Be The Change…

Photograph by Ian James

In 2009, blogger Keith Akers asked a question about the a popular internet meme which is commonly attributed to Gandhi: ‘Be The Change You Want to See in the World’. Akers has subsequently concluded that the likely original source of the aphorism was a high school teacher from Brooklyn, New York, named Arlene Lorrence, who popularised the saying in the 1970s.

Akers acknowledges that Lorrence was agnostic and that she popularised the aphorism within a larger initiative, The Love Project, as a way of seeking ‘her own spiritual revelation, unconnected with any specific religion… a conscious affirmation that she was open to the next level of her unfolding…’

Some atheists and humanists might find the concept of ‘spirituality’ to be problematic, because it deals with a term describing a realm of existence that lies beyond the measurable, observable universe, and is therefore subject to question. After all, how do we prove that we have a soul? Leaving aside such ephemeral questions; as a humanist, I see the quest for spirituality to be more in line with the basic human aspiration of self betterment and striving for higher goals. In our human quest for significance, we seek to make a difference and to somehow leave the world a better place for our having been in it; and one does not need a ‘soul’ for this – merely a conscience – and so the adage to ‘be the change’ touches a primal and universal human desire.

Alternatively, I do have a problem with the common assumption that religions somehow hold a monopoly upon morality. While social evolution continues to update and supersede religious philosophies – such as the concept that racial segregation could be justified by some conservative interpretations of religious thought (a popular idea within living societal memory), or the idea that women or LGBT people were somehow inferior – humanity continues to improve as humane, critical thought is applied to traditional philosophies. To me, one does not need a religion to be a good person – one only needs a conscience.

One example of outdated religious morality might be found in the Ten Commandments, or the Decalogue (Greek: deka logoi [“10 words”]), a set of religious precepts from Judaism that have also been adopted by Christianity and Islam as comprising a set of divinely mandated rules by which humans should live. It is worth noting the similarities and differences between the Decalogue and the earlier Code of Hammurabi, which appears to be more complex and nuanced but still equally archaic.

According to an email from the Atheist Republic on 18 March 2022, AR blogger Andrew McArthur analyses the 10 Commandments and aptly asks: Hey God, is this the best you’ve got?

This is no mean-spirited bashing of religious precepts nor some attempt to bully Christians out of their religious assumptions. Any objective examination of the 10 Commandments shows that humans can rationally deduce much better precepts for living – and we do every day. It is no wonder that – despite the fervent claims of some Christians to the contrary – the 10 Commandments are not the basis for civil society nor for our modern moral precepts. The Decalogue has long been superseded by humanist principles in everything from civil governance to family life; from the abolition of slavery to the implementation of human rights; from legal jurisprudence to international relations.

The 10 Commandments – Carved in the Stone (Age)

Others have critically reviewed the 10 Commandments and found them to be lacking – so I will not go into my own extensively detailed critique, except to point out what I believe to be their most obvious deficiencies. After all, even a cursory examination of the Ten Commandments reveals their inadequacies, omissions and skewed priorities.

The first three Commandments concern God demanding total and unshared worship – “thou shalt have no other gods before me” etc (an interesting perspective from religions that subscribe to monotheism claiming that only one god exists). This deity devotes three whole commandments (30% of his whole moral code) to demanding that his followers worship only him. In a moment of embarrassing candour, I must admit that this insistence upon his own wants and needs actually reminds me of a schoolkids’ club that I tried to run when I was between the ages of 11 to 14. I drew up a list of club rules, and, impatient that my friends would not drop everything else in their lives and attend every meeting, I insisted on absolute attendance and compliance. OK, that was my immaturity and childhood inability to fully empathise with others (something that I hope I have left behind in my more mature years) – but this is a perspective that any omniscient deity should surely have outgrown.

Only one Commandment really touches upon family issues, and it instructs children to honour their parents. It says nothing about honouring children, ensuring that marriage is a joining of equals, providing a safe family space, banning family violence, or even defining whether a family is a nuclear family or otherwise. Do we help others in our extended family, or all members of our human family? Apparently God does not care about these other matters.

The Commandment banning killing is problematically vague. Does this include banning abortion? (elsewhere in the Bible suggests not) – War and genocide? (the Bible is full of these) – Does it permit execution of declared criminals (such as children who disrespect their parents) or people from other religions, or witches, or LGBT people? (Leviticus is full of it). Or can we kill others in self defence? And does this prohibition endorse the sanctity of all life and imply that we should all become Vegan? Hmm. God seems a little bit vague here.

Andrew McArthur points out the problems with the Commandment banning adultery:

Okay, but what about rape? What about child sexual abuse? What about polygamy? Again, this God fellow seems rather limited in his understanding of the human ability to behave in absolutely vile ways when it comes to sex.

Indeed, this commandment is the only one that mentions any form of sexual morality, so its scope for regulating all human sexual behaviour seems rather naïve and inadequate. Aside from child abuse and rape as mentioned by Andrew McArthur, the Commandments say nothing about banning armies from committing mass rape of conquered peoples and the sexual enslavement of conquered women and children – as frequently happened according to the purported history of the Old Testament. Marriage itself (the subject of this Commandment) is seen in this same religious culture as a form of indentured sexual servitude for women – which, when combined with the Commandment not to covet thy neighbour’s ass or wife or any other of his possessions, makes the intent of the Commandment about adultery clear: adultery is merely an extension of the Commandment not to steal: do not steal a man’s female sexual servant nor his honour.

We can do better. This is, after all, the twenty-first century CE and no longer the Stone or Bronze Age.

Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

The 10 Countermandments – Principles for the Space Age

In order to encourage critical thinking and freethought inquiry, it seems easy to write a better, more balanced and (frankly) more civilised set of 10 Countermandments for our modern world. For example:

THOU SHALT respect the planet, its environment, its many vulnerable biospheres, and all species. This includes recognising and protecting the fragile nature of our solitary blue dot in space.

THOU SHALT respect all sentient life and ensure that societal rules governing life and death are are predicated upon grounds that are rationally deduced and enacted; and are designed to minimise suffering, prolong the value and nobility of all dignified life.

THOU SHALT honour human rights and ensure that all behaviours, cultures, religions, political/economic systems, and laws uphold those rights.

THOU SHALT ensure that all people have access to free education, medical care, employment opportunities, housing, and welfare.

THOU SHALT uphold full equality of all people, regardless of cultural or racial background, sexuality, gender or gender identity, age, employment status, nationality, financial status, physical and mental ability, or other means that have traditionally been used to discriminate and disempower.

THOU SHALT provide special assistance to those who are disadvantaged or oppressed, in order to ensure that they are fully enabled to exercise their human rights and individual potential alongside everyone else. This includes protecting women, children, economically deprived populations, war victims and refugees, people living with disability, older populations and others who are especially vulnerable.

THOU SHALT actively work to abolish inequality, poverty and oppression in all its forms; and rigidly enforce a ban on slavery, torture, violence, war, and entrenched political/institutional inequality.

THOU SHALT encourage opportunities for education, critical thinking, sciences and arts, and the self empowerment of all people.

THOU SHALT love all human and sentient life as much as oneself, and behave accordingly.

THOU SHALT use one’s life and abilities to maximise opportunities for individual and communal fulfilment of potential, happiness, life and love; creating a better world for having been in it.

OK, so these countermandments sound a bit like simplistic platitudes, and I daresay I have accidentally left out important principles, but this list was cobbled together quickly in order to demonstrate that it is easy to find better ethical principles than might be found in dusty old theologies and mythologies. Thinking of such possibilities can be fun.

But what is even more fun, beautiful, challenging and awe inspiring is a willingness to be the change we want to see.

©2022 Geoff Allshorn

Be The Change You Want to See

“A great civilization is not conquered from without until it has destroyed itself from within.” – Ariel Durant.

1965 Soviet Union 12 kopeks stamp. Cosmonautics Day.

A year ago, I wrote enthusiastically about Yuri’s Night, on what was the sixtieth anniversary of the first man in space. Cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin’s brief jaunt into the cosmos represented the technological achievement of a now-fallen empire, the Soviet Union, but more than that – he represented the hopes and dreams and imaginings of humans since time immemorial.

And now, like the explosion of the N1 rocket that destroyed the Soviet Union’s ambitions of landing a man on the Moon, the glories of that fallen empire are now in ashes.

Eyewitness to History

Some decades ago, I visited the remains of a Roman villa that lay in a field in southern Britain. The story of the villa was that it had provided opulent shelter to its occupants until the withdrawal of the Romans in 410 CE. I stood there, admiring the colour and vibrancy of floor mosaics after two millennia, and gazed distantly towards the horizon, trying to imagine myself as an inhabitant of this building watching the departing Romans and wondering about the fall of the empire across those distant shores, and how that collapse would affect everyone in my known world. Those last British Romans had stood at a turning point in history as their civilisation crumbled around them.

Today, I recall that awe inspiring moment of reflection, and I realise that I am indeed standing on a distant shore and watching the collapse of an empire which ruled the world in the twentieth century: the colossus that launched the first space-faring life into the cosmos.

I do not mean that they have suffered a catastrophic failure of their economy or political system or society. As far as I can tell – and I certainly hope so – their people in the streets are, on the whole, still safe and healthy and not in immediate danger. They have suffered no natural disaster; indeed, they are enduring a most unnatural one.

