intellectual exploration of one of Arthur C Clarke’s famous Three Laws which states that, “The only way of discovering the limits of the possible is to venture a little way past them into the impossible” – by extension, SF seeks to explore this idea in secular humanist terms: “The only way of discovering the limits of the human is to venture a little way past them into the transhuman, posthuman or sentient“.
Any consequent definition of science fiction is bound to be incomplete. Broadly, the genre might be defined – according to its very title – as comprising fiction about science, or how the human condition may be redefined by such technology. Traditionally, this has included stories about possible technological developments (spaceships, robots, time travel etc), or possible futures derived from real or potential science (climate change, nuclear apocalypse, alien life, virtual realities etc). In essence, this speculative fiction examines the human condition and how it may change in the future. Such exploration is potentially ripe for queer issues which examine emerging concepts of what it means to be fully human, and – beyond that – to extend this recognition to incorporate what biologist Bruce Baghemi refers to as the ‘polysexual, polygendered’ biosphere which is found across planet Earth (Baghemi, 1999, 7). By extension, our galactic dreams and visions could all be equally strange, inclusive and diverse.
The literary genre has arguably addressed this potential. As far back as True Story – the satirically-named spoof written by Lucian in the second century AD, complete with queer genders and sexualities (Richardson, 2001) – science fiction has been a genre replete with alien characters and situations of chaos that echo with queer sensitivities and themes. Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein is a story detailing prejudice and alienation. We can all grok the alien within Robert Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land. Isaac Asimov’s robotic character, Daneel Olivaw, and his ground-breaking female roboticist, Susan Calvin, are people reflecting the humanity of loneliness borne from difference.
In their definitive 1990 reference guide, Uranian Worlds, Eric Garber and Lyn Paleo have listed 935 stories featuring ‘alternative sexuality’ within science fiction, horror and fantasy genres. Stories include Ted Sturgeon’s The World Well Lost, which Garber and Paleo state is ‘often credited with having introduced the subject of homosexuality into the genre’, (Garber & Paleo, 1990, 203 & 204) through to ‘Joanna Russ’s introduction of lesbian feminism into science fiction’ via stories such as The Female Man. There is even a range of dystopian futures wherein gay men with AIDS are incarcerated in concentration camps (Garber & Paleo, p. xiii). Many of these stories explore ideas or identities outside of traditional cis heteronormative formulae. It seems a shame that many queer science fiction readers appear to be unaware that such a rich smorgasbord of literary science fiction is available for their consumption.
Within this twilight area of alternate realities, we find our first example of queer agency. Joseph Hawkins identifies a link between early literary science fictional utopias and the emergent gay rights movement as can be seen in the fanzines produced by Lisa Ben and Jim Kepner during science fiction’s early era; the skills they honed and the pre-Internet social networks which they nurtured may have laid the groundwork for their later publication and dissemination of seminal gay literature. Hawkins posits: ‘I think a really great case can be made for the fact that they learned how to do their gay publishing from their involvement in science fiction’. This suggests that futuristic fantasies of strange new worlds are sympathetic to the adoption and incorporation of queerdom and other non-traditional ideas.
The Other Science Fiction
“Sometimes it takes a human life to balance a cold equation
in the black geometry of the Twilight Zone.”
– Narration from “The Twilight Zone” episode “Cold Equations.”
Today’s more populist forms of science fiction are found within media-based material, which tends to focus less on storyline and more on what science fiction author Isaac Asimov refers to as mere spectacle (cited in Hipple, 2008). Media science fiction attracts greater numbers of followers, in part, by diluting challenging ideas into relatively inoffensive material, including allegorical stories regarding the ‘other’.
Ideally, science fiction should be a fertile ground for introducing people to diversity and difference. After all, if we spend time absorbing material that features interaction between humans and aliens, it will hopefully encourage people to have open minds when approaching any cultures or communities that differ from their own. Science fiction should – theoretically at least – encourage a bigot-free zone. (If only!)
Hart suggests that virtually all Hollywood movies narrate a narrow binary of ‘otherness’, as demonstrated in westerns: ‘hero versus villain, civilisation versus savagery, individualism versus democracy, strength versus weakness, garden versus desert.’ (Hart, 2000, 15). By extension, media science fiction often explores this same duality through polarised perspectives: humans versus aliens, survival versus destruction, colonists versus frontiers, scientists versus luddites, and ‘man’ versus machine. The linkages between westerns and media science fiction are more blatant than simple acquisition of forms and templates: Star Trek was originally conceived as comprising a ‘Wagon Train to the stars’ and more recent science fiction TV programs, including Space Rangers and Firefly, have incorporated western tropes – although the latter did so in order to invert the craft.
Possibly the strongest parallel between westerns and media science fiction can be seen in ‘male same-sex friendships… and rivalries, both of which constitute complex love-hate relationships’ (Allmendinger, 1999, 224) which are traditional in westerns, and almost ubiquitous in media science fiction. However, an implicit homophobic culture within SF films ensures that no homosocial astronaut or alien can be acceptably queer. A gay but coyly chaste Sulu in the 2016 Star Trek movie serves as both a token Asian and a token gay male, and his anaemic characterisation can be interpreted as a queer-baiting exercise which reflects the uninformed perspective of white heteronormative creators.
Ultimately, the ‘other’ in media science fiction has its limitations due to its association with victimisation (Shawl & Ward, 2005, 58.) The fleeting ‘don’t ask don’t tell’ reference found within the 2008 mini-series, Andromeda Strain, might be seen as a welcome progression from earlier treatments such as that found in the 1990 movie, Moon 44, which features a homosexual rape. However, the reality is that neither portrayal is acceptable for modern audiences.
Representations and Permutations
“If we can’t write diversity into sci-fi, then what’s the point? You don’t create new worlds to give them all the same limits of the old ones.” ― Jane Espenson.
In 2016, I attended a convention in Melbourne which boasted a number of panels that examined issues relating to queer science fictions. One panel consisted almost entirely of panelists and audience swapping suggestions for the whole hour, in order to compile a necessarily incomplete list of queer SF novels. Within my experience, such a search for queerdom within SF usually tends to be a passive one – seeking out what already exists, and assigning it significance as part of our quest for validation. This may be a necessary starting point, but I see it as being insufficient for those seeking to express perspectives and voices outside of the heterosexist structure of traditional SF.
In past times, subtext or heterosexually-sanitised representations have dominated our search for significance. Subtext in Blake’s Seven nominally satiated one desire for queer visibility (Lilley, 2000, 5). The TV series, Alien Nation, tackled gender roles and same sex marriage, which may explain why the series was quickly cancelled. Quantum Leap explored heterosexual AIDS, gender issues, and one 1992 episode confronted the reality of gays in the military:
“This is the most controversial episode Quantum Leap has yet aired. When it was in production, threatened advertiser defections caused a storm of charges and countercharges in Hollywood. Amidst threats of boycott and charges of censorship, the episode aired, essentially as written, to high ratings” (Chunovic, 1993, 83).
Even so, Quantum Leap remained a flawed product. Using the plot device of time travel to have its main character ‘leap’ into the body of a stranger each week and thereby explore issues of racial and gender equality, the series nevertheless chose to play it safe:
“…The series missed many opportunities. Sam never leaped into an openly gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender person. He never contracted AIDS, fell into same-sex love or got queer bashed. On a more subtle level, Sam’s romances were always heterosexual and featured him, within a male body, kissing a woman. Why didn’t he ever have a romance within a woman’s body, kissing a man?” (KR, 2000, 7),
Other media science fiction has queer-baited its audiences, with teasing references to homosexuality that go nowhere: Babylon 5 featured a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it bisexual/lesbian relationship between two main characters, and it parodied same-sex relationships between two pairs of male characters. Star Trek: Deep Space Nine featured a symbiont character who occasionally changed gender but remained firmly, comfortably heterosexual. Modern incarnations of Doctor Who and its spin-off series, Torchwood, have dabbled in queer characters, themes and relationships. Writers of The Big Bang Theory have included frequent queer subtext for comic effect, but ultimately chose to redefine Sheldon’s asexuality and the ‘ersatz homosexual’ relationships shared by other bohemian characters in the series. It took the Star Trek franchise over fifty years to acknowledge the existence of positive LGBTQIA+ characters, and Star Wars still has to get there after forty years – both of them long after SF like Sense8 had already led the way.
The sister genre of media fantasy – wherein the rules which govern our physical and metaphysical universe are bent or broken more readily – appears to lend itself to a more free expression of bohemian ideas via vampires, werewolves and other fringe characters. We have seen homosocial relationships in Xena and Smallville, and we have met our allegorical selves in X-Men and Buffy. This evolution is palpable: in the 1985 movie, the eponymous Teen Wolf reassures his buddy that he is not a ‘fag’; whereas a generation later, his titular spin-off series is replete with queer characters and fan discussion on the need for comprehensive exploration beyond tokenism. Such tokenism might also be glimpsed in Dumbledore’s ‘coming out’ only after the Harry Potter book and film series were safely concluded. But while such tokenism mitigates against queer invisibility, it is insufficient to address the full potential of what Patricia Juliana Smith posits as ‘the queer imaginary’ (Smith, 1999, xiii).
In Search of An Identity
“Be yourself; everyone else is already taken” – Oscar Wilde.
Ultimately, what makes science fiction ‘queer’? Is it the inclusion, by straight authors, of effeminate homosexuals, as Joe Haldeman admitted, during a 2002 interview, when speaking of his 1975 novel, The Forever War: ‘I’m certain that if I wrote it today, I wouldn’t have this feminisation of the gay people’? (Allshorn, 2002, 10). Is it a romance between Riker and a (clearly-female) androgynous alien, in one episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation, where the ultimate message of the episode is that sexual deviance can be cured? (Roberts, 1999, 117 – 122). Might we consider the recent Australian film Predestination, along with its source material, the classic short story, All You Zombies–, by Robert Heinlein? These attempts reflect the understandings of their heterosexual creators, however well-intentioned, and suggest that queer agency may itself be a necessary prerequisite. Lawrence Schimel points out that defining queer perspective is itself problematic (Schimel, 1998, 9) – and, I would add, probably as difficult as trying to confine science fiction within one all-encompassing definition.
Nisi Shawl and Cynthia Ward encourage us to be mindful of what they refer to as ‘parallax’ (borrowed from the astronomical term); that is, recognising that reality can be viewed from differing perspectives (Shawl & Ward, 2005, 21). Following their example, we should acknowledge that a science fiction story written by an affluent white gay man in Melbourne will present a different parallax from one written by an African American man in Boston – or a white lesbian in Buenos Aires, a Jewish heterosexual F2M in Beirut, a Latinx person in Orlando, an indigenous sistergirl in Alice Springs, or a gay Catholic man in Lagos. To further extend our understandings of parallax, we should also note that literary SF and media SF have their own traditions and paradigms, as do manga, graphic arts and novels, RPG and MMORP and LARP and cosplay, fanfic, and social media. Such varied formats provide opportunities for the portrayal of diverse voices and lives.
One empowered approach towards ‘queer’ agency within science fiction should be to consider its intersections with other ‘minorities’ or cohorts who have also been traditionally excluded, marginalised or stereotyped within the genre. Hawkins suggests that gay rights pioneers who were inspired by science fictional ideals also found parallels with feminism and racial equality. Conversely, Shawl suggests that a wise approach for transcultural explorers is to understand the differences between being a ‘tourist’, a ‘guest’ and an ‘invader’ of other cultures; thereby avoiding cultural appropriations (Shawl, 2005, 75 – 84). I concur that cultural appropriation of feminist, Afrofuturist or indigenous perspectives is, in itself, not appropriate within queerdom, except where these overlap within LGBTIQ identities – and they may often do so. However, we can also learn from these other examples and forge our own unique perspectives and self-empowerment.
