Doctor Who – Who, Indeed?

“I believe, after having viewed the series for over half a century, that it has long-since reached the point where its title, “Doctor Who”, is no longer applicable.”

Following the recent sixtieth anniversary of the TV series Dr Who – and at a time when the good Doctor undergoes both regeneration/bigeneration of character and franchise – it seems timely (pun intended) to explore the very human adventures of the world’s most famous Time Lord. John Edwards Davies, the first elected President (1981 – 1982) of the Doctor Who Club of Victoria, presents ideas that hint at the universal nature of the human quest, as we all seek to journey through life transitioning from anonymous adventurer to a person of significance within our sphere of influence.

John Edwards Davies meets UK actor Ed Bishop from ‘UFO’ at Huttcon in November 1990

FANDOM:

“Fandom, after all, is born of a balance between fascination and frustration: if media content didn’t fascinate us, there would be no desire to engage with it; but if it didn’t frustrate us on some level, there would be no drive to rewrite or remake it.” ― Henry Jenkins, Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide

Image by Jazella from Pixabay

I was born in January 1961 here in Melbourne, and my space-age childhood experience was replete with the multitude of science fiction/fantasy television being presented across all the TV channels [all four of them] throughout the 1960s. When I look back upon the amount of television programming dedicated to these genres, the total is nothing less than astonishing.

This includes servings from the USA: Irwin Allen (Lost In Space, Time Tunnel, Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea, Land of the Giants), Quinn Martin (The Invaders), Gene Roddenberry (Star Trek), Rod Serling (The Twilight Zone), Leslie Stevens (The Outer Limits); fantasy comedy series, e.g, My Favorite Martian, Mr Ed, My Mother the Car, It’s About Time and I Dream of Jeannie; Hanna-Barbera SF cartoon series, e.g. Frankenstein Jr. and the Impossibles and The Herculoids; and Filmation’s Fantastic Voyage. From the UK: Gerry & Sylvia Anderson (Thunderbirds and UFO, etc), Roberta Leigh (Space Patrol), The Avengers, The Prisoner, Out of the Unknown; Japanese Anime Productions, The Samurai; and Australian children’s productions, including Mr Squiggle, The Magic Boomerang, The Magic Circle Club, The Stranger, Alpha Scorpio and Andra.

And not forgetting a BBC TV series created and produced within the confines of modest budget and studio allotment which came to remain in production for a quite long while, entitled Doctor Who.

I’m extremely gratified that this transpired as it signified that having discovered Doctor Who, I had therefore discovered the ABC, leading onto my discovering a raft of other British series in the following years which I believe have had a profound effect upon the formation of my identity. These include many celebrated historical & contemporary dramas and eternally iconic comedies, e.g. The Six Wives of Henry VIII, Elizabeth R, Callan, Monty Python’s Flying Circus and The Goodies, all of which I embraced at a particularly tender age.

Image by sonywiz from Pixabay

When did you start watching Doctor Who?

I started watching Dr Who sometime around 1967/68 when actor William Hartnell’s era was ending, and Patrick Troughton’s era was beginning. Given that the ABC had contracted with the BBC to screen stories twice only on Australian television, premier stories were usually followed up by a repeat a year or so later.

During this timeframe, I could have been watching a Troughton premier followed by a Hartnell repeat the following week. My memories of this period as a six-to-seven-year-old are now regretfully miniscule and all the more poignant given how many of these stories have been long since destroyed by the BBC, possibly never to be seen again, except perhaps, reconstituted in the future by Artificial Intelligence.

When did you get involved in the club and why?

Doctor Who had been an almost exclusively solitary viewing experience for me during the sixties and seventies. I, being an only child did not have to compete with siblings in order to select and watch any program available for viewing during those years. This privilege extended to Doctor Who but it led me to believe on occasion that I was the only person watching the series.

Zerinza 14-16 (Pinterest)

So I was somewhat taken aback when I discovered a fanzine called Zerinza, dedicated to the series, available for purchase in Space Age Books in the CBD in 1978, which revealed that there was something of a fanbase in Australia – in this instance, Sydney – and that I might be able to share my viewing experience with other fans. It took me a year to muster up the gumption to initiate correspondence with Zerinza’s Editor/Publisher, Antony Howe, and I was quite thrilled that he deigned to respond, resulting in our establishing a friendship which continues today.

Leading on from the establishment of this interstate connection was the discovery of a local Melbourne Club, The Doctor Who Club of Victoria, administered by Croydon High School Teacher, Adrienne Losin, whose own newsletter, The Victorian Time Machine also appeared in Space Age Books. It contained contact details and scheduled monthly meetings which I realised I could attend.

