QEDcon 2014

My QED write-up this year is extremely late but I’ve backdated it so you’ll never know, mwuahahaha.

qedconAs ever, it was a fun, friendly, fascinating, inebriated weekend with the new venue (more on that later) full of lovely people whom I very much look forward to seeing more of next year (and throughout the year, for those who live near-ish by).

The speakers were fantastic as expected and the new addition of the Skepticamp during the first day as people arrived was well-received. It’s a great opportunity for people to showcase their talks on subjects they care about to a receptive skeptical audience – so if you’ve got one brewing, hopefully it will be back next year!

The opening video is hotly anticipated each year and it was certainly no disappointment this time around. The only credit I can take in this one (which is more than the others, mind) is that I dug up a spare labcoat from work for one famous face to wear. You’ll catch him before he closes the door:

So that was a great start and certainly put everyone in the mood for the weekend ahead – well done and thanks to Marsh and everyone on the production team and behind the scenes who made that happen.

The new venue, now the only hotel big enough in Manchester to accommodate us, the Palace Hotel, received mixed reviews. The interior is very strange, having been a Bank at one time, the ceilings are absurdly high, with some decor looking like it would be more at home in London’s Tube stations – shiny tiles and details in odd places.

The major let-down came when my friend Sandra slipped in the bathroom and broke her arm; the staff weren’t too helpful and she has some remaining costs to cover after having to undergo surgery back home in Seattle. Thankfully it’s healing well but this of course ruined her weekend – hopefully we can all make it up to her next year.

I had a wonderful time meeting new people, getting to know acquaintances better, learning from the speakers and having some excellent chats and laughs with already good friends. A highlight was having a quick rant about Women Who Eat On Tubes with the one and only Robert Llewellyn (better known to some as Kryten!).

2014-04-11 18.00.39

Amidst the talks and drinks and tweets and hugs and naps, this hilarious exchange occurred on Twitter:

Ms Courtney is well-known to some skeptics active on Twitter, and you can get a reasonable measure of her character from this display:

Absolutely hands down the most moving, memorable and applauded talk was given by Nate Phelps, son of the late, infamous, hateful pastor of the Westboro Baptist Church, Fred Phelps. He left the church as soon as he was legally able at 18 and shared with us some of the experiences he, his mother and siblings endured growing up there. Please donate to the fund that will make the televised version of his story, Not My Father’s Son, a reality – it will be a must-see.

No one else has ever managed to plunge a room full of skeptics into such tingling silence, and moved so many of them to tears, then received such thunderous applause and standing ovation. Completely deserved and an hour I will never forget.


I, and everyone else who had the opportunity, thoroughly enjoyed talking with him, too – he’s an incredibly nice guy. If he is ever in town or within travelling distance to speak, absolutely go and see him. I’ve Storified some tweets from during and after his talk on the final day, and there’s a link below to the full subtitled version.

A wonderful closing montage was put together by the talented Mr @elmarkodotorg – in which my friend Dave and I can be found dancing at the front of a busy room, but you won’t spot us because it’s quick so it’s ok… See you next year!!



On the Sunday Assembly

On January 19th I got up earlier than I would have liked for a Sunday, downed a mug of tea and headed to Holborn to check out the Sunday Assembly at Conway Hall.

I’ll say it at the start and I’ll probably have to say it at the end – this isn’t just criticism. It’s my experience, it’s what I thought and felt. I’m sure it’s valuable to people – the hall wouldn’t fill up otherwise. I’ve seen people express interest so I’ll share my thoughts – people are most welcome to their own.

Not because I thought that would be a fun thing to do, but because I had a visitor who wanted to check it out. Equally, not for fun, but as a journalist. I thought it might at least be interesting, given the theme for the day was “brains” – brains are cool, and certainly fascinating. Why not?

Well, the reason I don’t go to these things is because I don’t feel like I need to; what benefit would I derive from what is essentially a church service that just happens to not be in a church and lacks mention of a god? I was never forced to church as a child (thanks, mum ‘n’ dad) and the collective acts of worship I was required to attend at school only ever made me quite uncomfortable.

People preaching to me (even if I actually agree with them) isn’t something I enjoy, so why voluntarily go in for it? Makes more sense to stay at home, have a bit of a lie in, watch The Big Questions with a big mug of tea and in a mild rage, then get on with some housework.

I livetweeted my experience, which was met with a mixture of “oh that sounds as awful as I expected!” and “that’s what I thought” across to “what’s your problem, people are having fun, leave it”. Which is all fair. Some of my posts were quite snarky but, honestly, I was terrified – beforehand, and very much during. I just found it really intimidating – for the above reasons, it’s just not my scene.

Particularly when it started properly. After finding a seat high up with a direct view to the stage, where there was a screen showing the London Assembly’s logo/slogan and a band off to one side, the music began. Sanderson Jones – the… convenor? – then began clapping and pretty much everyone joined in straight away. They stood up. Karaoke I’m So Excited. I was excited in a scared sort of way. We remained seated, although wary of being odd-ones-out.

Then people were jumping. To a karaoke song! On a Sunday morning! How confusing. The song finished, but straight into the next one: Daft Punk – Get Lucky. They altered the chorus slightly to make it “a bit less creepy” – replacing the original “he’s/she’s/I’m” pronouns with “we’re”.

We’re up all night ’til the sun
We’re up all night to get some
We’re up all night for good fun
We’re up all night to get lucky…

Repeat almost literally ad nauseam. Not that I’m uncomfortable with songs about sex – sex is great! And being a fuzzy godless liberal, one is perfectly allowed to express such sentiments (slut-shaming problems aside), although the precise implications of the Daft Punk lyrics aren’t without issues. It’s catchy for the tune and nothing else, for me. But this was the kind of awkward that occurs when you’re watching a film with your parents then some characters are suddenly naked and squirming and making grunty noises. Why is this mishmash room full of people of all ages singing a song about shagging..?

Something else that bothered me the whole way through was the fact that we were being filmed from a variety of angles. Not even on mobile phones or little handheld camcorders, but giant balance-on-your-shoulder Proper Cameras. I hope we don’t stick out like a sore thumb, sitting among the revelers, with my pale apprehensive face.

Speaking of pale faces, the room was overwhelmingly white. I suppose there are a number of reasons for that – central London, other things I haven’t considered. Plenty other groups suffer the same lack of diversity – it would be good to address it positively, but I don’t have the answers myself.

We had a little skit from a couple of guys that imagined aliens speaking about animal life on Earth, and particularly humans, surprised that “meat” could do all we do, especially talk. It was quite well-done, I like sci-fi and I enjoyed it.

Sam Nightingale, a neurologist, gave a talk about the relative infancy of neuroscience, the general brilliance of the human brain, and closed with an inspiring speech praising our squishy thought generators (my phrase).

The next karaoke special was something by Elvis. This was followed by a moving and fascinating talk from a woman called Lotje, who had a brain haemorrhage at age 32 but survived – only she lost her memories and verbal abilities. Having re-learned a lot of what we take for granted, she still cannot read, but has a healthy appreciation for her brain regardless. What it’s been through, how much she has recovered, and how beautiful the world seems to her every day. Very humbling.

