Guest post by Bruce Everett
In November of last year, eight months after resigning from committee, I resigned entirely from the Humanist Society of South Australia (HSSA). Unlike my resignation from committee, my resignation from the organisation was undertaken with nothing in the way of explanation, my intent to leave being stated in only two sentences. Aside from a short status update on Facebook which nobody seemed to notice, up until the topic was raised by one Mark Senior here in the comments at Butterflies and Wheels, I’ve made no public mention of my resignation.
Now, given that Mr Senior has attempted to fill the explanatory vacuum with his own narrative of ridiculous and unverified speculation, I’ve opted to air my grievances with the HSSA in public. Those experiencing discomfort on account of my disclosures can thank Mark for his efforts in making it even remotely worth my time and attention.
Surely I’m just leaving the HSSA because Mark is there, and I don’t like Mark, right? This is only partially correct; I don’t like Mark. I won’t deny this. If you want particulars beyond the immediately relevant, you can use Google.
Late last year, here at Butterflies and Wheels, it was claimed by Mark (writing as “Mofa”) that in addition to my seemingly being a “Muslim apologist”, I left the HSSA in a hissy fit because an anti-harassment policy he opposed, which he’d claimed earlier in the year was rigged to target people like him, was not adopted by committee. The problem with this assertion is that it has been my understanding that the policy was passed as a bylaw by committee around March of last year.
Despite such glaring ridiculousness, Mark’s antics are at most tangential to only a handful of my reasons for departing the HSSA. He’s not central to anything I am or have ever been involved in, and at most points in this post, he won’t feature at all.
This latest case of Mark not knowing what he’s on about can’t all be laid at his feet, and is related to one of my problems with the conduct of the HSSA’s leadership. The HSSA’s anti-harassment policy is a secret policy – it has been passed as a bylaw, but as of last verification (December 2014 – far too late), its implementation has not been announced to the membership. What good is a harassment policy if the membership is unable to know their obligations in relation to standing policy, or what protections they are entitled to under it? How do you square such secretive governance with the IHEU Minimum Statement that affiliated Humanist organisations are supposed to bide by?
“Humanism is a democratic and ethical life stance, which affirms that human beings have the right and responsibility to give meaning and shape to their own lives. It stands for the building of a more humane society through an ethic based on human and other natural values in the spirit of reason and free inquiry through human capabilities. It is not theistic, and it does not accept supernatural views of reality [Emphasis added]”.
(IHEU Minimum Statement on Humanism, retrieved January 2015)
If you can reconcile closed governance like this with the IHEU Minimum Statement, then either you’re a lot smarter than me or you’re just able to twist your mind into knots. At any rate, it’s the Australian Federal Election of 2013 that really brought out the anti-democratic sentiment.
There’s a phrase I loathe, that I’ve heard the Secretary of the HSSA use at least one variant of on a couple of occasions; “…and these people vote!” Despite my sceptical brow-raising at this, all I’ve ever got in response are sentiments like “some enlightenment figures had serious concerns about allowing people to vote” and “perhaps someone should give a talk about it”. Certainly, in the manner of Devil’s Advocate, or in formal debate with speakers from outside the organisation, it would be useful for Humanists to go over the shortcomings of democracy as per certain Enlightenment figures. Ultimately though, if the position you argue from is “democracy; no thanks”, then you can’t affirm the IHEU Minimum Statement, and strictly speaking, shouldn’t even be a member of an IHEU affiliated body, much less be on the committee of one.
More recently, this anti-democratic sentiment has found expression with both the HSSA President and Secretary supporting calls for the current Prime Minister Tony Abbott to release documentation demonstrating his renunciation of past foreign citizenship – members of the Australian Parliament not being able to hold dual citizenship. Aside from the Birther-esque attack on participatory democracy inherent to the sentiments of the campaign, the President and Secretary demonstrate a massive double standard in supporting this initiative.
Through 2013 up until nominations for Australian Humanist of The Year (AHoY) 2014, the HSSA Secretary pushed for the HSSA to nominate former Prime Minister, Julia Gillard. A former Prime Minister who, like the current Prime Minister, was born overseas, thus raising the same issues of prior citizenship and documentation. Notably, neither the President nor the Secretary of the HSSA was particularly bothered about Gillard’s non-disclosure at the time.
Don’t get me wrong, I would much prefer a Gillard government over the Abbott nightmare we currently have in power. The Abbott Government is particularly hostile towards people like me, and towards people I care for. My point is, that as ever, double standards are the litmus test for hypocrisy – in this case in terms of the democratic values affirmed by the IHEH minimum statement.
I haven’t even touched on the non-exhaustive list of complaints I detailed in my resignation from committee earlier in 2014; the jokes about Asians cooking people’s pets, the weird body language around People of Colour, the racist dismissal of a Sam Harris talk at the 2012 Global Atheist Convention as “Indian neuroscience”. The response I received to these complaints (and others) was that the people making these comments were busy and hard-working, and hence made mistakes.
“It’s been such a long, hard shift; I just slagged off seven different ethnicities! I couldn’t help myself! What a day! Normally I just slag off three before supper, a Scotch and bed!” – This does not happen.
