When I was a young school teacher, I once had a classroom full of exuberant fifteen year-old boys and was given the task of teaching them about girls.
That got your attention – as it got theirs.
To be more precise, the actual class was a special one-off lesson on “Equal Opportunity”; the time for this class being taken out of time that was normally allocated to regular subjects such as English and Maths. Together, the boys and I discussed entrenched gender bias in society, and we confronted sexism, discrimination and sexual harassment.
The class went well, the boys shared their agreement with the concepts – and then they went out to play sport, where the PE teacher loudly complained that they were all kicking the ball “like a bunch of girls”.
I learnt an important lesson that day: that people cannot be taught about equality or prejudice or bullying – or a thousand other ethical issues – as a separate subject; these must be incorporated into their everyday lives.
Over subsequent years, I learnt how to incorporate social justice and critical thinking into my English classes, where I encouraged Christian, Muslim, agnostic and atheist students to explore, evaluate and debate issues as diverse as the ethics of modern music, same-sex parenting, and voluntary euthanasia. Other students pondered whether Shakespeare might rewrite Romeo and Juliet today, recasting the main characters as an interracial, interfaith or same-sex teen couple – and give the story a happier ending.
In History and Social Studies classes, my junior students learnt to discuss a diverse range of religions as they enjoyed turning teddy bears into mummies and evaluating the religious beliefs of the ancient Egyptians; middle-year students pondered ethics as they related to consumerism, vegetarianism or multiculturalism; senior students debated the ethics of conscription, cultural imperialism and conscientious objection while studying a variety of wars, invasions and genocides.
Nor did I simply want to introduce students to theoretical issues that enabled them to remain dispassionate; I wanted them to adopt lifelong learning.
I recall one class from the early 1990s, when my students were studying To Kill A Mockingbird at school and then going home to watch TV news of the Rodney King Riots in the USA. I realised that they felt smugly superior due to a mistaken belief that here in Australia, we had suffered no such history of racist prejudice and violence. In their next class, I presented them with material on colonial mistreatment of indigenous Australians, abridged summaries of the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody, and an account of the Myall Creek massacre. This material horrified and shocked them out of their complacency, and challenged them to consider their place in history and their personal responsibility as world citizens.
In another senior class about ten years later – when the times and culture were more homophobic than they are today – I taught students critical thinking and analysis through examining a then-contemporary and somewhat scandalous social issue (thoroughly vetted and approved in advance by the school principal) of whether or not lesbians should have access to in vitro fertilisation technology. Through the use of daily newspaper clippings and other materials, we examined various viewpoints, and engaged in a number of respectful discussions in which students shared their religious or cultural attitudes towards the issue. One night, a parent came into the school, and I recognised him as both the father of one of these students and as a parent representative on School Council. He sat down alongside me and said, “So you’re the teacher giving my boy the information about lesbian parenting?” Probably sensing my sudden hesitation, he smiled and said, “Every night, the family sits around the dinner table and talks about how our day has been. When it’s my son’s turn to talk about his day at school, he tells us excitedly about how you allow them all to discuss a grown up issue, and treat their different views with empathy and respect. I want to thank you for helping my son to grow up.” (Well, that was not the response I had expected from someone who possibly had the power to hire or fire me!)
Lifelong learning can happen when it is least expected.
On a similar note of those bewailing social change, I saw similar protests in science fiction communities when privileged heterosexual white males began to assert their ‘victimhood’ because Doctor Who had become a woman, and because Star Trek had finally begun to portray starship crews with a healthier proportion of gender, sexuality and cultural diversity. The lack of depth and critical thinking in these arguments left me feeling somewhat speechless (another form of cancel culture?) Part of the excitement of science fiction in particular, and within much related popular culture, is surely its ability to positively and empathically represent ‘the other’ and to thereby challenge us all. Why would anyone find that threatening? Bring on Jane Bond, I say, and make her a lesbian demonstrating the correct way for 007 to treat women with respect. Or replace Captain America with Captain China, make Superman an African American fighting racism, or bring the Australian detective Boney back to television using an actual Blak Aussie actor instead of someone in physical or metaphoric blackface.