The grandchildren of those who successfully repelled Hitler have themselves become victims of a dictator who is dragging their civilisation towards possible self-destruction. They are consequently using their technology – which previously soared into the heavens and held the world in awe – and have perverted it so that their rockets are visiting death and destruction upon Ukraine. They have taken the flower of their future – their youth – and instead of directing them towards futuristic visions of humanity aspiring to the heavens, are using their children as cannon fodder. They have perverted their political ideology – one that that promotes equality and solidarity – to revisit the horrors of invasion and ethnic cleansing.

I do not blame ordinary Russians for this terrible carnage, and I suspect they are victims (in their own way) as much as their Ukrainian brethren. Life under a dictatorship cannot be easy. But I also see this war as exposing the faults, deficiencies and corruption in political and diplomatic systems around the world.

I have seen commentaries that assert that certain other parties should equally be held answerable for invasions in other countries – and I agree. But in the current context of Russia invading the Ukraine, such arguments are irrelevant. Our global attention must concentrate on stopping this particular descent into genocide and possible world war. Let us deal with each case in turn.

Calling International Rescue

We are all humans, and it behoves us to use our talents and resources to embiggen the world, not to diminish it. Let us try to find ways to stop war, injustice and bloodshed wherever they may occur; let us learn to demonstrate lives of generosity and benevolence to our entire human family.

International diplomacy is one possibility – and maybe it is time to reform and rebuild the United Nations, which, for all its inaction and deficiencies, may still be the world’s best opportunity for building a united, international community.

National morality may be another possibility – if affluent, privileged nations like Australia can agree to shoulder their fair share of the burden in accommodating refugees, sharing resources, and putting in genuine efforts to build a fairer world.

As one example, might Australian politicians be compelled to take some needy refugees from Kenya and Uganda and help save the lives of some of the world’s most vulnerable people – who have endured living conditions akin to war every day for years?

Perhaps – but only if sufficient numbers of Australians are prepared to sign this petition as a demonstration that we also care.

The Perspective from Space

This week also marks the anniversary of the return to Earth of the Apollo 13 mission, a space mission that very nearly led to the death of its crew following an explosion in the spacecraft on the way to the Moon. Their return was a triumph of technical prowess and human ingenuity.

As they limped back towards Earth, not knowing if they would survive the journey, I wonder if they pondered their view of our planet in the vastness of space? Did they wonder if their own lives – or the lives and civilisations that were encompassed by the blue dot they observed – might rise or fall according to the whims of dictators or the nobility of human aspirations? Did they have a numinous experience like I did, as I stood aside those ancient Roman mosaics in 1988?

Or one day in the far future, will our distant descendants look up into the night-time skies and ponder their place at the edge of some galactic empire where divisions like Russian, Ukrainian or Australian mean nothing?

Perhaps – but only if we all work to build a better future for our species. That starts today.

©2022 Geoff Allshorn

Actions Speak Louder Than Words

At the next CHOGM meeting in June 2022, let’s change the world.

Art by janeb13 on Pixabay

“The Commonwealth makes the world safe for diversity” ~ Nelson Mandela.

It was once called the empire upon which the sun never sets, comprising maybe one quarter of the world’s land mass and population. But the colonial British empire – divested from colonial empowerment and largely consigned to history – has been replaced by the Commonwealth of Nations, which also spans the globe. Does it serve a purpose today?

The Commonwealth currently boasts 54 member countries, comprising approximately 2.4 billion people, although “32 of the world’s 42 small states are Commonwealth members, each with a population of 1.5 million or less” suggesting that the sun may indeed be setting on its glory days. Its’s time to challenge all Commonwealth nations, great and small, to live up to the potential to which the Commonwealth implicitly aspires.

Lands of Hope and Glory?

While aspiring to leave behind its racist, sexist, jingoistic colonial past behind, the Commonwealth proclaims itself to be a purveyor of equality and non-discrimination; with particular emphasis on respect for diversity and protection for vulnerable peoples:

“Affirming that the special strength of the Commonwealth lies in the combination of our diversity and our shared inheritance in language, culture and the rule of law; and bound together by shared history and tradition; by respect for all states and peoples; by shared values and principles and by concern for the vulnerable…” (Charter of the Commonwealth, 2013, p. i.)

Such are worthy and noble aspirations, but they are far from being met.

LGBT Rights Now!

Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

WikiMilli notes that ‘Homosexual activity remains a criminal offence in 35 of the 54 sovereign states of the Commonwealth; and legal in only 19’. Punishments range from flogging and imprisonment with hard labour, to life imprisonment or death. Related social discrimination leads to violence, hate crimes, increased rates of HIV/AIDS and other health problems, and murder. (Yes folks, this is the Commonwealth in the 21st century).

“Homosexuality is a criminal offence in the following Commonwealth member states (those with an asterisk* do not enforce the law): Cameroon, Ghana, Kenya, Nigeria, Eswatini, Tanzania, The Gambia, Uganda, Zambia, Bangladesh, Malaysia, Maldives, Pakistan, Singapore, Grenada, Guyana, Saint Kitts and Nevis, Saint Lucia, Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, Papua New Guinea, Solomon Islands, Brunei, Mauritius,* Sri Lanka,* Samoa,* Malawi,* Namibia,* Sierra Leone,* Antigua and Barbuda,* Barbados,* Dominica,* Jamaica,* Kiribati,* Tonga,* and Tuvalu.*” (List Source: Wikipedia, last edited on 14 March 2022.)

The Human Dignity Trust reports that: “There are more than 70 jurisdictions globally, half of which are Commonwealth countries, that criminalise consensual same-sex sexual activity.”

Nor does the Commonwealth like to be reminded of these extensive human rights abuses within its jurisdiction. Its hypocrisy – proclaiming human rights while abusing those same rights for millions of its own citizens – is breath taking. According to its own Commonwealth Ministerial Action Group, LGBT rights for millions of Commonwealth citizens is not even on the agenda.

The Human Dignity Trust reports that: “There is a direct link between criminalizing laws and increased rates of HIV, and the Commonwealth undeniably demonstrates this link. The Commonwealth accounts for approximately 30% of the world’s population but over 60% of HIV cases worldwide.” (Human Dignity Trust, in GayStarNews, 2015).

At this year’s Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting in Rwanda, during the week of 20 June, it is time to challenge the Commonwealth to join the 21st century instead of deferring to outdated elements of its medieval legacy from colonialism. The Commonwealth needs to repeal its colonial-era laws, address its consequences, and offer redress to its victims.

Take Action.

Sign and share this petition

Please consider carefully how to sign this petition if you live in a nation that has homophobic laws.

In memory of my LGBT+ refugee friend, Trinidad Jerry, who was murdered in Kakuma Refugee Camp, Kenya, in 2021.

Note: This is my 100th blog posting, and may be my most important to date. ©2022 Geoff Allshorn

To A Special Friend

For William Katongole (2 February 1989 – 10 March 2022):
gone too soon, too suddenly, and too far from his loved ones.

When in a world
of emptiness,
Friends can be hard to measure,
It’s good to know
that I know you,
Your friendship is a treasure.

To have shared
so much, freely,
with you has been no strife,
I’m glad that you
did open up
the door into your life.

It’s not often
that someone comes,
and makes me have to boast,
that I enjoy
your company
a whole lot more than most.

For even though
My life has been
Occasionally a haze,
I can say
I’m happier now
that you have shared my days.

+ + +

In 1986, a special friend wrote this poem to me, and I treasure it to this day.

Today, I pay it forward by sharing this poem with the world, rededicating it to William, a young man who lived a difficult life, loved his friends deeply, and whose hopeful plans for the future will never be accomplished. Gone but never forgotten.

Original poem © 1986 by Ricky Ransome;
this rededication © 2022 Geoff Allshorn

Lion’s Heart

In honour of International Day of Happiness (20 March).

Image by OpenClipart-Vectors from Pixabay

What does it mean to be LGBTQ in countries where being different is a legal or moral crime? How does one live on a continent where being ‘outed’ is likely to lead to family and community rejection, where displaying a rainbow flag is likely to provoke a violent attack, and where the very religion to which one may turn for consolation is the same one that preaches death to queers?

A loved gay friend in Africa recently expressed disillusionment and defined an LGBTQ life as one being full of rejection, pain, suffering, violence, depression, unemployment, discrimination, and an unsafe environment. His life is testimony to such realities.

He wrote poetically and with deep feeling:

This young man fills me with admiration at his courage, his strength and his resilience in the face of hardships. I am proud of this rainbow son, as I am of his whole rainbow family in their adoptive home nation. His lion heart is strong in the face of attack, but gentle to children and those he loves. It is therefore sad to see when he feels down. With love and hugs across the world, I offer him a different definition of what it means to be LGBTQ:

Being LGBTQ means living a full life that is:

Full of love that some might not understand, so we need to keep educating them.

Full of sensitivity that others might not share, so we need to keep exercising it.

Full of potential, so we need to keep being optimistic and enterprising and creative.

Full of difference, so we need to stay proud and diverse.

Full of being fabulous, so we need to enjoy enriching the world with our special skills and perspectives.

Full of pride, so we need to stay strong and forgiving when others are cruel or ignorant or intolerant.

Full of empathy, so we need to keep expressing sympathy for the suffering of others.

Full of humanity, so we need to keep fulfilling our responsibility to care for others in our human family in order to set a better example for those who treat us badly.