Racism has been problematic within the science fictional tradition. Although people of varied racial and cultural groupings have contributed to science fiction for many years, their contribution has often been overlooked in favour of white authors. Only after 1993 – when the term ‘Afrofuturism’ was invented (Miller, 2014) – did serious recognition reportedly emerge that ‘the canon is not monolithically white’ (Vint, 2014). As recently as August 2015, a report commissioned by a science fiction journal indicated that ‘of the 2039 (science fiction) short stories published in 2015, only 38 were published by black authors’. Despite possible questions arising from survey methodology, it seems appalling that a reported 60% of science fiction magazines had failed to publish one story by a black author that year, and that no black authors had been published for at least most of 2016. Other recent academic study has expanded awareness of underlying race issues within and around science fiction, such as DeWitt Douglas Kilgore’s reference to issues of race and evolutionary superiority within H G Wells’ War of the Worlds, and to the politics of segregation in Asimov’s Robot stories. He adds:
“Perhaps the greatest challenge or potential of contemporary science fiction is to imagine political/social futures in which race does not simply wither away but is transformed, changing into something different and perhaps unexpected” (Kilgore, 2010, 17).
We can find parallels between race and queerdom. Jeffrey M. Elliott suggests that we shared the same traditional stigma within SF: ‘In many ways, gays/lesbians were treated much like blacks: as non-existent’ (Elliott, 1984, 9). In seeking queer visibility, it is therefore up to us to assert our autonomy and to develop cultural identities that express our own differences and present our own viewpoints. In exploring our own post-Stonewall heritage, we should be prepared to create new and unique forms of futurism.
In 1959, C.P. Snow wrote about the chasm which he saw between what he termed the ‘two cultures’: broadly speaking, the sciences versus the humanities. He bemoaned the intellectual poverty each had of the contribution to life and society being made by the other (Snow, 1959/1960, 16). Science fiction has subsequently been proposed as a literary form to bridge the gap between these two aspects of human inquiry and intellect (Westfahl & Slusser, 2009). I submit that it may also provide us with opportunities to bridge a divide between divergent forms of self-identity, including those of sexuality and gender identity. Our own ‘coming out’ stories may provide a broader context for evolution within the human condition.
From Slipstream to Queer Pride
“Whenever you find yourself on the side of the majority, it is time to reform (or pause and reflect)” – Mark Twain.
Grace L Dillon presents important perspectives via the parallax of indigenous science fictions. These include ‘native slipstream’, or alternative universes and timestreams ranging from multiverses and cyberpunk through to the application of ecologically sustainable sciences (Dillon, 2012, 3 – 5, 7 – 8). Significantly, she also identifies two aspects of indigenous SF which, I submit, may serve as examples to guide queer science fiction participants who seek directions for their own narratives.
Dillon examines ‘Biskaabiiyang’ (or ‘returning to ourselves’) wherein ‘the knowledge of the past histories of fighting back and resistances throughout time is a necessary component of predicting the future’ (ibid, 217). This is one area within which unique histories and traditions have been combined to create unique perspectives. In queer parlance, might similar journeys of self discovery include a celebration and cultural commemoration of Stonewall, or maybe finding ubiquitous forms of ‘coming out’ from varied ‘closets’?
In identifying and positing ‘native apocalypse’ within SF literature, Dillon posits a post-colonialist perspective within indigenous speculative fiction:
“Apocalyptic tales usually portray a future scenario related to the abuse of advanced technologies, such as the aftermath of nuclear bombs detonated with terrorist intent on US soil. Native SF often points out that historically the apocalypse has already occurred” (Dillon, ibid, 149).
In 2016, Sydney gay magazine Star Observer published a short science fiction story which thematically and allegorically addressed indigenous apocalypse through the perspective of a gay male protagonist (Sheather, 2016, 62). It demonstrated that an overlap of queer and indigenous identities can provide an evocative focus for mutually-beneficial agency, in this case affirming the power of memory and living testimony as forms of cultural witness and legacy.
Similarly, a queer perspective of our own pre- and post-Stonewall histories indicates that we may have our own specific dystopian stories to recount and interpret. One ‘cranky old queer’ Doctor Who fan explains how a fictional queer character like Jack Harkness can provide new forms of subtext in their real-life post-trauma world:
“For Jack, we know there must have been lovers lost not to aliens, but to AIDS, and scars no longer visible from a beating or a thrown bottle. If it’s true for us, it somehow must be true for him, surely” (Maltese, 2013, 121).
I await the writing of queer science fictional narratives regarding the long-term impact of our own experiences of stigma, cultural erasure and epidemic. Similarly, I look forward to queer reinterpretations of the future human condition as contextualised through the lenses of gay liberation, queer pride, marriage equality and same-sex parenting.
Praxis Is Not Just A Klingon Moon
“After all, a person is herself, and others. Relationships chisel the final shape of one’s being. I am me, and you.” – N.K. Jemisin.
Just as women’s liberation and gay liberation emerged out of the same era and civil rights impetus, we can examine an overlap of feminist and queer praxis. Science fiction has a chequered history in its treatment of women, who were portrayed (if at all) as being ‘negatively constructed… gendered passive, self-denying, obedient, and self-sacrificial’ (Liang, 2015, 2037). SF literature attempted to confront its sexism as far back as the 1940s and 1950s, a time during which Justine Larbalestier reportedly recalls a rudimentary feminist discourse (Duchamp, 2004, 31). Marion Zimmer Bradley similarly recalls the controversy which arose when the ‘almost obscenely sexless’ genre evolved beyond its pulp origins and began to consider the inclusion of women as part of a conflation with emergent sexuality: ‘Is sex valid in SF?'(Bradley, 1976, 8). Sarah Lefanu notes the later ‘incursion’ into SF during the 1970s by women who were keen to exploit the genre’s potential for expression of political ideas in line with women’s liberation (Lefanu, 1989, 179 & 180). This ‘second wave’ of feminists coincides with the arrival of Star Trek fans upon the wider SF convention scene, anecdotally recalled as providing ‘the first Australian Con with a reasonable gender ratio’ in 1969 (Johnson, 2015). This era fueled the rise of slash fiction which was largely driven by women as creators and consumers.
Some activists continue to call for queer characters to appear in populist media science fiction (Pearson, 1999, 1 – 22) – and in past times, this was also my position (Geoff and Miriam, 2001, 2 & 3). However, I have come to realise that such representation simply reinforces tokenism within uninformed heterosexist parallax. Genuine queer ownership and agency are required.
Our communal acronym of LGBTIQ is itself expanding and evolving to also recognise intersex, pansexual and polysexual, non-binary and sexually fluid and genderfluid, bigender and trigender and pangender and genderqueer, fa’afafine and Two Spirit and kathoey and tongzhi, sistergirl and brotherboy, drag king and drag queen, androphilic and gynecophilic, asexual and non-monosexual, questioning, queer, rainbow, and allied individuals – among others. Similarly, our futurisms need to acknowledge and adopt new and celebratory understandings of biological, sociopolitical and technological diversity; I submit that queer SF creators and consumers have a unique ability to contribute new perspectives. Queering humanity adds humanity to queerdom.
It is time to leave behind Frankenstein’s Monster, Spock, and the aliens who are hidden in plain sight. Where once we were satisfied with the subtextual and metaphoric ‘other’, it is time for us to raise new voices and ‘come out’ with pride and celebration, helping to redefine science fiction – and humanity as a diverse collection of aliens, bohemians, and others. One such example may be David Gerrold’s The Man Who Folded Himself, a story which features homosexualities amongst its paradoxical time travel permutations:
“So this is love.
The giving. The taking.
The abandonment of rules. The opening of the self.
And the resultant sensuality of it all.” (Gerrold, 1991, 82)
Therein we might find both an invitation and a template for our human future.
Blake Allmendinger, 1999. ‘The Queer Frontier’, in Patricia Juliana Smith (ed.), The Queer Sixties, New York: Routledge.
Geoff Allshorn, 2002. ‘The Forever Awarded: An Interview with Joe Haldeman’, Diverse Universe (Newsletter for the club ‘Spaced Out’), No. 12, June.
Marion Zimmer Bradley, 1976. ‘Experiment Perilous’, in Editor Unknown, Experiment Perilous: Three Essays on Science Fiction, New York, ALGOL Press.
Louis Chunovic, 1993. ‘Running for Honor’ (episode synopsis), The Quantum Leap Book, London: Boxtree.
Grace L Dillon (ed.), 2012. Walking the Clouds: An Anthology of Indigenous Science Fiction, Tucson: University of Arizona Press.
L. Timmel Duchamp, 2004. The Grand Conversation, Seattle: Aqueduct Press.
Jeffrey M. Elliott (ed.), 1984. ‘Introduction’, Kindred Spirits: An Anthology of Gay and Lesbian Science Fiction Stories, Boston: Alyson Publications.
Eric Garber and Lyn Paleo, 1990. Uranian Worlds: A Guide to Alternative Sexuality in Science Fiction, Fantasy and Horror, (Second Edition), Boston: GK Hall.
Geoff and Miriam (eds.), 2001. ‘From the Editors: Star Trek: Give Us Some Queer Characters Now!’, Diverse Universe (Newsletter for the club ‘Spaced Out’), No. 8, June.
David Gerrold, 1991.The Man Who Folded Himself, New York: Bantam Books.
Lawrence Grossberg, 1992. ‘Is There a Fan in the House?: The Affective Sensibility of Fandom’, in Lisa A. Lewis (ed.), Adoring Audience: Fan Culture and Popular Media, London: Routledge.
KR, 2000. ‘Queer Time Travel: Had We But World Enough, and Time…’, Diverse Universe (Newsletter for the club ‘Spaced Out’), No. 4, July.
Kylo-Patrick R. Hart PhD, 2000. The AIDS Movie: Representing A Pandemic in Film and Television, Haworth Press Inc, New York.
David Hipple, 2008. ‘The Accidental Apotheosis of Gene Roddenberry, or. “I Had to Get Some Money from Somewhere”, p. 23, in Lincoln Geragthy (ed.), The Influence of Star Trek on Television, Film and Culture, Jefferson NC: McFarland and Compan.
Robin Johnson, 2015. ‘Merve Binns: Notes for an Appreciation’, A. Bertram Chandler Award Winner 1993, Australian Science Fiction Foundation.
DeWitt Douglas Kilgore, 2010. ‘Difference Engine: Aliens, Robots, and Other Racial Matters in the History of Science Fiction’, Science Fiction Studies, Vol. 37, No. 1, March.
Sarah Lefanu, 1989. ‘Feminist intervention in science fiction’, in Derek Longhurst (ed.), Gender, Genre & Narrative Pleasure, London: Unwin Hyman.
Ying Liang, 2015. ‘Female Body in the Postmodern Science Fiction’, Theory and Practice in Language Studies, Vol. 5, No. 10, October.
Stephen Lilley, 2000. ‘Blake’s Seven: Gambit’, Diverse Universe (Newsletter for the club ‘Spaced Out’), No. 4, July.
Racheline Maltese, 2013. ‘Jack Harkness’s Lessons on Memory and Hope for Cranky Old Queers’, in Sigrid Ellis and Michael Damian Thomas (eds.), Queers Dig Time Lords.