Challenging our traditional perspectives and behaviours, and making us feel uncomfortable about entrenched privilege, is surely a good thing – progress relies upon change, and we must change our minds before we can change our world. Let Captain Jane T Kirk lead the next generation of TV astronauts boldly going where no woman has gone before.
Hypocrite, Cancel Thyself!
“Freedom of the press is limited to those who own one.” ― A.J. Liebling
Some years ago – in the days when the Internet was not yet available in most homes or via mobile phones, and access was most commonly available only via an Internet Café or public library – a new censorship law was implemented to prevent morally objectionable material being available on the ‘Net. Websites and search engines were mandated to sanitise their visible content.
At that time, a friend of mine visited a library, and for an experiment, she tried to access a number of websites:
BREAST CANCER WEBSITE? Blocked.
SAFE SEX MATERIAL? Blocked.
DOMESTIC VIOLENCE ADVICE? Blocked.
THE KU KLUX KLAN? Not blocked.
In this spirit, it is ironic that what detractors nowadays call ‘cancel culture’ comprises censorship and oppression which has long been used by conservatives to actually stifle progressive thought and action, from abolition to trans rights.
Meanwhile, conservative Christians in Victoria bewail new laws which prevent them from conducting conversion therapy, a fraudulent religious practice that claims to ‘cure’ LGBT people under the pretense of religious free speech. Perhaps not surprisingly, such arguments do not wash with me: I lost my faith some thirty years ago after being ‘cancelled’ by my Christian friends when their conversion therapy naturally failed to ‘cure’ me. Religion has been used to ban a variety of books ranging from Harry Potter to the Bible itself. Christians have even called for the banning of drag story time readings in public libraries, and Pride Marches. They also call for Religious Freedom Laws that grant special rights to religious elites while ‘cancelling’ Equal Opportunity protections for others.
Duncan Fine highlights the irony of conservatives complaining about cancel culture when they are actually responsible for so much of it:
“Just ask women who were not able to vote, be educated, get a safe abortion or work after marriage. Or members of the gay community whose love lives were subject to the criminal law. Indigenous Australians still feel the sting of cancellation…”
Even today, cancelling the voices of oppressed peoples such as women does not necessarily rely on overt misogyny or hatred – sometimes all it takes is overlooking their entrenched disadvantage.
And on the issue of free speech, I was blocked from Scott Morrison’s Facebook page some years ago after I asked a question about refugees. I was ‘cancelled’ by the same Christian who plays the martyr card about Christians having their beliefs mocked – whereas I say all that ideas and beliefs are open slather for challenge, but loving thy neighbour should be sacrosanct.
Human Rights and Freedom of Speech
“The human voice is the most beautiful instrument of all,
but it is the most difficult to play.” – Richard Strauss.
In the only western nation that lacks a Human Rights Bill or similar framework, Australians often display a lack of understanding about human rights as clarified under the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) and other modern international definitions. Article 30 of the UDHR specifies that human rights cannot be exercised in ways that destroy the rights of others. This aligns with our existing restrictions upon free speech by laws proscribing actions related to deception, blackmail, harassment, dishonesty, racism, scamming, plagiarism, perjury, sexism, libel, slander, defamation, homophobia, privacy, secrecy, national security, incitement, hate speech and bullying. We need to negotiate these things every time we open out mouths. So while some people insist upon free speech, they erroneously think that means they can say anything they like without regard to consequences.
The other common misconception is that because everyone is entitled to an opinion, that all opinions are equal – but they are not. Opinions based upon evidence and expertise are better than those based upon ignorance or misinformation. Modern public discourse is full of people promoting their presumed expertise on topics about which they are unqualified to speak: anti vaxxers, anti maskers, flat earthers, science denialists, free speechers who claim the right to say anything they like without fear of consequence, cis-gendered trans exclusionary feminists who deny equality for trans women, and men’s rights advocates who complain about TERFS and other feminists in much the same way that white supremacists used to complain about minority civil rights, etc.