Full of humility, so we need to keep loving ourselves with the quiet strength in our hearts.

Full of courage, so we need to stay strong despite our many difficulties.

Full of rainbow, because the world needs the love, sensitivity, potential, difference, pride, fabulosity, empathy, humanity, humility and courage that we possess.

In a world where marriage equality is not the norm but homophobia is, people of good conscience surely have a responsibility to offer a fuller life to those around them. While the International Day of Happiness 2022 proposes that the world rebuild after the trauma of COVID, (‘Build Back Happier’), LGBTQ communities around the world have already experienced a generation of dealing with another, potentially more lethal virus, and we have led the world in developing strategies for harm minimisation and building supportive, safe, loving communities amidst an epidemic. We should do the same for people whose lives have been impacted by the traumatic virus of homophobia. It’s time to rebuild.

©2022 Geoff Allshorn

#BreakTheBias

In honour of International Women’s Day 2022.

From Pexels.

“The story of the human race begins with the female. Women carried the original human chromosome as she does to this day: her evolutionary adaptation ensured the survival of the species: her work of mothering provided the cerebral spur for human communication and social organisation.” – Rosalind Miles, The Women’s History of the World (1989), p. 19.

International Women’s Day is a good time to pause and reflect on the women who enrich our world.

This might include paying tribute to powerful leaders from our world history, such as Wu Zhao, Boudicca, Cleopatra, Queen Nanny, Queen Liliʻuokalani, Evita Peron, Queen Soraya Tarziand, and Indira Ghandi, who dealt with injustice, discrimination and inhumanity by showing their own individual forms of strength and determination.

It should also include acknowledging and honouring women who have been literal and/or figurative mother figures in that they have given birth to much of our world as we know it today: Lucy, Emmaline Pankhurst, Coccinelle, Rosa Parks, Eleanor Roosevelt, Marsha Johnston, and Coretta Scott King.

We could also honour women like Caroline Herschel, Marie Curie, Wangari Maathai, Hypatia, Ada Lovelace, Sally Ride, and Mary Shelley, and a score of others spanning Africa and Asia and elsewhere who have extended our scientific, intellectual and literary spheres.

Our tribute must include activists such as the Suffragettes, the Mothers of the Disappeared, the protesters of Grand Bassam, and Grandmothers for Refugees; and individuals including Halina Wagowska and Waris Dirie. We must highly esteem indigenous Australian, African, Asian and Pacific Islander women, and those across the Americas.

Let us also pay respects to current and future influencers in our world: Damilola Odufuwa and Odunayo Eweniyi, Malala Yousafzai, Greta Thunberg, Emma Watson, and Anjali Sharma.

Artist: Miriam English

Our list of female heroes must also pay particular tribute to the everyday women who will never individually make the list of rich or famous, but whose tireless work keeps the world going: those who comprise the majority of micro loan accounts and whose work fuels modern economic, family and social industry; those who are overlooked today in Afghanistan and Saudi Arabia, China and Tibet and Burma and Ukraine and Syria and North Korea, and in Kakuma and Dadaab refugee camps in Kenya.

Like the 13th (female) Doctor Who from popular culture, the women we admire span time and place; they inhabit varied diverse cultures and religions and philosophies… but I see their collective activism as comprising the purest and most unifying philosophy of all: recognition of our common humanity across the histories and geographies and societies that together create the entire human family.

Yes, International Women’s Day is a good time to pause and reflect on the women who enrich our world – but so is every day. Let’s stop the discrimination, the disempowerment, the direct and indirect (vicarious) violence, the cultural and religious and social and political bias that women experience every day. Let’s avoid the patronising and tokenistic pat on the head that one day per year may afford, and make every day International Women’s Day.

Let’s honour all the women listed above – and more: let’s esteem every woman for their daily courage and determination to #breakthebias and stereotypes and systemic disempowerment and entrenched sexism and misogyny. Let’s change the world for women, and, in doing so, we will make it a better place for us all.

©2022 Geoff Allshorn

Zero Discrimination Day

In honour of Zero Discrimination Day (1 March).

Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

In 2017, UNAIDS called upon people to speak up for the principles of Zero Discrimination Day: “Discrimination doesn’t just hurt individuals, it hurts everyone, whereas welcoming and embracing diversity in all its forms brings benefits for all.”

Wikipedia notes that the day has been used by UN agencies and activists across Africa and India to fight against discrimination, especially that targeting LGBT people and those with HIV/AIDS.

In such places, discrimination can still prove to be literally a deadly, daily life-and-death crisis. Religious homophobia is rampant across Africa, and contributes to the culture that forces many LGBT people to become refugees, fleeing for their lives to places like Kenya, where they remain potentially in danger. One of my African friends, Trinidad Jerry, was murdered in Kenya last year and, as far as I am aware, his identified murderer has never faced justice. Alternatively, India took a step forward in 2018 with the decriminalisation of homosexuality.

In a western nation like Australia, it is easy to feel complacent about human rights as we are relatively affluent and insulated from many of the world’s problems that beseige our human family overseas. It is therefore ironic that this year’s Zero Discrimination Day comes in the wake of the latest attempt by Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison and his band of religious holy-rollers to usurp the language of human rights and legislate new forms of religious apartheid and discrimination, especially against LGBT people.

Over recent weeks, this fight has been vicious and unrelenting. During that time, I have been largely absent from blogging, primarily because of the consequent intellectual and emotional exhaustion arising from the stress and tension of fighting this legislation that sought to diminish my human rights and the rights of millions of other Australians.

Ubuntu – We Are Family

The fight against discrimination in Africa is strengthened by what has been defined as the South African humanist principle of Ubuntu, a philosophy that acknowledges our common humanity. Archbishop Desmond Tutu, who popularised the Zulu and Xhosa term, translated it as meaning “I participate, I share”. Wikipedia (citing the Official Ubuntu Documentation website and the Guardian newspaper) offers a broader definition:

Ubuntu (Zulu pronunciation: [ùɓúntʼù]) is a Nguni Bantu term meaning “humanity”. It is sometimes translated as “I am because we are” (also “I am because you are”), or “humanity towards others” (in Zulu, umuntu ngumuntu ngabantu). In Xhosa, the latter term is used, but is often meant in a more philosophical sense to mean “the belief in a universal bond of sharing that connects all humanity”.

Such common humanity, humility, and a compassionate, communal identity is the stated ideal behind many of the world’s religions and philosophies. I would personally see this as not the monopoly of religion, but the common humanity of all people being manifested in a variety of facets across diverse cultures and societies. In Africa, where colonialism has left great social, economic and moral poverty, the idea of Ubuntu challenges both their behaviours and our own. I have previously written: “When considering that, ‘charity begins at home’, we need to remember that the whole world is our home.” Expanding on that idea, when considering our primal instinct for protecting our family, we should also ponder the reality that we are all human, we are all family.

And despite his claims of Christian compassion and human empathy, it appears that our Prime Minister has yet to understand and demonstrate Ubuntu.

The Religious Discrimination Bills

The name says it all – whereas most legislation regarding discrimination is contextualised within titles and frameworks highlighting the intent to promote “anti discrimination”, this Australian legislation was unashamedly titled “Religious Discrimination”.

It is exhausting to simply read the title – let alone the contents – of this proposed legislation: “The Religious Discrimination Bill 2021 [Provisions]; Religious Discrimination (Consequential Amendments) Bill 2021 [Provisions] and Human Rights Legislation Amendment Bill 2021 [Provisions]”. Yet this mouthful of bluster and blarney was the latest attempt by the conservative Australian Parliament to legalise discrimination under the pretense of protecting religious freedoms. A previous Parliamentary inquiry in 2018 recommended that further protections might be needed, but acknowledged that this was a nuanced and complex issue that needed input from diverse stakeholders, many of whom called for a more sophisticated Bill of Rights. The Australian Human Rights Commission summarises both the problem and the solution: “Inclusion begins with respect.”

In Australia, there are already many protections for people of faith, and the right to freedom of conscience, thought and belief is restricted – as are all human rights – predominantly by restraints that are deemed necessary to protect the human rights of others. For example, religious people in Australia cannot burn witches, stone adulterers, genitally mutilate their daughters, or throw LGBT people off rooftops. But the spirit behind the proposed legislation is to make it easier for those with more narrow and potentially harmful interpretations of morality to practice their beliefs in ways that might harm others (such as Citipointe Christian College). In proposing such unbalanced, divisive and harmful legislation, the government’s overreach is a violation of equality and universal human rights:

“If a believer demands that I, as a nonbeliever, observe his taboos in the public domain, he is not asking for my respect, but for my submission.” ― Flemming Rose.

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

Pride and Prejudice

The Australian Parliament recently ran two inquiries on these Bills, as a demonstration of how much the government wanted to push them through: a Senate inquiry and one run by the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Human Rights. These were the latest in a long line of attempts by the LNP to legislate a form of elitism in Australia: ensuring that religious bigots have special rights to discriminate against anyone who offends their religious sensibilities, including (but not limited to) women (especially single mothers), Muslims, Jews, atheists, divorcees or remarried couples, LGBT students or teachers, people with disability, and those who do not share their religious views.

The widespread public response to the proposed legislation was opposition from across society: churches and religious communities, LGBT communities, people with disability, multicultural networks. In attempting to divide the nation, the government inadvertently united it.