Bettye Miller, 2014. Science Fiction Through Lens of Racial Inclusiveness, University of California Press Release, Washington DC: US Federal News Service.
Wendy Pearson, 1999. ‘Alien Cryptographies: The View from Queer’, Science Fiction Studies: Volume 26, No. 1, March.
Matthew Richardson (ed.), 2001. ‘Lucian: True Story’ and commentary, in, The Halstead Treasury of Ancient Science Fiction, Sydney: Halstead Press, pp. 43 – 85.
Robin Roberts, 1999. Sexual Generations: Star Trek: The Next Generation and Gender, Urbana: University of Illinois Press.
Lawrence Schimel, 1998. ‘Introduction’ in Lawrence Schimel (ed.), Things Invisible To See: Gay and Lesbian Tales of Magic Realism, Cambridge MA: Circlet Press.
Nisi Shawl and Cynthia Ward, 2005. Writing the Other: A Practical Approach, Seattle: Aqueduct Press.
Tyrone Sheather, 2016, ‘Cradle of the Sun’, Star Observer, August.
Patricia Juliana Smith, 1999. ‘Introduction’, in Patricia Juliana Smith (ed.), The Queer Sixties, New York: Routledge.
C.P. Snow, 1959/1960. The Two Cultures and the Scientific Revolution, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
“Imagine that you see the wretched strangers,
Their babies at their backs and their poor luggage,
Plodding to the ports and coasts for transportation,
And that you sit as kings in your desires…
Why, you must needs be strangers…”
– The Book of Sir Thomas More.
Sadly our modern world seems to overlook this natural instinct, particularly when it comes to minority groups such as LGBT people. Some flee dangerous countries as refugees and find sanctuary, while many others find difficulties in their destination countries. The World Economic Forum acknowledges this problem:
In 72 countries, same-sex relationships are currently criminalized. In eight, they are punishable by death. But in many others, social norms, traditions and customs make life for LGBT people equally impossible, even if the law is not officially against them.
Many African LGBT refugees have horrifying stories about difficulties and struggles. One young gay man and a lesbian share some of their background before fleeing as refugees:
I was living …with my mother and uncle. I was studying in … high school. There I was having a friend called James… We used to be together… In the night, homophobic civilians broke into his home and killed him. Some people were thinking crazy about me, for they were not sure if I am also a gay or not. They reported it to my mum and she beat me.
After two days of James’ death, in the morning I was on my way to school. A group of six people held mob justice on me. They attacked me and beat me… that day, I stopped going to school…
(Anonymous gay man – used with author’s consent).
In 2012, when I was 15, I was [told] by my Father to get married. I refused, and when he asked me why I refused, I told him I don’t like men, I don’t feel like it, and am feeling something different. When I told him that, he chased me out of the house. Then I went to my mother’s place because they had divorced sometimes back. I reached my mom’s place and started living with her.
In August 2019 I was called that my mother was in bad condition… When I entered the room to see my mother at the hospital, my father didn’t even allow me to reach the sick bed. He chased me and said a lot of abusive words… my mother was hearing and she continued getting sick with pressures. Immediately she started fighting for her life, and in few minutes she was dead… At the burial, all my family members accused me of killing my mother, that I was the cause. After the burial, I looked around and I had nowhere to go, I decided to go to my father’s place. When I reached it, he … chased me with a machete, and told me that he can’t live with a lesbian.
(Anonymous lesbian – used with author’s consent).
The problems faced by LGBT refugees in Kenya are staggering. Instead of sanctuary, LGBT refugees face neglect, discrimination and persecution, as explained by this gay man:
I escaped from my family/Uganda because of my sexuality and the government passed a bill to hurt and kill all gays in Uganda. Same here in Kenya, life isn’t good. The country is too homophobic towards we gay people and refugees. It’s like going from a frying pan into the inferno. The Kenyan locals are more homophobic even than Ugandans. They know refugees from Uganda must be gay because there is no war or famine there, and they consider gays to be bure (useless and worthless). They say our country vomited us like poison, so they will also vomit us the same way our country vomited us.
Here in Kenya it’s more worse. People split saliva on us and beat us on the street, and we have no one to run to. If we go to the police, they blame us for promoting homosexuality in their country. They say they are protecting their youth, which isn’t true. We don’t want their youth. We just want peace.
Block 13 at Kakuma Refugee Camp is a locus for LGBTQI refugees, presumably to allow them to gather safely and collectively. In reality, it provides a target for violent attacks and ongoing death threats, perpetrated by homophobic neighbours.
Living conditions (right) and collecting bathing water (below) at Block 13 at Kakuma Refugee Camp, Kenya. Photo used by permission of photographer.
Here are people with incredible courage and resilience; having fled their homes for sanctuary in another land, being denied all but the most cursory subsistence levels of support from UNHCR and other agencies, at the behest of a largely uncaring world. Within our human family, they add fabulosity to a locale filled with scorpions and snakes, homophobes and hunger, malaria and machetes. They are rainbow people who live in a world that still largely fears difference.
One trans woman testifies:
I am a transgender living in Block 13, Kakuma. I have been in Kakuma since October 2019. During [those} twelve months… I have realized that the transgenders are hit the hardest during attacks. We receive discrimination at the hand of our neighbors, the police, and some of the employees of UNHCR and its partners.
I remember the day when a police officer promised to shoot me dead because of the way I dress. It shows that as a transgender you do not expect PROTECTION even from the police officers. On 10th June 2020, I was attacked near Block 13, along with another transgender. We were rushed to a clinic because we were losing a lot of blood. The medical personnel on the duty refused to attend on us because we were not wearing face masks, imagine! When our colleagues complained out fear of our lives, the hospital had them arrested. There is no any place in Kakuma where we feel safe, not even in hospitals.”
(Anonymous – used with author’s consent).
In a world that is distracted by COVID-19, LGBT individuals and groups across Australia and the western world largely face the challenge of acknowledging and responding to great suffering among members of their rainbow family, in places such as Kakuma. Marriage Equality and cable TV specials during lockdown are not the only civil rights issues that should be on our LGBTQIA+ agenda.
For other, more generic human rights and LGBT supporters, the general lack of mainstream advocacy and support diminishes us all. Our humanity is found wanting. The year 2020 puts this in stark context: if COVID-19 reveals deep deficiencies within the economic systems of affluent western countries, how much worse is it for those in less affluent nations?
Elie Wiesel‘s words should both challenge and accuse us out of our complacency: “The opposite of love is not hate, it’s indifference. The opposite of art is not ugliness, it’s indifference. The opposite of faith is not heresy, it’s indifference. And the opposite of life is not death, it’s indifference. Because of indifference, one dies before one actually dies. To be in the window and watch people being sent to concentration camps or being attacked in the street and do nothing, that’s being dead.”
Has humanity evolved since the days of Shakespeare, when he pleaded for humane treatment of the refugee, of people from other races and cultures, and of the ‘other’? When will we stop ignoring the suffering of those who share our humanity? I long for the day when we finally live up to his hope of four centuries past:
“Commend me to them,
And tell them that, to ease them of their griefs,
Their fears of hostile strokes, their aches, losses,
Their pangs of love, with other incident throes
That nature’s fragile vessel doth sustain
In life’s uncertain voyage, I will some kindness do them…”
– William Shakespeare
‘Timon Of Athens‘ act 5, sc. 1, 225-230.
Public disclaimer: I am part of a group that has been started in response to this human crisis, and I invite readers to contribute to the building of a better world: Humanity In Need: Rainbow Refugees.
Photograph: Moon from Mansfield (c) 2020 by Kirsten Trecento
Here is a filk song celebrating the grandeur of science, knowledge, and critical thinking.
To be sung to the tune of Holy Holy Holy*
(*With acknowledgement to Reginald Heber and ‘Nicaea’ John Bacchus Dykes)
This tune is filked from an old religious hymn, because I wanted to explore the idea that transcendence and awe can be found within science and critical thinking, at least as much as they might be claimed anywhere else.
Wholly, wholly, wholly,
Wholly and completely,
Are we evolving
And our society.
Wholly, wholly, wholly,
Totally and freely,
Seeking new truths
And new reality.
Wholly, wholly, wholly,
Should be our reliance
On the word of reason
And not of bigotry.
Wholly, wholly, wholly,
Is our trust in science.
Not in religion
Wholly, wholly, wholly,
Life can educate me,
Though the eye of simple man
Its glory may not see;
Only thinking wholly
Fully can empower me,
Loving the world
and all humanity.
Wholly, wholly, wholly,
Looking to the future,
Leave the past behind us
With all its faults and crimes.
Only wisdom wholly
Promises and guides us.
Our future beckons,
Hope for better times.
Creationism? Trumpism? Science denialism? Religious Fundamentalism?
The religious impulse gone wild within a world in intellectual decline.
As a boy, I learnt children’s Bible stories: Adam and Eve being banished from Paradise as punishment for gaining knowledge, God committing genocide upon the whole Earth except for Noah and his ark, David brutally slaying Goliath, God killing the Egyptian babies, and Jesus being nailed to a cross. You know, all the Bible stories deemed to be fun and fit for children.
And yet the story of Doubting Thomas is the one that possibly captured my childhood imagination the most: the Apostle Thomas, upon being told that Jesus had returned from the dead, skeptically stated that he would not believe the claim until he was able to physically see and touch the evidence for himself (a demand that was jointly both a bit eeew and a bit awesome – kind of like Ben Hur Meets the Walking Dead).
To my childhood mind, Doubting Thomas was uber-cool. He was the only scientist in the Bible. I could imagine Thomas’ skepticism on also being told that Jesus had walked on water; should he check for water skis? When Jesus performed a cheap magic trick by making money appear in a fish’s mouth, did Thomas pull out a magnifying glass and check for fingerprints? Responding to the claim that Jesus had physically ascended into heaven, did Thomas pilot an Apollo lunar module up into the skies to investigate? Doubting Thomas was a Bronze Age Sherlock Holmes and a role model for all thinking, rational people. Richard Dawkins has even proclaimed Thomas to be, ‘The Patron Saint of Scientists‘.
Sadly, the story of Doubting Thomas is a morality tale – for all the wrong reasons – among many modern religious thinkers and conspiracy theorist types: Thomas was chastised by Jesus for his skepticism, and was encouraged to believe by faith alone rather than require empirical evidence. Thomas may have been a cool dude, but his intellectual rigour was apparently his moral weakness. Thus we see one of the most insidious aspects of religion: its potential for anti-scientific and anti-intellectual pretension.
The Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil
I acknowledge the duality within religion: like all inventions of humanity, it has the potential for great good as well as great evil. A popular assertion is that religion has been shown in scientific studies to be good for us – even good for non-religious people. Transcendance, peace, charity and consolation are often proclaimed as being outcomes of religious benevolence. Of course, this ignores the fact that religion has also been responsible for a great deal of bigotry, suffering and other negativity in world history, and the reality is that even at its most benevolent, religion cannot claim a monopoly upon beneficial life experiences. Perhaps an apt summary of religion’s somewhat ambiguous role in society might best be expressed: “Religion has often been a vehicle for intolerance and fundamentalism; religion has been used as an excuse for persecution and war. But, religion in its purest form has provided many benefits for humanity.”
When speaking about the tree of knowledge of good and evil, religion was surely describing itself. To paraphrase Eckhart Tolle, humanity created god – and religions – in its own image.
