Tuesday, May 28, 2013

The trouble with labels

I've been asked to supply an account of how I came to be a humanist by my friends at Suffolk Inter-Faith Resource (SIFRE), who'll use it, together with other testimonies, as a training resource to be accessed by schools, colleges, and various statutory and voluntary bodies, including the police and local authority staff.

I first wrote a similar account for a SIFRE publication, Finding Our Way and Sharing Our Stories, written by women from the various local faith communities, and me, some time ago. It needed revision.


The older I get, the less I’m inclined to adopt any label to describe how I view life, the universe, and everything. The trouble with labels is that they encourage laziness. If you’re in a social situation and someone asks you what you do, or what you are, and you tell them, they’ll be inclined to refer to whatever they’ve heard or read about that label and apply it to you. It’s more interesting to be mysterious; to learn about each other through a process of discovery. Labels lead to pre-conceived ideas about what they stand for. If someone identifies him or herself as a Christian or a Muslim, what do you assume about him or her, and his or her attitudes to, say, morality or privilege? You’re likely to be wrong. We form our values and opinions through our experience and the people and ideas that have influenced us, including religious ideas, and we react to these things differently.

So, if I describe myself as a humanist, some may assume that I’m part of a trend towards what a friend calls “fluffy, cuddly humanism”, which can be summarised as simply being good without God. In its campaign for legal humanist weddings in England and Wales, the British Humanist Association has, perhaps unintentionally, given the impression that everyone who has a humanist rite of passage celebration (a humanist ceremony) is a humanist, and that humanism is equivalent to religion, which it isn’t.

Humanism, to me, is a way of thinking, of viewing the world, in the only way we can; as human beings, without reference to any supernatural explanations for life, the universe, and everything. The philosopher Bertrand Russell said, “Many people would sooner die than think. In fact they do.” I'm not sure that he was entirely right, as it seems to me that not thinking isn't necessarily a choice for many; they’re just not very curious. A humanist friend was asked, "Don't you have to be really brainy to be a humanist?" "No," she replied, "you just have to use the brains you've got." Humanism is a philosophy for the insatiably curious, who never stop asking questions. Far from being fluffy and cuddly, humanism can sometimes lead you to lonely places. But it can also be bracing to find yourself in a different place from other people, discovering things for yourself. Humanists habitually ask “Why?” Sometimes, there isn’t an answer – yet.

This approach to life has been described as a scientific one; science is defined as the systematic study of the structure and behaviour of the physical and natural world through observation and experiment. It’s also been claimed as a philosophical approach, since philosophy is the study of the fundamental nature of knowledge, reality, and existence. But we’re back to labels again, and possibly the claims of different disciplines, when a humanist approach to life is limitless. Creative expression through the arts, social innovation, psychology, political theory, the evolving uses of language, are all avenues through which we’re free to explore, if we choose.

How did I get here? As a child, I drove my parents and teachers mad by constantly questioning what I was told. My parents, whose families originated in Scotland, were raised as Presbyterians – a rather dour bunch of non-conformists who disapproved of the pleasures of the senses, particularly on Sundays. Mother, who enjoyed a wee dram, didn’t appear to be wholly convinced by this brand of Christianity and, like many others, developed her own, private version, which didn’t involve going to church. Dad did go to church until his deafness meant he couldn’t follow the services. I was sent to church, and the church youth club, where I got into trouble for arguing with the minister. By the time I was in my early teens, having explored some alternative ways of thinking in the public library and with a friend’s more liberal parents, I announced I didn’t believe any of it, and that was that. I wasn’t put under any pressure to continue going to church. A Quaker RE teacher listened to some of my half-formed ideas and didn’t try to impose any kind of orthodoxy, which helped. By the time I left school at sixteen to work in a bank, religion played no part in my life. It has been an irrelevance ever since.

Going to Art College and university in the 1960s and early 1970s brought me into contact with bright people from a wide range of disciplines, as well as some students whose upbringing had been far more religious than mine. One sad case was a boy who’d been raised a Catholic, and who found it hard to cope with all the students’ sexual activity going on around him. Deeply conflicted, he had a breakdown and was found wandering the streets naked late one night. Another Catholic friend coped by spending a lot of time in the confessional, joking that they’d had to install a loo in there, just for him. At university, studying for a post-graduate teaching qualification with an assortment of graduates from all disciplines, one of my tutors was the mathematician Dick Tahta, who’d inspired Stephen Hawking as a schoolboy. Dick was very keen on existentialism. He took a small group of us for an intense weekend in a remote bungalow owned by the Monkton Wyld Centre in Dorset (my son was fortunate go there, years later, for a holiday organised for bright schoolchildren). To this day, I’m still not sure what the purpose of this weekend was, and I’m none the wiser about existentialism (a rather nihilistic movement), but Dick encouraged us to question just about everything, which some of us did. One friend, a fellow artist, took to spending a lot of time in the garden paying his violin. If I could remember more about it, it would make a good film. Dick was among several of the staff at college and university who encouraged a non-conformist approach to life and although I didn’t end up with particularly impressive qualifications, as I was never very good at sticking to a syllabus, I’ll be forever grateful to them.

It wasn’t until much later, over twenty years later, that I got involved with organised humanism. At that time, the British Humanist Association was a small organisation that campaigned against religious privilege and encouraged non-religious people to openly reject the status quo, where the church claimed the moral high ground and dominated public ceremonial, and children were not taught about alternatives to Christianity, including the free-thinking alternative. I had surgery and treatment for cancer and soon afterwards my parents died within six months of one another. These events led me to consider what sort of funeral my son might arrange for me, as it wouldn’t be appropriate to invite God. Funeral directors only offered religious funerals, so I volunteered to become a humanist celebrant in 1991. In December that year, I founded the Suffolk Humanist group, where like-minded people have met to share ideas and raise awareness of alternatives to religion. The rest, as they say, is history. After those first few years, most people became aware that religious ministers don’t have a monopoly of rite of passage ceremonies, which can be as personal as you choose. What started as a small subversive movement has resulted in a widespread rejection of convention. Humanists still have a role to play, but we’re among many who offer a choice. What most people don’t realise is that we were here first.

Having given over twenty years as a secular subversive, I’m no longer very active in organised humanism, but I’ll be a humanist freethinker until the day I die, unless I go doolally, in which case, I won’t care.

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Dear America, I love the NHS

Angelina Jolie has written about her double mastectomy for the New York Times. She had it because her mother died of breast cancer at 56, and she discovered that she was carrying the faulty gene, BRCA1, which meant she was at high risk of having breast cancer too. There's also a risk of ovarian cancer with BRCA1.

Angelina is a wealthy woman, as a successful screen actress and director, so finding the money to pay for the tests and surgery wouldn't have been a problem for her. She wrote,
Breast cancer alone kills some 458,000 people each year, according to the World Health Organization, mainly in low- and middle-income countries. It has got to be a priority to ensure that more women can access gene testing and lifesaving preventive treatment, whatever their means and background, wherever they live. The cost of testing for BRCA1 and BRCA2, at more than $3,000 in the United States, remains an obstacle for many women.
Since British woman Wendy Watson persuaded doctors that she should have preventative mastectomies 21 years ago, the operation has become available on the NHS, after genetic testing and counselling. It seems scandalous to me that, in a developed country like America, money should still be an obstacle to saving a life. Those who opposed Barack Obama's healthcare reforms referred to the NHS in derogatory terms, rejecting "socialism", which seems to them to be a worse threat than disease, so American women with a family history of breast cancer may die because they can't afford preventative surgery.

Among other health issues, America's infant mortality rate is more than twice that of Japan or Sweden, while its emergency departments struggle to cope with the consequences of gun crime, which costs the US economy $37billion+ a year. Yes, the NHS has its problems, which have been keenly debated over the last few years, but America seems to have far bigger ones.

I've had a mastectomy and a whole bunch of other surgery and treatment from the NHS. If I was American, I think I'd have died before now.

Saturday, May 04, 2013

Michael Gove could never do this

This is inspiring stuff, but in spite of all those Hollywood films about teachers who win over their delinquent classes, you need more than just the constitution of an ox and the determination of a Miss Pierson to be a good teacher with kids who test you to extremes.

I started teaching in an under-funded, under-resourced secondary modern school in Grimsby, Lincolnshire, in what would later be known as a social priority area. I'd spent the summer desperately looking for a job after gaining my PGCE (Post-Graduate Certificate in Education) at Exeter University, after four years at art college and a year being seriously ill. I should have been suspicious about what awaited me when I was offered the job without an interview, and without even seeing the school, which turned out to be an old Victorian brick-built building with a Boys' entrance and a Girls' entrance, surrounded by a playground and old-fashioned outdoor toilet blocks. The first year was the only one that was co-educational. They planned to co-educate from the bottom up.

I was based in an art room. Soon after I started, I found a science teacher in the room opposite beating a boy with the tube off a bunsen burner. When I reported him for not using appropriate punishment or writing it in the punishment book (this was when physical punishment was still legal), the acting headteacher, a weary man waiting for retirement, said that the kids would make mincemeat of me when they realised that I wouldn't hit them. I was a member of an organisation opposed to physical punishment.

One boy, aged 11, used to flinch when I raised my arm. He was deliberately provocative. One day he asked, "Miss, why won't you hit me?" and I asked if it would make him behave better, and he said, "No." I said that there'd be no point then, would there? He used to wear the same clothes, every day, every week. He was one of several kids who came to my place at weekends, where they learned to cook and painted murals on our yard wall. My housemate got hold of some clothes for him, and suggested that we deliberately spilled a cup of tea over him, as an excuse to put his clothes in the washing machine and give him some new ones. So we did. I never heard from his mother about this. He became devoted to me, and would rush to defend me if any of the other kids was rude. He was just one of the kids whose backgrounds were terrible. One girl witnessed her father stab her mother to death. Another girl was locked in her room every day after school by her stepmother, until I found out about it and she was taken into care. They could all have done with a champion like Rita Pierson. I was newly qualified, totally out of my depth, with no professional or personal report, and I cracked up under the strain. I left after a year for an easier job. It wasn't that much easier, but there was less beating.

After a few years, during which time I did other jobs, I went back to teaching. I worked in the Oxford area for a while, as a supply teacher, before applying for work in Suffolk, to be near my family. Again, I was offered a job without an interview, without seeing the school, and should have known what to expect. It wasn't as bad as the school in Grimsby, but my head of department had been off sick for months with a "stress-related illness". My contract was for a term. I was offered a permanent job after Christmas, but turned it down. The colleague I'd worked closely with, who was in her probationary year, quit when I did, and never went back to teaching. She now runs a successful pottery.

I did more supply teaching after that. I'd learned a survival strategy by this time. Supply teachers will often find themselves covering for the teachers who are in the most stressful jobs. I can draw, and I used to bribe badly-behaved kids to behave with the prospect of a portrait to take home to mum at the end of the day. It worked a treat. I was frequently asked to work in the special needs department of an Ipswich school, where the head of department was fussy about which supply teachers he'd allow into his classrooms. Some of them were older people whose attitude towards the kids with multiple problems was unhelpful. They didn't like or understand children from the sort of deprived background that they knew nothing about, and the kids responded negatively to their crude discipline. My friend the head of department said that some of them could reverse a term's development with a few ill-chosen words. One day, I was sent to supervise two classrooms with a stationery cupboard in between, so I could hear what was going on in one while I was in the other, until another supply teacher arrived. Things were reasonably calm, with everyone settled, when a child came from the next room
to tell me that a strange man had arrived. I found a nervous-looking man in a suit with a briefcase. He didn't look like a teacher but it turned out he was. I told him what the children were supposed to be doing, and gave him a quick explanation of what to expect from some of the more challenging kids - a boy who became violent at the slightest provocation, so it was best to avoid confrontation, and a girl who had mild learning difficulties and struggled to remember anything for more than a few minutes, despite her best efforts, and so on. He showed little interest and waved me away. I'd been dismissed. Within five minutes, all hell broke loose next door. He'd yelled at the boy with the hair trigger, who'd thrown a chair at the window, and the girl who struggled to cope was in tears, after being told she was shamming. It turned out that the new supply teacher had just completed his training, it was his first day as a teacher after quitting an office job, and he'd imagined that he'd be a born educator. Oh, how wrong he was.

ME was prevalent among teachers and schoolkids, and I'd been covering for someone who had it. Not long afterwards, I was diagnosed with ME too. That was 27 years ago. You have to be fit to teach, especially in schools like the ones I've worked in. Every time I hear some idiot going on about how teachers have a cushy life, with long school holidays and all, I wish that he or she could see what it's really like at the chalkface. Michael Gove wouldn't last five minutes.