My curiosity piqued, I began attending club meetings as of January 1980, and continued to do so throughout the rest of that year. It brought me into contact with fellow fans enabling me to at long last share in my appreciation of the series and establish several life-long friendships. It also rather rapidly and somewhat unexpectedly led to my ascending to a leadership role in the club, which I came to find quite satisfying.

Becoming the inaugural President of the club in the years 1981 & 1982 signified my earliest experience of assuming a leadership role, and I strongly believed that in terms of accountability and responsibility, to coin the phrase President Harry S. Truman frequently used: “the buck stops here.” I made it a point of attending every meeting during those two years and did not shirk in the role of decision making and in getting Sonic Screwdriver ready for posting at the bulk mail service discount rate at the Degraves Street branch of Australia Post.

I came to strongly believe that two years was quite sufficient in the role, and I made it clear that I would not be seeking re-election as President in 1983. I’m pleased that by doing that, I established some form of succession management within the Club.

My interest in remaining a member of the club began its inexorable decline over the subsequent years as I increasingly felt that I no longer wanted to associate myself as closely as I had become to organised Science Fiction/Fantasy fandom. In terms of personal development, I felt that remaining inside the bubble of the above would be like getting trapped within a cul-de-sac. Since leaving the club, I have never joined another science fiction/fantasy-based club, with the exception of The Nova Mob, and I remain content to just maintain casual social contact with those friendships I made back in the early 1980s.

What are your fondest/proudest memories of your involvement?

In May 1980, Barbara Billett, Judith Houston and I were elected as an Interim Committee as; Treasurer, Secretary & President respectively,

We succeeded in transforming the club from being a one person operation into one administered by a constitutionally governed committee. We continued to hold monthly meetings, produce our own regular newsletter, Sonic Screwdriver and the occasional fanzine, Supervoc.

One of our Supervocs presented a two tone, silver and black Cyberman cover illustration drawn by myself and printed by my father using an offset printing press he possessed within his garage.

I was particularly pleased to create a subgroup within the club called the Materials Reference Section (MRS) which acquired materials, primarily from the Jon Pertwee era which had been unseen on the ABC for a number of years.

We gained some publicity with my appearing on an episode of Shirl’s Neighbourhood in 1982. Sadly I didn’t get to meet the great man, Shirley Strachan himself, my being and still am a massive fan of Skyhooks. My thanks to Linda Bond for organising the Channel 7 production crew to come out and film a segment within the family lounge room.

We presented Christmas Parties at Foresters Hall RMIT in December 1980 & 1981 and then at The Richmond Rowing Club in December 1982. These parties were the absolute highlights of the club’s calendar for networking, building of fandom communities, and building the club. This was followed the year after with opportunity to to research Hartnell and Troughton material of antiquity.

I wish to express my sincerest thanks and gratitude to Barbara & Judith for their dedication and support throughout my Presidency of 1981 & 1982 and also to David Taylor & Linda Bond for their work as Vice President and Club Publicity Officer. Also deserving of recognition is Richard Freeland, Colin Gale & Tom Marwede, MRS officiators, splendid chaps, all of them. A special thanks to Leigh Snell for driving me to so many meetings during these years when I did not hold a Driver’s Licence.

Also a shout out to Bruce Barnes who held the role of Editor of both Sonic Screwdriver and Supervoc during this period and to Catherine Simpson for overseeing the Club’s Writing Pool. I am grateful that there were so many members who were keen to accept roles and responsibilities within the club.

And a final thanks to Graham Jones; and to Geoff Allshorn, who presented me with the Austrek Constitution as a template for review and modification along the way to it becoming the Club’s own fit for purpose Constitution. It has presided over and therefore guaranteed the Club’s survival for over 40 years now. Here’s celebrating that the rule of law prevails!

CRITIQUE:

“The extraordinary thing is this: that the moment you make a story or create an image that finds favour with an audience, you’ve effectively lost it. It toddles off, the little bastard; it becomes the property of the fans. It’s they who create around it their own mythologies; who make sequels and prequels in their imagination; who point out the inconsistencies in your plotting. I can envisage no greater compliment. What more could a writer or a film maker ever ask, than that their fiction be embraced and become part of the dream-lives of people who it’s likely he’ll never meet?” ― Clive Barker, Clive Barker’s Hellraiser Vol. 1

What do you think humans can learn from the alien Doctor?