The Evolution of Religion
Where did the religious impulse originate within the human species? What evolutionary purpose might it serve: perhaps to assist in survival of communities bonded together in devotional benevolence or cultural tribalism? How can such an impulse prosper within societies when it has potentially dubious benefits for individuals? Richard Dawkins suggests: “I think there was something built into the human brain by natural selection which was once useful and which now manifests itself under civilised conditions as religion, but which used not to be religion when it first arose, and when it was useful.”
He offers one possible example of the kind of survival mechanism involved:
“For excellent reasons related to Darwinian survival, child brains need to trust parents, and elders whom parents tell them to trust. An automatic consequence is that the truster has no way of distinguishing good advice from bad. The child cannot know that ‘Don’t paddle in the crocodile-infested Limpopo’ is good advice but ‘You must sacrifice a goat at the time of the full moon, otherwise the rains will fail’ is at best a waste of time and goats. Both admonitions sound equally trustworthy. Both come from a respected source and are delivered with a solemn earnestness that commands respect and demands obedience.”
– The God Delusion, p. 176.
I like the idea that religion might be some vestigial evolutionary mechanism involving teaching children unquestioning deference as a means of ensuring survival of the next generation. We see that same juvenile mindset in the conflating of Santa Claus with God. However, in recent decades, we have also seen the rise of this somewhat immature religious impulse fueling a cultural explosion of anti-science, anti-intellectual nonsense, and personality cults ranging from gurus and celebrities to politicians. As a result, we are in the midst of a pandemic – not COVID-19 or another biological attack upon our species – but an anti-intellectual pandemic that threatens to take our species back to the Stone Age. Although we live in the greatest scientific age in history, we also have a shameful amount of pseudo-scientific, ignorant drivel being peddled everywhere from nursery to nursing home.
“That’s Your Opinion”
The insidious dualism of religion can be found in our cultural and intellectual landscape. Religion has inspired much art, literature, and scholarly inquiry – including pre-Enlightenment humanism. Yet it has also, in its modern fundamentalist form, opposed science, intellect and inquiry – not a surprising outcome for those who follow a text in which the token scientist is lambasted. It is this same anti-intellectual syndrome that has expanded across populist culture.
I had a revelation when I was aged fourteen, during the peak popularity of the UFO craze. Entranced by the spookiness and excitement of it all, I came to realise that I could just as easily (and I did!) make up my own, fictional, stories of alien visitation to spook my gullible school friends. Incredibly, I realised the crazier my story, the more they seemed to actually want to believe it. To this day, I suspect that such modern mythologies are a means for people to feel special or to claim undeserved expertise.
Faith that requires unquestioning acceptance in the absence of evidence – the religious midset – is absolutely not equal to the rigours of scientific inquiry. Yet the popular false equivalence between faith and science can be seen when debating adherents of pseudoscientific ideas, where scientific rebuttals have often been met with a dismissive retort: “That’s your opinion.” The common misunderstanding here is that because everyone has an equal right to hold an opinion, all opinions are therefore equal. However, they are not all equal, nor do they deserve equal respect or deference. An opinion that is backed by scientific evidence, informed research, and which defers to expertise, is one that presents a much stronger case than one based upon faith, ignorance, misinformation, or a few conspiracy theory videos and websites.
Sadly, our modern cultural template seems to be that an armchair expert’s self-declared PhD in alternate facts somehow qualifies them to claim kudos equivalent to that of genuinely qualified, peer reviewed experts who have spent a lifetime in scientific or academic study. In our common culture, astrology is equal to astronomy, mysticism is equal to medicine, and uninformed opinion is equal to scientific fact – because proof (or lack of it) is irrelevant. Those who subscribe to this religious methodology fail to grasp the importance of the aphorism attributed to Walter Kotschnig who warned us: “Don’t keep your minds so open that your brains fall out.”
Despite some effort by religious apologists to redefine his skepticism, the story of Doubting Thomas is a wonderful parable regarding the power of critical thinking and intellectual inquiry over superstition and gullibility. We must not confuse his skeptical thinking with the uncritical acceptance of unsupported claims and pseudo sciences, televangelical rhetoric, or conspiracy theories. The philosophy of anti-intellectualism has most recently gained pride of place in a culture that values superstition over science, or a sound byte over a sound mind. People who value critical thought must take a stand against such populist piffle. Carl Sagan’s Baloney Detection Kit is a good stepping stone in teaching people how to think, not what to think. More than that, we must address the underlying emotional needs for significance that make conspiracy theories and pseudosciences so popular:
“Pseudoscience speaks to powerful emotional needs
that science often leaves unfulfilled” – Carl Sagan.
In a story about religious reverence and rationalization, Doubting Thomas instead demanded relentless rationality and reason. While crowds compliantly queued up for loaves and fishes, he alone sought learning and facts. If I recall correctly, he made very little other contribution to the Bible story – and yet it was enough.
(NASA Photo: M81 is a spiral galaxy about 12 million light years away that is both relatively large in the sky and bright, making it a frequent target for both amateur and professional astronomers. Image credit: X-ray: NASA/CXC/SAO; Optical: Detlef Hartmann; Infrared: NASA/JPL-Caltech)
Halina Wagowska is a Holocaust survivor and a Humanist. She is also the author of an autobiography, The Testimony, published in 2012. Halina has been a human rights activist for decades and I feel privileged to call her a friend. She agreed to be interviewed for this blog, utilising postal correspondence during the days of COVID-19 lock-down.
1. How did you survive the Holocaust?
In the labour camp, my parents insisted that I eat part of their meagre food ration because I was growing fast. That enhanced my chances of survival and diminished theirs.
Prolonged incarceration combined with danger and the unpredictability of each next moment, required adjustments and survival mechanisms. Mine was to regress to a primitive state where all my tiny wits were focused entirely on the precise moment, interpreting sounds, silences and movements, all in terms of approaching danger. Rather like a small creature in the undergrowth of a jungle full of predators. I was too young to see the ‘big picture’ or to reflect, which would have kept me off guard. I believe that gave me an advantage over those whose high intellect did not allow for such regression.
2. What are your most powerful memories of the Holocaust?
The death of my mother in my arms in Stutthof. Loading bodies brought from the gas chambers into crematoria ovens in Auschwitz-Birkenau. Being beaten, kicked, and spat upon.
3. How do you think the Holocaust shaped you, and our world?
Prolonged deprivation (5 years 9 months) of any aesthetic experiences makes me appreciate and cherish art, music, books, theatre, and the beauty of nature, as great enrichments of life.
It shaped my values and attitudes, and it narrowed my focus onto issues, problems and behaviours that inflict pain and harm, eg. child abuse, racism, homophobia, bullying, social injustice, inequality of opportunity.
The world said, ‘Never again’ and proclaimed the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which was a major civilising step.
4. What, if anything, do you think we have learnt from the Holocaust?
Possibly that prejudices can have gruesome consequences.
5. In your book, you state that, “Speaking out on behalf of the disadvantaged is my way of justifying my existence” (p. 195). Is this why you wrote your book?
Perhaps not surprisingly, I identify with persecuted minorities: people of colour, indigenous people, LGBT people, the Untouchables (Dalits). Speaking out against oppression and injustice is the least I can do.
I wrote the book to meet an obligation. In the camps, we kept saying that if we survive, we shall have to testify until we die. Friends insisted that as all my previous testifying is in the archives of research bodies, there should be a public record. Hence this book.
6. Although your book is a testimony to the horrors of the Holocaust, it is also a testimony to the positivity and determination in your subsequent life. Is this a reflection of your slogan: “Don’t remain a victim”? (p. 197)
I recall my mother (p. 59) towards the end of the war, worrying about whether I will be normal if I survive. After the war, the notion of being normal transformed itself into not remaining a victim. In the book, I try to show that with determination, it is possible to lead a normal life after a catastrophe.
7. You once told me that Marie Curie was an early hero for you. How did she influence your life?
Poland was short of famous people and was very proud of Maria Skłodowska Curie. As a child, I fantasised that if I studied hard, I too might devise or discover something of great value to humankind.
8. Why/when did you become a Humanist?
I was born in Poland to parents who were agnostic and of Jewish origin. The all-powerful Polish Catholic church pervaded all aspects of personal life, institutions and social structures. It preached a very harsh, divisive and punitive religion. Hence my passion for secularism. Years later, my training in science reinforced my preference for evidence-based facts.
My values and attitudes had many aspects of Humanism without me qualifying them as such. I joined the Humanist Society of Victoria when I became aware of its existence.
9. What do you think Humanism has got to offer the world, particularly in light of humanity’s capacity for great good and evil?
Humanism offers a vision of a better, fairer world. I am not sure how we can abolish evil.
Humanism meets my needs and passions for secularism, rational, ethical approach to problems, for the protection of human rights and dignity, for democracy, for social justice and equity and for social action through group lobbying.
What I find attractive in Humanism is its fostering of altruism, of goodness for its own sake, and the taking of total responsibility for one’s actions.
10. You have been a human rights activist for many years. Why? What do you feel are your greatest achievements?
I need to be useful. Lobbying and working to improve the lives of others seems worthwhile. With other members of HSV, I looked after homeless students; provided books for bushfire victims; helped to ‘adopt’ a village of Untouchables in India to help them up from their imposed quagmire. I am in a group to raise funds for bursaries for Aboriginal students.
11. What are the greatest human rights challenges of our time? How do we solve these problems?
The climate emergency, if left unattended, will make life hazardous for the next generation, and cause the extinction of many species. We need to heed scientific advice on climate, and we need to foster democratic governance, social justice and equality. Beware also the growing economic divide between rich and poor.
12. What message would you like to give to future generations?
Learn of past evils and say NEVER AGAIN. Check your prejudices.
13. Is there anything else you would like to add?
In this one life we have, let us work to make this a better world.
= = =
(The answers for Questions 8 & 9 include excerpted material which Halina previously presented to the ‘Australian Humanist’ magazine, No. 90, 2008.)
Yet the environmental movement probably got its first real boost in popular culture some six years earlier, via a ‘religious humanist’ lens. In 1962, Rachel Carson wrote a seminal book that helped change how society sees the world around us:
Her sensational book Silent Spring (1962) warned of the dangers to all natural systems from the misuse of chemical pesticides such as DDT, and questioned the scope and direction of modern science, initiated the contemporary environmental movement.
Rachel Carson was raised within Christianity but her view was that humans were a part of nature rather than some divinely mandated overlord:
… Carson, who was baptized in the Presbyterian Church, was not religious. One tenet of Christianity in particular struck her as false: the idea that nature existed to serve man.
A new generation is stepping up, led by a teenage girl who stopped the world in September 2019. Greta Thunberg launched an environmental movement that closed down cities and had people of all ages – especially school children – out in the streets. In Australia, one student leader challenged our Prime Minister with the notion that thoughts and prayers were not enough. The younger generation is challenging the old by calling for actions not words; older people need to review their lifestyles and their attitudes, recalling lyrics from a famous song from their childhood: The Times They Are a-Changin’. Tinkering with recyclables or planting a few trees is insufficient; we need not only a a sea change but a whole tsunami of change to implement everything from societal and economic restructure to climate justice.
Planet Earth is a sealed biosystem that we share with other living creatures. We have a responsibility to protect their interests as much as our own.
Commemorating World Gratitude Day (21 September):
Personal Encounters With People Who Made A Difference.
Two Australian activists – one an outspoken celebrity and the other a quiet achiever – both used their opportunities to change the world for the better. Their impact lives on.
In the twelfth century – according to tradition – King Canute unsuccessfully tried to stop the tides. In 1976, an Australian politician apparently succeeded.