We were all invited to take part in some “silent reflection” which felt very much like the “let us pray” moment at school. I found that strange – it wasn’t for anything in particular, just to be generally “thankful”. I’ve no issue with silences performed out of respect, but again it was the context that made it uncomfortable for me.

At the end several collection vessels were passed around and a surprising amount of people were clutching £5 notes. There’s no required contribution, I’m not sure exactly what they’re collecting for – some explanation would have been nice. I’m told the group tries to be very open about their finances but we agreed with each other that this seemed strange. If your aim is to be as helpful in a community as church groups often are, why not elaborate? There was a short talk from a guy who, separately, takes part in Casserole Club, but no indication we were funding it, more of a recruitment drive.

So, as I said at the start, most of this isn’t even criticism really, it’s just that I felt immensely uncomfortable being there. On their own, each of the things wouldn’t bother me, or I’d actively enjoy them.

Of course I like celebrating science and humanity – that’s why I consider myself a humanist, I go to science talks/lectures of an evening for fun, I go to Skeptics in the Pub and things like Nine Lessons And Carols For Godless People (I was even in it!!). I go to Conway Hall often for various events, but never feel as out of place there as I did that Sunday.

The difference at those other events, I feel, is that there’s no expectation of overt and uniform enjoyment and agreement. Everyone who attends does so as an individual, no one tells you what to do or think (indeed discussion is generally the most fun bit) and invitations to be full of wonder aren’t accompanied by an applause prompt or followed by a sing-song.

If you like that sort of thing…

I love music and singing. I love gigs, and jumping around to songs can be good fun. Just not so much when standing in a hall full of clapping folks singing along to a rendition of a pop song, led by a slightly awkward (although very talented)  karaoke aficionado on-stage with a man doing big encouraging over-head claps at the crowd. I guess you have to be there.

It’s great to encourage people to make an effort, to better themselves, to help out where they can. I’m just not sure a branded get together helps with that in any real way besides making attendees feel like they’re part of a community – which again in itself is no bad thing, I like the communities I’ve joined. I don’t feel like they expect me to act a certain way at events, though, and none of those things I like feel like church – but this did.

To quote the 9 Lessons creator himself:

[NB: typos top/to, between/be]

Therein lies my problem. As a pretty-much-always godless person, I feel no need to bring church into my life. All the cringeworthy groupthink and [Edit: WP has deleted the rest of this sentence for me; I’m not sure what else I said. Something more about communities probably]. Some might feel a form of it is missing, or enjoy finding it – no problem. I just find it strange, too, that the model is the same.

If you do feel like you need a church, but not the God stuff, I guess the Sunday Assembly might be for you. They might not call it an atheist church but that’s really what it is. Will it suffer the same fate as those that have gone before? We’ll see.


  • My Storify from the day – scared tweets!
  • Andrew Watts went to this same service and has shared his experience via the Spectator; he has his own faith and was surprised someone asked him about it at SA.
  • Alom Shaha‘s original piece on his experience, though he says “My thoughts have moved on since then” – good to read the comments, too.
  • @MrRegars seems to have had a similar experience to me but also enjoyed finding out why some others were there.
  • Simon Clare writes “In Defence of Sunday Assembly” (not that my aim was to make this an attack…) from his Brighton perspective.
  • Simon Clare resigns from the Brighton Sunday Assembly due to double standards and financial issues relating to the London founding group
  • Alex Gabriel discusses the new call for full-time SA interns on £20/week (in Central London…)

Atheism flux

A lot of people I know seem to be talking about atheism/humanism/secularism at the moment, so I thought I’d wade in with my first proper post of the year.

2014-01-09 13_21_23-New Humanist magazine _ Rationalist AssociationTom Chivers wrote the initial post in New Humanist‘s debate, “Is it time to move on from the New Atheism?”. For the uninitiated, new atheism is an outspoken anti-religious movement that encourages rational thinking, challenges to harmful religious ideas and powers held in society, and promotes secular culture and politics.

Tom argues that, while many think of New Atheism as something like: Richard Dawkins shouting at people and going very red in the face and think he’s a silly if not odious man and therefore atheists are all like him and just as irritating… perhaps it has actually been quite successful. Atheism has more visibility, it feels like more of a movement, for better or worse, and the heavy-handed tactic has paved the way for those who would rather take a softer approach.

A bit about me

I don’t actually talk about “my atheism” that much any more. In fact, I’ve rarely volunteered to talk about it – generally it’s been other people’s decision to initiate a conversation. I was more outspoken about it at school when, despite never going to church with parents or anything, people would take it upon themselves to tell me I “must be a Pagan”, or “shouldn’t celebrate christmas”, or had no morals and hated everyone (which, ironically, made the latter far more likely every time it was said).

From Guardian article on compulsory worshipI vaguely remember one instance of sitting in my room and tentatively attempting to pray for something – I can’t remember what – and at the time thinking it was stupid. I recall a Summer Camp at our local Primary School run by a religious group (Edit: of which there are plenty, as the NSS shows), who made us sing songs containing lyrics like:

The name of the Lord is
A strong tower [all shout: TOWER!]
The righteous run into it
And they are saved!

And finding it dodgy that these people were allowed to get on stage to preach to a bunch of 8 year-olds. It was irritating that we had bible readings in assembly every week, prayers, and songs about the Lord of the dance settee (whatever kind of sofa that was, magical it seemed) whether you wanted to or not (it wasn’t even an explicitly religious school). I was in fact Mary in the Year 6 Nativity, and my best mate played Gabriel. I tried to make him laugh, never went offstage, and had to cuddle a pretend baby Jesus at the end. That was probably the end of my acting aspirations right there.

Point being, religion never directly harmed me – it was just around me, and was quite an irritation. My parents never told me what to believe, or what they believed, until I was a lot older and had already made up my mind. I think it took longer for me to abandon Santa than Christianity.

I’ll still criticise religious crap where it crosses my radar, often: new lows from the Catholic church and their inability to protect children from abuse, or indeed actively protecting known abusers, maybe their anti-LGBT activities, HIV-spreading tactics or misogyny; maybe it’s genital mutilation, be it boys in Muslim or Jewish families, or girls sent abroad from the UK by their parents or growing up in African countries; the oppression of women in hard-line Muslim countries (Saudi, Egypt etc.) and indeed generally. There are so many injustices and human rights abuses perpetrated under the guise of religious belief – these need to be addressed on our doorstep and everywhere.

It’s not about having a go at individuals for holding beliefs, despite what our critics think. I don’t feel the need to, unless they give me a reason. It’s about challenging the acceptance of actions otherwise condemned, simply because the motivation is claimed to be religious. It should not be a free pass to discriminate, to oppress and promote prejudice, or to physically harm. But it is. And it’s about challenging disproportionate religious power and voices in governments and justice systems.

Why “atheist”?

For me, it’s just been a useful word that describes my being outside all those belief groups I don’t belong to. Not just “outside” or “other” but something almost tangible. It doesn’t mean anything besides not-religious but it’s part of who I am and have been for the majority of my life.