Whilst often touted as being alien in temperament, the Doctor displays a number of all-too-familiar human character traits, and this enables the audience to identify and engage with his character. The following is a listing of what I have observed as being his characteristics:

Adventurist
Anti-authoritarian
Challenging
Compassionate
Curious
Disruptive
Egocentric
Inclusive
Individualistic
Intrusive
Judgemental
Leader
Manipulator
Nonconformist
Persuader
Questioning
Restless
Subversive

All of the above characteristics have manifested themselves to varying degrees throughout his various lives, including acquired wisdom borne from hard-won experiences spanning several centuries on our time scale, hence his sometimes challenging appraisal and methodology employed to deal with the seemingly endless number of crises he has found himself compelled to deal with.

The Doctor usually plays a central role in overcoming the myriad personifications of evil he encounters on his travels, However, he is not alone in doing so, as he travels with companions who strive to assist him overcoming each threat.

The franchise premise affords it tremendous latitude in its story telling. The time-and-space-travelling capability of the Tardis is the key to the series being able to present a seemingly infinite number of plot lines. For example, the final eight stories of the Hartnell era (Doctor #1) present:

  • The Massacre: August 1572 leading up to the St. Bartholomew’s Day massacre in France;

  • The Ark: an “ark” spaceship carrying Earth’s surviving eco system to another planet some ten million years into the future;
  • The Celestial Toymaker: a powerful adversary enforces the playing of dangerous, potentially lethal games within a children’s fantasy landscape (whose character reappears as part of the Doctor’s sixtieth anniversary).

  • The Gunfighters: the deadly gunfight at the O.K. Corral in October 1881;

  • The Savages: a so-called perfectly civilised society on an unnamed planet which eventually reveals itself to have two separate classes bound in mortal conflict;

  • The War Machines: a bid for world domination by a super-computer AI called WOTAN housed in the Post Office Tower in 1960s London;

  • The Smugglers: smuggling, betrayal and intrigue in seventeenth century Cornwall; and,

  • The Tenth Planet: a 1986 space tracking station at the South Pole becomes a base to defend Earth against alien attack from the Cybermen, the inhabitants of Earth’s long lost twin planet, Mondas.

Image by Andrew Martin from Pixabay

It has now been literally a generation since Doctor Who first appeared on television. Has he evolved over the years?

Today, he is a complex character with precious little residual mystery and now carrying an inordinate amount of personal baggage. A challenge for its long line of show runners, particularly in the modern era, has been to uphold his sense of mystery when the forces of exposition have been relentlessly at work over the past half century to have his identity thoroughly exposed. By and large, they have failed to do so and indeed have progressively striven to unravel him.

I believe, after having viewed the series for over half a century, that it has long since reached the point where its title, “Doctor Who”, is no longer applicable. I consider its 1960s era unique, a self-enclosed time capsule having sustained its titular remit up until Patrick Troughton’s final story, The War Games in 1969, where the Doctor’s identity as a fugitive Time Lord was revealed. Moving into Jon Pertwee’s era of the 1970s, the show and indeed the Doctor himself was never the same again.

Image by Andrew Martin from Pixabay

Along the way the Doctor has ceased to be an anonymous adventurer and has now become universal saviour. His character’s appeal has sustained itself as the show’s audience has matured in its understanding of him over the years. He has morphed from being a demonstrably self-centred traveller at the beginning of William Hartnell’s era into one with a declared moral code by the advent of Troughton and has long since cemented himself as an agent for justice with a galactic sized reputation. He has become a traveller who challenges the status quo whenever and wherever he considers it needs challenging.

His evolved sense of goodness, measured in an apparent lack of self-centredness, contrasts with evil that demonstrates an inability/unwillingness to empathise with others.

The presentation of a number of historical, cultural, ecological, political and, more recently, gender identity and sexual orientation-related themes for examination and debate – sometimes quite heatedly within its demographically diverse fanbase – reflect the Doctor’s evolution.

So who exactly is the Doctor – an “Everyman” figure, or A Rebel With A Cause?

In challenging the status quo, he may appear to be either the protagonist or antagonist. If a story presents a sole villain or alien race determined to unleash evil, they may be considered the protagonists as their intent drives the plot forcing the Doctor to assume the position of antagonist who is determined to thwart them. It should be noted that the Doctor may also assume the role as protagonist as he becomes the primary figure leading a collective resistance against the forces of evil.

Three classic examples of the Doctor assuming dual protagonist/antagonist roles are presented within the following Troughton era stories:

Hobson and the Doctor – The Moonbase (Photo supplied by John Edwards Davies)

The Moonbase (1967)
The Cybermen (Protagonists) are surreptitiously invading a Moonbase which houses a device called the Gravitron which controls the weather on Earth and which they intend to take control of and use to destroy the Earth by severely disrupting its weather. They are infecting the Moonbase’s food supply and one by one the personnel are falling ill and ending up in the Moonbase’s hospital ward where they mysteriously disappear. The Moonbase commander, Hobson becomes increasingly suspicious of the Doctor and his companions and begins to believe they are the culprits.