For my own efforts, my submission was accepted (#206) for the Joint Parliamentary Inquiry and my local MP, Kate Twaites, read aloud into Hansard a portion of my representation to her to please oppose the legislation.

Interestingly, her comments about Australia needing a Bill of Rights received an interjection from a conservative MP who implied that the Magna Carta already defined our national human rights – a typical response from a reactionary who evidently believes that an 800 year-old document that enshrines the rights of the English Church (Clause 1) and predominantly defines the rights of king and barons to oversee the running of a feudal society, might have something generically relevant to say today about human rights for those who were not divinely ordained to rule (indeed, one might see how seriously Australian MPs who espouse the Magna Carta are today when considering how they fail to apply its Clause 40 to the human rights of refugees: “To no man will we sell, or deny, or delay, right or justice”).

Double Dealing and Doublespeak

Wrangling over the problems within the Religious Discrimination Bills brought about proposed amendments aimed to protect gay students but not trans students, the latter being a proposed change that aroused concern from Christian Schools Australia. However, the failure to also protect trans students caused five Liberal MPs to cross the floor of Parliament. Ultimately the protecton of trans students was too much for the government and its Christian overlords, who urged the government to abandon the legislation rather than remove their Christian facility to discriminate – thus demonstrating that the legislation was really about discrimination and exclusion rather than religious freedom. One hopes that those who seek to discriminate will instead learn from this experience and join the 21st century.

Meanwhile, Scott Morrison has suggested that the failure of this legislation demonstrates that Christianity is being persecuted in Australia. Such an astonishing hijacking of the language of human rights by a human rights abuser, echoes schoolyards across my 25-year tenure as a school teacher – where every time a bully had his or her bullying behaviour confronted, they immediately complained that they were being bullied. Far from Morrison being oppressed, the reality of his behaviour is far more dangerous: his legislation aimed to divide and conquer, opposing the principles of Zero Discrimination Day.

And perhaps worst of all – any legislation that aims to divide our human family is as obscene as it is ideologically corrupt. While Scott Morrison sees himself in Biblical terms as Samson, strong in heart but under attack from ungodly enemies, I see him more as the Biblical prodigal son, profligate and indulging in narcissistic fancies; someone who is yet to mature into a responsible human being and grasp an enriched understanding of Ubuntu. On the day that he actually learns human empathy and compassion, in line with the allegedly Christian values which he proclaims but ignores, I for one would welcome him back into the wider, compassionate, inclusive human family. Ubuntu.

©2022 Geoff Allshorn

It’s Time

Image by Free-Photos from Pixabay

This letter was recently sent to the Australian government for an inquiry on ending indefinite and arbitrary detention of refugees. They published my submission (#398) and I await the outcome of the inquiry – but I will not hold my breath waiting for humanitarian action from this government.

Committee Secretary
Joint Standing Committee on Migration
PO Box 6021
Parliament House
Canberra ACT 2600.
migration@aph.gov.au

Dear Secretary,

Re: Ending Indefinite and Arbitrary Immigration Detention Bill 2021.

Thank you for the opportunity to make a submission to this inquiry, which I believe to be the most important and historic human rights inquiry by the Australian Parliament in over twenty years, because it focuses upon an area of human rights that has needed redress for many years.

This inquiry is an opportunity for Australians to speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves. As someone who has been a human rights activist for many years, I thank Andrew Wilkie for having the integrity to propose this Bill and I thank the Committee for their willingness to consider submissions such as mine which call upon the Australian government to live up to the principles of egalitarianism and giving a fair go to the underdog.

I support the passing of this Bill in order to ensure that Australia upholds the principles and practices of human rights, human decency, and international law.

Background of this Bill:

Australia was one of the original architects of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948. The Declaration enshrines the universal and inviolate nature of human rights.

I note that on World Human Rights Day (10 December) last year, to mark the anniversary of the adoption of the Declaration, Australia’s Minister for Foreign Affairs, Senator Marise Payne, publicly upheld the ‘equality… indivisibility and universality’ of human rights, and stated that:

“As one of the eight drafters, Australia remains as committed today to the values and ambition of the Declaration as we were at its inception…
“Australia will continue to advocate for equal human rights for women and girls, people with disabilities, LGBTI people, indigenous peoples, and others who may be in vulnerable situations…
“Australia will continue to defend human rights and encourage the international community to hold itself accountable to the Declaration’s principles.”

The passage of this Bill will bring Australia into line with these noble principles. Refugees are among the world’s most vulnerable people, and their equality must be respected alongside other human beings within our national responsibility. Indefinite and arbitrary detention violate basic human rights and diminish our national accountability and credibility in the world community.

Compliance with World Standards:

This Bill upholds the principles and laws found within the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination, the Refugee Convention, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women, the Convention on the Rights of the Child, and the Convention against Torture.

In preventing human rights abuses including arbitrary and indefinite detention, lack of transparency, and the neglect of those asylum seekers who were recently abandoned in PNG, this Bill brings Australia into line with world class standards of human rights, and restores Australia’s reputation in the world arena.

Why this Bill is vital for Australia’s ethical, cultural and economic best interests:

Ethical:

The Bill reinforces the notion that our national strength lies in our diversity.

“The Australian nation is woven together of people from many ancestries and arrivals…
“In every generation immigrants have brought great enrichment to our nation’s life….
“We value excellence as well as fairness, independence as dearly as mateship.”
(Prime Minister John Howard and poet Les Murray’s Draft Constitutional Preamble, 23 March 1999, as documented by Mark McKenna, Australian Parliament House website.)

This Bill implicitly acknowledges that “border security” should not be used as an excuse to inflict hurt or harm on innocent refugees who simply seek protection.

Our ethics compel us to “roll up our sleeves” and take action:

“The protection of human rights to promote the dignity of the individual is too important a matter for symbolic gestures alone. It is only through the pursuit of practical and effective efforts to promote human rights that we show our real commitment to the welfare of individuals and society.” (Alexander Downer).

Cultural:

This Bill exemplifies the positive aspects of Australian culture including mateship, common humanity and ‘a fair go’:

“For those who’ve come across the seas
We’ve boundless plains to share;
With courage let us all combine
To Advance Australia Fair.”(from the Australian National Anthem.)

This Bill also upholds the principles of those Australians who subscribe to Judaism, Christianity and Islam, as all three religions are predicated upon honouring refugees as a central tenet of each faith (Moses, Jesus and Mohammed were all refugees).

Prime Minister Scott Morrison has upheld the common humanist ethics within these religions by acknowledging within his faith the “dignity and value of each and every human being and the responsibilities that they have one to another” (Sarah Martin, Scott Morrison tells Christian conference he was called to do God’s work as prime minister, The Guardian, 26 April 2021).

Scott Morrison’s maiden speech in Australian Parliament set the noble standard against which his government, and all others, should be judged:

“From my faith I derive the values of loving-kindness, justice and righteousness, to act with compassion and kindness, acknowledging our common humanity and to consider the welfare of others; to fight for a fair go for everyone to fulfil their human potential and to remove whatever unjust obstacles stand in their way and to do what is right, to respect the rule of law, the sanctity of human life… We must recognise an unchanging and absolute standard of what is good and what is evil…
“These are my principles. My vision for Australia is for a nation that is strong, prosperous and generous… above all, generous in spirit, to share our good fortune with others, both at home and overseas, out of compassion and a desire for justice.”(Scott Morrison, speech in Parliament House, 14 February 2008).

This Bill also upholds Australian tradition by enshrining the human rights and freedoms for which our military services have fought. Minister for Home Affairs, Karen Andrews, states on her personal website that she supports veterans. This upholds our culture of honouring the ANZACs and others who paid a heavy price to serve our country in theatres of conflict or war.

Economic:

The Bill eliminates the economic burden that is currently paid by taxpayers for the current refugee policies. Offshore detention and related onshore procedures currently waste billions of dollars upon a system that lacks transparency, accountability and independent oversight, and which fails to deliver humane and protective shelter for those seeking asylum and refuge. The Guardian reports that $1.4 billion has been paid to run the offshore processing regime for five years on Nauru alone (Ben Doherty, ‘Budget Immigration costs: Australia will spend almost $3.4m for each person in offshore detention’, The Guardian, 11 May 2021) and the Refugee Council of Australia reports that offshore processing costs to Australia have likely exceeded $9.03 billion (Offshore Processing Statistics, Refugee Council of Australia, 8 January 2022).

Onshore detention and welfare systems would cost much less, be more humane, and more in line with the cultural and ethical underpinnings of Australian society. They would provide opportunities for quicker, streamlined processing, ensuring that human beings are not detained any longer than necessary. They would ensure a professional approach to assimilation of new migrants in ways that provide mutual benefits for both the individuals concerned and for the Australian community within which they are already placed. Furthermore, they would also provide opportunities for independent oversight to ensure legal, humane and just processes and treatment.

National Credibility in the Context of Recent Events:

January 2020 brought Australia to the fore of public world attention with the arrival of a tennis player whose vaccination status brought him into conflict with our immigration regime. For part of his time in Australia before deportation, he was housed in the same hotel in Melbourne that also housed a number of refugees who had been detained there and elsewhere for up to nine years without prompt and due processing of their claims or adequate attention to their medical needs. The tennis player’s prompt processing, while those others remained detained and neglected by Australia, was on display for the world.