Atheist Surlyramic

It’s not the same for everyone. For many it is important to positively identify as an atheist because they were religious in the past and/or suffered because of it and need to have that agency as apostates or victims/survivors. Telling people it’s “silly to define yourself by something you’re not” (which was the take-home message from Alom Shaha‘s contribution to the debate) takes that away from them, and that’s not something we should be doing. [Edit: have expanded on this at the end of the post.]

As Alex Gabriel then pointed out, it seems odd that someone, who has fought hard for the rights of apostates, to expose the harms religion can impose (especially as we’re growing up) and to promote atheism as a choice people can make that can be beneficial, would then say it’s not worth identifying positively with atheism as an ex-religious person. But we all have a tendency to change our ideas and priorities over time, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing.

As a friend quoted on facebook, “Don’t have positions. Have goals. You can’t move from a position. You can move towards a goal.” – while not technically true, you get the idea. It can often be more constructive to have something to work towards, positive things to take action on, rather than simply naysaying. I have heard people say this is why they like the annual Secular Europe March (most of which I’ve attended), because it’s for something, rather than simply a protest (although mainly it’s anti-Vatican, to be fair).

Community pest

Of course, simply not subscribing to any of the superstitions about deities that exist in human culture today doesn’t necessarily mean you share any other traits with all the other people who don’t. So it’s hard to say anything about “atheists” as a whole, really. I don’t, therefore, find it surprising that there have been “schisms” and divisions in the “community” (whatever it is), with people signing up to additional atheist-plus (if you like) categories to better define what they actually believe about living.

Doing a pub quiz about 5 years ago

Ariane & me at a pub quiz about 5 years ago

Martin Robbins wrote a piece suggesting ways for “Atheism” to move forward, past this new atheism vitriol personified by Dawkins and his contemporaries (and disturbing fanclub). Some similar points are made by Ariane Sherine (of Atheist Bus Campaign fame, and a very lovely small, grinning person generally). However, the calm and inoffensive approach isn’t for everyone, might not be all that effective in some cases, and surely shouldn’t be all that’s left – commendable as it is on paper.

I think sometimes we’re talking at cross-purposes. Sometimes we’re focusing on the community and its image; what people think when they hear “atheist” (“oh atheism is just another religion” etc.) and sometimes we’re talking about us as individuals and how we fit into the world, what we want from it, and what we’d like to see. Being so different, I think it’s hard to tell the amorphous whole what it should be doing, or even what it is.

I tend to agree with Alex, too – the anger can be necessary and justifiable. Some aspects of religion are truly abhorrent and deserve the full backlash that secular/humanist/atheist movements can create. Bringing in further off-post discussions, it has brought people to atheism – I’ve spoken to people who, to my surprise, read The God Delusion and it changed their world. It does happen. So just because it’s not relevant to us – we who never had faith, or those who left it for different reasons or by different means, doesn’t mean it’s obsolete. It doesn’t work for everyone, but when is there ever a one size fits all solution?

I also want to be free to criticise people who also share my disbelief in religion when they’re wrong about other stuff. While I don’t consider myself an Atheist-plus, I agree that many of their messages are for people who like to think of themselves as decent human beings who care about others and making things better for everyone. If a bunch of atheists in America want to send endless online threats to women because they’re misogynistic bastards, I’m right behind people laying into them for that, or at the very least distancing ourselves.

Part of the beauty of not sharing anything besides non-belief with other atheists is that none of them represents me. Dawkins doesn’t, the misogynistic Americans don’t, I stand for myself. The community exists only as proof that it’s a popular position, that reason isn’t shunned everywhere and that god doesn’t need to be in someone’s life for them to do good stuff.

The “privilege” problem

It is a buzzword, but I think it’s appropriate. In a similar vein as thoughts I’ve expressed previously on politics and social cohesion, there is an amount of privilege in being able to step back and be calm about these things – when the negative effects aren’t hitting you personally at present (or ever). It takes time and being quite far removed to achieve that, for most people. For many around the world it remains easier to suffer the oppression than speak out against it. And if they do want to speak out, they’ll have to shout or they won’t be heard.

So, without wishing to take away at all from anyone’s efforts in leaving their old beliefs and cultures behind – it’s a great thing to be in a better place in life, to be comfortable in oneself and happy enough that the negative, scary or traumatic things don’t make us angry or upset. But maybe it is often a privilege to be in that position, and perhaps after a long time fighting we can find ourselves in a relatively good situation, one that allows us to change our focus and our goals to more positive ones.

That still doesn’t invalidate anyone’s wish to be actively pushing back – for anyone who is still being hurt, for anyone who is still angry (I’d never question any clergy abuse victim’s right to express their feelings on the matter, and am humbled when I witness it) and I think it’s a bit unfair of people to be saying that the rage should just stop. If people aren’t shown what the harm can be, where does the support come from?

from memerial.netThe privilege of being distanced from real harm and direct experience makes people complacent, and prone to focus on such pointless minutiae as mentioned in Martin’s piece. Because when you’re not worrying about your life or physical safety, when you’re not verbally attacked daily, when your beliefs have no real visible impact on your day to day life, it’s very easy to stand back and say “well it’s not that bad”. And it’s not for us. Not now, for which we can be grateful. But basic human rights are still curtailed by religion globally. That’s something we all care about.

Also, when we don’t see these big problems, people who care about people often end up turning on what they do see instead, which can be minor intra-community disagreements, and then they end up looking like dicks.

As Gimpy commented on Twitter: “Evangelism is on the rise in Africa and South America, Asia has its own problems with religious privilege – atheistic ideas need spreading.” It is also privilege that allows us to think there is no need for more forceful and outspoken campaigns. People suffer and die for these ideas – we’re comfortable in a city/country, but not everyone is, and if our principles apply equally to human beings the world over, we shouldn’t be complacent.

Why talk about it?

Well, while it may be pointless to try to “herd cats” in atheism, skepticism or whatever heterogeneous group of people we’re talking about, it’s always worth stepping back sometimes to reflect.

People who whine about “navel-gazing” don’t seem to notice that it’s those who are least self-aware and spend the least time on reflection who tend to be the most annoying and/or harmful. If you never think about your actions and their impact, how are you ever going to learn from mistakes, and avoid making them in the first place?

Of course, it’s important not to only think, but I don’t imagine anyone, really, who just sits and thinks and never does anything. In a broad sense, armchair philosophers notwithstanding. Not that I have a problem with philosophers either.

Disclosure: with the exception of Gimpy and Mr Chivers, I know and like all of these people “in real life”, and, from Twitter-based interactions, these two also seem like good chaps.

Edit: here’s a video of Greta Christina at Skepticon talking about the perception of ‘atheist anger’, how accurate it is, why people are angry and how useful (or not) it is. It’s 48mins long but you could skip through – obviously some American focus, where the anger is arguably both more prevalent and necessary for many individuals. Flagged by Alex Gabriel.