The legendary story of King Canute was one of piety, asserting that worldly authorities, even kings, could not compete with the power of God. The more modern Australian version – a real life event at Glenelg beach – conveyed a converse form of piety: our ability to outgrow religious superstition by exercising secular thinking.
There are those who may recall when the destruction of Adelaide was predicted by a house-painter who, inspired by governmental reforms to decriminalise homosexuality, declared that around noon on 19 January 1976, South Australia would see divine wrath in the form of an earthquake and tsunami.
On the day, the Premier of South Australia, Don Dunstan, waved theatrically at an assembled crowd and, beyond them, at the crashing waves. The deadline passed without incident, and the world continued as before. There was no tidal wave, no tsunami. News reports suggest that the house-painter moved to an undisclosed location in the Eastern states, where his house may have been later destroyed in a local flood – a nice urban myth at least, indicating the good-natured, karmic mockery with which many Australians remember his presumption.
Over forty years later, it is hard to imagine any Australian politician today who would have the courage to confront a religious decree, no matter how irrational its content. But back in the 1970s, Don Dunstan was a rebel whose sexuality and open marriages were a rejection of traditional religious sex-negative dogma.
Such was typical of the life of Donald Allan Dunstan (21 September 1926 – 6 February 1999), born into the Christian faith but later embracing secular libertarian humanism because he could ‘no longer maintain a willing suspension of disbelief in some of the stranger things in Christian theology’ (Dino Hodge, Don Dunstan: Intimacy and Liberty, Wakefield Press, 2014, p. 221). Dunstan was a ‘renaissance man’ who led the push to abolish the White Australia Policy among his impressive list of other reforms. He was married twice to women, and his last long-term partner was a man.
My own personal connection to Don Dunstan was indirect and impersonal – yet profound. In December 1986, after leaving South Australian government and while working as Director of Tourism in Victoria, he attended the Sydney launch of an Australian gay history book. Another presence at the launch was a gay rights activist dressed as a nun and known as ‘Monsignor Porca Madonna’. The ensuing public outrage led to his resignation from his Victorian job, but not before my family intersected with the great man.
At that time, Dunstan was also involved with a charity in which a relative of mine was also involved. I recall how this relative proudly boasted how he had confronted Dunstan at a meeting and angrily berated him for promoting homosexuality. In hindsight, I can only presume that homophobia had been a vestigial remnant of this relative’s traditional religious upbringing. Still, I recall feeling some consolation in knowing that someone as prominent as Don Dunstan was willing to uphold gay rights during an era when the AIDS epidemic was creating great homophobic stigma, trauma and death.
My story is one among many thousands of lives that were touched in long-term and positive ways by the reforms that Don Dunstan helped to achieve. Even that once-homophobic relative of mine, who in more recent years spoke in favour of same-sex marriage, was ultimately helped towards this personal enlightenment by the homosexual law reforms that Dunstan had initiated.
Dunstan’s King Canute beach satire of 1976, mocking religious suspension of disbelief, was only a small side note in his larger, epochal political career in which his desire to transform the ‘city of churches’ into the ‘Athens of the south’ was symbolic of his remarkable transformation of Australia. He is sometimes remembered as ‘the man who decriminalised homosexuality’ in South Australia – a claim that acknowledges his lead within his progressive government to undertake many reforms, addressing capital punishment, Aboriginal land rights, anti-discrimination, censorship, child protection, consumer protection, environment protection, heritage protection, social welfare, and urban planning.
Overseeing such a list of progressive reform was not a bad effort for one LGBT humanist.
On 7 March 1995, the Acting Prime Minister Brian Howe gave a eulogy for Senator Olive Zakharov (19 March 1929 – 6 March 1995). He expounded her favourite quote from Hamlet, but he added her amendment to Shakespeare:
“This above all: to thine own self be true.
And it must follow, as the night follows day.
Thou cannot then be false to any man…
… and to this, Olive added `woman’.”
Olive Zakharov and I shared the same northern suburban regional background, and we even worked (albeit at different times) at the same local school. We were both shared a passion for social justice. But in her case, she was able to use her political opportunities to help improve the nation and the lives of its people, as an expression of her pragmatism to work for common humanity instead of preaching a philosophical viewpoint. Australian Humanist of the Year for 1986, she is acknowledged in their tribute as having worked as an LGBT advocate – a somewhat uncommon activist role for a heterosexual woman in the 1980s. Her list of aligned organisations includes many that reflect her diverse interests in human rights, social justice, and the arts: everything from the Victorian AIDS Council to Amnesty International and the Australian Film Institute.
On 12 February 1995, I met her at the Midsumma Carnival, an LGBT festival held in the gardens opposite the Arts Centre in St Kilda Road, Melbourne. Among the many groups she visited that day, she came to the community tent for the AIDS Quilt. I recall her genuinely warm smile and her interest in discussing LGBT activism. She thanked us for our volunteer work and left the festival – to be struck down by a car in St Kilda Road, passing away in hospital on 6 March.
A memorial named Olive’s Corner has been dedicated to her memory in Port Melbourne. It acknowledges her passion to help disempowered people. I like to think that the greater memorial is the lives of the people who continue to benefit from her passionate efforts to improve the world.
When living through a difficult moment in history,
we have an obligation to survive and succeed.
As each new day dawns, we sweep away the cobwebs of yesterday and begin anew. Every sunrise is the promise of a new beginning, a fresh start, a chance for renewal and the dawn of a new day. But before each dawn, there must be the darkness of night – such as our journey through 2020.
It may seem self-evident to suggest that we are living in a moment of history. After all, every point in time is technically a moment in history, and very few of our days ever ordinarily suggest themselves as being anything beyond the usual. There are some moments, however, when we intuitively understand that our world is changing before our eyes: turning points like the Apollo Moon landings, the fall of the Berlin Wall, the Beijing Massacre, and the September 11 attacks. Those of us old enough to remember these particular events were eye witnesses – and participants – in history.
But what of the betwixt and between? What of days which we might consider to be everyday, ordinary, or mundane? We tend to think of history as a succession of singular, significant events that crash into our lives like the waves of a high tide assailing the seashore. But history is also the gentle, quiet retreat of those same waves as the tide recedes in between its regular bursts of fury.
While it is easy to see the progression of history as the unfolding of one significant event after another… after another… perhaps such events are merely signposts along the way in a larger, longer continuum of perpetual cause and effect. History, like evolution, unfolds at its own glacial pace and often passes unnoticed during what, in hindsight, may prove to be significant eras of transition.
In the year 2020, is the arrival of pandemic a defining moment of our history? Perhaps it is, or maybe it is instead simply one of those betwixt moments, an agent of transition from an old world into a new one. It was only a matter of time before COVID-19 or some other (possibly more lethal) pathogen cast its eclipse over our landscape. The sun has set on our prior life, the human society we knew back in January 2020 is gone forever, and the creeping darkness is stealing many of our good people. We must each be careful not to get swept away in the tsunami of history, but contribute instead to the formation of a breakwater.
Humans tend to associate night-time with crepuscular, nocturnal, and cathemeral animals; sinister, supernatural imaginings; predators and dangers, and omens of eternal night – a silent, stalking world. Yet in reality, the night is also full of wondrous and active creatures: cats, dogs, wallabies and wombats, possums, owls, bats, hares, moths and insects, and many others. The world comes alive between dusk and dawn, filled with noise and colour and activities. Only humans and our ilk, with our nocturnal sensitivities and locked into our diurnal biology, would presume that night is a foreboding time. For much of the world, it is a time of frantic feeding and reproducing, enthusiastic calling and chattering and listening, carefree running and jumping and flying and leaping, happily awakening and refreshing and renewing. Like the daytime and sunlight we enjoy, night and darkness are also times of birth and death, of building up and tearing down, of change and continuity. Rather than dread the mysterious and unfamiliar, we should rejoice in an incognito world that is filled with life and overflowing with its promise of whatever may come next.
“I have loved the stars too truly to be fearful of the night.”
– Sarah Williams, The Old Astronomer, 1868.
In this time of uncertainty, we fear the unknown, but we must remember that our journey into history features not only the loud, pretentious bluster of the proud and the powerful; it is also the warm, silent embrace of a mother tending her vulnerable child. Like Soylent Green, history is people. The history of COVID-19 will not only be written by statistics from rich, affluent western nations, it will be memorialised by the currently overlooked but self-empowered voices in the favelas of Brazil, the slums of India, and among ordinary people around the world.
We should listen to these voices and learn from history, even as it is being written. We need to be a part of the change that is coming, and ensure that our next sunrise is better and more glorious than the last. Our world community must prepare not only for the next pandemic, but correct the current deficiencies in world infrastructure so that developing nations have better support frameworks in place for the everyday and for the future. We must also inculcate a culture of respect for science over superstition, environment over extinction, and compassion over consumerism.
In between the dusk and dawn, there lurk all sorts of creepy crawlies in the night – real and imagined – loitering at the periphery of our twilight fears. What can we each do to shine a light in the darkness? We are enduring the night; let us walk confidently towards a new dawn.
For International Day of Charity, 5 September 2020
We have all heard the self-evident saying that ‘charity begins at home’. Obviously, it is important to protect ourselves because, otherwise, how could we expect to help anyone else? Yet this plea for self-care is often used with more sinister intent.
‘Charity begins at home’ – I often see this comment on social media regarding foreign aid or immigrants or refugees: send them back, we should look after ourselves first, charity begins at home. These people often argue that Australia has its own homeless and poor, and we should be looking after those people first (funny how none of those critics actually does anything to help the homeless, eh?)
I do not dispute the profound underlying wisdom behind the idea that ‘charity begins at home’ because I understand that a compassionate, altruistic perspective must first arise within each of us, wherever we may find our heart or hearth. What I do dispute is the hijacking of that maxim by some people who use it to justify their own dismissive lack of compassion for others. I believe that humans are better than that. In my experience:
1. “Charity begins at home” does not mean that it ends there as well.
When the chips are down, some Australians can be remarkably compassionate people. During times of flood, drought and bushfire, communities come together to work for the common good, and discussions about the ordinary and the everyday suddenly appear bland and trite by comparison. We see ourselves as part of a unified human community.
I will never forget the 2004 Asian Boxing Day tsunami, in which hundreds of thousands of people died and local communities were devastated across Asia. In response, Australians figuratively fell over themselves to offer material and financial support. I recall some people in my suburb who donated sacrificial amounts of money to charity; while Aussie ‘hands-on’ organisations offered practical help to Asian communities and built international support networks. I did volunteer work for one charity, within a borrowed telemarketing centre, and we were swamped with non-stop phone calls from donors.
This is the Australia – and the world – that we need to see, today and every day: people displaying compassion, kindness, and selflessness. Whether the 2020 Australian bushfires, the 2005 Make Poverty History campaign, the 1992 AIDS Awareness Concert, the 1985 Live Aid appeal, or the 1971 Concert for Bangladesh, altruism is a common human trait. Outside of fundraising, pragmatic altruism (voluntary work) is also common. Amidst such nobility, the idea that ‘charity begins at home’ – when used to deny help to others who need it – appears to be small-minded, selfish and unworthy of human dignity.
2. Charity is not a competition.
In my experience, genuinely kind people never make compassion a competition. People are free to devote their time, money and efforts to help anyone they choose – and due to limited resources, we all make such choices – but truly compassionate people would never dismiss or demean the genuine needs of others outside their purview.
Can you imagine someone visiting a charity and pointedly telling staff that another charity is more deserving of assistance? No. Why? Because at best, that would be somewhat insensitive. Why then, do some people think it is acceptable to denigrate refugee charities or overseas aid by publicly suggesting that other causes are more worthy of assistance? The words of clergyman John Newton should be adopted within a universal secular context: we should all demonstrate ‘amazing grace‘ in our thoughts, words and deeds.