Within The Moonbase (episode 2), there is the following exchange between Hobson and the Doctor and his companions in the hospital ward, where matters are coming to a head:

Hobson: “For the past two weeks a completely unknown disease has appeared in the base. People drop in their tracks and they develop this black pattern on their skin. Then some of the patients disappear, right? Well they can’t leave the base without wearing spacesuits and there are no spacesuits missing, so where are they?”
The Doctor: “I must say it does sound a little odd.”
Hobson: “More than a little. Well I do know one thing a new disease starts, people disappear and then you turn up !”
Polly: “And you think we did it !”
Ben: “Oh come off it, we haven’t done a thing !”
Hobson: “That’s as maybe. I don’t know who you are, what you are or where you came from, but you can get off the moon now !”
Ben: “Yeah well that suits me fine, the sooner the better !”
The Doctor: “No Ben ! We can’t go yet !”
Ben: “Well why not ? They don’t want us here !”
The Doctor: “Because there is something evil here and we must stay.”
Hobson: “Evil? Don’t be daft !”
The Doctor: “Evil is what I meant. There are some corners of the universe which have bred the most terrible things. Things which act against everything that we believe in. They must be fought!”

The Doctor (Antagonist/Protagonist) Believes something other than a disease is at work and with Polly believing she has seen a Cybermen lurking in the hospital ward, seeks to establish whether the Cybermen are indeed involved. Hobson threatens to order them off the Moonbase. However, the Doctor resists and makes it clear in moral terms as to why they must stay. Once the Cybermen are revealed, the Doctor leads the Moonbase crew to fight off the Cybermen, finally using the Gravitron to blow the Cybermen and their spacecraft off the lunar surface.

Tobias Vaughn – The Invasion (Photo supplied by John Edwards Davies)

The Invasion (1968)
Tobias Vaughn (Protagonist) – Managing Director of International Electromatics, a company specialising in the production of revolutionary electronics is in league with the off-world Cybermen who are launching an invasion of Earth. Vaughn’s character is central to the story and indeed dominates the plot overshadowing the Cybermen themselves who are relegated to bit players. Vaughn’s goal is world control once the Cybermen take over and his aspiration defines the plot.

The Doctor (Antagonist/Protagonist) – Comes to realise Vaughn is evil and is obliged to take action against him with the assistance of Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart who is in charge of the British division of the recently formed UNIT (United Nations Intelligence Task-Force). The Doctor assumes the lead role (Protagonist) with Lethbridge-Stewart and his troops assuming major but nevertheless secondary roles.

Within The Invasion (episode 8) there is the following exchange between Vaughn and the Doctor, where Vaughn retaliates after the Cybermen regard him as having betrayed them and now consider him to be their enemy. In despair at his sudden and unexpected reversal of fortune, he turns to the Doctor:

Vaughn: “You still think you have a chance?”
The Doctor: “Yes! If you help us!”
Vaughn: “Help you? Why should I?”
The Doctor: “Well to save us! To save yourself!”
Vaughn: “And if I survive what future have I Doctor? What will the world do with me?”
The Doctor: “Oh for heaven’s sake stop thinking about yourself! Think of the millions of people on Earth who are about to die!”

His protagonist motivations are finally revealed:
Vaughn: “You think I’m mad? That all I want is power for its own sake? No! I had to have power! The world is weak, vulnerable, a mess of uncoordinated and impossible ideals! It needs a strong man! A single mind, a leader!”

And finally aligns himself with the Doctor:
Vaughn: “Right! I’ll help you to destroy them because I hate them! They…destroyed…my…dream.”

Ice Lord Slaar – The Seeds of Death (Photo supplied by John Edwards Davies)

The Seeds of Death (1969)
Martian Warlord Slaar (Protagonist) and fellow Ice Warriors invade a T-Mat base on the moon and commence misusing it as a relay station to send deadly oxygen absorbing seed pods to Earth in order to soften it up as a prelude to invasion. Slaar, as the commander orders the action taken by his troops and his dominating character defines the plot.

The Doctor (Antagonist/Protagonist) – Becomes involved in the crisis now enveloping the Earth because of the effect the breakdown in T-Mat control and the deadly effect the seed pods are having on Earth population and takes action against the invaders. The Doctor assumes the lead role (Protagonist) helping the humans in control of T-Mat on Earth to resist the Martians’ plans, those characters assuming major but nevertheless secondary roles.