Edit II: Following a Twitter conversation this morning, I’d like to add a couple more points. It seems people sometimes have an aversion to “identifying based on what you’re not”. I don’t think that’s all that unreasonable. Religion is a huge part of human society, culture and history, and rejecting it – gods who give a damn about our business and creating rules to live our lives by – can be an important statement for people to make. “Atheist” as a label can, to an individual, mean many things. It can, by positively identifying as such, validate your movement away from a religion-dominated childhood/community and acknowledge any struggle and persecution that may have gone with it.

Other labels are generally of different meaning. Humanist has other aspects to it – the mere act of rejecting the idea of god(s) is surely worthy of its own descriptive term. In UK society, we are lucky that atheist is pretty much the default now, and entirely accepted except by some hard-line religious people – who wield very little to no power over our lives. That isn’t the case for everyone. Identifying as ‘atheist’ is a bold statement in many communities; or even outlawed. We should respect people’s chosen identities.

Finally a- as a prefix, I think, means more than just “not/non-“. It can also mean “free from”; aseptic, free from infection/contamination. Asexual; without sex (also given sex is important to many/most people on the planet, and influential, asexual people are perfectly within their right to positively identify as having a life free from it).

We are free from religion. Personally – culturally, less so, and that’s where some other labels (secularist, humanist) can come in.

Edit III: A video from BBC world service featuring the excellent Bob Churchill on challenges for many atheists worldwide today

“Even though it’s a disbelief, it’s a belief that I can be ethical and moral through reasoning… not dictated to”

Opt-Out Organs

I’ve never really felt the need to write about organ donation as an issue because what the right thing to do seems very obvious to me; make the system opt-out so that, by default, organs fit for donation are harvested and distributed to patients on waiting lists.

Unless you don’t want that to happen; if, for some reason, you actually care what happens to your body after you die. I don’t really get this POV – when you’re dead, you have no consciousness, no future, no considerations – you are no longer. You are an ex-person.

What’s the problem?

Some people do seem to have objections. Often religious ones; apparently it’s important when you transition to a non-corporeal afterlife that your corpus (for some reason) remains intact, such as it is. Embalming, coffins, all of that – try to preserve your physical form, even though you no longer need it. Very strange, really. But people do it.Organ transplant box

Perhaps you care what your family thinks after you’ve gone. Maybe you want to spare them the apparent trauma of doctors distributing your parts to others who could make use of them. Again I don’t really understand that – what better gift to give in your death than that of more life for others? Life for parents, for children, for friends and family and lovers. Why would you want to withhold that?

People are selfish, that’s why. You and yours matter more than anyone else and theirs. There’s reason to that, to an extent, but I think the world might be a nicer place if people were more concerned about others in both life and death, managing to lay aside what we want for ourselves when others could potentially benefit, at little or no cost to us.

Until research and technology allow us to grow whole, fully-functional organs in the lab, unfortunately we are reliant on organs people have grown in their own bodies for transplants. I also wonder what people who have objections to donation would do if they found themselves or one of their loved ones on a waiting list for an organ? Well, given that aforementioned selfishness, presumably hope that other families are more selfless.

It seems a similar kind of thinking pattern to that of anti-vaccination. We don’t want to take the (tiny) risks, I’ll do what I want despite the evidence, I’ll reap the benefits of a society that doesn’t share my views and shelters me and mine from my stupidity. Too harsh?

Another perspective

I posted about this recently when the opt-out plans enacted in Wales were in the news and someone made a point I had never considered before.

People have funny ideas about death; it’s one of those largely incomprehensible, stressful, emotional yet utterly everyday concepts we really struggle with as human beings. As a result, we sometimes do odd things in life.

One of those odd things is to be superstitious. Avoiding certain things lest we tempt fate and upset the supernatural forces that may or may not govern our destinies. That superstition could well include completely avoiding the idea that we may die unexpectedly, and thinking about what would happen after that event.

So, if someone is squeamish about the idea of death, and their own in particular, maybe they don’t really want to carry around a card that tells the world they’re happy for other people to make use of their organs after that collision with a bus/overzealous motorbike excursion/tragic fall/accidental overdose.

Some people might feel that signing those forms and receiving that card makes that death-reality come closer. They might be as rational as you like and know how ridiculous it is, but just that feeling, that discomfort, could deter them from participating in the opt-in system. They’d have no problem if it were all up to the people dealing with them after their death – they wouldn’t ever have to actively think about it.

I wonder, how many potential donors have we lost because of this emotional quirk? How many could we gain with the opt-out system?

Opt out if you have to

If you care so very much what happens to your no-longer-living flesh, surely at some point in your life you can find the time to sign the form that tells everyone else about it. The change would be publicised, the population educated.

Lives will be saved by that simple action; even if you don’t want to actively participate in donation, you minimise the impact your non-participation has by agreeing to the system change. Maybe that can satisfy you.

If it doesn’t, what exactly is the problem?

I really don’t understand. Religious beliefs are allowed, but surely where there are negative consequences, you should seek to contain those. Personal objections are also allowed, but again, if you care so much, what’s so hard about making sure you tell people?

Is it that it’s embarrassing? Perhaps, then, time to re-examine the position.

Like so many things, it seems to be a problem with failing to empathise, failing to seriously consider the future. A lot of people are really bad at that.

But, thankfully, I do think the majority want to help others when they can, and would welcome the change. It is of course a lot more complicated than the above, but those are my current thoughts.

For now, don’t forget to join the register if you haven’t already – it’s really easy. And I’m proud to have that card in my wallet.

LiftGate: QEDcon2013

qedconHello everyone.

So you know before we get going, some of this is meant to be tongue-in-cheeck, mainly because I wanted to make use of a pun. It’s also got little serious bits in it and partly it’s because I just got home from QED and I need a bit more of it in my life before I let it go for another year…

Also I haven’t been blogging much lately, I don’t know why. Haven’t been inspired, also busy with new job(s) and imminent moving house! I didn’t write a post about QEDcon 2012 because I was mega-stressed with thesis-writing at the time (nearly couldn’t attend because of it) but this year I shall follow from the 2011 posts:

I love QED

As does everyone I speak to who’s been. This was its third year and it certainly lived up to expectations based on the last two. I’d looked forward to it since I left in 2012; extremely tired on the Sunday evening, I slept through the whole train journey back to Euston. Cleverly, this year I booked the room for Sunday night too – to anyone who can afford a bit of Monday off and the extra expense, I highly recommend this!

Some of the organisers are good friends of mine (do listen to Skeptics with a K if you haven’t before; one of my favourite podcasts! Also check out the infrequent but giggle-inducing InKredulous) but even if they weren’t I’d still have to give them many hugs/hi-5s/no-contact congratulations (delete as preferred) because, together with all the volunteers, they do a truly amazing job. I think I’ll be joining their ranks next year!


Rocking up on Friday evening for the mixer in the bar, coming back to a now familiar place and seeing lots of familiar faces (as well as plenty of new ones!) is brilliant. Some drinks, some chat, some hugs and a lot of excitement.

On Sunday we made a bit of a snap decision to listen to Natalie Haynes talk about similarities between Greek tragedies and soap operas, and the relevance of other classical authors such as Pliny, Juvenal and Virgil in modern life. Her explanation of why people saying quis custodiet ipsos custodes is quite hilarious was just perfect. Despite clearly being high on caffeine and sleep-deprived (which she acknowledged with comedic excellence), I hugely enjoyed her talk. With a Latin A level from school, I have missed classical literature and ancient history ever since and it was a lovely reminder.