Wikipedia informs us that author Lily Hardy Hammond wrote in 1916: ‘You don’t pay love back; you pay it forward.’ In modern times, the phrase ‘Pay It Forward‘ has enjoyed cultural mileage, with various activist movements around the world encouraging people to help others by performing an act of kindness. This year, a noble, aligned movement during the COVID-19 pandemic has been a ‘Kindness Epidemic‘, encouraging people to similarly perform small random acts of kindness.
Although such actions are admirable in themselves, they point to our collective need to relearn a greater human truth. As global citizens, we are morally obliged to uphold the Humanist Principle of sharing: ‘Share with those who are less fortunate and assist those who are in need of help’. This is not just in order to benefit the lives and welfare of others, but also for ourselves.
Ethicist Peter Singer observes that the average person would not hesitate to save a drowning child if they came across that real-life scenario happening in front of them – and yet nearly ten million children around the world die each year of poverty-related causes while we collectively look the other way (pp. 3 & 4). Maybe ‘charity begins at home’ sometimes because it is much easier to be mindful of problems we can personally observe.
However, we must remain mindful of a universal truth: we are all human. From Sydney to Shanghai, London to Lagos, Kalgoorlie to Kampala, everywhere we go, we will find human beings with whom we share bloodlines and DNA. While we live locally, we should think globally. When considering that, ‘charity begins at home’, we need to remember that the whole world is our home.
5. Helping others helps ourselves.
While some cynics decry the existence of ‘welfare culture’, I welcome the idea that charity is a way of life – although I like to invert the idea: charity should be a way of life, not for recipients but for donors; not for the disadvantaged, but for those with privilege and opportunity.
At its most pragmatic, helping others also helps ourselves. If COVID-19 has taught us anything, for example, it should be that while disadvantaged people are denied access to adequate health care, the rest of us also remain endangered from second, third, fourth, or tenth wave revisitations of the virus. Until it is eliminated everywhere, nobody is safe. It is in our own enlightened self-interest to help others.
Nor is this some self-righteous philosophical abstraction. It is literally a part of what makes us human. Physician Ira Byock writes of anthropologist Margaret Mead being asked, “What is the earliest sign of civilization?”, and reports that her response was not a tool or implement or language, but a healed femur:
A femur is the longest bone in the body, linking hip to knee. In societies without the benefits of modern medicine, it takes about six weeks of rest for a fractured femur to heal. A healed femur shows that someone cared for the injured person, did their hunting and gathering, stayed with them, and offered physical protection and human companionship until the injury could mend.
Mead explained that where the law of the jungle — the survival of the fittest — rules, no healed femurs are found. The first sign of civilization is compassion, seen in a healed femur.
Despite possibly some question being expressed about the need to confirm Mead’s quote, her words still summarise an important human attribute: altruism is part of an evolved survival instinct, found in both humans and other animals – a higher form of survival of the fittest that helps us to survive and succeed. Yes, charity begins at home – and if done properly, it goes full circle and comes back to help us as well.
Those of us who subscribe to social media will be familiar with the archetypical anecdote: a child helps a little old lady across the street, a teenage shop assistant carries groceries to the car of a disabled customer, or a bystander defends a bullied child. In this pandemic year, I might add stories such as the person who pays for groceries for the elderly gent in the supermarket queue, or who sacrifices their extra pack of hoarded toilet paper in order to give it to the crying woman who has missed out. Feel free to recollect your own list of similar feel-good stories that are designed to make us go Awww…
What I find interesting with such narratives is that the public reaction generally seems more revealing than the stories themselves. Often, people will declare how proud they are to see someone help another person, or they will appeal to a deity for special blessings upon the benefactor. Someone might even declare: ‘FAITH IN HUMANITY RESTORED’. My response is: Really? For sharing toilet paper? For helping a little old lady across the street? For getting a cat out of a tree? Aren’t such acts simply called common courtesy or basic human decency? And yet people not only love such stories; they love to love them.
And this reveals something quite profound about human nature. Our feel-good stories about gurgling babies and little old ladies also touch a primal sentiment: we recognise the good within ourselves.
Would you like to hear a radical idea? Author Rutger Bregnan presents us with one: “What is this radical idea? That most people, deep down, are pretty decent.” (Humankind: A Hopeful History, p. 2.) The opening pages of his book introduce us to examples of benevolent behaviour instead of panic during crises including the Titanic, the London Blitz, and the World Trade Center Twin Towers. Analysing how we react under extreme pressure can be one of the optimal ways of exploring human behaviour. Bregnan asserts: “It’s when crisis hits – when the bombs fall or the floodwaters rise – that we humans become our best selves.”(p. 4) This can be helpful when also considering our behaviour during more benign circumstances. It even challenges us to ponder how we should react during the current world crisis of COVID-19: do we have an opportunity to reach out to others in crisis and thereby somehow enrich our own inner humanity?
Laurence Rifkin suggests that altruistic expression of our common humanity is a pragmatic act in a difficult world:
So let’s admit straight out: humanism is not about hope. It’s about facing the world as it actually exists and making the best of it. It’s about looking this real world in the eye and, using imagination and initiative, building castles in the sand, not castles in the sky. It’s about finding goodness within the spectrum of what’s real and what’s possible. And in facing such truths, humanists don’t look outside nature for salvation; they don’t seek change through wish fulfillment. This perspective is not a limitation. It’s a motivator. It’s the ground for positive action and results.
Existential analyst Victor Frankl believed that such positivity is inbuilt as part of our human quest for the meaning of life: ‘For Frankl, meaning came from three possible sources: purposeful work, love, and courage in the face of difficulty.’
How can we reconcile such optimistic human attributes with our daily news cycles or populist movies, which present us with more nihilistic, cynical views of human nature? It is a cliché that bad news sells newspapers – in apparent contradiction to my earlier observation that people also love touch-feely, sentimental stories. But the human fascination with bad news also appears to run deep, more than simply commercial pandering to what I once heard described as being a ‘culture of death’ within populist culture. Maybe we are collectively attracted to bad news – just as we are to feel-good stories – because we individually believe ourselves to be better than average and that things will somehow work out for us in the end. One source even suggests that psychologists talk about ‘negativity bias‘ as an inbuilt evolutionary trait to safeguard survival.
Bregnan cites Rebecca Solnit in ascribing bad news culture to those in power: ‘Elite panic comes from powerful people who see all humanity in their own image‘ (cited in Humankind, pp. 6 & 7). Just as humans create gods in their image, so they evidently create devils too. By contrast, Bregnan and Solnit explore the human response to disaster as one of building community and purpose amidst chaos. They implicitly suggest that we need to start electing or appointing better leaders – people who are in touch with ordinary people and ordinary human benevolence.
We’re living in the midst of a revolution in human attitudes and belief. In much of Europe and North America and other parts of the developed world, such as Australia and Japan, large portions of the population are now non-religious … This is an unprecedented moment in the history of humanity (Lindsay, 2014, p. 13).
Ours is fast becoming a godless nation. The ABS reports that since 1911, the number of Australians subscribing to ‘no religion’ has increased from one person out of every 250 (ABS, 2013) to what is now a little short of one in three—a breathtaking social change in just over a century. In the 2016 Census, the combined factions of our nation’s dominant religion, Christianity, struggled to retain a collective majority foothold at just 52% of respondents, while other religions totalled 8%. But the largest single category of respondents was ‘no religion’ at 30% of the population (ABS, 2016a).
How does this relate to queer people? Some 57% of same-sex couples reported having ‘no religion’ (ABS, 2016b), suggesting that the godless population among LGBTQIA+ people may be almost double that of the Australian average—a difference which might be partly attributed to the fact that historically, religion has not been kind to queer people. We might therefore reasonably extrapolate from census data that between approximately one-third (30%) to one-half (57%) of LGBTQIA+ communities comprise atheists and others who reject traditional religions. The possible links between godlessness and LGBTQIA+ people run deeper than even census results might suggest. Our communal histories and lived experiences reveal powerful parallels.
The Historic Record
History is unambiguous: our very existence as queer people signals a rejection of traditional religious and social dogmas. In his definitive book, Homosexual: Oppression and Liberation, Dennis Altman foreshadowed this attitudinal change:
Liberation entails not just freedom from sexual restraint, but also freedom for the fulfillment of human potential, a large part of which has been unnecessarily restricted by tradition, prejudice, and the requirements of social organisation. (Altman, 2012, p.104).
The resultant social evolution—still underway—has created what Darryl Ray (2014) calls secular sexuality, a modern lifestyle which liberates people from Christianity’s historic abhorrence of sex and sexuality: ‘A secular sexual is not a Christian and does not need to act like one.’ Such a rejection of traditional oppression—with its implicit endorsement of individuality, independence and fabulosity—could describe both atheists and queers.
LGBT atheist Camille Beredjick (2017, p.29) conflates our communities:
Politically and personally, atheists and LGBTQ people overlap. LGBTQ people are more likely to be atheists than the general population; atheists are more likely to support LGBTQ rights. In some cases, discovering that you’re LGBTQ is the spark that causes you to leave the faith in which you were raised.
Although atheism encompasses everyone from nihilists to optimists, humanism is at the optimistic end of this spectrum, and it has many atheist adherents. In the 1960s, humanists in Australia spearheaded the movement for ‘homosexual law reform’, and then later stepped aside in order to allow the developing gay and lesbian rights movement to claim its own autonomy. Humanism is being challenged today by those who seek to trump human rights with ‘religious rights’.
Freedom of Belief
There are many LBGTQIA+ people who find fulfilment within queer-friendly religious communities—and we should respect their right to do so. We should also celebrate their efforts to change homophobic doctrines and practices inside their faith networks. While standing firm against religious excesses, we must be prepared to offer believers respect in ways that their churches have historically failed to extend to us. But we should also uphold the right of queer people to disbelieve.
A recent forum on ‘LGBTI Inclusion in Faith Communities’ acknowledged that religion has been a source of both great solace and great anguish for LGBTI Australians (Victorian Government, 2017). Such a conclusion falls far short of providing reconciliation to LGBTQIA+ people who have been burned by religion, or to disbelievers who comprise a significant percentage of the Australian population. We need secular representation that does not rely upon the privilege of religious people to debate our civil rights. Where are the queer atheist voices in LGBTQIA+ community discourse and public debates?
The concept of ‘coming out’ is well-known within LGBTQIA+ communities. US gay activist Harvey Milk—who renounced his faith at a young age (Faderman, 2018)—encouraged queer people to ‘come out’ as an act of both personal and political empowerment. ‘Coming out’ has, in recent years, also been adopted by many atheists, who, like queers, have been traditionally stigmatised by faith communities. Atheists are often pigeonholed as being different, deviant and distrusted—where have we heard that before?—and in many countries, they face danger, family rejection, and persecution. ‘Coming out’ is a doubly relevant act for queer atheists. How can we acknowledge and support them?
Gay humanist Chris Stedman calls for cooperation between the faithful and the faithless:
There are many possible answers to the question of how atheists should engage with the religious … the problems of the world are too numerous to debate it for long. We must find solidarity wherever we can—and act upon it (Stedman, 2012, Ch 7).
Such solidarity is possible, as anyone can recall who lived through our traumatic epidemic years, when renegade nuns held the hands of our dying friends. More recently, religious folk marched alongside atheists at marriage equality rallies. In a similar spirit, we must recognise the need for reconciliation today between theists and rainbow atheists. Our diversity demands no less.