This Bill would remove those current practices which shame our nation in the eyes of all Australians of good conscience, and in the eyes of the world. It also ensures that future judgements of world history will define Australia as a nation that practices the lovingkindness that Holocaust survivor, Australian Halina Wagowska, writes about in her autobiography, a lovingkindness that illuminates the best of humanity:

“Love lights this place up. Without love it would be dark and cold here.”

Conclusion:

I ask this committee to endorse this Bill.

It will return Australia to its proud heritage of being a human rights leader in the world community.

It will uphold international law and the principles within Australian law regarding the inviolate and universal nature of human rights.

It also prepares Australia for further steps towards endorsing human rights through possible actions such as writing and adopting a National Bill of Rights.

I believe that all Members of Parliament enter this career because of a genuine desire to help improve Australia and the world. Rarely, however, does a Bill come along which so clearly provides an opportunity to unambiguously improve the country. This Bill is one such opportunity and I respectfully ask you to take it.

History will express respect for this Bill and those who adopt it.

Thank you for the opportunity to contribute to this inquiry.

Yours most respectfully.

©2022 Geoff Allshorn

The Prime Defective?

Image by p2722754 from Pixabay

“The idea of leaving any species to die in its own filth when you have the ability to help them… it’s a bunch of fascist crap,”
– Robert Beltran, C│NET, 2016.

Starting in 1780, an estimated 350 to 400 massacres of indigenous Australians are committed by colonists. These Killing Times continue until about 1930. Exact numbers of victims are unknown, but it is estimated that 65,180 people are killed in Queensland alone.

In 1939, the SS St Louis arrives in Cuba and then Miami, carrying hundreds of Jewish refugees who are fleeing the Holocaust. They are sent back to Europe, where many of them die. Just over 60 years later, in 2001, the MV Tampa arrives in Australian waters, carrying hundreds of (mainly) Afghan asylum seekers. The Australian government refuses to take them.

In 2019, a 26 year-old US missionary approaches an isolated group of indigenous people whom he is seeking to convert to Christianity, and they kill him in order to protect their culture, their privacy, and – although they may not realise it – their vulnerability to attack from microbes beyond their isolated island.

In August 2021, the US-led military forces in Afghanistan withdraw, leaving behind an inadequately trained defence force and a human rights catastrophe facing tens of millions of civilians who have been abandoned by the western nations. Critics of the US-led occupation argue that Afghanistan should be left to sort out its own problems.

Such examples – out of myriads in our recent and collective human history – demonstrate a principle that was examined in modern science fiction pop culture – within the Star Trek TV series.

To Boldly Go?

Elizabeth Welch provides a succinct summary of the principle within the Star Trek franchise:

“The Prime Directive, or Starfleet General Order 1, states that members of Starfleet are prohibited from interfering with the internal and natural development of alien civilizations. In other words, colonization of inhabited worlds is a no-go.”

Various episodes of various Star Trek series have explored the Prime Directive,often pitting Enterprise crew members against indigenous laws or customs that they consider to be barbaric or ethically unsupportable.

YouTuber Steve Shives points out the problem with this principle, even within the context of the Star Trek series: “At some point, one of the writers or producers must have noticed that pledging to uphold a non-interference principle is kind of an odd thing for people to do when their primary mission is to seek out new life and new civilisations…” (Shives, 2018b, @4:10). He also asks whether it is ethical to prevent saving a civilisation that faces extinction from a natural disaster.

Outside of Star Trek, its Prime Directive has inspired varied philosophical ponderings and posturings, ranging from the question on whether aliens are avoiding us because they are following the Prime Directive, to whether or not God is following the Prime Directive. (I find such unsupportable musings to be somewhat silly; one might just as easily ask whether unicorns or Klingons are hiding from us for similar reasons.)

All in all, the Prime Directive might seem to be an interesting intellectual exercise, except…

Falling Back to Earth

Star Trek’s Prime Directive was problematic from the start. The original series forbade the Enterprise crew from interfering with the ‘natural’ development of any indigenous world – undoubtedly as a response to US involvement in the real-life Vietnam War. The original series treated the Prime Directive with ambiguity, as Eric Greene (2006, 60) points out:

“…in the course of the series, the Prime Directive was often debated, occasionally derided, but rarely obeyed. The Prime Directive was not a directive as much as it was the Prime Question: how much power should a superpower use when dealing with other peoples?”

Exceptions to the rule of non-interference were permitted (and frequently carried out by Kirk) if deemed necessary to reset a cultural aberration back onto ‘healthy’ development or to rescue victims of injustice. One commentator summed up Kirk’s frequent violation of this policy: “The Prime Directive was instituted to protect people. When the directive gets in the way of protecting people, ignore it … People will be more important than rules.” (Marinaccio, 1994, 50.)

This was a humanitarian principle that the sequel series Star Trek: The Next Generation (TNG) conceded in the 1989 episode, Justice, the very first time its characters clashed with alien laws:

There can be no justice so long as laws are absolute. Even life itself is an exercise in exceptions.”
“When has justice ever been as simple as a rulebook?”
Picard and Riker

And yet in this episode, there was a problem with this outcome – Riker and Picard seemed to be making excuses on why their own people should be singled out for special treatment, implying that Federation citizens were entitled to human rights whereas citizens of other (or indigenous) planets were not – a form of apartheid. Here we see a fundamental change. The Prime Directive had been written into the original Star Trek series as a means to challenge the 1960s Vietnam War and thereby confront cultural imperialism that was being enacted by a superpower. Two decades later, the same Directive was reinterpreted in the era of the Gulf War (and wars in Rwanda and Bosnia and Iraq and other places, US aggression in Paraguay and Libya and Panama etc) to reinforce the entitlement of superpower citizens – the metaphoric Federation – with human rights that were denied to those living on subordinate worlds.

In 2021, we see the real-life outcome of such a disgusting policy – the withdrawal of western military troops from Afghanistan, and the abandonment of tens of millions of human lives on the implicit justification that these lives are somehow of lesser value than those of people in western nations.

On the whole, TNG prohibited virtually all interaction between the Enterprise crew and indigenous worlds which might allow for the transfer of technology, morality or life saving necessities. Needy planets were denied technology until their civilisations collapsed (“The Last Outpost”), drug traffickers were allowed free travel (“Symbiosis”), and even planetary genocide was allowed (“Homeward”). In this allegorical future, ethnic cleansing would be dismissed as a localised problem, a Christian theocracy would be free to persecute gays, and honour killings would be permitted across the galaxy wherever women were oppressed under some interplanetary version of Sharia law. This dystopia is far removed from the humanist utopia envisaged within the original Star Trek series.

Episode 164: Ethics of the Prime Directive

Possibly the worst offender of Prime Defectiveness can be found in the first season of the series Star Trek: Enterprise in 2002 (just after the real-life ‘War on Terror’ had commenced), where the captain and doctor debate the ethics of their eventual collusion to conduct planetary genocide (by neglect) upon a sentient species in the episode, Dear Doctor. One wonders whether the Jewish staff working within the Star Trek offices had ever heard of the Holocaust.

In 2003, under a pen name, I criticised the ethics presented in this episode:

“… Captain Archer alludes to the Prime Directive, which [in his timeline] is not yet written. He decides that until any such set of rules is in place, he will not “play God” – but then he does exactly that – plays God – by genociding a whole race. We would suggest that Archer’s humanitarian attitude for most of the episode should have led to his proclamation that until the Prime Directive was written, he would always err on the side of compassion” (Gaetano, 2003, 6).

Nearly twenty years later, I agree with Edward Clint, who in a cogent written piece, argues that the Prime Directive is an example of Star Trek’s Doctrine of Moral Laziness:

“The utopian future of Star Trek (most specifically, that of The Next Generation [TNG]) is sometimes described as an idealized liberal world… Unfortunately, TNG also encodes some of the utter failures of 20th century liberal thought. The consequences of adopting them, whether in fiction or real life, can be pretty horrifying, not to mention morally disgusting.”

Star Trek was originally born during the era of hippies, civil rights, and baby boomers at the height of their idealism. Decades later, younger generations have rebooted the franchise to be less optimistic, more nuanced and sadly much more cynical. Let’s use that nuance to correct and reboot the Prime Directive so it becomes an inspirational philosophy rather that a source of nihilism and human rights abuse. Star Trek has the power to inspire and educate; let’s make it so.

Sources:

Adrian Gaetano, 2003. ‘Review: Enterprise: Bad Science, Bad Fiction’, in Geoff Allshorn and Miriam English (eds.), Diverse Universe: Newsletter for the club ‘Spaced Out’, Melbourne: Spaced Out, #16, June, 4 – 6.

Eric Greene, 2006. ‘The prime question’, in David Gerrold & Robert J Sawyer (eds.), Boarding the Enterprise: transporters, tribbles and the Vulcan death grip in Gene Roddenberry’s Star Trek, Dallas: BenBella Books, 57 – 86.

Dave Marinaccio, 1994. All I really needed to know I learned from watching Star Trek, London: Titan Books.

Ian Sherr, 2016. Star Trek’s Robert Beltran: The Prime Directive is ‘fascist crap’, C│NET, 7 Sept.

Steve Shives, 2018a. Did Captain Archer Actually Commit Genocide?, YouTube, 18 April.
– – – – – – -, 2018b. Why the Prime Directive Might Actually Be a Terrible Rule, YouTube, 23 May.