Just before this, Carrie Poppy, all the way from the US of A, gave her talk on the value of anecdotes. I very much appreciated this. As an intactivist, a lot of the research I do in this area involves listening to people’s stories of how circumcision has had a negative impact on their lives. This is not valueless, quite the opposite. When an argument in defence of something often contains “but I’ve never heard anyone complain about it/I’m fine!”, exposing the truth that in fact a great deal of people have been harmed is very important indeed. I think a lot of skeptics could learn from this, and rein in the (often appropriate, admittedly) data or gtfo kind of attitude.

An excellent set from Chris Coltrane included a perfect bit on being bisexual and biphobia, which definitely resonated with a selection of us in the room! We shook his hand for that.

There were so many other things. I collected a promised hug from Colin, due to my having Tweeted a semi-regular plea for cheery thoughts when I was feeling sad one time… and having walked past him on the way to the station one day but not managing to stop and say hi in time!


For the unaware, here’s a quick bit of background on an incident you’ll need to know something about for the rest of this section to make sense.

There are other skeptical conferences. At one such event, a female speaker gave a talk that included some advice on being respectful to women, and after some time at the bar got into a lift (or an elevator, if you’re from the other side of the pond) to go to bed.

In said lift, a male delegate at the conference decided to ask her to his room for coffee. Possibly innocently, possibly with hopes of some kind of friendlier-than-that situation, who knows. After the event, said female skeptic (who is well-known to most skeptics) made a video for her website that was about an hour long, which included a short statement on this incident.

She asked him, and guys like him, not to do that kind of thing. If it’s late and you’re in a confined space alone with a woman, don’t proposition her (or say something that’s likely to be interpreted as such). It’s just a bad idea.

Fair point. Unfortunately this exploded into ridiculous discourse and all kinds of people jumped in with their views; why is she implying he might be a rapist and why doesn’t she shut up and die – together with deeper and deeper analyses of male privilege, misogyny and all sorts. Including a very misjudged and sexist comment from Richard Dawkins. The fall-out is still happening, somewhat absurdly.

Given this, just about every time a few of us got in the lift, someone would make a joke about “ElevatorGate”, as it’s now known. It was very funny.


We giggled. It was also nice when loads of us packed into the lift at one point and, to save space, partner and I took the opportunity to have a cuddle. After laughing about the close quarters, one girl did ask: “You do know each other, right?” – I think it’s great that people are coming out and asking that, rather than making assumptions or keeping quiet when they witness what might be an uncomfortable situation. Progress.


What wasn’t so funny was when I was chatting, wine in hand, with some other drunk folks after the Saturday night entertainment, trying to work out what strange game they were playing (it involved placing a wine bottle upright on the floor, using teamwork to avoid touching the floor with anything other than that bottle past a certain point).

When my flatmate said something like “Maz, be on our team, you’re light!” and picked me up briefly, a little way off the floor, to demonstrate this fact, we were amused.

However, when a random guy I had never met, who did not introduce himself or ask before going ahead with his copycat behaviour, proceeded to wrap his arms around the tops of my thighs and pick me quite high up off the ground with a grin on his face, which was pressed against my front – we did not laugh.

In fact, my partner told me afterwards that he’d felt like punching him at that point (not usually a violent person). In different circumstances, I might have let him.

Now, I’m not insinuating that this person was anything other than an inebriated reveler who saw something mildly amusing (he was not to know the previous lifter was well-known to me) and decided to join in the fun – I hope that’s the long and short of it.

However, at the risk of kicking off #liftgate, here is my advice – don’t do that. Don’t approach strangers and touch them somewhat inappropriately, even in a partying environment. My displeasure at this may have been enhanced by the fact I was wearing a loosely hanging dress I hadn’t worn before – and I don’t wear dresses often anyway.

But there it is. In the grand scheme, a small thing – I am not traumatised or accusing this person of deliberately treating me a bit like a bit of sports equipment free to be tried out in the shop, I expect he just wasn’t thinking.

That’s the point though; a lot of us are socially awkward, and it’s worth taking a second to think before you act (or speak). All of that is overridden by meeting loads of brilliant people this weekend, catching up with friends, learning some cool stuff and having a generally awesome holiday. Plus I got to use my pun-thing.

Edit: Following some commenting and Twittering, all is well – let this be an example of How Not To Be A Dick. We all make mistakes. Pointing things out, accepting our errors, apologising for them and being forgiven – it’s easy and it doesn’t have to turn into a giant flame war. Live and learn.


I will try to update this over the coming week or two with links I find to other posts, picture albums and so on relating to this year’s event. Feel free to tweet them at me, that would be helpful!

The amazing intro video can be watched over and over again here!! The 2011 and 2012 videos are also available. Everyone gets Milton Mermikides‘ theme tune stuck in their head for a while!

Here’s Stevyn (with whom we had a lovely lunch discussing Qi curiosities and other things on Saturday) with his favourite bits. He mentions our protesters, and I’ll try to find more mention of them. You can also read more about his Skeptical Bobby talk!

You can even listen to Saturday’s Pod Delusion Live recording!

Robin Ince mused on his panel conflict, which I unfortunately missed, but I liked reading this anyway. Here’s a summary of that session by Violetta Crisis. Daphna Shezaf has also written about the conference, and the aforementioned panel.

Some of Robin’s rage was expertly captured by @gwendes – have a look here.

Pixie359 thinks about what more can be done in skepticism.

Alex Gabriel defends Atheism+ for The Heresy Club (I missed this session too).

Hayley has put her thoughts into words.

Eventifier keeps track of twitter traffic generated by events, pretty cool stuff. Over nine thousand tweets… >480 photos, 26 videos – from more than 1200 accounts, apparently!

See Liveskeptic for some storify (collections of tweets on a particular subject/talk).

Here’s a Flickr album from Richard Cooper and here’s an open Flickr group by Kevin Friery that anyone can upload their images to. Friday (including afternoon tweet-up), Saturday and Sunday photos by Rob McDermott, plus a lovely pan of the RDF hall. The Hampshire Skeptics page also has some great images.

My photos are here but I’ll try to put them on Picasa at some point.

Circumcision debate

UCLU ASHS 28/02/13

Antony Lempert (GP & Chair of the Secular Medical Forum)


Jonathan Arkush (Vice President, Board of Deputies of British Jews)

Here’s the full audio of the debate; it’s about 1hr 10mins but I’ve put highlights in my Pod Delusion report! I’ve also put timings on my notes below so that you can skip to the relevant bits if you like.

Antony had met Jonathan in July 2012 for Sunday Morning live, they had some email exchanges but they stopped because:

“he didn’t seem to like my Human Rights arguments and kept saying things like live and let live

- which I thought was funny, because that is pretty much the crux of the anti-circ position. And that boring old “human rights” argument people keep digging up, ugh!