Not mentioned in my resignation from committee earlier this year, thanks to the timing, was an incident on the HSSA Facebook page, where I argued with the President over my concerns about anti-Semitism on Australian university campuses and over expressions of solidarity with Hamas made by Socialist Alternative. The President’s line of argument was both apologetic and unoriginal; extreme action (by Israel) draws extreme responses; perhaps Socialist Alternative didn’t know about the details of the Hamas charter I cited; etc., etc.
This kind of response is ridiculous, and unbefitting of a Humanist leader. Are we to adopt the fictional assumption that in the last intifada, the middle class suburbs of eastern Australia were heavily bombed, and accordingly, make allowances for agitated Socialist Alternative members? Are we to overlook the fascist pedigree of Hamas that has roots reaching back before modern Israel, or the fact that Hamas also brutalizes the Palestinian population, or the fact that the genocidal content of their charter has been well known for decades?
I guess if like the President, I chose to keep company with people who make statements like “THEEEEEEY have milked the memory of The Holocaust for too long!” I’d be under pressure to learn how to accommodate certain viewpoints.
You have to wonder what former AHoY, Leslie Cannold, would make of all this. Further, given her objections to rape apologetics for Julian Assange, something that was a potential deal-breaker for her joining the WikiLeaks party, the President and Secretary’s views on the relevant rape allegations would probably be cause for further angst. Suffice to say, on more than one occasion, I’ve had to listen to both the President and Secretary go well beyond the kind of defence offered by last year’s AHoY, Geoffrey Robertson.
The most galling thing about a HSSA leader expressing these kinds of excuses and conspiricist ideations though, is the fact that Leslie Cannold’s name, like that of all recent AHoY award winners, has been invoked on more than one occasion at HSSA meetings in order to cast the HSSA in a prestigious light. I regret being as tolerant as I have been towards this disgrace and HSSA members should feel similarly embarrassed.
Writing about this wing-nuttery evokes the memory of an episode involving one of the members retained from the old (pre-2012) HSSA. The issue of Palestine’s treatment at the hands of Israel was raised at a Humanist meeting in 2013, where the mentioned member put his oar in by declaring Israel had no right in law to exist. It was one of those fevered declarations that promised to go off into the lands of legal fiction, historical revisions of UN decision making, and meta-ethical/jurisprudential equivocation. Before it could get that far though, the Secretary interrupted with the suggestion that the member should feature as speaker, on the topic of Palestine, at a future meeting.
As far as I know such a talk has not yet eventuated, possibly having been nipped in the bud on account of the elder member’s expressed views on 9/11, The World Trade Centre, and the strength of steel girders exposed to burning jet fuel. Apparently appealing to prejudice only gets you so far, which I guess is something to be thankful for.
Speaking as a poor person from the Northern Suburbs, I don’t appreciate the hostility inherent in the President inviting me to ‘like’ a Facebook page dedicated to denigrating poor people from the Northern Suburbs. On an interpersonal level, it’s not mitigating that the President is oblivious to this hostility. And if the HSSA is going to give commentary about poverty, something it does choose to do, surely the President’s cluelessness is relevant?
When I raised this matter on the HSSA Facebook page, on a thread about poverty, precisely because the President failed to properly address it at an earlier juncture when given the opportunity, I had my participation condescendingly illegitimated as “nasty” by the Secretary, as if mild sarcasm could ever make such a thing illegitimate.
Conversing down to poor folk, dismissively, in the context of a discussion about poverty, when there is already a neglected track record of classist hostility involved, is not good form. Couple this with the misanthropic and anti-democratic sentiments already in circulation, and you’ve got a serious cultural problem for any organisation professing to be democratic, compassionate and concerned about poverty. A “shut up pleb” wouldn’t have been out of place.
This is hardly the only expression of classism to be instantiated by the President or Secretary, but I trust I’ve made my point sufficiently.
So what now?
I’ve joined an interstate Humanist society so that I can remain IHEU affiliated. I don’t expect much, and being interstate I don’t expect to be able to keep an eye on their inner workings. But if any other HSSA members want to repeat my exodus, they can look me up and I can show them how.
The professional contacts I tried to bring to the HSSA, on account of just a whiff of the problems I’ve mentioned, have to varying extents been alienated. Potential future projects involving them will likely have to be undertaken independent of organised South Australian Humanism. Given the high profile of an education academic who was one of these contacts, their reluctance to renew their HSSA membership is a huge loss for South Australian Humanism. Not that the members have been kept informed about this.
I still have friends in the HSSA, including a couple I have no reason to distrust being on the present committee. I worry about them a little. In the first instance I usually worry that they’ll be having their time wasted, their efforts negated if they don’t fall narrowly in-line with the HSSA hobby-horse regime. But then I remember some of the prejudices in circulation, and my concerns drift to nastier issues.
It’s not that it’s impossible for the HSSA to be reformed; it’s that I don’t hold out much hope. At any rate, reform of the HSSA will necessarily require a change of leadership. The HSSA has potential leaders in its numbers capable of the necessary tasks, but so far, the President and Secretary have been elected unopposed – is there enough will for reform among the members?
If I’m going to be honest, I think the best solution for the HSSA is for decent South Australian Humanists to walk away and let the organisation fall apart. Starting again from scratch would require less energy than trying to launch initiatives from this quagmire.