Ultimately, free speech is like any other right – it has limits, and it must be balanced with responsibilities in a pluralist society. And like other human rights that are predicated upon freedom of choice – such as religion – they can change and evolve as our understandings and knowledge change. Just as we have the right to change our religious beliefs, we also have the right to change our speech when our understandings and knowledge grow beyond our previous perspectives: when we become aware, for example, of how language can be used to hurt and discriminate against others, and become a weapon to entrench privilege instead of enact equality.
Our wonderful human faculty of speech – more extensive and nuanced (as far as we are aware) than that of any other species – should surely be used to help contribute to human evolution: build up and nurture the positive, criticise and redress the corrupt and backward, but always in a way that is affirming and progressive. Human values such as compassion and community are best enhanced through reason and resolve – and a kind word cultivates better fruit than does antagonism.
“Sticks and stones may break my bones
But words shall never hurt me.”
The old ‘sticks and stones’ children’s song undoubtedly originated as an attempt to teach resilience in the face of bullying, but it is inadequate for today’s society, after all: words really can hurt. In balancing our human rights and responsibilities, we need the wisdom to judge what is helpful and what is harmful – and act accordingly, learning from our mistakes along the way.
But let us also defer to genuinely free speech that challenges, dissects and overturns our previously treasured misconceptions and sacred cows; refines theories and opinions in the crucible of public opinion; advances new ideas and progress; allows people the freedom to propose or believe anything they like – right or wrong – while providing opportunities for debating and researching and learning; and shows positive respect for others and celebrates diversity while also protecting the sensitivities and vulnerabilities of those who traditionally face disadvantage and discrimination.
Let our free speech not be hate speech; but let it be so much more: let it be love speech – love of life, love of truth, love of people, and love of knowledge. May our thoughts, words and deeds all make a positive difference to the world for our having been here.
Ultimately, what is often disparagingly called ‘censorship’ is what I would call ‘basic human decency’ because it involves moderating our words to make allowance for the sensitivities of others. It does not mean we cannot say what we think, but simply say it kindly and cleverly and tenderly. Empathy is needed when we speak in order to protect and nurture those who are powerless, bullied or oppressed, and only people who are privileged and/or insensitive would appear likely to protest against protecting our most vulnerable. For all the elitist and one-sided protests from conservatives about cancel culture and being woke, it seems to me that is is better to be woke than asleep.
Whether star gazing or navel gazing, humans experience awe and wonder in their world. We see dragons in clouds, and Jesus’ face on a piece of toast; we hear cosmological choirs in a symphony orchestra, and we interpret design in the natural environment even though we evolved to fit inside its parameters. Our tendency towards Pareidolia makes us creatures who are hard wired to find comfort, security and meaning in patterns and interpretation. Sometimes those interpretations can be profoundly life changing.
“There are moments in your life that make you and [set] the course of who you’re going to be. Sometimes they’re little, subtle moments. Sometimes, they’re big moments you never saw coming. No one asks for their life to change, but it does. It’s what you do afterwards that counts. That’s when you find out who you are.” – Unknown.
One of my earliest memories is from my very young childhood, when my family was out for a Sunday drive. Suddenly, we heard the sound of an ambulance siren, and my father (who was driving) pulled over to let the ambulance overtake and speed ahead – right through a red light intersection that lay ahead. I asked my parents why they were allowed to do that.
Mum and Dad explained that the ambulance had special permission under the law, because they were on their way to help save someone in an emergency. Over fifty years later, I recall that moment – I was dumbfounded and nearly burst into tears; deeply, profoundly touched that the law recognised the value of human life, and was prepared to allow ambulances to break ordinary laws if it meant helping to save someone. It was perhaps a definitive moment in my early life, when I understood that humans were capable of great nobility.
In subsequent years, I came to understand that many people value such transitional moments or flashes of insight, and they often seek vocabulary to clarify or express the import of those moments: spirituality, transcendence, the miraculous or the numinous. Whole religions have risen up in search of answers to explain such times of inner existential reflection.
But for me, this is one significant feature of the human creature – our ability to ponder and reflect, and find the extraordinary within the ordinary. We see it everywhere – from Harry Potter books that enrapt a generation with their implicit message of finding something magical in the everyday; to our ability to marvel at the night-time sky. For me, this is not divine revelation or fate; it is simply the ability of sentient humans to seek, find or create significance for themselves.