ABS (2013). 4102.0—Australian Social Trends, Nov 2013: Losing My Religion (Introduction). 20 November 2013.
ABS (2016a). 2071.0—Census of Population and Housing: Reflecting Australia—Stories from the Census, 2016: Religion in Australia. 28/06/2017.
ABS (2016b). 2071.0—Census of Population and Housing: Reflecting Australia—Stories from the Census, 2016: Same Sex Couples in Australia 2016: Religious Affiliation. 28/06/2017.
Altman, D. (2012). Homosexual: Oppression and Liberation. Saint Lucia: University of Queensland Press.
Beredjick, C. (2017). Queer Disbelief: Why LGBTQ Equality Is an Atheist Issue. Friendly Atheist Press, 2017 (1).
Faderman, Lillian (2018). Harvey Milk: His Lives and Death. London: Yale University Press.
Lindsay, R. (2013). The Necessity of Secularism: Why God Can’t Tell Us What to Do, Durham: Pitchstone Publishing.
Ray, D. (2014). ‘Secular Sexuality: A Direct Challenge to Christianity’, in John W Loftus (ed), Christianity Is Not Great: How Faith Fails. New York: Prometheus Books, p. 371.
Stedman, C. (2012). Faitheist: How an Atheist Found Common Ground with the Religious. Boston: Beacon Press.
Victorian Government (2017). Forum on LGBTI Inclusion in Faith Communities: Statement of Support. Melbourne: Victorian Multicultural Commission.
Note that the ‘religion’ question was optional in the 2016 Census; consequently, the percentage results do not total 100%.
Note that the same-sex couples results are somewhat problematic, but they remain the optimal way to assess the religious views of likely LGBTQIA+ Australians.
History records that the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki ended World War Two. Hundreds of thousands of civilians died, and Wikipedia notes that, “… there is still much debate concerning the ethical and legal justification for the bombings.” The New York Times notes that this debate continues today.
Michael C Milam challenges us to consider that, “Whether you agree or disagree that humans have made no moral progress, we have certainly progressed in the technological ability to kill human beings quickly and efficiently.” In bemoaning this ever-increasing capacity to wage war, US Civil War poet Walt Whitman declared that: “The Real War Will Never Get In The Books” and I submit that this is because the real war is within ourselves.
Therein lies our fundamental problem. Whether waging war against fellow humans, or battling nature and natural disasters, we must wade thorough a metaphoric minefield of ethics and practicalities. When is a war just? How do we weigh up all conflicting interests? When do the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few, or the one? When we battle against monsters, how do we avoid becoming monsters ourselves? Our battles without mirror our battles within.
In A Journal of the Plague Year, Daniel Defoe records that in 1665, many people in London sought comfort from the plague by resorting to superstition:
But in this part I am going to mention, it lay chiefly in the people deceived, or equally in both; and this was in wearing charms, philtres, exorcisms, amulets, and I know not what preparations, to fortify the body with them against the plague; as if the plague was not the hand of God, but a kind of possession of an evil spirit, and that it was to be kept off with crossings, signs of the zodiac, papers tied up with so many knots, and certain words or figures written on them, as particularly the word Abracadabra, formed in triangle or pyramid, thus:—
We see equivalent superstition and denialism in present day responses to COVID-19, in Australia and the USA, across Asia and Africa. Our response should not be smug schadenfreude or patronising pity, but a keen desire to engage in mutually respectful educational dialogue. In life, as in war, it is surely better to make friends than enemies.
Even Humanists can make mistakes. One of my favourite authors, Humanist Isaac Asimov, once over-confidently decreed his optimism during the age of antibiotics: “It would seem, then, that as long as our civilization survives and our medical technology is not shattered there is no longer any danger that infectious disease will produce catastrophe or even anything like the disasters of the Black Death and the Spanish Influenza…” (A Choice of Catastrophes, Arrow Books, 1981 p.248.)
Tragically, Asimov himself would be dead within a few years from an unforeseen new pandemic virus (HIV), and his words echo today as we stare down the novel coronavirus. Such so-called acts of God, along with acts of our own agency, challenge human survival and substance. For it is not enough to merely survive, we also face a moral and intellectual imperative to ensure both our personal and planetary evolution out of savagery and towards spirituality.
Isaac Asimov’s widow, Janet Jeppson Asimov, locates the age of atomic weaponry within a context of planetary problems created by humans. She wrote on the Hiroshima anniversary in 2015: “There’s a lot that is not taken seriously today. I won’t sully your vision by repeating what the far-right politicians are saying about the likes of global warming, equal rights, and other issues. The frightening thing is that some of these politicians talk as if strength in war is what counts, no matter what happens to the planet.”
Her words warn us that our species has a predilection towards both greatness and gutlessness. We are complex creatures, and this is both a strength and a weakness – and yet the weakness itself is not in our weakness, but in our perception of that weakness. We have a tendency to judge ourselves and others based upon external (often cultural and religious) ethical standards that are impossible to uphold. We are, after all, only human, and we must learn to accept that we have the capacity to be both noble and naughty. True morality must be based upon our ability to accept, and act in accordance with, our collective ability for both splendour and scandal. This does not mean giving in to a legion of sinfulness but simply predicating our self image, our actions, and our relationships, upon a positive and honest acknowledgement of our very human capabilities and limitations. The Peace Bell in the Hiroshima Peace Park summarises this quandary, with an inscription that challenges us to ‘know yourself‘.
Similarly, we must recognise our capacity to seek true justice outside of traditional military frames of reference. The reality is that for most of the world, life itself is already a daily battle, and affluent nations spend an obscene amount of money to protect their disproportionate hoards of wealth. Surely instead of inflicting military carnage and untold suffering upon adversaries, it would be better – a genuinely just war – to build up struggling societies by supplying social, health, political and economic infrastructure.
We can create a better world – and better people – and our task starts closer to home than we imagine. Humanist Jacob Bronowski‘s life testifies to the nuances within our humanity: his WW2 work to help the Allies was followed by a visit to Hiroshima and Nagasaki after the bombings – which led to his resignation from military work. Maybe we cannot all have such a life-changing epiphany, but it may be useful to ponder the words of atheist (and I suspect Humanist) J. Michael Straczynski: “Understanding is a three edged sword: your side, their side, and the truth.” Do we have the empathy, humility and wisdom to be peacemakers? We always have choices. When we wage war, will it be a torrent of merciless destruction and carnage, or will it be an affirming, activist fight for a better world?
Traditionally, it has been seen as a fundamental challenge to understand the metaphor behind the ancient myth of sampling from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Which fruit do we eat? Is it tasty or toxic? And yet, we are millennia evolved beyond such ancient mythologies, and we must seek to find universal human truths within and beyond their purview. In our secular world, we must move beyond a simplistic religious binary of absolute good versus absolute evil, and learn instead to embrace the absolute human.
“To see a World in a Grain of Sand
And a Heaven in a Wild Flower
Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand
And Eternity in an hour…”
– ‘Auguries of Innocence’ by William Blake.
In commemoration of the 51st anniversary of the Apollo 11 lunar landing, 21 July 2020
Apollo 11 Crew, Wikimedia Commons (NASA Photo)
Fifty-one years ago today, I glimpsed transcendence. On 21 July 1969 (Australia time), Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin stepped out of the Apollo 11 ‘Eagle’ lunar module and became the first men to walk on another world – and I was an eye witness (via television).
I was eight years old, sitting cross-legged on the floor of my school library, watching a small black-and-white television set that had been placed on a stand in the library corner. The room was full of giggling, chattering school kids, and ringed with a wall of teachers who exchanged nervous glances upon realising that the assembled throng of young schoolchildren did not have the collective attention span to fully understand or absorb the significance of what they were watching.
Momentarily annoyed at the attention deficit of my peers, I sat transfixed, and experienced the numinous. On that flickering screen, I saw our world in a pixel, saw the cosmos spread before us like the symbolic potential of the human ability to dream and flower into something greater. The small screen held infinite vistas of both the cosmos and the potential of our human ability to conquer our challenges.
Within maybe an hour or so, my teachers called off this television excursion due to the inability of many students to sit quietly – but in that hour, I glimpsed eternity.
I think that my life was never quite the same again. Even at that young age, I realised that we as a species may struggle with wars and famines and poverty and injustice, but we had proved that we could literally reach the Moon if we aimed high enough and hard enough. Our outer imperfections belie our inner nobility. To paraphrase Oscar Wilde, we may have our feet in the debasement of mundane life, but we can glimpse the glories of the cosmos.
Let us never forget the difference between two profound human journeys: one near the Awash River in Ethiopia, and the other in the Sea of Tranquility on the Moon. On that first journey, our possible ancestor, Lucy, likely fell and met her death just over three million years ago as she somehow tried to cross a small gully at Hadar, Ethiopia; her fossilised bones record both her existence and our long ancestral legacy. On the second journey, in 1969 – within living human memory – encultured apes demonstrated their progress in surviving and evolving, via technology and resilience, enabling them to cross vast and dangerous celestial distances and visit an alien world, thereby foreshadowing a promising potential future for a spacefaring species. In walking on the dusts of the Sea of Tranquility, humankind forever replaced the stuff of Biblical myths and legends with the assurance of science: we were capable of walking on a different kind of water.
We have not returned to the Moon since 1972, and an entire generation of humans has grown up lacking the personal excitement of watching a lunar landing. However, those old lunar missions, and the space program generally, spearheaded a scientific, aerospace and engineering revolution that has changed our world – from computers and iPhones to satellite communication and global village technology; from heart pacemakers to CAT scanners and agricultural satellite imagery. Project Apollo was replaced with NASA’s Mission to Planet Earth – and that mission continues.
But Houston, we have a problem. The heights we have reached also reveal how far we have fallen.
Last year, I visited a certain public library, and sought the assistance of a young librarian to find microfilm copies of the newspapers from July 1969 as a preparation for the fiftieth anniversary of the first Moon landing. When she saw the headlines that I was seeking – ‘Man Walks On Moon’ – she glanced at me covertly and whispered conspiratorially, “Do you think we really went there?” Around that same time, in a more private forum, a personal associate conversationally suggested to me that people had never even been into space, and that any scientific evidence I could produce to rebut his claim was merely a matter of opinion. I was disappointed that both these people failed to understand the difference between an uninformed (or misinformed) opinion and one that is based upon informed evidence and/or actual expertise. But I also realised that more sinister overtones were present.
Moon hoax conspiracies are just one symptom of modern-day science denialism, ranging from vaccination to fluoridation, from Flat Earthers to ‘birthers’. This is a profoundly ironic response from a scientifically-illiterate generation that benefits from the most scientifically advanced prosperity in history. How sad that so many people enjoy keyboard access to literally the world’s vast store of knowledge, and yet remain so ignorant of one of humanity’s greatest scientific achievements. How sad that their individual world-view is so impoverished that they reject the grandeur of rational scientific and human advancement. And how sad that their human connection fails to appreciate that their scientific grandparents reached the Moon without the Internet, GPS, or even the computing power of modern-day mobile phones.
We live in a pandemic of misinformation, when uninformed personal opinion and science denialism are on the ascendancy. The COVID-19 epidemic demonstrates how such cultural narcissism may be potentially lethal. And yet, amidst this self-fulfilling cultural worship of mediocrity, we still have the potential to rise above our weaknesses. Oscar Wilde’s previously-alluded quote: “We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars”, reminds us that we make a conscious choice every day whether or not to rise above our personal circumstances. Internet correspondent Vatika Harlalka raises a commendable interpretation of Wilde’s words: “Those who look at the stars know that there is a world outside of their sadness and wish to make efforts to reach it.”