© 2021 Geoff Allshorn.

Onward, Happy Humanists

A secular filk song to be sung to the tune of Onward Christian Soldiers (with acknowledgement to Sabine Baring-Gould and Arthur Sullivan).

With thanks to Humanist Rod Bower for starting this project by writing Verse #1.

Onward, Happy Humanists,
Dancing ‘cross the floor
Evidence and Reason
Proudly to the fore.
Dignity for all who live,
is the way to go,
Love and help each other and
true happiness you’ll know!

Refrain: Onward, Happy Humanists,
Dancing ‘cross the floor
Evidence and Reason
Proudly to the fore.

Like a mighty army
Science marches on;
Humans, we’re still learning
Knowledge found and won.
We are not divided;
All in clarity:
One in hope and science
And in one humanity.

Refrain: Onward, Happy Humanists,
Dancing ‘cross the floor
Evidence and Reason
Proudly to the fore.

Dedicated activists,
Pride and strength unfurled;
Lend to us your talents
Let’s go change the world:
In this one life that we have,
Part of nature’s reign;
We can make a difference
And a legacy we gain.

Refrain: Onward, Happy Humanists,
Dancing ‘cross the floor
Evidence and Reason
Proudly to the fore.

© 2022 Rod Bower and Geoff Allshorn

Australian Human Rights Abuse

REFUGEES HAVE HUMAN RIGHTS TOO

HUMANISTS VICTORIA MEDIA RELEASE

23 December 2021

In her comments on International Human Rights Day, 10 December, Foreign Minister Marise Payne said, “This year’s theme of equality is a timely reminder of the indivisibility and universality of human rights” and “Australia is deeply concerned by instances around the world of arbitrary detention.”

Yet, on 31 December, Australia’s contract with Papua New Guinea (PNG) to process refugees will conclude.

More than 100 refugees will no longer be supported by Australia, with dire consequences expected for their safety and welfare. Father Giorgio Licini, the general secretary of the Catholic Bishops Conference of Papua New Guinea and Solomon Islands, described the situation this way:

“A sad celebration of Christmas also again awaits about one hundred asylum seekers and refugees in Port Moresby. They are the remnants of the more than one thousand men housed first in Manus Island since 2013 by the Australian government. By 1st January 2022 they will be under the full responsibility of the cashless PNG government until a solution is found, at least for some of them. Expect the others to be in the streets of Port Moresby rather soon, including the fifteen or so in a special list by humanitarian organizations as being too mentally ill now to ever be able to fend for themselves.”

As well, there are still about 70 people in detention in Australia, having been transferred from PNG and Nauru for medical treatment. The great majority have been granted refugee status under the Refugee Convention, but for unexplained and apparently arbitrary reasons, some have been released into the community and some have not. Humanists Victoria endorse the call from the Refugee Council of Australia and Father Licini in PNG, for Australia to honour its obligations under the Refugee Convention.

Humanists contend that refugees are deserving of the same liberties and respect as the rest of us, and that the Universal Declaration of Human Rights is an ethical document of high order. We ask the Minister to take urgent steps to reconcile the aspirations she stated on Human Rights Day with government policy and practice.

Jennie Stuart
Humanists Victoria
president@vichumanist.org.au

© 2022 Geoff Allshorn

Footprints on the Moon

Apollo 12 astronaut Alan Bean prepares to set foot on the Moon, 19 Nov. 1969.
Credits: NASA

To be sung to the tune of Jingle Bells (With acknowledgement to James Lord Pierpont).

Launching into space
In a shiny spaceship pod,
Leave the clouds behind,
Still no sign of god.

Stars shine steadily
In the cosmos and its call,
Live in microgravity,
Radiation and freefall.

Oh decompress! Then egress,
Space walk and have fun.
Count the stars and wave at Mars
And approach aphelion.

Fly, explore! Then seek more!
Heading into space.
Working hard to stay alive
And establish a Moonbase.

Apollo 17 spacewalk on 17 Dec. 1972.
Image Credit: NASA

Knowledge costs a lot
Of resources, time and lives,
The quest for science and for space
Is what compels and drives.

We climbed out of the trees,
And emerged out of the cave,
But our gaze has been the skies
Our destiny we crave.

Oh decompress! Then egress,
Space walk and have fun.
Count the stars and wave at Mars
And approach aphelion.

Alarm bells, lightning swells,
SCE to AUX
Aiming high, see how we fly
In our capsules and airlocks.

Apollo 11 lunar footprint (NASA photo)

Footprints on the Moon
And then heading onto Mars,
We explore deep into space
Aiming for the stars.

From stardust we came,
To the stars we shall return.
Forging our own future
We have so much to learn.

Oh decompress! Then egress,
Space walk and have fun.
Count the stars and wave at Mars
And approach aphelion.

Fly, explore! Then seek more!
Heading into space.
Oh what fun to lead the world
And inspire the human race.

‘Earthrise’ photo, Apollo 8, Christmas Eve 1968. NASA photo.

Once upon a time
All the astronauts were men,
All white and full of right stuff,
Let’s not go there again.

We seek equality,
Humanity is core.
A better species reaches out
Into future life we soar.

Oh decompress! Then egress,
Space walk and have fun.
Count the stars and wave at Mars
And approach aphelion.

Fly, explore! Then seek more!
Heading into space.
Oh what fun to lead the world
And inspire the human race.

Sally Ride. By Unknown author or not provided – U.S. National Archives and Records Administration, Public Domain.

© 2021 Geoff Allshorn

Using Science, Men of Old

Based on the old Christian hymn, “As With Gladness Men of Old”
(public domain) by William Chatterton Dix

Image by Norbert Pietsch from Pixabay

Using science, men of old
Did the stars and skies behold.
Curiously they sought its light
Leading onward, beaming bright.
So with utmost confidence
Do we now seek evidence.

Using wisdom, women too
Sought guidance from knowledge new.
And with determination
They fought discrimination.
An enlightened world their goal,
Equity for every soul.

Their progress was hard not swift,
Our improving world their gift.
So may we use common sense,
Cast aside our ignorance.
All our greatest knowledge share,
Claim their legacy we dare.

So humanity at last
Leaves behind its narrow past.
Gender and sexuality,
Rights and self-autonomy.
New critical thinking thrives
And compassion in our lives.

In our scientific age
Need we no dogmatic rage.
Learning from both the sea and sky
We evolve when’er we try.
So forever may we strive
Give our world a better life.

© 2021 Geoff Allshorn

Human Rights Day 2021

“Women everywhere are faced with discrimination. They have fewer opportunities for economic participation, less political representation, are refused access to education, face greater health and safety risks, and are confronted with violence and abuse.” – UN Women Australia.

On 10 December 1948, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) was adopted by the world community, and over seventy years later, its secular humanist ideals permeate our world and our cultures. Today, even those who misunderstand and misrepresent human rights adopt the vocabulary of human rights in their claims for advancement.

10 December each year now marks Human Rights Day, to commemorate the UDHR and its principles. Eleanor Roosevelt – a woman – helped to author and launch the UDHR, and the birth of modern understandings of human rights will be her greatest bequest to humanity. Two generations later, how do human rights stand for women in particular?

After the abandonment of Afghanistan by western nations earlier this year, millions of women and other human beings face oppression, murder, and devolution of their human rights. From Mozambique to Kazakhstan, women’s rights are under attack.

In Islamic nations,women are still oppressed, although there are some advancements at glacial pace. Across Africa, there is equally slow progress, but social evolution is taking place. In western nations, women’s rights are facing opposition and kickback. From Algeria to Australia, there are many issues facing women, and I could not presume to write an authoritative list within the limited confines of this humble blog entry.

Nevertheless, I see three young women who give me hope for the world.

Malala Yousafzai is a young woman who has faced terrorism and gained the world’s admiration. She continues to advocate for girls and women around the world.

X González (born Emma González) is a young woman who became famous after a the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shootings. She led March For Our Lives and other activism that confronts the culture of violence and death in the USA, spearheaded by disproportionate gun rights. She and her young compatriots promote a less violent, more compassionate world.

Greta Thunberg has led the world in fighting for the future of humanity and the entire planet. Her ‘school strike for climate‘ became an international movement that has triggered the activism of millions, and challenged purveyors of unfettered capitalism to stop destroying our biosphere.

Such young women are the latest heroes in a long line, stretching back through Eleanor Roosevelt, Rosa Parks, Coretta Scott King, Emmaline Pankhurst, Boudicca, Madame Cissé Hadja Mariama Sow and other African women, and many others around the world. We have hope.

©2021 Geoff Allshorn

We Must Return To The Moon

Commemorating the 49th anniversary of Apollo 17 (7-19 December 1972), the last human journey to the Moon so far.

Apollo 17 launch. This was the only night launch done during Apollo. 7 December 1972. (NASA photo – scan by Kipp Teague).

We must return to the Moon. Humans walked on its surface in July 1969 in order to prove that it could be done – and then Moonwalkers returned another five times. We went there for curiosity, for political glory, for vanity, for scientific knowledge, and simply because it’s there. A generation later, we must return to the Moon – and then go on to Mars.

We must return to the Moon in order to survive. If humanity lives on the Moon and Mars as well as Earth, we will no longer have all our cosmic “eggs in one basket”. This protects our species against the finality of World War Three, or a global pandemic that is fifty times more lethal than COVID, or a terrorist outbreak of smallpox, or the next time Earth is struck by a planet-killer sized asteroid.