Within The Seeds of Death, there is the following exchange between Slaar and the Doctor approaching the end of the story’s concluding (sixth) episode, where the entire Martian war fleet has been lured – thanks to the Doctor – into an annihilating close orbit around the Sun:

Slaar: “The heat of the sun will kill them! You have destroyed our entire fleet!”
The Doctor: “You tried to destroy an entire world.”

In the above examples and in many other stories, it is the villain/alien race/whoever which instigates proceedings and it is the Doctor who is reactive. Please consider, that the role of the protagonist may not necessarily be aligned to the values of righteousness, nor that the values of the antagonist may not be aligned to the values of evil as we understand evil.

The application of relativist values may lead to the conclusion that both the Cybermen and the Ice Warriors, as presented as protagonists, are only acting in self-actualisation of the fundamental instinct to survive. The Cybermen can only continue to exist if they self-perpetuate themselves through the cybernetic conversion of other suitable humanoid like races, whilst the Ice Warriors can only survive if they leave Mars which is a dead world and occupy another planet which is fertile and can ensure their survival.

The Doctor, anticipating the widespread death of humanity which is guaranteed to ensure if he does not intervene, is compelled to oppose their actions for what he evidently considers to be for the greater good.

Image by Andrew Martin from Pixabay

The franchise is now 60 years old. What has it achieved?

It has profoundly satisfied the appetites of these who enjoy fantasy based entertainment and may it continue to do so for many years to come.

It is absolutely timely to acknowledge that the series has provided employment to an enormous number of actors and production staff within the entertainment industry and of course, particularly within the BBC over the years and made famous, indeed immortalised a number of key players connected to the series in front or behind the camera.

These include the following people, who were involved in the series inception. Their names deserve to live on forever in the annals of British Television as an example that culture is a communal activity (both as creators and fans): Sydney Newman (Head of Drama); Donald Wilson (Head of Script/Serials Department); C.E. Webber (Staff Writer); Anthony Coburn (Writer); David Whitaker (Story Editor); Verity Lambert OBE (Inaugural Producer) and Waris Hussein (Director). Lest We Forget Terry Nation (who created the Daleks) and Raymond Cusick (prop designer). My profoundest thanks to all of them for their creativity, dedication and vision.

What do you think is the future for this Timelord?

The series finds itself at a bit of a crossroad. Its UK audience has declined in numbers in recent years thanks to the advent of the various multi-media platforms now in existence such streaming etc which have had a diluting effect on the numbers watching, however the BBC has now secured a global distribution deal with Disney.com involving its transmission outside of the UK, potentially guaranteeing it a vastly larger audience than it has previously enjoyed.

Ultimately it is the quality of its storylines which may well determine its future. It is now being produced in a world where there is phenomenal competition for audience share by a vast array of productions presented by the likes of Netflix, Prime etc. It now has to measure up to the bar set by these which are endowed with tremendous budgets.

Otherwise, the ability of the lead character to change appearance and for the supporting cast to be regularly replaced allows the series to undertake a reboot/refresh at will. Its creative drive is dependant on its ability to attract good writers and competent producer with vision. There have been times in the past where its core fanbase has formed the opinion that these qualities have been lacking to the series onscreen detriment.

I wish the future of Doctor Who well, recognising that the show is being produced for an audience that is largely of a younger generation to my aging self and to a now notable extent endowed with different entertainment values. The series quite often presents on screen at a hectic pace with hurried plot exposition and its predominantly single episode format precludes much in the way of incidental character development which was a strength of its original multi-episodic format.

I am saddened indeed unimpressed to learn that there are many youngsters today who absolutely will not watch black and white TV and therefore will not explore the B&W Hartnell and Troughton eras as they currently stand. I note that the colourisation of select stories from these eras may be afoot to entice this youthful audience to watch what many of us consider to be early classics.

To conclude, I have watched the series since its return in 2005 with a sense of mild detachment and I don’t imagine that this is going to change in the foreseeable future.

Image by Andrew Martin from Pixabay

“There must be no regrets, no tears, no anxieties. Just go forward in all your beliefs, and prove to me that I am not mistaken in mine.” – The First Doctor, The Dalek Invasion of Earth.

This material is the result of email interviews conducted with John Edwards Davies between November 2023 and January 2024.

Article updated on 14 January 2024 at author’s request to include further examples of television programs from the 1960s.

© 2024 Geoff Allshorn

O little town of Bethlehem

Image by Brigitte make custom works from your photos, thanks a lot from Pixabay

O little town of Bethlehem
Engulfed in war and death!
Above thy deep and dreamless sleep
The world draws bated breath.
For in your dark streets brimmeth
The ghosts of all those lost,
Our hopes and fears meet deafened ears
Your children are the cost.