Antony has tried in previous years to get routine infant circumcision debated at the BMA annual meeting; apparently, though, changing the wording of a proposal to remove “female” so that you’re discussing infant genital surgery generally is a no-no. Better luck this year, hopefully.


It’s worth noting that some of the oft-discussed issues around MGM were irrelevant in this case. Arkush (I’ll refer to him as JA and to Antony as AL throughout) argues only from the perspective of a Jewish man upholding his faith; his interest is in the “religious rights” of individuals and families, so ignores arguments to do with necessity/benefit, health, female genital cutting and so forth. (For more on these, please see previous posts.)

I think an important take-home from this debate was something AL also pointed out: that there does seem to be a confusion in these of arguments. People cite “parental rights”, requesting tolerance, respect and permission to keep doing what they want to do. All well and good, until you harm other people.

The problem here seems to be that some parents do not believe their children are people in their own right. Interesting, as I wonder how many anti-abortion campaigners (especially in the USA) are pro-circumcision?? That’s a tangent though.

Without recognising that a child’s right to bodily integrity exists and you should really respect it, people end up thinking they can treat their child-property however they wish – sometimes culminating in something as disturbing as removing their most sensitive erogenous body part.

Obviously I am completely biased as a fully-fledged intactivist; there was no way JA would have convinced me of his position. He was at all times calm and polite, to his credit. However he also clearly holds some disturbing views about mental health (accusing all men who are unhappy about their circumcised status, who claim emotional trauma, to in fact have some other underlying condition) and the non-religious (with another worrying suggestion that lack of faith may lead to psychological issues, and people being devoid of values).

AL has kindly allowed me to use his slides to add information here, so you can find some interspersed with my notes below (part 2. AL 15 minutes).


JA considers it his right as a Jewish person to remove his sons’ foreskins in accordance with the traditions of his culture. He does not believe it is at all harmful. He argues against banning things we find distasteful, carrying this argument to an interesting and shocking conclusion when he disagrees with banning one of the most disturbing forms of male circumcision: the metzitzah b’peh, in which the Mohel sucks the blood off the child’s wound, thus exposing him to disease and an increased risk of death. Live and let live? The baby being worth little consideration here, apparently.

AL draws on strong arguments based in medical ethics to highlight that non-medically justified (it very rarely is) routine infant circumcision (RIC, or more accurately NTEF: non-therapeutic excision of the foreskin) is a permanently damaging procedure with complications that are often serious, and parents should not have the “right” to choose cosmetic surgery for minors, just because they are their parents. The child is not their property, and their responsibility is one of protection.

1. JA 15 minutes


Started with an appeal to tradition “Judaism is one of the world’s oldest faiths” (00:02:00)

The bible is clear that is matters “how we treat other people…” Indeed!

Rules, customs, values and ethical considerations

He follows Jewish traditions because he wants to

He would like family to inherit his tradition and values in turn

Judaism & Islam practise circumcision (asks us to note only boys at 8 days in Judaism) (00:02:45)

God commanded the practice from Abraham, with no reason given (00:02:55) “I wanted to keep that precept”

He “some Jews” pick and choose which parts of the tradition to keep, seemed to disapprove (00:03:30)

‘Brit’ (as in Brit milah, the circumcision ceremony) means covenant or promise (00:03:45)

It’s “more logical to keep all the rules I possibly can” (00:04:20)

Says circumcision is “safe and simple” (00:04:30)

Must be performed by specially trained and regulated individuals, “many are doctors” (00:04:45)

Initiation Society” set up in 1752 (00:05:05)

Cited example of royal family being circumcised and the same doctor cutting him as did Prince Charles ?! (00:05:45)

“In the Jewish community, complications are virtually unknown” – cited high standards (00:06:00)

Appreciates the arguments against and respects them (00:06:50). Guesses they consist of:

1) Wrong to impose on babies? “There are many things we decide for our children” (00:08:00) Waiting would be worse, it’s “safest and kindest … when the child is 8 days old” (00:08:50) and “more painful at 18″ (00:11:15)

2) Psychological issues? He dismisses these, calls it an “odd” claim, saying “some people believe they are… not in my experience” thinks any problems are down to something else and people blame circ only as displacement. (00:09:45)

Children have a right to be brought up in a faith we choose for them…” (00:10:20)

People are glad and relieved and grateful this was chosen (00:10:45)

I would not like to look different from them” ! (00:11:00)

To “we disapprove of this ritual/custom/value so we ought to ban it” he says the fact you disapprove is not a reason to ban; unless socially harmful (00:11:45)

We regulate rather than ban e.g. smoking (00:12:20)

Taking away “rights to believe” (00:12:45) – “It is not a fair way to run society… unless you can prove it is harmful to society as a whole” – 4000 years Jewish/muslim tradition… 60% American men cut (00:13:30)

Somehow tries to justify by quoting BHA (00:14:25) “Recognises the dignity of individuals… treats them with fairness and respect… respects and promotes freedom, democracy, human rights and the rule of law, and equal treatment of everyone regardless of religious belief” – “so please give me that equal treatment, let me circumcise my son” – from the perspective of a parent who wishes to cut children.

2. AL 15 minutes


Main points:

Function & sensitivity; autonomy; irreversibility; indoctrination; confusion in discussing parental rights

It is often argued by those in favour of ritual circumcision that parents have the right to procure circumcision in much the same way as they decide which school to send them to, whether to baptise them and the favourite comparator, whether or not to vaccinate their child. (00:17:45)

Childhood immunisation is an intervention that cannot wait until adulthood and one with overwhelming evidence of protection from serious childhood diseases such as measles and tetanus. It does not remove body parts.

(00:18:15) Responsibilities of doctors

GMC guidance first words: “make the care of the patient your first concern”

Primum non nocere

(00:18:50) In September 2012 GMC issued a child safeguarding statement acknowledging possible damaging influence of religious and cultural beliefs:

In some cases, it may be difficult to identify where parents’ freedom to bring up their children in line with their religious and cultural practices or beliefs becomes a cause for concern about a child’s or young person’s physical or emotional well-being.

(00:19:20) Key principles of Medical Ethics:

1) Autonomy 2) Beneficence 3) Non-maleficance 4) Justice

People think “their rights are under threat when they can’t cut someone else’s body?!” (00:20:10)

constraints on personal autonomy should never be used by people claiming ‘cultural autonomy’ to justify the forced removal of healthy body parts from non-consenting people. (00:21:05)

It has been illegal to tattoo children from 1969 (00:21:50)

For those without the capacity to choose, questions must be asked about procedures: is it permanent or temporary? Is there clinical benefit? Any restriction of future decisions? (00:22:20)

Not only do medical associations not recommend it, many condemn (00:23:10):

The Royal Dutch Medical Association “…a violation of a boy’s rights to autonomy and physical integrity.”
The President of the British Association of Paediatric Surgeons, (BAPS) “…an irreversible mutilating procedure… rarely, if ever, an indication for male circumcision of boys aged less than 5 years old”
Chairman of the Swedish Paediatric Society “…an assault”
Australasian Association of Paediatric Surgeons “…does not support… routine circumcision”

Was promoted to limit masturbation (00:24:30)

1993 study in the Journal of Surgery, looked into complications (00:24:50):

- Meatal Stenosis (narrowed urethra opening)
Scarring and sinuses
- Erectile dysfunction
- Denuding of penile skin
– Psychosexual problems
Infection and bleeding
– Urinary difficulties
Amputation of the Penis

Nigerian midwife manslaughter conviction 2013, baby Goodluck

Birmingham hospitals provide circumcisions on the NHS. FOI requests have revealed data showing that complications often cited as “tragic and unforeseen” “isolated incidents” are actually quite common (00:26:20)

Birmingham data

For an operation the British Association of Paediatric Surgeons say is rarely if ever needed.