We must return to the Moon because of our quest for knowledge – the same urge that caused us to climb out of the trees and walk upright; the same drive which motivates people to explore and create and make a better world for posterity; the same ideals which give artists and authors their dreams, and all of us a reason to live with hope – that is the same instinct which drives us onto the Moon. We must continue to seek new dreams and challenges in order to evolve.

We must return to the Moon because the Earth still has big problems – and outer space may hold the answers. The last moon missions, a generation ago, were the focus of history’s biggest ever boost to non-military sciences. Today, we enjoy a changed world because of the inventions and innovations that were developed for the Apollo program. We can do this again: a Moon or Mars colony would serve as a focus for a new, civilian “Manhattan Project”.

The Big Blue Marble as seen by Apollo 17 (NASA photo)

We must return to the Moon because our time in outer space helps us to focus on Earth. Apollo gave humanity its first-ever cosmic view of the Earth in space – and thus gave birth to a generation of environmentalists. Furthermore, Apollo did not uselessly launch rockets full of money into outer space – the money was paid to employ scientists and engineers and others who built a new world. A future space program could teach us new knowledge and skills. While developing new ways to shelter the environment of a fragile lunar base, humanity could learn valuable lessons on how to repair our damaged home planet. While learning to live outside the Van Allen Belts, we would gain new medical knowledge. While developing new agricultural processes to feed hungry Mars colonists, we could use the same skills to feed those facing famine on Earth.

We must return to the Moon because it will help our species to mature. From space, it is impossible to see the national, religious or racial boundaries which divide our world. From a distance, the Earth appears as a tranquil, united world – our hatreds and prejudices are invisible. Similarly, lunar colonists would have to learn to live with their partners: whether American or Russian, Israeli or Palestinian, Hutu or Tutsi, male or female, Christian or atheist or Muslim, gay or straight. In the cramped confines of a space station, there is no room for bigotry. In learning to depend on each other for daily survival, these future astronauts could teach the world a valuable (symbolic and practical) lesson.

We must return to the Moon because the planet currently lacks leadership and vision. Religious extremists crash planes into skyscrapers, promote science denialism as a virtue, and seek to diminish equality for women and LGBT people. Wars and malnutrition. HIV/AIDS and COVID, injustice and poverty collectively plague most of the human population. Our current politicians are so vision-impoverished that many Americans actually disbelieve that their country ever went to the Moon in the first place! Where are our heroes; our visionaries; our scientists and dreamers and pioneers?

We must return to the Moon because the task is too big for one nation alone. A permanent Moonbase or Mars colony would not – could not! – be the child of just one nation. A real space program could only result if all nations gave of their resources, finances and expertise. Such a mission could bring about the birth of a truly United Nations, forcing petty politicians and corrupt despots to turn from waging war to waging peace. It could give our whole planet a common goal – bigger and better than sports, wars, money, glory, oil or greed.

We must return to outer space because our atoms were born in stars. We are made of stardust and we must return to the stars to seek our origins – and our future.

©2021 Geoff Allshorn

Eric Michaels: Becoming

[This year marks the fortieth anniversary of the discovery of AIDS, and this World AIDS Day it seems fitting to remember an Australian pioneer who lived and died near the first official World AIDS Day in 1988, towards the start of the epidemic. His life and battle and death have lessons for our COVID world today.]

* * *

“If one is going to go to all the trouble to be gay, one ought to do a more interesting and useful job of it. Models exist in our very recent past. They should be recalled.” – Eric Michaels, 1990b, 192.

These were the last words documented in Australia’s earliest public AIDS diary. Possibly penned in 1982, and later added to his diary from 1987 and 1988 before being posthumously published in 1990, the words of Eric Michaels speak to us from the days of a terrible epidemic – one that was perceived to target people who were disempowered, stigmatised, invisible, and/or socially undesirable. At a time of terrible stigma, discrimination and open homophobia, Michaels encouraged the gay community to find role models and create its own pride amidst the prejudice. In doing so, he became one of those role models.

Stigma and invisibility continue today, in that the AIDS epidemic remains largely overlooked and forgotten. On a personal level, my introduction to Michaels’ book was when I first sought out a copy in a prominent public library; upon my request, the book was duly collected from the stacks and delivered to me – missing its colourful cover, which appeared to have been removed with surgical precision along the edge of its spine. When I asked the librarian what happened to the book, he carelessly shrugged. I later purchased another copy of the book online and donated it to the same public library, so that Eric Michaels’ words would be available to the public in the exact condition that he would have wanted.

It seemed fitting to help memorialise a man who foreshadowed many admirable outcomes from those terrible times.

The Australian Dictionary of Biography reports that Eric Michaels was born in 1948 to Jewish parents in Philadelphia, USA, and became a hippie studying cultural anthropology, examining groups as disparate as Christian fundamentalists in Texas, USA, and the Yanomami people of Brazil. He arrived in Australia in 1982 and ultimately became a lecturer at Griffith University in Brisbane, dying with AIDS in 1988. (Cunningham, 2012)

A tragic coincidence of timing meant that he arrived in Australia at approximately the same time as another US import: a particular strain of HIV and AIDS. Michaels thereby became somewhat of a potential double outcast: disapproved in mainstream Australia because he was gay, and also socially isolated from some sections within the Australian gay community because he was American in the days when the origin of AIDS was attributed to gay Americans (and well might we learn from his experience today, during another pandemic, when some people seek to scapegoat others from another country where COVID is meant to have originated – as though its geographic origin has anything significant to do with its treatment or mitigation). Paul Foss notes that ‘Eric’s sense of personal loss and betrayal’ – at his rejection at least as much as his actual AIDS mortality – contributed to an ‘accusatory tone’ as well as ‘vemom and impish humour’ in his writing (Foss, 1990, 13). In harnessing and harvesting this anger, Michaels foreshadows the rise of ACT-UP, an activist group borne of self-empowerment and anger.

For Eric Michaels, it is likely that this ‘otherness’ may have contributed to his writing/publishing his AIDS diary in the days before any Australian gay man had the interest or opportunity to do so. Those early days saw women such as Suzi Lovegrove take that same opportunity to bypass the dominant homophobic prejudice against the epidemic in Australia and create autobiographical documentation, such as the film, Suzi’s Story, or varied biographies. Michaels’ diary was the earliest such effort from a gay man to break out of what he termed the ‘lavender prison’ of homophobia (Michaels 1990b, 191).

It also seems probable that this ‘otherness’ similarly motivated Eric Michaels to spend much of his professional life assisting similarly disempowered voices. His academic career in Australia had revolved around, ’empowering Aborigines through the appropriation of new technology’ (Cunningham, 2012) and he had asserted that, ‘a cultural future can only result from political resistance’ (Michaels, 1987, 78). And yet he was also very conscious of the ‘politics of speech’ in empowering the very voices he wished to highlight (O’Regan, 1990; see also Michaels 1994).

Such empowerment foreshadowed the empowerment of indigenous and other voices during the AIDS epidemic; from gay men to women and others who fought for their lives as well as their civil rights. Their battle resonates a generation later, after male homosexuality has been decriminalised and destigmatised, in no small part due to these foot soldiers.

Michael’s situation and perspective seem to echo those of his contemporary, Scottish journalist and New Zealand resident Tom Maclean, whose own AIDS pathography, If I Should Die: Living With AIDS, reflects the life and times of his trans-Tasman gay compatriot. Whereas Michaels implicitly evokes a firm resolution to choose life and activism, McLean more pointedly speaks about this stark choice among the last words in his own book, which was published four days before his death in 1989 at age 40 (PA, 1989). “There’s a lesson in everything if you look for it,” McLean writes, “Even in AIDS” (McLean, 1989, 98).

His friend John Hobson eulogised Michaels with recollections of their life and times together, but spoke frankly about his last photograph:

“The last image of Eric shows the ravages of Kaposi’s Sarcoma; a rare form of skin cancer prevalent in the early years of the epidemic. It is almost unheard of these days thanks to advances in treatments. It is definitely a shocking image, but one that Eric chose to be published as his final one. As well as a clinical photo to evidence his ultimate reality, it was also clearly one last opportunity for him to poke his tongue out at the world.” Hobson, n.d (b).

Hobson also notes that after his death, Eric Michaels’ Warlpiri and Kardiya friends from Yuendumu created an AIDS Quilt memorial panel in his memory. (Hobson, n.d.(b).)

The title of his diary, Unbecoming, is a play on words: tapping into the societal disapproval of gay men as being somewhat unbecoming, it also implicitly examines his own unravelling life due to AIDS and questions whether he is, in some inverse act of creation, literally un-becoming himself. Ultimately, he demonstrates that in his becoming less or other than himself, he is also becoming much more – perhaps the perfect symbolism for an activist seeking to create something positive out of loss. A generation later, as the world seeks to rebuild or redefine itself after the ravages of another pandemic, we might learn valuable lessons from this experience.

Although written during the era of AIDS, Michaels’ words resonate during our era of COVID:

“Maybe the lunatic right wing will mobilise and we will have to drag ourselves out of this languor to protect ourselves and respond. Or maybe the baby boom will eventually reach their sixties and, upon looking back, develop a more powerful criticism than any advanced so far.” (Michaels, 1990b, 192).