“Isn’t it enough to see that a garden is beautiful without having to believe that there are fairies at the bottom of it too?”
― Douglas Adams, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.
A more recent transcendent moment took place after I had faced heart surgery and the possibility of my own mortality. Some relatives visited me in the hospital, and gave me a photo of a baby that had just been born into the family. I instantly fell in love with the child not only because he shared my DNA, but also because he represented something more fundamental: the potential and hopes for life itself. Amidst my lonely cogitations of possible mortality, here was a baby showing me that life goes on regardless of anyone’s individual circumstance. I was greatly comforted with the profundity that I was part of a species and an organic flow of life that would continue whether or not I was there to participate further. Where some people sought consolation in religion as something bigger than themselves, I was comforted to know that the human species – and life itself – offered its own version of collective immortality through biological survival.
Beyond humans, our biosphere is filled with other species that also share our biological imperative to survive. I wonder if, like humans, other sentient species also have their own versions of numinous experiences?
“What a piece of work is [humanity], How noble in reason, how infinite in faculty…” – Shakespeare..
Our search for ‘spirituality’ should be recognised as a pilgrimage in search of our secular selves, warts and all. Carl Sagan acknowledged that “We are a way for the universe to know itself” and such a revelation is both reassuring and terrifying in its aspiration and its possible outcomes. We do not need a stone age deity or a new age mystic to tell us that we are filled with potential; our individual ideals and visions are a Rorschach test of our inner personalities. Our self awareness compels us to seek enlightenment or significance in nature, music, arts, hobbies, or philosophies, but our answers – and the transcendent responses we elicit – come from within. I believe that the numinous is luminous: it lights the way ahead for us as we seek to improve ourselves and our world.
In September 2021, a small earthquake struck my part of Australia, reminding millions of people that the forces of nature are mind-boggling. What can we learn from another natural disaster – the threat that asteroids and meteors pose to our world?
In April 2002, I wrote a letter to the Australian Minister for Science. I am still waiting for a satisfactory response:
As an Australian citizen who tries to keep abreast of scientific news, I am aware of the great danger posed to our planet by Earth-grazing asteroids. Scientists have revealed that a number of significant asteroids have skimmed past our plant in the last two months alone.
It seems likely that had any of these asteroids collided with our planet, the consequences may have been catastrophic. Had they fallen in Australia, they might have destroyed a major metropolitan area and devastated the majority of our continent. The loss of life and property could have been incalculable.
Even a cursory study of our nation’s geographic features proves that asteroids have crashed in Australia in the past, and will undoubtedly do so again.
I therefore seek your clarification as to what your government is doing to gather together our nation’s scientific opinion and expertise, to assess the actual risks associated with Earth-grazing asteroids, and to implement a “Skywatch” type program as part of an early warning system.
I understand that Australia stands virtually alone in the Southern Hemisphere as having the technological capacity to scan the southern skies for this danger. I feel it is therefore incumbent upon our government to accept its moral responsibility in this area and show leadership in protecting our nation and possibly the world.
Twenty years later, I assume that my letter was sparked by news of a similar letter being signed around that same time by many scientists imploring the Australian government to take similar steps for watch the skies. Such concerns are not simply the realm of science fiction. They have happened in the past, perhaps most famously a century ago at Tunguska, and in more ancient times when one may have impacted human society and Biblical mythology. Impacts and collisions with Earth happen all the time, including a scattering across Australia – but most are small and barely register on our attention spans, like the Chelyabinsk meteor over Russia in 2013:
When one ponders that the dinosaurs were likely killed by a massive asteroid strike, maybe we should hope that the dinosaurs in our Parliament do not create a similar fate for the rest of us.
There are many such existential threats that demand our world’s attention: meteors and microbes, pollution and poverty, climate change and corruption. The way our society ignores asteroids is symbolic of our attitudes towards other dangers.
Our distant Cretaceous–Paleogene cousins had limited intelligence and no way of predicting, understanding or preventing their fate, but humans have the comprehension and the capabilities. What fate do we choose? The sky is the limit.