Doom Propheteering

Contains discussion of death statistics that some people may find distressing.

Cheeseflick 2012 Chiwetel Ejiofor

Suddenly, the scientist bursts into the room and announces to the shocked townsfolk that a meteor, or an alien monster, or a terrible disaster is about to strike and everyone's lives are at risk! It is the rallying call to action that the heroes need, and those who do not listen to the science are doomed to die in the coming apocalypse. This classic element of early science fiction movies never went away - even in the last decade Hollywood released disaster movies with this implausible and wholly unscientific plot element in it. Consider, as one magnificently dreadful example, Roland Emmerich's 2012, in which the brilliant Chiwetel Ejiofor is utterly wasted as a geologist warning that a planetary alignment has destabilised the Earth's crust bringing certain doom in the form of every natural disaster that the CGI special effects team could render.

Yet of course, this entire tradition of the scientist as doom prophet is another manifestation of magical science, the mythological distortion of the complex work of the sciences into sheer wizardry. Authentic scientific work almost never uncovers such clear cut omens of disaster, and even when it does there are protracted (even boring) stages of discussion, disagreement, and diversification of research projects that takes place before anything can even be provisionally settled. This process typically reduces the warning flag from urgently critical to disappointingly vague - thus, the news that humanity had triggered the sixth major extinction event in the vastly long history of our planet became, once sanded-down through scientific discourse, the much less evocative, potentially misleading phenomenon named 'climate change'. I have never stopped reminding people that the climate aspect of our environmental catastrophe is very nearly the least significant aspect - but for reasons unknown, only this name travels, only this conveniently-disputable concept is permitted to occupy space in the news cycle...

If the legitimate work of scientists should not, in actuality, manifest as doom propheteering, we might ask what exactly can science tell us about death or disaster? In the context of 'death', the answer is 'enormous grisly details' - provided our interest is post-mortem biology, the psychology of grief, or the sociological aspects of dying. The field that has picked up the name 'thanatology' (death-science) expressly has these diverse interests. But what thanatologists cannot do is establish any meaningful position in relation to death. These meanings are up to cultures and individuals to establish either collectively or personally, for no science of any kind has the capacity to leap from studying a subject area to drawing a conclusion about what should or ought to be done without bringing in values that are not inherently scientific.

Yet there is a persistent illusion that this is not so, that a lone scientist can make a pronouncement in connection with death or disaster that carries the authority to issue commands in order to prevent the meteor striking or the apocalypse being unleashed - in other words, that scientists are indeed empowered to be doom prophets. As I reflected upon in The Power of No, Mary Midgley repeatedly stressed that our metaphysical devotion to the sciences permits bias to be smuggled in under the guise of technical expertise - hence there are great dangers whenever we think that the task of integrating scientific work into the political realm is just a matter of asking any arbitrary scientist what we should do. This is a problem that, from quite a different angle, has been much discussed by the French philosopher and sociologist Bruno Latour, and it is not easy to solve.

How do we encounter doom propheteering? It is not from the scientists themselves unless we too are a scientist, or at least engaged in the discourses of the sciences (and even then, the journal system forbids honest discussion unless we pretend to be something other than human animals). No, the scientists talk to journalists, who are always eager to find that story which cuts through the familiar into the sensational. Indeed, in the era of print newspapers it was widely acknowledged that fear sells, and in the era of online news the updated formula that fear generates clicks is fundamentally no different. Death and disaster are the lifeblood of the tabloid newspaper and its heirs, and even more so for the perpetual rolling news cycle, that ever-present circus where misrepresentation all too often masquerades as information.

What could be better for the ailing news industry than a chance to engage in doom propheteering...? But not, of course, on a topic that authentically matters, like the sixth extinction event we have caused and that will end us as a species if we do not take charge of the problem within the next few centuries. No, that's too dark; people don't want to read about that. Doom propheteering is akin to an armageddon cult in many respects: disaster should be just around the corner, but it must be preventable by certain rituals such that we can then be compelled into performing those rituals, which in doom propheteering involves somebody making money off the disaster. This, I might add, need not constitute a conspiracy theory - those who are partial to conspiratorial ways of thinking routinely overestimate the power and influence of elites, just as those who delight in denouncing conspiracy theorists routinely underestimate elite influence. Rather than a conspiracy, doom propheteering is merely the social dynamics of combining the fragmentary state of knowledge that exists in every live research topic with a profit-driven industry like the news whose toolbox includes a rapacious appetite for fear-mongering.

The trick to evoking fear, whether in fiction or non-fiction, is ambiguity. We must be uncertain in order to be afraid, and the best monster movies have traditionally concealed the monster for as long as possible in order to take advantage of the dread of the unknown we are all at risk from. But there must, of course, be signs of its presence. First and foremost, somebody must die. Not everybody, or the story is over (that's another reason why our home-made extinction event is only barely newsworthy). There must also be implications of threat - scratches on the windows, howls in the night, macabre blood tests that reveal who is infected... Fictionalised doom is a game about impending death; actual death is only a part of this game in so much as it serves to emphasise the idea that anyone could be next!

But this need for ambiguity in order to evoke fear has a surprising effect when it manifests through the news. Because once you have made people afraid in what passes for reality, there are no closing credits to come and tell the audience that the horror story is over and you can breath a sigh of cathartic release that the calamity didn't really happen. No, once you evoke fear in non-fiction, you provoke action. Thus when the news media stokes fears it directly or indirectly advances a political agenda, and almost always one that aligns with a commercial interest. For instance, when tabloid journalists write about immigrants 'stealing jobs' (usually without mentioning that these are the jobs nobody wants, like manual labour, or that never have enough applicants, like medical servitude), the editorial line will advance specific causes of action such as crackdowns on illegal immigration, calls for stronger identity paperwork, or a clean break from the regional political framework that was allowing our 'foreign' neighbours to take advantage of us, all of which bring money to some group that wouldn't have had it otherwise.

The combination of uncritical faith in magical science with the fear-mongering that is all but inherent to news media is a dangerous cocktail to drink - and this is especially so because when a legitimate scientific report (say, of a respiratory virus with high rates of transmission) collides with the near-automatic practices of doom propheteering in journalism, the result will be commitments to a specific way of thinking that then undermine the capacity for the sciences to operate, which is the state of pseudoscience par excellence. And this machine's gears lock together rather too tightly. A legitimate scientific concern becomes, through the words of journalists, a cause of panic, the panic requires decisive action to allay the fears evoked, and the decisive action - being politically fractious - destroys the conditions by which the original concern could be scientifically investigated. This cycle has happened repeatedly in the last half a century, although never as disastrously as in 2020.

An especially worrying aspect of 2020 was that doom propheteering was in no way constrained to the tabloids; even the supposedly-respectable broadsheet newspapers fell prey of it. In the UK, left-leaning news sources (perhaps because their staff were moderately science-literate) jumped on some of the early guesses as if they were dogmatic truth and thus fell almost completely into the state of pseudoscience, abandoning any willingness to report on the very real, very urgent ambiguities of the ongoing medical research. Meanwhile, some of the right-leaning news sources (quite beyond my expectations) became the sole places championing liberty and human rights, perhaps desperately trying to fill the ethical void created by the left's abandonment of its traditional post as the defenders of freedom. And almost no journalist whatsoever seemed able to conduct the core tasks this role traditionally entails: investigative journalism did not investigate, and the necessity of a context to every reported fact was apparently swiftly eliminated as a requirement in favour of maintaining a pernicious solidarity of half-truths at all costs.

Thus, for instance, the shocking situation whereby death statistics could be reported without any viable basis for comparison. I understand how journalists can write with compassion about the plight of families whose loved ones are on their death beds because of a nasty respiratory infection, but I cannot comprehend how they can do so without mentioning just how many other people have been dying from other tragic causes, even very similar causes that are mysteriously not even worth mentioning. Thus if somebody reports the grim news that more than a million people around the world died last year from such-and-such a cause, that sounds shocking and scandalous. But if that megadeath is caused by a respiratory disease and you do not mention that 3 million people die from these kinds of infections every year, that is doom propheteering and not journalism. It's barely worth me mentioning that nearly a million and a half people are killed by automobiles every year, because in the seven years I've been harping on about this entirely avoidable tragedy all I have encountered is denial and dismissal, and the fact that these deaths are wholly preventable via methods entailing far fewer social and health harms than any intervention attempted in 2020 never even makes it to the table for discussion. Doom propheteering is far more effective than evidence in every conceivable way, because manipulating our fear of death motivates us in ways that actual data on deaths or species extinctions cannot. It's sad that the Northern White Rhino just went extinct in the wild, but what can we do about that...?

Similarly, it sounds dreadful that deaths in the UK in 2020 were the worst they'd been since World War II. Surely that's an undeniable sign of ongoing doom! But this convenient soundbite referred to excess deaths (a measure of deaths over and above averaged mortality), and as the BBC correctly pointed out, once you take the age-standardised mortality into account, death rates in the UK were merely the worst they'd been since the 2000s. In actuality, if you look at the total number of people dying, deaths have exceeded those from any given year in World War II for every year since 1972, because of the growth in population. Not to mention that, quite counter-intuitively, the proportion of British citizens who died in the Second World War was far lower than people tend to think. From 1939 to 1945, the death rate in the UK was between 1.21% and 1.46% of its population. Last year, it was 1.02%, up (by one tenth of a percent) from the 0.89% average over the 2010s, and slightly up (by one twentieth of a percent) from the average death rate in the 2000s of 0.97%.

What's more, even acknowledging all these complexities will fail to take into account that excess mortality in 2020 included a significant number of deaths attributable to the lockdowns, especially middle aged people who died at home from heart disease, a topic British journalists have been especially gun-shy about mentioning. To question how SARS-CoV2 has been reported is not to deny that this is a terrible virus, nor to suggest that no action should have been taken... it is merely to admit an unavoidable concern that the reporting on this topic caused more harm than good. The news services have somehow maintained the dogmatic view that the actions we have been taking are about 'saving lives', even while they cost people both their lives and their livelihoods. Apparently, we are now so afraid of dying that even monstrous curtailments of liberty can be enacted as long as we say they are intended to save lives. It is a painful reminder that while in World War II liberty was prized above life, in 2021 the priority of these goods is now sadly reversed.

After reading Latour's Politics of Nature, I was quite won over by his arguments and concerns about the difficulties of bringing the sciences into a productive discourse with politics. Yet it is only over the last year that I have lost my reservations in suggesting that the problem might not be so much with politics as with journalism. That's because the news media has almost all the power when it comes to the mobilisation (or neutralisation) of the electorate, and politicians largely respond to the electorate since they lack the courage to actively lead them in any tangible sense. The journalists themselves often seem to intentionally ignore this power they collectively wield, perhaps taking it on faith that their professional ethics purifies what is published of all sin (for the broadsheets), or else (for the tabloids) taking a jaded view whereby there is nothing they can do about the way things are so they might as well toe the editorial line and draw a paycheque at the end of the month.

Meanwhile, scientists - as nerds like myself - are generally so delighted that anybody is interested in their research that they gladly go on record with any journalist, without almost a moment's thought about what that might trigger in terms of misconceptions or outright misrepresentation of what they have to say. The idea that the sciences are value-neutral (which I have already exposed as nonsense) sometimes fools scientists into believing they do not need to take responsibility for the presentation of their research in the media... this is not so. Rather, the risk Midgley warned about - smuggling political values under the flag of scientific neutrality - becomes all the more urgent the greater the chance that news media can engage in doom propheteering with what is being reported. In this regard, a journalist who propagates bias out of their zeal for science is potentially more dangerous than one who inflates a crisis for dramatic effect, since they are far less likely to ever admit that they have acted recklessly.

In the movies, the ultimate fate of the doom prophet scientist varies.... sometimes they provide a means of escape or victory but have to sacrifice themselves for it to work; sometimes they fall prey of the threat they warned about; sometimes, as with 2012, they are even allowed to live to see a happy ending. In the world around us, however, doom propheteering almost always follows the same path. If the scientists involved are few in number and are shown to be wrong, they will suffer censor or career-ending derision; if there are many, the matter becomes closed for discussion with a mere shrug and a meek admission that the research moves on. Yet the journalists who opportunistically elevate always-ambiguous research into prophecies of doom are insulated from any consequence save minimalist retractions of factual inaccuracy, tucked away in a corner of a page somewhere. I fully expect that the vast majority of journalists will remain resolute that their actions 2020 in were right and necessary, despite having zealously championed bantamweight tyranny under the banner of public health while fatally undermining the capacity for medical science to actually serve the goals of public health in any honest capacity.

I find it hard to contemplate the behaviour of British journalists over the last year and square it against the idea that these are the actions of a free press. Either the journalists have been prevented from doing their jobs by an editorial line that required them to align with government dogma, even while the government's position diverged ever further from what the research communities were still debating (in which case they were not free), or else the journalists of their own volition decided to act in this way (in which case I question whether they can be considered press rather than, say, propagandists). A free press may well be a necessary cornerstone for a free society, as it is sometimes argued. But if so, we no longer have a free society, because it seems that we do not have a free press. The journalist as a defender of justice and a seeker of truth is an ideal worth defending, and we urgently need journalists who can live up to this image right now. What we have instead is the toxic purveyor of fear that is the true face of the doom propheteer.

A Magisterium for Science

Pope Peter Rabbit"I believe in free speech," goes an archetypical conversation I sometimes have in the pub with people largely outside of any religious tradition, "but people shouldn't reject vaccination/evolution/science etc." Oh dear, I think to myself... how do I unpick this knot without offending them? Because these apparently innocuous statements run perilously close to saying "democracy is great, but I prefer theocracy". How can this possibly be...?

For more or less anyone reading this, theocracy will seem like the worst possible form of government. Indeed, a great deal of the tacit hostility that some today hold for the Catholic Church lies in the rejection of the idea that anyone should be placed in a position of arbiter of the truth, and thus in hostility towards theocracy, broadly construed. This is sometimes expressed in a conceptual rejection of the Catholic pope, as Trey Parker and Matt Stone did in their hilariously blasphemous South Park episode "Fantastic Easter Special", which ends with a rabbit being appointed pope and the claim that this was what God had always intended. This episode really interested me, as I believe it successfully captures Protestant Christians' prejudice against Catholics, from which the so-called "New Atheist" movement descended (all the prominent New Atheists began by rejecting Protestant Christianity, then expanded their dismissal until it encompassed all world religions). A similar theme also manifests in the Principia Discordia, the sacred book of the Discordian Society, which also aligns with elements of Protestant theology against Catholic theology, while softening the hard edges by cross-breeding (rather productively) with those schools of Zen Buddhism that embrace absurdity as a path to wisdom.

In Catholic parlance, the term 'theocracy' is seldom if ever used (although Vatican City can be understood as a theocratic nation - albeit a rather small one!). The official term for the authority of the Vatican is 'magisterium', meaning 'power of the office of magister', where 'magister' is Latin for 'master'. The magisterium is understood as the capacity of the pope and the bishops to render a judgement on the authentic interpretation of the Word of God, taken both in the sense of establishing an official interpretation to scriptural texts but more importantly in terms of guiding traditional practice, which encompasses an extremely broad range of human activities. Thus, when Pope Francis endorsed the idea in 2016 that Catholic churches could offer the sacraments to divorced Catholics (a controversial suggestion in some quarters!), he was exercising his official role in the magisterium.

The term was applied outside of Catholicism in 1997, when the brilliant evolutionary essayist Stephen Jay Gould proposed that the alleged conflict between science and religion could be resolved by asserting 'non-overlapping magisteria' (NOMA). His proposal was to assign dominion over facts to the sciences, while religions (and non-religions) would have separate dominion over values. Gould's use of the term 'magisterium' was borrowed directly from Catholic parlance; as a palaeontologist coming from a Jewish family in New York, where 60% of the population is Catholic (and only 10% Protestant), he would have been quite familiar with Catholic terminology and thought. This proposal did not go down particularly well - those who would go on to align with the New Atheist movement unilaterally replied that there was no need for such a principle because science could claim authority over everything and there was thus no need to make concessions. In such situations, 'religion' is being rejected not over the idea of asserting a magisterium, but merely because the wrong magisterium is being asserted. 

This is roughly where I see the problem with my friends in the pub claiming to support free speech, but placing its limit on topics that they consider to have been scientifically resolved, and thus beyond dispute. This position implies a magisterium of science, and in the same way that the presence of a magisterium in Catholic tradition implies a theocracy, any time someone unthinkingly singles out a scientific topic for special status (vaccination and evolution are by far the most common), they are also requesting or expecting something similar, if only implicitly. For it is solely in the presence of a magisterium of some kind that there could be authority to adjudicate what is or is not permitted as an absolute matter. The law, after all, is free to change when the people require it; only a magisterium is beyond dispute.

I think back to a very good friend of mine expounding his outrage in respect of a Creationist Museum somewhere in the United States that he had heard about. And I found this odd, because it sounded very amusing to me, and I could not see any legitimate cause for indignation here. "But it's not true," was his retort. But so what? It's not true that there is an inherent goodness to humanity, but I still choose to believe it, and if we are defenders of the so-called free society (and always assuming such a thing still exists) we should be able to accept that at least some of the things others believe are 'not true'. It seemed to me that a Creationist Museum was hardly likely to change anyone's opinion about anything, which means even if we accept that it's 'not true', the expected harms of such an establishment are rather limited.

Besides, who are we to call out other people's nonsense and not our own...? I have yet to meet a human who does not harbour strange non-testable beliefs of some kind, and I am perfectly happy for this situation to persist - because the alternative can only be a theocracy of some kind, or rather, I suppose atheocracy, in that it has become very possible to compose the kind of metaphysically-justified autocracy without any concept of deities. Besides, we make a mistake when we associate religions exclusively with positive theology (a concept of God or gods), since we are singling out just one aspect of the immense diversity of religious experiences and making it central. This is not entirely surprising, however. Christianity and Islam were too successful at making a theology of truth versus falsehood central to our thought via the creation and maintenance of libraries over a span of millennia. We never lost this habit of thought, we just switched from from theology to atheology and from libraries to corporate-managed online repositories while also ceasing to notice the change entirely

The idea that truth is singular and that deviation from it is abhorrent is an artefact of the monotheistic religions that has been inherited by those who place their faith in 'science', as Nietzsche shrewdly pointed out in 1882. This desire for a magisterium for science is far more widespread than we tend to admit. Consider the political questions that have continued to erupt over gender and sex for the entire duration of the feminist movement (which is to say, since at least Mary Wollstencroft in the latter half of the 18th century). Feminists largely managed to avoid calls for anything like a magisterium on gender up until the end of the twentieth century. After this, the number of non-testable beliefs about gender required to meet everyone's emotional needs ballooned beyond any reasonable expectation. Problematically, tolerance between these different metaphysical conceptions has been extremely limited - remind you of anything? I can't be the only person who thinks that offensive labels like 'TERF' or the 'trans cult' are oddly resonant of older insults like 'heretic' and 'infidel' that came from others who were rather too certain about their beliefs...

No-one should be subjected to the arbitrary beliefs of others, and it does not matter to me one jot whether those beliefs are about God, or gender, or flying spaghetti monsters. However, quite unlike the South Park creators, I don't find a rabbit a desirable replacement for a human Catholic pope, especially one with such an uncommon passion for the oft-forgotten humility of the Christian tradition as Pope Francis. It rather seems to me that the problems with the Protestant Christian traditions I was raised in emerge precisely from the consequences of deciding that a rabbit would indeed be better than a human as a pope. As a Discordian, the absurdity amuses me; as a Christian, I am less convinced. The Catholic church may lag behind the western zeitgeist by about a century but it does eventually change its mind, whereas certain Protestant Christians seem to have an almost negligible possibility of changing their mind under any circumstances! Frankly, they are far from alone in this...

Here I should like to note that the Discordians have a different and altogether more hilarious conception of what it is to be a pope. In a move clearly inspired by the Protestant philosophy of the Enlightenment, Discordians claim that every human is a pope, and some Discordians like to give out 'pope cards' to certify people as such. Indeed, I was ordained as a Discordian pope by Robert Anton Wilson in the late 1990s, which sounds impressive but really is not, since there is no Discordian magisterium and if there were, Wilson would have excommunicated himself. The followers of this religion are almost universally anti-magisterium, and I hope that most if not all of my fellow Discordians would have the sense to never be caught arguing for a magisterium of science, although the golden rule of the followers of Eris is that "we Discordians should stick apart". As such, Paul Feyerabend's adage for capturing the realities of scientific practice, "anything goes!", applies far better to Discordians than to scientists, where suggesting that 'anything goes' is widely considered tantamount to blasphemy.

And here lies the awful truth of the idea that we can claim to be a supporter of free speech but place its limits at some scientific point of reference: the emotional framework that makes this possible is directly parallel with that of blasphemy. This word, after all, is only the name we have given cognitive dissonance when it occurs within a religious context. We must already have determined a necessary truth in order to wish to prevent dissemination of alternative views, and this implies that we secretly desire a scientific magisterium, the rejection of which would be tantamount to blaspheming. Yet free speech depends upon an absence of limitations, with the sole exception being the one proposed by Immanuel Kant: that we should only enact limitations upon freedom where they are necessary to protect a like freedom for others. It requires a real commitment to liberty for people to negotiate how to achieve such a balance, and alas for the most part we have decided not to bother.

Besides, why worry about being free to speak when the social media giants of Facebook, Twitter, et al. and the search engine giants of Google, Baidu, et al. have conveniently provided their own magisterium of thought for us? Watch them with amazement as they merrily adjust search results and the relative visibility of what different people are saying, choosing on the one hand what should be read first, and on the other hand pronouncing which blasphemies must never be heard. Habemas papam, Cyberpope Google I...? I shudder to think. It is situations like this that ought to provoke the outrage my friend felt for a mostly harmless 'museum of ignorance'. Yet we apparently accept this gerrymandering of information without concern - some of our neighbours even advocate for this censorship, as the example from the pub at the opening of this piece foreshadowed!

When I first starting thinking about 'science popes' and a magisterium for science - always in opposition of any such concept! - my concern was that there would come some kind of attempt to create a Council of Scientists that could attempt to act as magister and offer declarations of what was or was not scientifically valid and therefore permitted to be enforced. Then came 2020, when the World Health Organisation - to its own great distress! - found itself unwittingly appointed to this role in a new and disturbing medical magisterium that spread into almost every world government and swiftly ran out of anyone's control. The topics upon which adjudication was demanded rapidly and inevitably fell into that state of pseudoscience whereby disagreement was not permitted (and thus the sciences cease to function), and the medical magisterium that we collectively instituted immediately undermined its own credentials in a manner rather parallel to the idea that a rabbit would make a better pope. I will not say that a rabbit would have made a good replacement for the WHO, only that the WHO struggled to fulfil its role scientifically while it was also expected to act as magister.

It is an admirable thing to stand up for public health and say "what can I do to help?" It is far more problematic to stand up and demand that everyone must satisfy your chosen vision of public health. In a democracy, any such claim is valid solely while it is has the support of the people, and if we propose any intervention on scientific grounds (where the people may have to take it on trust that we are not mistaken), those acting must at all times be ready both to absorb any new evidence, and to remain open to even the most difficult debates about what it all means (which is never a scientific judgement). We are no doubt emotionally secure in our support for science, but it remains to be seen if we are intellectually secure in our support for the sciences. The test for this is whether we are indeed open to new evidence... whenever you no longer need to test your own claims because you know in advance that you are correct, it makes little sense to assert that what you are doing is 'scientific': you are just playing at magister.

We have a choice to make, between free scientific enquiry and a magisterium of science. Yet there is no viable magisterium of science that will not swiftly become an abomination, since it is only because scientists are free in their enquiries that they gain their cybernetically-enhanced power to secure whatever limited truths are available via various research methods. Without debate there can be no legitimate science of any kind, and since a magisterium of science necessarily declares an authorised truth to enforce it could never be scientific. Rather, these kinds of atheology (like so many brutal monotheisms before them) rest upon an ideological claim to a complete and final knowledge - a rather ugly conception that might truly deserve the name 'anti-science'. Inevitably, every attempt at a magisterium of science prevents discussion and therefore unleashes the state of pseudoscience where free research is impossible, thus destroying the very conditions for enquiry that make scientific methods effective.

Perhaps, if you have read this far, you have nodded sagely to everything I've said and thought it obvious. Yet the moment you step away from this train of thought, you will encounter the anti-vaxxers or the pro-maskers, the Creationists or the militant atheists, the 'TERFs' or the 'trans cult' or whatever else it might happen to be that throws you into a blind seething rage. And when you do, won't you still experience that powerful emotional upheaval that comes with encountering blasphemy...? Underneath it all, our desire for a truth that we can depend upon is entirely human, and the Catholic church's stumbling towards hopes of a good life via its magisterium are only one expression of our unquenchable desire for secure foundations to truth. The Catholic pope these days always has the moral defence that the magisterium of the Vatican applies solely to those of the Catholic faith. A magisterium for science demands more: it demands obedience from us all, and a silencing of all objections. This is not, and can never be, scientific, no matter what claims it defends, no matter what motives it evokes. This is the ghastly confusion at the heart of the terrible events of 2020. Yet all it would take to bring this mistake to an end is the restoration of free scientific discourse, of listening once more to all we have refused to listen to. If only any of us knew how we could go back to doing that.

The Power of No

The Four Oxford Moral PhilosophersPerhaps more than any other twentieth century philosopher, the late Mary Midgley understood that there were great conceptual misunderstandings emerging out of the deep commitments to the power of scientific thinking that began in the nineteenth century. She remarked that this confusion had permitted bias to be "smuggled in as if it were a technical matter only accessible to experts" - a warning written in 2003 that captures a great deal of what went wrong in 2020.

This extended role for the sciences where they are taken to possess an authority that could in itself never be scientific flows from the mythos of magical science I discussed back in January, and it is an entirely contemporary problem - indeed, I rather suspect it is the essential contemporary problem, of which others such as the environmental crisis (euphemistically concealed by talk of 'climate change') are only shadows and reflections. It is because so many have emotionally invested in the power of science, while so few have intellectually invested in understanding the intricacies of the actual workings of the sciences, that we find ourselves in strange places where nobody can say 'no' to even a ghastly mistake provided it is made in the 'name' of science.

To be responsible in relation to the work of the sciences, then, requires a certain vigilance to ensure that what we are doing when we invoke terms like 'scientific research' or phases like 'the science says' or 'scientists increasingly believe' is accurately reporting the state of research programmes, and not mistaking the findings of scientific research (which are always provisional) with specific doctrines that are neither a requirement for, nor a part of, the work of the sciences. As Midgley warned of such philosophical smuggling, a great deal of so-called 'anti-science' positions are reacting to these imported ideologies rather than the research programmes that are truly the activities central to scientific work. This is not only problematic because of the way it complicates all attempts to share scientific perspectives more widely, but also because these unnoticed doctrines "import irrelevant, inhuman standards into non-scientific aspects of life and lead people to neglect the relevant ones."

No philosopher has had greater influence upon me than Midgley, and this is not only because she was my first (and for a long time, my only) philosophical correspondent. I have always aspired towards - and all too often failed to reach - the clarity of language that Midgley was able to bring to bear on quite complex problems in her always-excellent books. For her, as she said to me in the interview I ran back in 2010, specialist terminology such as can be found in the work of the German philosopher Martin Heidegger "runs counter to my deep identification with everyday speech", and the essence of her work in philosophy was always written in a way that makes her far easier to read than Kant, or Wittgenstein, or any of the other staples of modern philosophy. Since I believe any philosophy excised from a general readership has sealed its own doom, I have always considered Midgley's philosophical methods exemplars for what a philosopher ought to be.

When it comes to my own work in philosophy of science, Midgley is more than just an influence, she is the foundation of my thinking. Again and again, she was able to return to the problems springing from the persistent illusion that a pronouncement made by a scientist carries with it an almost magical power to authorise (or de-authorise) certain actions. Yet this authority is not scientific, but metaphysical (non-testable); it is a faith of a very specific kind, and one that tends towards the same blindness that all human thinking is prone to: of excluding ourselves from consideration when it comes to the errors of thought we can see quite clearly in others. It is the clarity of her understanding of this point, and many others related to it, that makes Midgley the essential guide to the broader philosophical problems of the sciences.

Midgley was part of an exceptional group of four female philosophers who studied at Oxford University during the Second World War - from left to right in the photo above, Philippa Foot, Mary Midgley, Elizabeth Anscombe, and Iris Murdoch. Indeed, in my correspondence with Midgley while she was with us, she still could not resist calling one of her former classmates 'P Foot' in a way that felt like an in-joke from decades past. Recently, attention has finally been paid to these four astonishing women philosophers, a recognition that was long overdue - and there is even a certain gathering momentum to recognise them as collectively representing a movement. Rachael Wiseman tentatively suggests 'uncommon sense realism' or 'depictive metaphysics' as names for this philosophical school... I do not think these names will stick, but they are a solid attempt to capture the commonalities of these four astonishing thinkers.

Midgley associated the perspective shared by these four philosophers with the collective issuing of a resounding "No!" to the ethical currents of the early twentieth century. Writing in 2017, she remarked:

Did that make us four into a Philosophical School?

This is a loose term, but the point is worth discussing. We did not at once become a 4-headed unanimous squad of prophets. We each followed our own diverging paths in various directions. But what, for me, makes the unanimity-story still important is a persisting memory of the four of us sitting in Philippa’s front room and doing our collective best to answer the orthodoxies of the day, which we all saw as disastrous. As with many philosophical schools, the starting-point was a joint 'NO!'. No (that is) at once to divorcing Facts from Values, and – after a bit more preparation – also No to splitting mind off from matter. From this, a lot of metaphysical consequences would follow.

These two elements of the prevailing dogma that Midgley singled out are important because they do indeed frame both the significance of these four philosophers and the disastrous trajectory of the twentieth century, from which we are still reaping ever more grotesque fruit.

The split of mind from matter is taken as rejection of Descartes' philosophy, but as I've discussed many times previously, it is actually a perverse commitment to it. Whereas Descartes sought to demonstrate the necessity of treating mind as distinct from matter, today we are committed to the same framework yet inverted, such that we now agree wholeheartedly with Descartes' cleaving of existence - but only in so much as it allows us to make 'matter' (and not mind) the important side of the equation. The power of No had to be placed against this because in reducing who we are as beings to merely the action of molecules, we simultaneously created an illusion of humanity (indeed, of all animals) as merely mechanistic machines, and fatally undermined the conditions for understanding what a good life might be.

Relatedly, and perhaps more importantly, the attempt to divorce facts from values - a mistake that the Scottish philosopher David Hulme made in 1740 and then unsuccessfully retracted in 1758 - is perhaps the pivotal error of the twentieth century, from which so many other philosophical disasters have flowed. This is a mistake imported from moral philosophy, but the consequences of making it have bled out into everything, and especially into philosophy of science. Indeed, as the opening piece to this current philosophical 'campaign' already observed, the confused idea that the sciences can be 'value-free', from which the wilfully ignorant state of pseudoscience flows, emanates precisely from this horrible misunderstanding of both facts and values, to which the power of No had to stand up in opposition.

It is worth reflecting upon the contributions of Midgley's three friends at Oxford, and how they relate to this resistance against the orthodox philosophy of mid-twentieth century Europe. Elizabeth Anscombe is sadly most famous for being Wittgenstein's student, and although that connection with Wittgenstein is important (as Midgley attests) it is worth noting that the four philosophers rarely saw him, even though his ground-breaking philosophical work was instrumental to developing their ways of thinking about the world. Midgley speaks of how Anscombe handed out loose-leaf bundles of papers containing Wittgenstein's notes (what are now called 'the Blue and Brown Books', and would go on to become Philosophical Investigations and On Certainty)... it is hard not to be slightly envious of this chance to be personally connected to what would prove to be the most influential work of twentieth century philosophy. (Heidegger's Being and Time - the likely contender to this dubious crown - is read solely by philosophers; Wittgenstein, on the other hand, was also taken up by psychologists, a rare honour for any philosopher!)

Anscombe, alas, had the misfortune of being too overtly influenced by her Catholicism, and thus was too easily dismissed by the philosophical establishment. Academic philosophy has tended to treat religious commitments as something that can be overlooked as an indulgence in men (it is routinely overlooked for Wittgenstein, for instance, despite its central place in his work as a philosopher), yet it is almost always perceived as a fatal flaw in women, for whom the path to being taken seriously was (and perhaps still is) to act and think as much like a man as possible. Nonetheless, Anscombe's paper "Modern Moral Philosophy" is perhaps the single most important critique of consequentialism ever written. This term 'consequentialism' marks the belief that what matters beyond everything else in our ethics are outcomes, and this specific name was invented by Anscombe and is still widely used by philosophers today - generally without even a passing reference to her work! She remarks of this narrow focus upon outcomes that this approach...

...leads to its being quite impossible to estimate the badness of an action except in the light of expected consequences. But if so, then you must estimate the badness in the light of the consequences you expect; and so it will follow that you can exculpate yourself from the actual consequences of the most disgraceful actions, as long as you can make out a case for not having foreseen them.

A more apposite summary of the disaster that was 2020 I have not seen.

Philippa Foot is known for being the creator of so-called 'trolley problems', and in an irony that is now so common that it will not raise any eyebrows whatsoever, her purposes in using these thought experiments was diametrically opposed to how they are now used today. As I have written about in Chaos Ethics and elsewhere, trolley problems have come to be deployed as a convenient way of fooling people into accepting consequentialist thinking as necessary by making the truths of mathematics seem to possess moral rather than merely logical truth, and thus a means of luring people into acting and thinking atrociously (as Anscombe clearly warned would happen, and as was already happening in the early years of the twentieth century). Foot could not possibly be blamed for this absurd misuse of her toolbox, and the lack of attention to her work in moral philosophy is unfortunate, since she insightfully engaged with the attempt to divorce facts from values in ways that are still well worth reading. I have been particularly struck by her concept that injustice can be understood as a kind of injury, and therefore we have rational reasons to avoid injustice - another idea that bears gainfully upon many of the grim events of 2020.

Iris Murdoch had the fortune or misfortune (depending upon how you wish to view the matter) of having succeeded in writing excellent novels, and therefore of enjoying critical and indeed commercial success - she even scored a 'Dame' in the Queen's 1987 honours list, something no other philosopher has ever achieved. This has allowed Murdoch's philosophical thinking to be roundly ignored, since novels are deemed too frivolous a form for philosophising; even Jean-Paul Sartre and Albert Camus are only grudgingly accepted as philosophers these days, having chosen novels over treatises. The idea that a contemporary academic philosopher would choose a novel as their preferred medium is one that doesn't even need scoffing at - despite the self-evident fact that writing a novel allows philosophical concepts to propagate far more effectively than writing a series of impenetrable arguments for echo chamber journals.

Since she never developed any explicit moral theory, attempts to summarise her position will always be a simplification - although as the case of Philippa Foot demonstrates, explicit theorising is in fact no defence against this either. However, her collection of essays, The Sovereignty of Good, does provide an outstanding skeleton key for understanding Murdoch's moral philosophy:

The self, the place where we live, is a place of illusion. Goodness is connected with the attempt to see the unself, to see and to respond to the real world in the light of a virtuous consciousness. This is the non-metaphysical meaning of the idea of transcendence to which philosophers have so constantly resorted in their explanations of goodness. 'Good is a transcendent reality' means that virtue is the attempt to pierce the veil of selfish consciousness and join the world as it really is. It is an empirical fact about human nature that this attempt cannot be entirely successful.

Murdoch's intuition that there was an irreducible plurality to the moral 'fields of force' hinged upon the idea that there is a sense of unity haunting our thinking about ethics, and followed Plato in naming this unity 'good'. She too used the power of No that the four philosophers unleashed to tackle the crises they jointly perceived. But she did so through the methods of the arts because she believed, with good reason, that this was an approach with the capacity to wield the greatest influence. I hope and trust that through her novels she did in fact attain precisely what she set out to achieve.

As the twentieth century ended, the power of No has been increasingly taken up as a feminine power. The phrase "No means no" has become a commonplace, the meaning of which is that consent must necessarily be explicit because the risks of implying consent are too terrible to permit. Sadly, this is often meant to apply solely in the context of rape, since in truth the confused idea that we can consent to that which we are vocally objecting to has equal application in politics, whereby consent is all too often assumed to have been implied merely by election, and therefore that democracy is solely about choosing who should wield power and not about perpetually solving the recurring problem of how we should all live together.

But if I leave this discussion of the power of No and the four extraordinary women who choose to wield their philosophy under this unstated banner at this point, it will only further the feminist stereotype that women want to undermine and destroy. And this is a terrible misrepresentation not only of women and feminists, but also of what Midgley, Anscombe, Foot, and Murdoch strove towards. It will foreground their opposition to philosophical orthodoxy and not what they were seeking to defend. For the true power of No is not in denial but in resistance, and all effective resistance is grounded in defence of the good, however that needs to be construed.

The four Oxford moral philosophers represented a defence of the good life as it had been articulated by the ghosts of philosophy past, and as it had yet to be articulated in the spirit of philosophy yet to come. They unleashed the power of No in order to resist attempts to simplify, obfuscate, and distort the nature of human existence and the moral decisions consequent upon it. Of the four, only Midgley took on this vital struggle upon the battleground of philosophy of science, and if I have tended to favour her work it is almost certainly because my own conflicted and tortured relationship with the sciences - which I love and therefore recoil in horror when they are distorted, yet also fear because the vision we have unthinkingly chosen for them flirts so blatantly with catastrophe.

Midgley saw with immense clarity the way that non-scientific dogmas and orthodoxies could corrupt and undermine the work of the sciences, and sited that discussion directly in the alleged conflict between science and religion because she understood, with an insight that far outstrips any of her contemporaries, the immense danger of this artificial split, which mirrors the misguided split between facts and values or between mind and matter. To claim facts and matter 'for science' is to attempt to subjugate values and mind, and therefore to gut democracy, freedom, and indeed truth. It reduces the sciences to dogmatic caricatures of their true beauty and worth, and affords to anyone willing to wield this tainted sceptre of "following the science" an authority they neither truly possess nor justly deserve. Tied up in this mistake is the demonisation of religion as 'anti-science' - rather than, as history shows us, giving birth to every science as we now understand this term. It is perhaps the quintessential mistake made by those who claim to love science, yet who deceive themselves by falling prey of what Murdoch warns we are all deceived by: ourselves.

Against any and all such attempts to flatten and oppress the beauty of human existence we can and must join together in raising up the power of No, again, again, and ever again, unceasingly, if we are to have any hope of defending what is good in this world. When we stop, when we decide that we should let injustice that has been misrepresented as necessity, or bias that has been misrepresented as unchallengeable truth, happen without resistance - whatever good reason we may claim for doing so - we betray the efforts of all those who came before us and cleared the way for us all to try to make a good life together. In this neverending project, these four women will be our invaluable allies, if only we are willing to listen to the immense and incalculable wisdom they have bequeathed to us.

Unattributed Mary Midgley quotes in this piece are from her 2003 book, The Myths we Live By.

Coming Up

Frankenstein LabA week from today, Act II of the Philosophy of Science 'campaign' will resume... I've realised at this point that the name of this particular adventure is The Magical Science Campaign, since its theme is precisely the disparity between people's feelings about the sciences and the actual practices of scientists. I started out thinking this was a mini-campaign, but it's clear at this point that it is a fully-fledged epic like the Metaphysics Campaign and the Ethics Campaign before it.