Maybe.

This work was supported by an Australian Government Research Training Program Scholarship.

References:

Stuart Cunningham, ‘Michaels, Eric Philip (1948–1988)’, Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, published first in hardcopy 2012, accessed online 14 November 2021.

Paul Foss, 1990. ‘Foreword’ in Eric Michaels, 1990b.

John Hobson, n.d (a). Queers of the Desert: AIDS Quilts (1990).

John Hobson, n.d (b). Queers of the Desert: Eric Michaels.

Eric Michaels, 1987. For A Cultural Future: Francis Jupurrurla Makes TV at Yuendumu, Melbourne: Artspace.

Eric Michaels, 1990a. ‘A model of teleported texts (with reference to Aboriginal television)’, in Tom O’Regan (ed.), 1990, Communication and Tradition: Essays after Eric Michaels, Continuum: The Australian Journal of Media & Culture, Vol. 3, No. 2.

Eric Michaels, 1990b. Unbecoming: An AIDS Diary, Rose Bay: EMPress.

Eric Michaels, 1994.’Aboriginal Content: Who’s Got It, Who Needs It?’, Bad Aboriginal Art: Tradition, Media, and Technological Horizons, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 21 – 48.

Tom McLean, 1989. If I Should Die: Living With AIDS, Glenfield: Benton Ross Publishers.

Tom O’Regan (ed.), 1990. ‘Preface‘, Communication and Tradition: Essays after Eric Michaels, Continuum: The Australian Journal of Media & Culture, Vol. 3, No. 2.

PA, 1989. ‘Author dies of A.I.D.S.’, The Christchurch Press, 27 March.

©2021 Geoff Allshorn

Life Day

Not so long ago, in a galaxy not so very far away, modern mythology was born. Let me explain…

“You must unlearn what you have learned.” – Yoda.

In living memory in Australia, LGBT people were bashed and murdered in streets, homes, public transport or parks – as they are today in nations across Africa or Eastern Europe or the Middle East. Back in the 1990s, possibly fuelled by AIDSphobia, the threats of violence were so pronounced in Melbourne that LGBT people were encouraged to carry a whistle at night.

Around the time I was born, a lawyer in Britain wrote a book about human injustice, and he called for a worldwide amnesty for everyone who was imprisoned for political reasons. This led to the establishment of Amnesty International, a worldwide organisation that has traditionally fought for human rights. My involvement with that organisation probably peaked in 2011 when I was able to secure the publication of an Australian stamp to mark the 50th anniversary of AI.

At the height of the great epidemic of our lifetime – not, not COVID but that other one – millions of people died while millions more continue to live on with the virus. During what should have been my halcyon years, while my friends were dying and the rest of us were fighting for our lives and civil rights, we learnt to pause and rest and light a candle or sew a quilt panel in remembrance.

How does this relate to modern mythology? On this day – ‘Life Day‘ in the mythology of Star Wars – it seems fitting to reflect upon how our culture is predicated so much upon war and violence and death, but like the Jedi, we can turn our thoughts and efforts into positivity.

To quote other characters from another science fiction franchise:

“I think that one day they’re going to take all the money that they spend now on war and death…”
“And make them spend it on life.”

‘City of the Edge of Forever’, Star Trek TOS.

In traditional Christianity, the bell, book and candle were used to excommunicate someone and effectively ‘cancel’ them from their family, their faith network, and their hope in eternity. In less superstitious times as these, I use the same items to reflect on our modern life.

The modern-day counterpart of a bell – the whistle – is today used as a search and rescue instrument to help save lives, and as a symbol of heralding in new ideas and new life. Three decades ago, whistles were blown to protect my friends and me as we walked down streets at night; four years ago we metaphorically blew those same whistles to herald marriage equality. Whistles can even be heard across the African landscape where my LGBT family still face murder and attack. Change is coming.

The book? As we live and breathe the book is being rewritten for human rights in our world. Even those who do not understand human rights: the anti vaxxers and anti maskers who seek to redefine their narcissism as universal human rights; the despots who seek to rewrite human freedoms in their own image; and the religious bigots who seek to perpetuate discrimination under the guise of ‘religious freedoms’ – they all hijack the language and concepts of human rights to conform to their narrow reinterpretations. But they will not win. The arrow of history inexorably points towards progress.

And the candle? It remains the hopeful symbol of light in the darkness, a voice in a wilderness radiating hope and enlightenment.

The power of mythology can even be found in populist modern literary material that is known for its propensity towards space opera and war – and enables us to see and hear the cosmos through new perspectives, offering us a Manichean celebration of life and positivity as demonstrated in Wookieepedia:

Life Day was a Wookiee holiday celebrated by the inhabitants of Kashyyyk. It was a celebration of the planet’s diverse ecosystem and the many forms of life it encompassed. It was also a time to remember family members who had died, and the young ones who continued to bring new life to a family.

Life Day offers us a new perspective on this planet: groaning under the weight of difficulties but also shining as a bright orb of life and hope in a cold and dark cosmos. Enjoy the symbolism, live the potential. Happy Life Day.

©2021 Geoff Allshorn

The World At War

I never met my grandfather (see the picture of him during WW1), because he died years before I was born, but one family story is that he used to have fun at parties telling people that he and my grandmother had met in an insane asylum – because they had. Both of them had been psychiatric nurses dealing with the trauma of shattered bodies and minds among returned soldiers after the so-called Great War.

Two decades later during World War Two, my other grandfather served as a volunteer fireman during the Blitz in England. He was often called to go out and extinguish fires at night after buildings had suffered from bomb damage. One night, according to family lore, he returned home greatly distressed – a bomb had hit an air raid shelter and killed many men, women, children and babies, and he had been forced to help sift through the rubble and carnage.

This is the reality – for all our admiration of Star Wars movies and Rambo flicks, for all our cultural hero worship of ANZACs and the Battle of Britain and the Trojan War, the reality is that war is hell. People and other living creatures suffer and die. Certain nations may boast of their military spending and campaigns, but they are actually making profit from the death of others.

But there is a greater reality – whether climate change (war against the environment) or politics (war against civic society) or world poverty (war on equality) or nature (war for survival).

Richard Dawkins summarises the reality of nature:

“The total amount of suffering per year in the natural world is beyond all decent contemplation. During the minute that it takes me to compose this sentence, thousands of animals are being eaten alive, many others are running for their lives, whimpering with fear, others are slowly being devoured from within by rasping parasites, thousands of all kinds are dying of starvation, thirst, and disease…”

-Richard Dawkins, River Out of Eden: A Darwinian View of Life

The animal world is hell, and humans are part of that natural world – so why should the human world be any different?

The answer is obvious: because we can make it better. We have the capacity and therefore the moral responsibility. Our basic human intellect and ethics should make us not only humanist but also sentientist.

The war continues every day. What did you do during the war?

©2021 Geoff Allshorn

Teaching is Learning

Image by r1g00 from Pixabay

Lifelong learning should happen to us all, and I am no exception. I remember (with some embarrassment) my first year of teaching, when I was having a dispute with a noisy fourteen year-old student in a rowdy all-boys class. He loudly complained that the work was (expletive), and in a momentary fury, I told him to stop giving me (expletive) in return. The class went deathly silent. I told the boy I would see him after class. They all sat there, working silently, astonished that I had been angered to the point of swearing, and duly anticipating that I would harshly punish their classmate after their class had finished. As for me, I was sitting at my desk in turmoil, my (barely started) teaching career flashing before my eyes: I had sworn at a student! What if his parents complained to the Principal? What should I do?

I resolved that I should set an example, even if it left me open to admitting my own wrongdoing. At the end of class, the boy came up to my desk to receive punishment. Instead, I initiated the conversation: ‘I lost my temper and spoke wrongly. I’m sorry. I apologise.’ He quickly replied, “Sir, I did the same and I’m sorry too.” We shook hands and negotiated a fresh start tomorrow, while the rest of the class stared in stunned astonishment. That was the end of the matter forever: no student gossiped in the school yard; no parent complained – although I did immediately report myself to the Principal, who dismissed the incident with a forgiving wave of the hand.

Fast forward about twenty years, when I was teaching a book about the Holocaust. The students discussed how many disparate people had died in concentration camps – including Jews, gypsies, political prisoners, Jehovah’s Witnesses, families, kids and babies… and gay people. In what I assume was an attempt to lighten the mood of the room, one boy commented jokingly, “Gays? Well, at least Hitler got something right, eh?” The class fell silent, waiting for me to express outrage at such intolerance – but this time, with the benefit of life experience and maybe a splinter of wisdom, I did not lose my temper. Instead, I quietly leaned over and said confidentially to him, “Do you really want to say something that agrees with Adolf Hitler?” Then I smiled reassuringly and the study resumed without further comment – until the end of the lesson, at which point the boy spontaneously stood up, and apologised loudly to the entire class for his comment. I realised that he had learnt not only empathy for others, and humility to admit that he had been wrong, but he had also intuited that he had a personal responsibility to rectify his wrongdoing towards others.

Life had come full circle for me as a teacher.

Lifelong learning goes on forever, and allows us the privilege of learning to be kind to ourselves, and to fellow travellers on our journey through life.

©2021 Geoff Allshorn

Lifelong Learning

Image by Jhon Dal from Pixabay

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.

Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

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.

©2021 Geoff Allshorn