From Holocaust to Humanist

Halina and Geoff (left), holding aloft the Humanist banner at a Marriage Equality Rally, Melbourne, 24 Nov 2012. Photo (c) 2012 by Michael Barnett.

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.)

© 2020 Geoff Allshorn

Climate Change

NASA photo.

The Apollo 8 ‘Earthrise’ photo, taken from lunar orbit by astronaut Bill Anders on Christmas Eve 1968, captured a view that inspired the astronauts to read from the Biblical ‘Genesis’ myth. More significantly, the photograph has been credited with being a ‘driving force for the environmental movement’ because it offered humanity our first real-life view of Earth as a pale blue dot in the vast cosmos.

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.

‘Silent Spring’ was a humanist book because it explored the relationship between humans and the environment. It was a groundbreaking exposé that introduced and popularised dissent against traditional attitudes which condoned environmental exploitation. Carson’s views were informed by science and possibly at least partly inspired by other unorthodox viewpoints: at a time when homophobia was rampant, she developed a long-term intimate relationship with another woman.

On Earth Day we remember Rachel Carson, environmental trailblazer and best-selling lesbian author

Another populariser of environmental dissidence is humanist Margaret Atwood, whose books often interweave environmental and religious themes. Her 1985 novel, The Handmaid’s Tale, and its recent spin-off television series, warn us about the impact of religious extremism upon the environment and human rights, particularly women’s rights. Such rights are not incidental to the environmental movement – from ecofeminists to activists, women are among those most directly affected by climate change.

Image by Niek Verlaan from Pixabay

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.

Amidst debates on how humans should interact with our environment, the fact is that our varied terrains and ecosystems have high intrinsic values of their own. Human beings can and must recognise our place in nature and solve the problems that we have created. We need to acknowledge the problem and act upon it, and implement a culture change. To save the world, we must change ourselves. Let’s make it so.

© 2020 Geoff Allshorn

The In-Between Times

Sunrise. Photo (c) 2020 by Ian James

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.

© 2020 Geoff Allshorn

Vegetarian Food For Thought

“The notion that human life is sacred just because it is human life is medieval.”
Peter Singer

Photo by Max Stromfeld on Unsplash

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.

While some humanists may propose that veganism is consistent – indeed, arguably mandatory – for people who follow humanist principles or who are concerned for agricultural or environmental sustainability; others may argue for a less stringent ethical stance such as vegetarianism.

“Peace is not just the absence of war. It is the presence of Justice.
Justice must be blind to race, colour, religion or species.”
Philip Wollen

I recently attended a Humanists Victoria virtual meeting at which the speaker was Philip Wollen, an Australian whose name should be known in every household. A former merchant banker, he has spent many years promoting philanthropy and supporting NGOs. It is most likely his work for animal rights for which he may deservedly be best known. He has delivered powerful presentations in favour of vegetarianism and an affirmation of life rights:  “In their capacity to suffer, a dog is a pig is a bear … is a boy.”

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.

© 2020 Geoff Allshorn

In Search of Heroes

Heroes are ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances,
and extraordinary people in ordinary circumstances.

Some years ago, as a teacher, I held a class in which I asked some young people to explain who were their heroes. A surprising number of these kids argued passionately that their parents or older siblings were heroes because of their tireless work to help family and others in their immediate community. While it may seem easy to dismiss such an insular view, I actually think that a child’s perspective can be quite profound. They saw past the cliché and recognised that being a hero doesn’t require fighting, wearing a cape or being a crime fighter. They instinctively understood a more universal human truth:

Heroes are those who act sacrificially for the betterment and welfare of those within our extended human family.

Children, it might be argued, see heroism (as they see many things) in its most simplistic form. Ethicist Peter Singer explores how humans, as social animals, initially see their world as family and kinfolk, and then expand their awareness of, and empathy for, others, in an expanding circle of ethics and altriusm. Perhaps heroes are those who can see this circle at its broadest.

Heroes can be first responders, scientists, and medical workers. They can be life rights activists and environmental activists. Ordinary or marginalised people can become heroes, including those whose contribution is often overlooked. Heroes can be teachers in Grimsby, UK and Kasese Humanist School in Uganda, or students in Ontario, Chicago and Mingora (Pakistan). The list is almost endless.

It has even been suggested that a folklorist whose exploration of the literary Hero’s Journey across time and culture (expanding upon the Hero Pattern to which I have referred in a recent blog post) is himself a hero.

To have heroes is to be human. My personal heroes include scientists and astronauts who inspire us to aim for new discoveries and knowledge; and artists, musicians and authors who stimulate our imaginations and challenge us to catch their visions for intellectual, aesthetic or social betterment. My human rights heroes include refugees and refugee activists around the world, who battle incredible adversity in their lives and who often face indifference or bigotry from others.

Another hero of mine is a personal friend, a Holocaust survivor, and a tireless worker for human rights and humanist ideals. Her decades of activism are as much a testimony to her principles as are the recollections within her autobiography, in which she summarises the noblest of heroic motivations in a world beset with problems: “Love lights this place up. Without love, it would be dark and cold here.” (The Testimony, Melbourne: Hardie Grant Books, 2012, p. 200).