The Christ story of ancient times
Is told anew today
While women search for birthing place
“No room” – they are turned away.
No mourning for the children
The lost of Gaza’s birth.
A massacre of innocents
No peace across the Earth.

The women of Afghanistan
Their hopes are a lost refrain.
The children dying in Yemen
or Sudan or the Ukraine.
No ear may hear their suffering
But in this world of choice,
Let humble folk rise up and fight,
And give others a Voice.

Our world is full of ancient yore
Of nobility and memes
And yet we see mass death and war
That seem to negate our dreams.
May we all find renewed hope
Real action, not blank stares.
Becoming our own answer to
Those yearned-for thoughts and prayers.

O hollow town of Bethlehem
Why do we ignore your plight,
While affluent folk everywhere
Share gifts only for one night?
They smile and bleat platitudes,
Proclaiming peace on Earth,
While others wail their silent cries
And die in shameful dearth.

Oh ancient tale of Bethlehem
You seem very far away,
Especially from Ugandan queers
Or trans folk in USA.
As we hear Christmas carols
May we please learn anew
The moral strengths attributed
One Palestinian Jew!*

*With thanks to Leunig (“Away in A Manger”, The Age, 15 December 2023) for the inspiration.

©2023 Geoff Allshorn

Human Rights Are Bigger Than We Think

For Human Rights Day 2023 and the values it portrays.

“The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few… or the one.” – Spock.

Today, on Human Rights Day, the newspapers here are full of news that the Australian government announces cuts in migration, in apparent response to polls that suggest Australians think we are importing too many foreigners. This is the same population that recently told our indigenous people that they did NOT deserve the human right to have a voice in the democratic process; the same population that wants the government to shackle and detain black people who have arrived by boat, even after the High Court declares that indefinite detention is illegal.

Meanwhile, wars in the Ukraine and Gaza and Sudan and Yemen continue unabated. The USA votes against ceasefire in Gaza, and the UK abstains. Sorry, there will be no peace on Earth for millions of human beings this Christmas.

It is now 75 years since the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was signed, and we seem to be much further away from achieving its goals than at any time since it was written. Affluent, entitled white folk bewail the “woke” lefties who promote social justice; conspiracy theorists demand their “rights” not to wear a mask or have innoculations, spreading a potentially fatal virus to the most vulnerable.

Therein lies a basic problem: many people think of human rights as an individual, ie. “my rights”. They need to think of humanity as a collective, a family, a genus.

Image by Cheryl Holt from Pixabay

Human rights do not begin and end with us, or with our immediate biological family, nor with our extended friendship grouping. Nor do they end within the limitations of our personal philosophies. I like to remind some people of a good comparison between being “pro-life” and being “pro human rights”:

Someone who says they are pro-life needs to understand that being “pro-life” does not begin and end with the question surrounding abortion. Being pro-life also means supporting women’s autonomy, and the right to make choices both at the start and the end of life. Being pro-life means opposing unrestricted gun ownership, the death penalty, and religious rights to discriminate against minorities. Pro-life means supporting universal health care and a universal basic income, endorsing school lunch programs and women’s shelters and social housing. It means demanding welfare programs, increased spending on science and medicine, and less spending on war. Being genuinely pro-life means upping our refugee intake, it means free public education, and employment programs to increase self-reliance and self-esteem, and to reduce crime and poverty. It means encouraging trans folk and gender variant people and everyone who encompasses diversity and difference to live freely and happily and joyfully. Pro-life means improving the quality of life for everyone around us – and around the whole world – especially for those with disadvantage, disempowerment or disability. It means higher taxes and adopting “trickle up” economics instead of “trickle down”. It means abolishing the developing world by engaging in a cultural war for true human equality. It means encouraging people to think critically and become educated and empowered and autonomous, resisting the religious or political or cultural systems that oppress them. Pro-life means working for social evolution and cultural revolution.

And so it is with human rights: anyone who claims to respect and uphold human rights must see the bigger picture. Until they are enjoyed by the person deemed to be least worthy or least likely or most overlooked and forgotten, then human rights mean nothing.

Today, on Human Rights Day, over one hundred million people are refugees or displaced due to wars, starvation, despots, genocide and injustice. Do we care?

Along with human rights come human responsibilities: and we have a duty to care – and to act. We need to extend the concept of human rights to our human family, and beyond that, to other sentient species, and to the environment, and to the biosphere – because these are all married to our rights and our survival. As creatures formed from stardust, we are all intimately connected. Human rights are life rights. Perhaps a quote from Carl Sagan would help us to gain some perspective:

“Whenever our ethnic or national prejudices are aroused, in times of scarcity, during challenges to national self-esteem or nerve, when we agonize about our diminished cosmic place and purpose, or when fanaticism is bubbling up around us – then, habits of thought familiar from ages past reach for the controls. The candle flame gutters. Its little pool of light trembles. Darkness gathers.” – Sagan, The Demon Haunted World.