Human beings are capable of great things. Without alien intervention, ancient human societies built pyramids and cities. Without the alleged morality of divine intervention, slavery and racial segregation were officially abolished, and women and LGBT people have been increasingly assigned equal rights (although these tasks are not yet complete). Similarly, without human conspiratorial agency, people went to the Moon and returned safely. It is time for humankind to acknowledge its potential for greatness alongside its many weaknesses, and make conscious decisions as to which paths we will emulate and walk. Through the application of science and rationality, Tranquility may not only be a lunar location, but it may prove to be our spiritual human destination as well.
I long to see humanist, scientific and freethought publications promote the histories and legacies of the space program, and of science, and thereby inspire younger generations with the stories and glories of the human spirit and its accomplishments. We need to go tell it on the mountain and in the valleys; in text and tweet and social media, in jottings and in journals. And every time we see the Moon, we should acknowledge the majesty of belonging to a species that has actually visited its sun-baked plains, and scooped and sampled its sterile soils. What awaits us next?
When we return to the Moon, as one day we must, it will hopefully be as a more enlightened, optimistic, scientifically literate, educated, rational species. Lucy and her people could only look up at the Moon in the curiosity borne of their still-to-be-fully-realised self-potential. Maybe her distant lunar descendants will return the gaze by looking back at the Earthrise above their lunar travel pods, and ponder the thousands of generations of scientists who separate them from their wandering African ancestor. From Ethiopia to Earthrise – that’s quite a journey.
“The notion that human life is sacred just because it is human life is medieval.”
― Peter Singer
Recent controversy has raged over the destruction or removal of public statues which honoured people who had been slave owners. Similar discussion has also taken place over the recent removal of some television content that has been similarly judged as being racially insensitive or inappropriate. In response, one comment in my Facebook feed cynically suggested that in maybe a few years’ time, protesters might remove all statues or other cultural reminders of everyone who was not vegetarian.
Wow, what a brilliant idea. Societies change; cultures change. Even children’s books are rewritten and updated – sometimes controversially.
Of course, banning statues or cultural relics of every meat eater in history would certainly exclude a lot of people, but I think the question of relegating carnivores to the same status as other retrospectively-diagnosed villains would not be inconsistent with our changing recognition of ourselves as animals in a natural and limited biosphere. Recent discoveries, such as anthropological evidence which challenges our long-held understandings of meat-eating human forebears, also challenges our cultural meat worship. UK actor, comedian and writer David Mitchell points out: “It’s not uncommon, in the history of human societies, for things once deemed normal to start being deemed wrong.… Maybe all these vegans are harbingers of such a change.” New Zealand certainly seems to think so – having passed animal welfare legislation in 2015.
As someone who is not vegetarian myself (at least not yet) I think that evolution towards a vegetarian society would be a natural and logical progression. Why? Because I believe, as a humanist, that if we are to continue to progress as a species, we must forever expand our circle of empathy and altriusm, continuing our evolution away from violence.
Some propose that humanism is an inadequate philosophy for such radical change, because it focuses primarily on human values and intellect, and appears to promote speciesism by excluding the welfare of other life forms. Others suggest that humanism does not exclude other perspectives but simply focuses upon the human experience and intellect because that is our primary means of deduction. Humanism, in this instance, is more a rejection of supernatural theism and an implicit endorsement of sentientism, which includes the welfare of other living things.
Wollen has previously argued that vegetarianism is a moral issue that also impacts upon humanity’s ability to feed itself due to the appalling waste of resources it takes to cultivate animals for slaughter: ‘Make no mistake about it. Every morsel of meat we eat is slapping the tear-stained face of a hungry child.’
‘Animals Should Be Off The Menu’, Philip Wollen addresses the St James Ethics and the Wheeler Centre debate, Kindness Trust channel, YouTube.
I find Wollen’s arguments, his eloquence and his convictions to be somewhat compelling. I offer no final conclusions here, just a discussion in progress. Continued food for thought is welcomed.
“We humanize what is going on in the world and in ourselves only by speaking of it, and in the course of speaking of it we learn to be human.”
― Hannah Arendt, Men in Dark Times
As Melbourne, Australia, enters its second COVID lockdown in four months, we must be thankful for our (currently) relatively low numbers of cases, and for our collective socioeconomic resilience. Many people in many nations do not have such safety nets.
During this world crisis, many of our normal activities have paused or stopped altogether. Our lives and world have changed – but there are more issues at stake than whether or not we have hoarded sufficient toilet paper, or intend to use our home isolation time to catch up on episodes of our favourite TV program.
As individuals, much of our human identity comes from our activities, our professions, our families or other relationships, etc. What happens when those jobs and roles get upended by a virus that makes normal life impossible? How can we remain authentic to who we are and what we uphold? How can we each make a difference? That is surely up to each of us to decide: according to our personal circumstances, opportunities and difficulties – and mostly, according to our conscience. A large part of our personal humanity surely comes from being true to ourselves and to our greater human family around us.
We should be mindful of the modern axiom, courtesy of US writer Dan Greany, that,’a noble spirit embiggens the smallest man’. Simultaneously, we should recognise that humans work best when working together.
While we must recognise that science has not fulfilled its promise as an onward march toward perfection, we must plan ahead with an optimism that is calculated, informed and measured. Nihilist existential defeatism suggests we cannot solve all the world’s problems and therefore we should not try, but we defiantly remain optimistic because we choose to be. In reality, we can make a difference in our particular little corner – wherever that may be, geographically or philosophically. Perhaps Loren Eisley‘s famous and often unattributed Starfish story can guide us, asserting that we can only ‘make a difference’ one problem at a time. We must each decide for ourselves how best to address that conundrum, and perhaps learn how to multitask.
In this era of COVID-19, some newspapers and politicians prioritize economic recovery, but Humanists understand that all human activity – including the economy – is surely a means to an end. We need to ensure that human and environmental welfare remain paramount.
Coping with the current crisis means meeting its challenges and, beyond that, asking what we can change in order to minimise such disasters in the future. This must include tackling injustice and inequity in the world – anything that exposes humanity to pandemics and other disasters, especially for those who are most vulnerable.
I do not want to see society return to ‘normal’ after this crisis is over. I want to see society improve. COVID-19 has exposed the many inequalities and injustices across our world, and has made them worse: poverty; inadequate housing, employment and income security, food security and access to safe drinking water; insufficient health care; poor world governance and environmental protections – and so much more. There are many types of poverty, including: financial, educational, intellectual, emotional, moral, social, aspirational, even poverty of equality and justice and employment and opportunity. Let’s see those politicians who currently prioritise economic recovery also address these many other broken economies that COVID-19 has highlighted.
Around the world, COVID is like a world war, inflicting and aggravating those inequalities that already exist. Will we individually and collectively ignore those problems, or do something about them? Eldridge Cleaver is attributed with telling us most famously that, ‘There is no more neutrality in the world. You either have to be part of the solution, or you’re going to be part of the problem.’
While pondering the calamity of COVID, we should be mindful of the words of Humanist Fred Edwords: ‘Calamities destroy the promise usually because we concentrate on what we have lost instead of letting the misfortune simply focus our pursuits in a new direction.’ Rather than bewail lost opportunities, we must find new solutions for new problems. Carl Sagan spoke of alien invasion as possibly the only common foe that could unite all of humanity (Billions and Billions, New York: Ballantine, 1997, p. 181). Our current coronavirus crisis is one opportunity to prove him wrong.
We can create hopeful, humanitarian times ahead. International HumanistAndrew Copson points out that despite occasional setbacks, the history of human society has always been towards progress and social evolution; while local Australian Humanist Murray Love points to such a future though compassionate humanist interactions: ‘Humanists understand how natural human compassion, and our own intelligent thinking, get us through the dark times, and can take our children on to a bright future.’
“A refugee is someone who has survived and who has a tremendous will to create a future.” – Amela Koluder
For World Refugee Day, 20 June 2020
In January 2020, the Australian media showed us images of navy ships rescuing Australian bushfire refugees who had been forced to flee by boat. In a nation that has spent years vilifying refugees as ‘boat people’, it seems surprising that Australian media commentators failed to grasp the universality of the refugee experience.
It has been said that Australians tend to lack empathy for others who are from outside their own personal experience, whether homeless people or Syrian refugees. Our relatively affluent, comfortable existence divorces us from collective experiences of war, catastrophic natural disaster, or some other unforeseen intolerable hardship that might create large numbers of refugees. The scope of such a forced mass migration seems unimaginable to us. Yet the UNHCR reports that of the 70 million displaced people in the world today, nearly 26 million people are recognised as being refugees. Amnesty International Australia reports that the world urgently needs to create a new, global plan for refugees based on a meaningful and fair sharing of responsibilities, and that affluent nations are not doing their fair share.
How do we, as human beings, respond to the real-life plight of refugees? Our culture promotes the ideas that refugees are strangers and non-citizens within a world that so often equates human rights with citizenship. In a cross-cultural global acknowledgment of the shared humanity of strangers in our midst, even the Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences declares its support of humanist principles: “The essence of humanism is recognizing oneself as another. This recognition should be extended to everyone and in particular to those who are suffering, such as refugees, both young and old.”
Life-long learning does not end when we walk our of our classrooms for the last time; indeed, the vast majority of our experiential life learning is probably just commencing at that point. As part of this learning, we need to expose ourselves to stories, cultures and lived experiences from others who are from outside our own existential bubble.
LOVE IN THE TIME OF COVID-19 is the title of both a safe-sex campaign and an artistic response to lockdown – and more. In a broader context, these words also suggest a humanist response to pandemic. Love can turn strangers into family. What does it really mean – to borrow a religious phrase – to love our neighbour? As human beings and humanitarians who claim to uphold common humanity, we need to remember that during the time of COVID-19, refugees face particular hardship. Any reasoned conversations about economic or social recovery after the pandemic must include recognition of, and solutions for, the problems faced by our human family in refugee populations and among others outside our geographic location. Human rights and human compassion do not start or end at a national border.
And yet Australia seems torn by competing ideologies. While our Parliament hypocritically proclaims that racism and discriminatory immigration policies are anathema, it continues to practice policies that arbitrarily detain and neglect refugees and asylum seekers. Nor is Australia alone in such hypocrisy. Following World War Two, the modern world community established the United Nations and its humanist precepts, typified by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Decades later, such inspiration and optimism have failed to come to full fruition. Denial of equal access to justice and the world’s resources has not only impoverished the poor but has ultimately adversely affected all of us. umair haque explains the ultimate cost of our collective world choice to not adequately help others:
“…the world still hasn’t built global systems. Not a single one. We still don’t have a Human Healthcare System — and so of course pandemics erupt. We still don’t have a Worldwide Basic Income — and so of course the poor have to cause a mass extinction just to subsist. We still don’t have a Global Education Agency — and so of course authoritarianism and fascism spread like wildfire. We still don’t even have a Worldwide Climate Agency, Fund, Bank, or Mission — and so of course the rivers, oceans, and skies go on being charred…”
World Refugee Day contains a subversive message: to change the world, we must accept the refugee as a role model: their courage, resilience and determination to hope for a better future against seemingly overwhelming odds. We must cast off all philosophies, attitudes and actions which ignore and exacerbate the sufferings of others. For too long, humanity has squandered its resources, its good will, and its potential. A better world requires the active involvement of better citizens, and that is who we must become. That is surely the ultimate form of humanism.