Sorrells 2007 and Hoebeke 2013 on sensitivity and function; circumcision removes the most sensitive area of the penis. (00:27:10)

Frisch 2011 reported on circumcision harms to women: “Frequent Orgasm Difficulties in Danish men… and a range of frequent sexual difficulties in women” (00:28:15)

Men who speak out about circumcision damage are often isolated by circumcising communities, threatened and ignored. They are not well-supported to argue their case and are conveniently seen as non-existent, with advocates always saying they “haven’t heard” anyone complaining. It’s a sensitive issue anyway and being shunned for disagreeing makes it even less simple to do. (00:28:45)

November 2009 lawsuit between 20 y/o man and his GP over his meatal stenosis, dysuria, abrasive pain, tight circumcision, a sinus and asymmetric scarring leading to bent penis; was told he had “no case for medical negligence, because this level of damage is fairly routine” (00:29:20)

The UN convention on rights of the child 1989 – signed by all countries except Somalia and the USA
Article 14 (1) Respect the right of the child to freedom of thought, conscience and religion
Article 19 (1) Protect the child from all forms of… violence, injury or abuse… including sexual abuse whilst in the care of parent(s)…or any other person who has the care of the child
Article 24 (3) Take all effective and appropriate measures with a view to abolishing traditional practices prejudicial to the health of children. (00:30:10)

Blinded by religious privilege, we can lose sight of the child, and the adult the child will become

3. JA 5 minute retort


Emotive language!! Anti-semitic? (!)

40 million Jews, who collect data (really? Where is it?)

we don’t argue that it’s needed so that’s a moot point

WHO, AAP ‘pro’ stances

I don’t follow the practice because of health benefits “although HIV is drastically lower”

BMA and GMC have circ guidance! Ethical and religious values are important

These [negative comments] are minority views and not reflective of the whole practice

I want to make decisions for my children

in society we tolerate costly things e.g. drugs and smoking

4. AL 5 minute retort


We should aim for progress, not tradition

Actually the USA is the minority view.


Obviously it’d be better to have some actual data on here!

In Jewish law: if 3 of your babies die, you don’t have to cut the 4th

Mohel reports are… where? Also easily dismissed

Milah UK Autumn 2012 set up to challenge German ruling

BMA is clear on circ, illegal under Human Rights act? BMA conference debates

5. Questions and discussion


1) Edward Presswood

You said your son was circumcised and didn’t even cry. Can you describe how it was done without making him cry?

JA: “I’m a bit squeamish but I wasn’t there. Local anaesthetic, quick, guard in place, wine in mouth to encourage child to sleep, feeding after, Mohel visits for following 2 days” (00:41:10)

Defends Jewish practices in comparison to ‘less well regulated’ procedures (00:42:05) such as baby Goodluck and another boy who died after a Rabbi cut him (00:42:40). Blamed the mother for ignoring instructions to call doctor/hospital/mohel if there was any bleeding. AL interjects with further information (00:43:25). “The issue is that taking a knife to a normal child’s body exposes them to risk that they don’t need to have”

JA: “complications in the Jewish community are extremely rare”

2) Jewish audience member: possible harm to welfare [when not cut]? Would boys have preferred “most likely” to have had it when they were younger? (00:45:20)

3) Difficulty with making things illegal; wouldn’t it still happen (00:46:25) – see FGM. No prosecutions. Doesn’t mean we shouldn’t make things illegal.

4) USA ‘looking normal’ concerns (00:47:55)

JA: Jewish community isn’t responsible for USA high circumcision rate; social reasons

AL: AAP is a trade organisation; it’s a cultural phenomenon and doctors profit from it (00:49:25).

5) EP: Orthodox Judaism Mohels – what about tolerating/banning the sucking [metzitzah b’peh] practice? (00:50:15) – JA wouldn’t ban it!! “I’m just very chairy about going for bans” (00:52:25 – sorry about my phone buzzing there!)

00:52:50: AL on deaths from circumcision being excluded from studies’ data analysis (approx. 200/year)

6) 00:54:30 – asks AL for opinion on HIV/circumcision research. NB/ 57:30:00 a member of WHO circ “expert” board invented circumcision devices?

7) My question (00:58:15): would you really consider opposition to genital mutilation (as it is generally universal where it occurs; regarding male or female, hospital or elsewhere, religious or cultural etc.) to be anti-semitic?

I won the debate with this, because JA fell for Godwin’s law, and compared us all to Nazis and communists (00:58:45-01:00:40):

“the chancellor Angela Merkel was acutely concerned about a country where circumcision was last banned – incidentally 2 world rulers in modern times who sought to ban circumcision were Hitler and Stalin – so that’s the company you’re in”

At that point I did a \o/

8) How can you agree with criminalisation of theft and not with thieving a part of someone’s body? (01:02:10)

JA: parental decision because child is too young, a parent is entitled to that – compares to ear piercing or tattoos. Defends his right to remove healthy body parts from an incapacitated child. Cites “everyone I know in the Jewish community feels the same way”

AL: reiterates that those who speak out are ostracised by “the community” (01:04:30) and JA confirms that one woman on the Board of Deputies was removed because of her synagogue was ‘upset’ by her dissenting opinions (01:05:15). Insists someone would not be ignored if they said they were “born with” a circumcision that harmed them, but is picked up on this because he already dismissed them in his speech.

9) How would you feel if your son had to be castrated (?), how would you explain that to him? (01:07:00)

JA doesn’t seem to accept that risk of serious injury or death is a good reason to avoid this unnecessary surgery, saying hewould feel “desperately guilty and sorrowful” – he would say “I consciously exposed you to such risk as there was … but I probably would make the same choice again”

EP: asks if he does recognise there is a risk (yes) (01:08:45)

He also let slip that he believes those who lack faith also lack any values (01:09:15). Nice.

Cuts, labels and preferences

Last night I stumbled upon (via a friend) what is probably one of the best posts I’ve read in a long time about male circumcision – it’s got just about everything there. The religious angle, of course, since the article is written by Jewish Nobel prize winner, George Wald.

But more than that, it highlights what a complex issue genital cutting is and expands upon the probable motivations that drive people to it. Where angry victims tend to place the blame (squarely upon mothers, except in Judaism); FGM; issues of gender and misogyny; the less reported forms of MGM outside of the USA and Europe; basic embryology; health myths (for the skeptical readers!); and personal perspectives from those involved.

