Contemplating Humanist affiliation

A number of years ago I left the Humanist Society of South Australia under somewhat of a cloud, ultimately opining in print at the end of an extended disclosure, that I didn’t have anything more I wanted to write about the organization specifically. Nothing much has changed in that latter respect; either in as far as I can tell, nothing’s happened that would make me want to comment further, or I’m left with smaller issues that I’ve been informed of that I’m not in a position to properly investigate before making a case. So don’t ask me to (thanks).

At any rate, after my departure, not wanting to sever with IHEU/CAHS affiliated bodies entirely, I did a brief mail-around of a couple of other CAHS affiliated bodies to see if they’d take a South Australian. Queensland didn’t reply, quite possibly relating to some pretty intense upheavals at an executive level at the time, while the Humanist Society of Victoria (HSV) did get back to me, and in the affirmative. So I joined the HSV.

***

It’s a fun fact that when you do anything remotely akin to whistleblowing in public, you’ll wind up being contacted by people who’ve either tried to blow the whistle themselves, or who have something they just need to get off their chest. I’ve had all sorts of feedback and information fired at me in the back channels, not all of it trustworthy, and even less usable.

But it’s the verifiably true stuff that you can’t or don’t know how to act on that’s the most vexing. The context of some of this stuff spans decades and countries, and it’s hard to tell if or how some of it can be meaningfully addressed; court cases from decades ago demonstrating malfeasance by a Humanist I’ve never heard of, who was then boosted by an overseas Humanist organization I’ve never had anything to do with are a little out of my scope.

People have told me things about individuals from the HSV, and they told me before I opted to join. I have no doubt that my joining pissed off at least one former HSV member who’d contacted me. The thing is, that while some of the info given to me was verifiable, it was hard-to-impossible to extrapolate from those facts, to the organization as a whole, or even the committee in particular. Stating that dickheads exist within an organization is a pretty insufficient critique. Functioning organizations have dickheads too.

In terms of cultural problems though, even at my distance from the organization – my membership is nominal and pretty much a mere formality – there are some pretty overt warning signs; the publication in the Australian Humanist (edited by a founding HSV member) a few years back of a poem that was zero percent critique of Islam, and 100% denigration of Muslims; a terrible defense of the choice to publish this poem and another work of garbage in the very same issue; a committee that wasn’t close to being properly visible, and so on.

Not a lot of evil, but a lot of things to make you consider how functional a group is.

In terms of my miniscule involvement – I’ve witnessed a couple of pathetic displays online by folks of influence within the organization myself, and have just recently witnessed one of the smarter ones – one with influence over a public organ no less – claiming that harassment, sexism and so-on within atheist circles is largely made up, essentially just because it’s obviously true. This kind of reasoning doesn’t bode well for an organization that’s supposed to pursue reason in service to compassion.

On the flip-side, at the very least the HSV’s organization and promotion of public events has seemed honest and professional. I can’t tell you how sick I’ve grown of seeing atheist promotional shenanigans, either from afar or up close; organizers publicly announcing speakers from serious projects prior to confirmation, only for those speakers to predictably fall through; promoting their own members as speakers with misleading titles, honorifics and superlatives, and peddling non-peer reviewed, untested and untestable crank hypotheses as central to public “seminars”. The HSV, however, possibly has the best average quality of speaker academically speaking, out of all of the Australian Humanist societies, and the speakers are promoted formally and accurately, without gimmickry. That ain’t nothing.

(No, I haven’t been to any of these meetings, being in South Australia during all the ones I’d liked to have attended, but I don’t need to to make the above judgements; a good number of the people speaking have published works they can be judged by.)

Of course, it’s not just the HSV that has merits and cultural problems. The NSW Humanists have quite an asset in Humanist House, and quite a liability in not having been forthright in discussion of how they fended off entryism from neo-Nazis, nor how it all got nearly as bad as it did in the first place. The Humanist Society of NSW has had changes to its leadership since then, and I’m not interested in castigating, or in investigating to see what miniscule portions of blame can be ascribed to specific members of the current executive, but still, it’s cause for pause. Things don’t ever go this badly without cultural problems being a factor, and a fresh new executive isn’t going to just make those problems up and disappear.

Then there are all of the asinine arguments and ideations that just grind away at you, turning your resolve to dust; “Public criticism of Humanist leaders betrays your oath!”; “Children are sexual beings!”; “I don’t care if they’re a demonstrably mendacious climate denialist, I’m interested in how they make me feel about myself!”; “Geert Wilders is just misunderstood!”; “I’m thinking of incorporating astrology into my counselling work!”; “The women who accused Assange of rape work for the CIA!”; “People should be able to fuck pigs!”; “If some of this finite publication space wasn’t allocated to voice sentiments at odds with the IHEU minimum statement, why, that would be censorship!”; “Michael Shermer is so cool *swoon*.” You’ll never be free of this kind of stuff, anywhere, but you’d think you’d encounter a little less of it from people in spaces purposed to rational, humane, critical discussion.

So basically, if I up and leave the HSV, it’ll be a choice between asking the ACT Humanists or the Western Australian lot if they’ll have me, or seeing if an overseas IHEU affiliated body will accept my membership (I’m thinking Humanists UK). I’d just like to be able to settle down, and ease my way into meaningful involvement, digitally, without having to worry about how a community’s accumulation of alfoil may influence my WiFi signal.

***

Increasingly I’m finding it difficult to credit Australian Humanist societies with the ability or even intent to pursue Humanist objectives. There have been a few recent positives – such as the turn away from awarding the AHoY Award to rather obvious celebrity choices, and the CAHS website has been improved dramatically.

But the speed with which time and energy can just be diverted away from intelligent, purposeful discussion, in order to service petty defensiveness and entitled bunyip-feudalism is just so damn discouraging. Too many Australian Humanists seem far too insular, and far too many are accustomed to being flattered as if flattery were the whole point of Humanism. The moment that Humanists of good will attain a little political momentum, that momentum risks being either co-opted for the purposes of virtue signaling, or shut down entirely.

I’ll continue to consider my options, and will ask around in due course.

~ Bruce

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