In the modern world, we see democratic nations electing fools and unqualified charlatans. We see populist movements of people who are ignorant of science trying to drag us backwards to the era of flat earth and oppression of minorities. It’s easy to dismiss the problem as being too big: we cannot save the world, so it’s too hard to try doing anything. But I think that we must recognise our human duty to spread hope: our world, for all its ugliness, is still a place where war and famine and injustice and cruelty are slowly being eliminated. Beauty and idealism and youthful enthusiasm must be nurtured.

Our ultimate human right is to spread hope and life; everything else is incidental and will come as a consequence. So the next time you think of giving life-saving food to a starving refugee, or another act of selfless human humanity, remember that not only are you right to do so, but it is your human right to do so – saving the world, saving the ethical core of your own humanity.

Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

©2023 Geoff Allshorn

From Anger to Activism

“You know that pain and guilt can’t be taken away with the wave of a magic wand! They’re the things we carry with us, the things that make us who we are. If we lose them, we lose ourselves. I don’t want my pain taken away, I need my pain!”
Captain Kirk, Star Trek V: The Final Frontier.

In memory of Ricky Ransome, who never got to testify;
and with thanks to my friend Peter
who asked me for the more generic details of this story.

Image by KCB1805 from Pixabay

One common criticism of atheists by religious folk is that “You’re just angry at God” – opening up a litany of distractions, deferrals, and false equivalences. It seems that some religious people simply seek to recontextualise the discussion so that the presumed reality of their God remains central to the conversation, or maybe they want to imply that atheists are somehow being dishonest about their motives for declaring their non-belief. Generally speaking, however, the ‘being angry at God’ argument is silly, because people who don’t believe in a God cannot be angry at him.

And yet I was angry at God once – a few decades ago. That was how I became a born-again atheist – and how this life experience rebooted my passion for activism onto a higher level. And as I will explain towards the end of this story, maybe I am still angry at God – but not in the way people might think.

I had grown up in a church family, and my parents had been relatively progressive, humanitarian, and encouraging of reading and critical thinking. After leaving home for my first job, I ended up living out of town, and despite the concerns of my parents, this led to my becoming involved with what I would nowadays call a cult – a group created by a self-proclaimed prophet who declared that he had been anointed by God with a special mission for his followers to uphold. There, amidst the many excesses and abuses I witnessed and experienced, I was forced to undergo gay conversion therapy that naturally failed to ‘cure’ me.

Image by Clker-Free-Vector-Images from Pixabay

I remember being called into a meeting with one of the group’s leaders, who demanded to know if God had cured me of my homosexuality, and the smirk on his face suggested that he expected a positive answer. I recall how quickly his confident smirk turned to a face of ashen anger when I told him that, after much earnest praying and begging for change, I had been forced to conclude that I was still gay because that was the way God had made me. The group subsequently denounced me (and a gay friend, who ironically, I had met in the same group, and who later became my first boyfriend), placing us on the same overnight bus to leave that country town forever. We arrived in Melbourne on 13th September 1987, and began a new life. It seems that while being ghosted, we lost the Holy Ghost. But freed from religiosity, we finally found reality.

The immediate after-effect was one of anger, bitterness, and a sense of betrayal – primarily by my friends and trusted leaders, but ultimately at the God who had allowed this to happen. I was advised by some people to forgive those involved, so I could move on – but I quickly decided that I would never forgive – because to do so would somehow give moral assent to the leaders of that group inflicting similar damage upon others. But we all understand the difference between climb-the-clocktower-with-a-rifle-and-take-out-the-town anger and what might be termed righteous anger – using your sense of moral outrage to motivate you to act in ethical and peaceful ways to confront injustice (the sort of anger that often inspired me to write letters for Amnesty International, and to join a Holocaust survivor friend in undertaking varied campaigns for human rights).

Ultimately, I learnt to walk away from the religious gaslighting and manipulation, and started to be true to myself, free from worrying about a hellish afterlife or needing to live up to the demands of religious others. Even a Christian friend observed after my deconversion that I was happier than I had been in years. Ironically, anger helped me to discover happiness.