My one problem with article is minor but it started me thinking, so here it is. His use of the term “bisexual“. I think in the article’s context he means something more along the lines of intersex/hermaphroditic. He’s talking about the first people in creation myths being of both genders, parallel with the contested view of a god who is “both male and female”. That’s not what bisexual means, at least now – what it actually means is being attracted both to people who identify as the same gender as you do, and to those whose gender identity is different from yours.

To improve understanding, a common point is that you wouldn’t be surprised by someone who likes people whatever their hair/skin colour, height, or weight. For many bisexual people, gender is also no bar to attraction or, indeed, love. Through ignorance and misunderstanding, there are so many misconceptions and insults thrown at those who self-identify as bi, and in recent years I have become more aware of it and more annoyed by it. Bisexuality does not imply greed or promiscuity, it is not a product of indecisiveness, immature experimentation or a phase. Assumptions along these lines are offensive.


Bisexual pride colours

Biphobia, including the assumptions listed above, may not be a concept everyone is familiar with. Sometimes people argue bisexuality doesn’t even exist, but I disagree very strongly for many reasons. Bi-invisibility is part of biphobia; people often (consciously or otherwise) try to erase bisexual identity when they find it. Settling down with a partner of the opposite or same sex does not then magically make you straight or gay! Just as a prolonged involuntary dry spell does not make anyone who would rather be sexually active in fact asexual. Bisexual individuals who have only had sexual experiences with the opposite sex do not have to identify as “curious” – would you question someone’s professed heterosexuality at age 21 just because they happen to have remained a virgin?

Not everyone chooses a label for themselves. Some do not find it necessary, some find it restricting – people who have absolutely no boundaries with respect to gender (or anything else) and their relationships may, for example, prefer pansexual. However, there are good arguments against using semantics and etymology as reasons to shun labels – but especially, against criticising other people’s self-identification with them.

Many labels are reductive, they kind of have to be by their very nature. But people often like to be part of a group, it helps us to feel we belong and are accepted. Most of us crave that; we seek out communities that value similar ideas and this helps us value ourselves. It can be integral to our happiness, though may not be essential for everyone. Uniting under a banner – literally or figuratively – can also help push forward the drive for equality and fair treatment. It is important to bear in mind that identification with labels is (or should be) a choice that people make and when minority groups attack each other for it (bisexuals are somewhat famously persecuted by both gay and straight communities) it is so self-defeating.

Coming to grips with these ideas in theory is one thing. Living them in practice is another. For example, having seen otherwise sensible and lovely people come out with some nasty transphobia (something I have shamefully done in the past myself), I still consider direct experience – meeting people and getting to know them – to be one of the best ways of overcoming irrational prejudices. Once you meet people and see that your assumptions were total crap, it’s much easier to move on and make positive changes to opinions and behaviours. This, for me, is also one of the strongest arguments against segregated education, particularly on religious grounds.

I did go to a single-sex school, but that didn’t preclude my having male friends. It did mean I encountered a lot of homophobia (obviously going to school with pupils of one gender automatically makes you gay!) and, indeed, biphobia (well if you fancy any of the girls, you must fancy all of them! Another stupid biphobic idea that’s so obviously ridiculous if you apply it to straight or gay people) – but ultimately I feel positive about my education at least in academic terms. That’s a whole other post, though. Feel free to leave your views, teachers and single-sex/co-education fans!

The “gender binary” is a problematic idea for lots of people and even male/female labels can be oppressive. This fantastic article sparked a little debate recently. I have had abuse shouted at me when I’ve not been looking obviously female – which probably isn’t too often but still – and people are often shocked by this. I hate that women and men are expected to look certain ways, and if you look out for it I’m sure you’ll see that insults based on this are common.

For some reason, not being able to work out the contents of someone’s pants (or indeed their sex chromosomes) is a legitimate source of comedy or, worse, justification for derision or violence. “Justin Bieber looks like a girl in that photo! Hahaha!” “Is that person over there a boy or a girl? I don’t know! Let’s beat the shit out of them to teach them a lesson.” – what? Why are people required to be open books? Misogyny, homophobia, transphobia – people don’t realise it, and they continue it.

Yet this kind of restriction is something that the majority don’t think about – they probably don’t have to, if they’re lucky to fit within the “normal” boxes that the culture has predefined. That extends to many lifestyles, decisions and qualities – we are not all the same and society’s (as opposed to the individual’s) need to label is often so restrictive that it oppresses huge numbers of people. But something else that annoys me is hypocrisy around protecting people’s right to choose and the nature of preferences.

I believe people can do whatever they like, especially when it comes to sex, if all necessary consent is obtained and no one is being harmed. So, I get pretty angry when people start throwing around accusations of -isms and -phobias based on other people’s sexual preferences. Thankfully we do have the right to decide who we sleep with! We have no obligations to anyone in that regard, from asexuals to enthusiastic sex workers, our choices are (or should be) our own. Don’t talk about choice and how important it is and then dictate to people what they should and shouldn’t do with their sex lives.

Attraction (or lack thereof) is innate, not chosen, as pro-equality campaigners will tend to argue. If you’re not attracted to someone of the same sex, not sleeping with them does not make you a homophobe, obviously – similarly, not being attracted to people from a particular “race” – or to none except similar to yours – does not make you racist. As long as your only discrimination is not sleeping with them, I don’t see how you could possibly come to any other conclusion. You’re looking for things to be angry about, perhaps. I witnessed a bit of a Twitter argument about this recently, and it’s one I’ve had myself, so now is a good time to make the point.

There are also different kinds of attraction: including (but perhaps not restricted to) physical, emotional, intellectual – different people place different levels of importance on those things and choose their partners accordingly. I’m a fan of all three at once, which is reflected in my history (that’s my own business unless I choose to talk to people about it!) and preferences – some decide to call that “picky”. Those with broader tastes might say they don’t have “a type”, or disconnect their physical experiences from other aspects of their lives.

These are all choices we can make, yet often we find ourselves judged for them. The “less discerning” among us might be labelled sluts or studs (again, depending on your gender and the ridiculous expectations people hold based on it) and those who are very selective about who they sleep with or simply place little importance on the physical might be frigid or gay – that most pathetic of insults that I still struggle to banish from my vocabulary because of the university environment.

This destructive judgmental behaviour is a bit like feminists sneering at women who have chosen to be stay-at-home-mums when that’s what makes them and their family happy and works in their relationships. Or when polyamorous folk start calling their monoamorous friends “weird”. When people with a particular fetish put down those who happen not to share it. Acceptance has to be given as well as received, and if you are going around being very negative about groups you don’t identify with then I’m not sure you’re helping, however active you are in other progressive causes. Live and let live.

Choice is what it’s all about. You should be free to choose things for yourself, in your own life, especially when you are harming no one. However, the imagined “parental choice” to cut the genitals of their children needs to go. That dangerous decision takes away choice from the victim, who can never regain what is taken from them, who can never choose for themselves what was done to their body. Irreversible damage. Adults choosing body modification/cosmetic surgery/assignment surgery for themselves is clearly different and irrelevant to the GM debate.

I might write a post that’s actually about GM soon..!

%d bloggers like this: