Sunday, 27 January 2013

Notes from a Cemetery

To mark Holocaust Memorial Day, I thought I would post an assembly talk that I gave in school last year. 

Sunday 27th January is Holocaust Memorial Day, dedicated to the remembrance of victims of the Holocaust, the systematic, state sponsored murder of millions of people by the regime of Nazi Germany during World War Two.

The victims were predominantly Jews, but other also other groups, including gypsies, the disabled, Jehovah’s Witnesses, socialists, and homosexuals. What these groups had in common was that they all had no place in place in the world the Nazis wanted to build.
They were all different.

In April 2011, two of my students were given the opportunity to participate in the lessons from Auschwitz project, which included a day in Poland, to visit Auschwitz, the largest German concentration camp of World War Two, and I was privileged to be able to accompany them as a teacher. 

During our visit, we saw many things you might be familiar with from school lessons or from films – the barbed wire fences, the camp accommodation, the gas chambers, the personal possessions of the many people who died at the camp. 

But everybody takes something different from their visit to Auschwitz. And I’d like to talk to you about something we saw before we went to the camp, in the small Polish town of Oświęcim, which gave its name, in a Germanised form, to Auschwitz. It was something that almost every small town in the world has. Something many of you will walk past on your way to school. It was a cemetery. 

At first sight quite an ordinary cemetery. But the graves had Hebrew writing, and were decorated with Menorah, not the cross. 

The people buried there are not victims of the Holocaust, they died before the War. Something I hadn’t known until our visit is that before the War, Oświęcim had a thriving Jewish community of 8,000 people, over half the population of the town, and this was the Jewish Cemetery.

And in a way, the people buried there were the lucky ones. They were free to live, marry, have children. They grew old, they died, were buried and were mourned. The cemetery is a place of the dead, not a place of death. 

But although the people buried there were not murdered by the Nazis, the cemetery is still in its own way a witness to the Holocaust, to how far the Nazis went in their aim of destroying the Jewish people. For even dead Jews had no place in the world the Nazis, and during the war they demolished they graveyard, removed the headstones, and turned it into a storage depot. The cemetery was restored after the war, but nobody knew any longer which grave was which, and headstones and graves are now forever jumbled up. 

Today the graves are visited and looked after, not by the families of those buried there, but by travellers and volunteers from all over the world. The reason.....  In Europe six million of Europe’s nine million population of Jews population died during the holocaust – 2 in every 3 Jews. Before the war there were three million Polish Jews. Today, that figure is about three thousand. The rest were murdered or fled to other countries, never to return. And in Oświęcim, once home to a community of eight thousand, not a single Jew now remains. 

In History, we learn about crimes such as the Holocaust, there are three groups whose role we need to understand. The first is the perpetrators - those commit crimes. The second is their victims. But there is a third group, in a way more important than either of these, and this group we call the Bystanders – those who saw what was happening, but who did not speak out. We don’t usually think of history as being shaped by silence, but, as one of my favourite philosophers once wrote:

‘The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.’ 

The theme for Holocaust Memorial Day 2013 is communities. Today, please take a moment to remember those communities which were destroyed during the Holocaust, under Nazi Persecution and the subsequent genocides in Cambodia, Rwanda, Bosnia and Darfur.

Sunday, 20 January 2013

Confessions of a Denialist

A couple of days ago on Exploring Our Matrix (a blog I thoroughly recommend for RS students), James McGrath compared Jesus mythicists with those who spin conspiracy theories around the recent shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School. McGrath took a bit of a pasting from some commenters on his blog, who found the comparison offensive.

I have mixed feelings about McGrath’s post. Upon reflection, I think McGrath was wrong to use the tragedy to score a cheap point in an academic debate. However, I do I think McGrath’s argument is a valid one: some of the reasoning employed by mythicists could equally be (and indeed is) used to justify all sorts of marginal theories, including thoroughly unpleasant positions such as 9/11 trutherism and holocaust denial. At the same time, I think it needs to be made clear that pointing out that (for example) holocaust deniers and mythicists employ similar arguments, or that the two movements share other characteristics, does not imply that there is any moral equivalence between these positions.

I thought it might be useful then, to make a comparison between mythicism and a different form of denialism, one where I actually sympathise with the ideology that underpins it. As it happens, I think I’m in a reasonable place to be able to do this because something has recently dawned upon me: I used to be a denialist.

Let me explain. Some of you might know that I’m a vegetarian. These days I’m a fairly sloppy sort of vegetarian: I wear leather shoes, I don’t obsessively check food labels for suspect ingredients, and I occasionally enjoy the odd pint of bitter, even though it might contain extract of fish bladder. In my younger days though, I took it all much more seriously. I kept a strict vegan diet, pitched up at animal rights demos, and saved up my pennies to buy vegetarian DMs. Thinking back, I’m amazed that my friends and family put up with me for as long as they did, I must have been a terrible bore…

Like many vegetarians, I became interested the debate about the legitimacy of vivisection, the use of animals in medical experiments. In particular, I held a view, common among people who hold strong beliefs about animal rights, that scientific experiments on animals are not only morally unjustifiable, but also scientifically flawed.

A few days ago, I read an interesting blog post on some of the tactics used by denialists and noticed that the author listed the anti-vivisection movement as an example of denialism. And of course he was spot on. I’d never really thought about it before but there it was: I used to be a denialist. 

As with other forms of denialism, the position of anti-vivisection campaigners is completely opposed to the consensus position among medical researchers (i.e. that animals offer the best model of the human body when testing new medicines or procedures). As with other forms of denialism, anti-vivisectionists tend to focus on the problems with the scientific case for animal experiments (such as the case of thalidomide, where animal experiments failed to identify a risk to unborn children). As with other forms of denialism, prominent anti-vivisection authors often (though not invariably) lack relevant qualifications and expertise. As with other forms of denialism, these authors tend to appeal directly to the general public rather than participating in genuine academic discussion (via self-published books and leaflets; we didn’t have the internet in my day).

And as with other forms of denialism, anti-vivisectionists tend to share a strong ideology that is obviously closely related to the debated issue. So just as holocaust deniers are usually characterised by anti-semitic views, and mythicists tend to share a militant form of atheism, anti-vivisectionists almost invariably share a strong commitment to animal rights.

One of my students once asked me whether I thought that denialists arrive at their views on the basis of their ideology and then manipulate the evidence to support their views, or whether it was more likely that their ideology predisposed them to look at the evidence in a particular way, such that they arrived at a conclusion that supported the ideology. It’s an excellent question, and the answer is, I think, a little bit of both.

Of course, denialists reject the idea that ideology has anything to do with their views on the issue being debated, and in a sense I think they’re telling the truth. Certainly I genuinely thought that animal experiments were scientifically flawed, and I could have given you plenty of evidence why that was the case. I’d say I was pretty good at debating with people on the topic, even people with more obvious qualifications than mine.

What I think what is happening here is that a set of ideological beliefs is predisposing the denialist to interpret the evidence that favours their existing beliefs. However, once this has happened, I think perhaps this reading of the evidence strengthens the initial ideology. Once the evidence (or at least your reading of it) has persuaded you that animal experiments aren’t even good science, wouldn’t that make you more convinced that you were right in the first place that animals are misused by scientists? Similarly, once the evidence has persuaded you that the holocaust is a hoax arising out of a Jewish conspiracy, wouldn’t that confirm your anti-semitic worldview? And when the evidence has persuaded you that Jesus didn’t even exist, wouldn’t that make you more convinced that religion is a lie? And so, as the ideology is reinforced, a denialist’s reading of the evidence becomes ever more biased, and the ideology becomes more and more confirmed – a denialicious circle.

That’s why I think it’s almost impossible to confront almost any form of denialism on the basis of the evidence. Actually, I’ll clarify that: mainstream historians and scientists should certainly address the flaws and errors in the arguments of denialists, but it’s as well to recognise that you’re not going to change a denialist’s mind merely by pointing out that their reading of the evidence is wrong. Denialists will either ignore or gainsay any evidence that you put forward.

I suspect that the only way that most denialists will change their minds is by coming to see that there is something wrong with the underlying ideology, or at least that things are not quite as black and white as they appear. Certainly, nobody ever persuaded me on evidence grounds that I was wrong about vivisection. Actually I could still put up a pretty good fight in a debate if you feel like a row about it.  What happened was that as time passed I gradually became less vegangelical. I lapsed to being a regular vegetarian, stopped reading animal rights literature, and generally found other things to think about. As that happened, I think that gave me the intellectual space to re-think my perspectives.

So today, while I’m still uncomfortable with the idea of vivisection, I’ve come to accept that they are scientifically valid. It would be convenient for me if they weren’t, but they are. Perhaps a necessary part of becoming a mature thinking person is realising that the world does not always arrange itself to suit our beliefs.

Sunday, 6 January 2013

Virtue Ethics Key Word Games

Some more word games today, this time they are for the Virtue Ethics topic of the AQA A Level in Religious Studies.

You can download the games from here, or if you have a TES account, from here.

I've also previously uploaded vocab games for Religious Language and Psychology and Religion

Thursday, 3 January 2013

Psychology and Religion Key Word Games

I've uploaded a couple of word games you can use to build and revise your vocabulary for the Psychology and Religion topic of the AQA A Level in Religious Studies.

You can download the games from here, or if you have a TES account, from here.