Photo by Liza Summer, https://www.pexels.com/photo/emotional-black-woman-yelling-and-touching-head-6382714/

In Praise of Anger

We all associate anger with a loss of impulse control, lashing out physically or verbally (possibly even violently), and the saying or doing of things that we could regret later. Such behaviours can never be endorsed or excused. But the Australian Psychology Association asserts that anger can also be expressed in healthy and positive ways:

“Although anger is often seen as a harmful emotion, it can be a healthy emotional response when expressed assertively and respectfully. Sometimes anger can be helpful; it can motivate a person to take positive action to change a situation for the better or to achieve his or her goals.”

History is full of heroes whose anger has inspired positive change in the world. Rosa Parks stated that her bus boycott was motivated by anger:

“She said her anger over the lynching of 14-year-old Emmett Till and the failure to bring his killers to justice inspired her to make her historic stand.”

Martin Luther King’s teenage anger at having to give up his seat on a bus helped to inspire his later human rights work:

“Martin Luther King, Jr. realized that non-violent resistance offered a way to channel anger into positive forms of protest.”

Even militant activist Emmaline Pankhurst used a variety of politics and ‘suffragette outrages‘ to promote equality for women.

Image by OpenClipart-Vectors from Pixabay

Playwright and author Larry Kramer, whose definitive HIV/AIDS activism helped to change the world and save possibly millions of lives, is well known not only for his activism but for the rage that fuelled it – which serves as a role model for others still today, because choosing to angrily ACT-UP can change the world.

Nelson Mandela recounted how a child crying over the death of a sparrow mellowed his anger at apartheid and helped prepare him for a lifetime of non-lethal civil rights protest and political leadership.

In Australia, we see activists like Eddie Mabo and Kon Karapanagiotidis who turned their lives containing anger and struggle into beacons of hope for others.

Clinical psychologist Bertram Rothschild notes that it is our human (humanist) responsibility to ourselves and to the world around us to: “… accept responsibility for our emotions and behaviors and not accuse others – – whether human or supernatural – – for our reactions”. A more grounded summary of this idea was given to me by my heart surgeon, who commented to me before heart valve transplant surgery (a topic that somehow seems curiously metaphoric for a discussion about anger in my life) that we cannot change the hand that life has dealt us, but we can change how we respond to it. This wisdom challenges us all in at least 16 ways to use anger as a motivation for self-improvement and optimism when confronting injustice in what some would posit is an increasingly angry world. We can turn from being bitter into being better.

An extension of this approach is to also direct compassion towards others, particularly those who might be victims of the perceived danger that angers us in the first place. I know many people who express anger in healthy and socially constructive ways: they visit refugees or others in detention, they participate in street protests or form delegations to meet politicians and try to address injustice, they write submissions to government inquiries, they run fetes selling second-hand books and donate the proceeds to charity, they give out food or offer spare bedrooms to homeless people.

I invite everyone to consider a social issue that makes them angry and find a way to channel that anger constructively towards positive change.

The Personal is Political

On a personal level, my own rage regarding my 1987 injustice motivated me to read more widely in search of answers, and I began to see the world through a non-religious lens. My rage eventually gave way to enlightenment, and I woke up one day realising that I no longer felt emotionally turbulent because I no longer believed in God – hence no need to feel angry at a character I now consider to be as fictitious as Spock or Spiderman – and who is perhaps nothing more than a theoretical idea which explores human nature: balancing our ideals and principles against our frailties and faults.

Politically however, I still see the ongoing detrimental effects of religion upon the lives of LGBT+ people and others, from Uganda to the USA. This week, the world also pauses to reflect upon the anniversary of an act of religious terrorism that killed thousands of people and ultimately changed our world. It is here that this theoretical construct called God is effectively a Rorschach Test for saints and sinners alike, being used daily to not only motivate great acts of compassion, but also to justify all kinds of evil, bigotry and intolerance. So while I am happy to let the average religious person live and let live – they are, after all, well intentioned people simply trying to get through life like the rest of us – I remain committed to challenging injustice wherever I find it – including those who demand the ‘religious freedom’ to hurt others.

More recently, I have been involved in research about certain forms of religious abuse against LGBT+ people, often leading me to recall my 1987 experiences, which had impacted both my life and that of my first boyfriend. I remember Ricky Ransome, now long deceased, who was also left angry by those experiences, but whose righteous rage had helped to encourage me in my activism. He had indirectly contributed to my somewhat small but deeply personal involvement in helping to change the law, and I think this would have made him quite proud. From a non-religious perspective, contributing to a community groundswell to help ban a form of torture or to prevent religious-based discrimination is perhaps the best type of immortality that he (and I) might ever want.

As for anger? I have spent some decades living in contentment, but with a continuing passion to address injustice – especially any that might be rationalised by religion, race or rhetoric. We can all move from anger to atonement.

The author thanks Phil Ransome for his consent to use Ricky’s name and photo.

©2023 Geoff Allshorn