Why do we have heroes? Heroes provide an optimal human template. While dictionary definitions vary as much as cultural stereotypes, heroes are ubiquitous, so it seems that the heroic essence is an ineffable human quality within us all, most obviously involving altruism but also extending beyond that into what psychologist Philip Zimbardo explores as heroic imagination. Both individually and collectively, we align our inspiration, aspiration and perspiration towards our heroes and the values they represent.

I would suggest the following as a preliminary list of values to which humanist heroes align:

Heroes take lemons and make lemonade. They work to bring the best results out of bad circumstances and human weaknesses. Even our symbolic cultural superheroes are flawed: Achilles forgot to wear protective footwear; Pandora was overly curious; Superman had his kryptonite. Despite whatever difficulties they experience, real-life heroes aspire to be the best people that they can be, and they create opportunities for others to do the same. Heroes are role models and mentors because they lead by example.

Heroes are activists who intervene to change a course of events. This is perhaps why many people are attracted to the nobility of heroism while simultaneously being resistant to its personal cost: heroes make the sacrifices that are necessary in order to change the world. Do we dare to join them?

Heroes inspire our cultures and mythologies. Some of my own earliest childhood memories include the excitement of Thunderbirds, a popular 1960s children’s puppet television series in which the heroes of International Rescue saved people from all kinds of disasters. Thunderbirds may have introduced many youngsters to the humanist concept of offering practical, hands-on help to others because we have the capacity and responsibility to do so.

Heroes have the potential to help not only others but also themselves. Peter Singer suggests that altruism and benevolent actions enrich the giver as well as the recipient: ‘For millennia, wise people have said that doing good things brings fulfillment’ (The Life You Can Save, New York: Random House, 2009, p. 171). Heroes change people’s lives – including their own.

Being a hero is more than doing a good deed; it is a lifestyle choice. The most radical challenge of heroism is that it ultimately moves beyond the individual, and redefines being human as a collective and communal experience – a noble aspiration for animals such as ourselves who form communities. While some people seek the existential meaning of life, heroes live it, demonstrating that our noblest legacy is to leave behind a world that is better for our having been in it.

Everyone can be a hero – if we have the courage to change ourselves and our world.

© 2020 Geoff Allshorn

It’s Life, Jim, But Not As We Know it.

It may not have the elegance and beauty of the artwork in the Lascaux cave complex in France, but sometimes I wonder if such items as this might one day be seen as archaeologically significant artefacts which document primitive communications between ourselves and evolving new species of Artificial Intelligence.

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Computer punch card, Australia, circa early 1970s. From my personal collection.

On the other hand, early computer punch cards might ultimately be seen a vestigial remnant of our own evolution: in line with Transhumanist ideas, emerging AI technology may combine with us to create distinctive new transbiological phenotype-genotype variations.

Will Artificial Intelligence evolve as a separate species, or will we co-evolve to become a mix of something that is as conjoined as we are with Neanderthals and Denisovans? Will we face Colossus the Forbin Project or HAL9000 as our overlords, or will we simply evolve into variations of bionic people, cybermen, or the Borg? Either way, resistance will not only be futile, it may be as retrograde as those who, today, deny the reality of evolution or vaccines or other scientific discoveries in our modern world.

Despite our cultural fears of everything from Frankenstein’s Monster to the Terminator, I do not fear whatever lies ahead. Indeed, when I glimpse at my old souvenir computer punch cards, I am reminded of Miranda’s utterance from Shakespeare’s The Tempest:
O brave new world,
That has such people in ’t!
Our future beckons, full of strange and wondrous things. Let’s make it glorious and embrace it.

© 2020 Geoff Allshorn

Take the Red Pill?

Artist: Miriam English

It is over twenty years since the science fiction film, The Matrix burst onto our screens and most famously introduced possibly millions of viewers to philosophical ideas such as Simulation Theory and the potential dangers of unregulated technological advancement. Are we living inside a computer simulation?

Perhaps the most famous scene in the movie involved the lead character having to choose between taking a blue pill, which would allow him to continue living in a blissfully unaware fantasy state, or a red pill, which would wake him up to whatever harsh reality actually existed in his real world.

This metaphor has apparently been adopted by elements of cyberculture, with one usage of the urban slang term, ‘red pill’ meaning ‘a waking up from a ‘normal’ life of sloth and ignorance’ and choosing the hard road – facing authentic life, warts and all.

By contrast, ethicist Jessica Baron suggests that the western world has been choosing the blue pill – blissful ignorance of the world’s problems:

“Our creature comforts are too nice, too necessary (at least we believe) to give up, and we’ve proved over and over again that we’re unwilling to do so, even if it makes the world safer or fairer for other people.” 

Perhaps the era of COVID is a good wake-up call. While some entitled people in certain western nations bewail home isolation and an inability to get a haircut, others in developing nations live in more severe conditions, where they lack even the most basic food, shelter or medical facilities. Like many other plagues down through history, COVID will undoubtedly prove to be predominantly an affliction of the poor. While world inequity provides opportunities for COVID to linger in poor communities, the virus will remain a threat to us all. If morality is insufficient to motivate us to the task, then surely enlightened self-interest should compel the world to confront such inequality.

It may be time for our culture to get redpilled out of our complacency. Let’s use the era of COVID as an opportunity to change the world for the better.

© 2020 Geoff Allshorn