In this second Act, we will begin by exploring the greatest philosophical resistance movement of our time, the Four Oxford Moral Philosophers, then we'll venture forth to explore relationships between the sciences and other aspects of the human experience - specifically religion, journalism, and ultimately, death. From providing a framework of the problem (the state of pseudoscience, and the way magical science can trigger that collapse of scientific practice), these pieces confront some of the symptoms of the current epistemic crisis and perhaps also illuminate some of its causes too.

The Game resumes in earnest next Tuesday.

Coming Out

Contains confessions that some people might find confusing, insulting, or misconstrue as a joke, as well as the implication of a strong swear word.

I Want To Break Free"I want to break free" exclaimed Freddie Mercury in 1984, as his band mates nervously play along with his cross-dressing music video extravaganza. Don't we all, dear Freddie! And it feels like it might indeed be time for me to break free and come out... but come out as what? Christian, Discordian, drug-user, autistic, trans, bisexual, straight - so many options! Let's consider my choices.

It always felt like a big deal for me to come out as a drug-user - it was one of the reasons I was most nervous about publishing Chaos Ethics. Friends told me I was worrying unduly, I suppose because from their perspective this was no biggie. After all, a huge volume of entertainment media originating from the United States glorifies and revels in drug-taking, and has done for decades. Not to mention that the US exports vast quantities of mind-altering drugs like methylphenidate/Ritalin and fluoxetine/Prozac that have been conveniently labelled 'medicinal', and therefore legitimate for taxation. Still, of all the things I've already come out about, this one was the hardest for me, the one that most felt like 'coming out' in the way that gay people coming out in the late twentieth century meant the term - as confessing something intimate about myself that others would judge, or even persecute me for. Of all the things I've come out about over the years, this one was by far the most difficult for me, and in part because of my Christian childhood.

I suppose that's another option - come out as Christian - but there's not much point in this any more, since it's quite well-known that I identify as a Zen Sufi Hindu Christian Discordian, and of those five religions that I practice (often badly) coming out as Christian is the only thing that would have any impact, and I've been that all my life. Indeed, I already had to come out as a Christian when I was in my early teens, one of only three children in my rural Middle School in the backwaters of Great Britain to identify openly as Christian, to sing hymns in assembly loudly and proudly while the entirety of the rest of the school children flatly refused and giggled into their hands about me, singing alone...

Perhaps it is hard for folks in the United States to appreciate how difficult it was for me to stand up and be counted for what was in my heart while in middle school and high school, because they are so used to the relationship between Christian and atheist being the reverse of what it was for me in a provincial school in England in the early 1980s. After all, my future wife's high school experiences in Tennessee were the inverse of mine, taking flak from her classmates for not being Christian enough, as if that sentence were not in itself utterly self-contradictory! But nobody these days thinks Christians rational, which is ironic since our entire concept of what it means to be rational is grounded in Christian thought.

Or I could come out as the Acting Omnibenevolent Polyfather of the Virginity in Gold, and thus the worldwide head of the Discordian Society. But I already came out as this during my years living in London, a time when I rejected my Christianity as foolish nonsense and so embraced a religion that was foolish nonsense by design. But honestly, nobody cares about this, and they'd care even less about my Zen Buddhism that bridged the gap between the two, my Hindu theology that finally resolved all my problems with Christian theology, or my acceptance of the Sufi teachings as to the underlying unity of all authentic religious practice. And if no-one is shocked or (equivalently) proud of me for coming out as Discordian, if I can't inspire somebody else to have the courage to stand up as a Discordian, is there really any point in doing so...?

I suppose I could come out over some mental health issue. But I'm pretty sure I've already discussed my cyclothymia (a mild form of bipolar disorder) here on this blog, and that's the only diagnosis I have, and you can't come out on mental health if you don't have a diagnosis, such is the power of doctors in the eyes of my contemporaries. What I really ought to do if I was going to come out over mental health issues is to come out as autistic, since clearly the state of that diagnostic category is now sufficiently broad to accept me. Yet I don't have a diagnosis for any such condition and, worse, I actively resist attaining that diagnosis - and not because I'm ashamed of the obvious fact that I could indeed be placed on the autistic spectrum. On the contrary, I have such love and respect for the autistic people in my life I could never possibly feel any shame for being like them. It's just that I cannot truly understand or appreciate this situation where a doctor is a requirement for admitting or discovering who you are. It's why I did not pursue the process of diagnosis any further, even though the doctor who diagnosed my cyclothymia wanted me to do so. I don't want to give doctors anything like that power over my life.

Which brings me to coming out as trans. Like autistic, I could do this... I feel my feminine side extremely strongly, I'm very comfortable wearing a dress (I did so at my Discordian wedding at Alderly Edge in 2000, amongst other times), and I have great love and respect for my trans friends. But the trans identity as it is currently being practised depends upon a gender metaphysics (i.e. a set of non-testable beliefs) that I don't entirely share. Furthermore, since I am comfortable with both my masculinity and my femininity, and consider the fact of my having a penis to be one of the more incidental aspects of who I am, it doesn't feel like I should come out as trans. Indeed, I feel that it would be disrespectful to those in the trans community who struggle over gender identity issues for me to do so.

Funny, really, because I also feel like that particular political community is constantly trying to 'out' me as trans by insisting that if I am not going to do so I must come out as 'cis'. But cis has been defined as a position in which a doctor I never truly met had power over me by virtue of assigning me my gender or my sex, according to which set of gender metaphysics you've chosen to wield. For the very same reason I cannot in good conscience 'come out as autistic' I can't 'come out as cis', nor even really think that the concept of 'cis' is advancing the cause of trans liberty in the way it was intended to. I rather fear it has set it back, and precipitated the uncivil war between lesbian feminists and trans activists by bringing two rival concepts of gender metaphysics into vicious conflict.

At the very least, ought I not to state what my pronouns are, to show solidarity with the trans community? Well, on this I suppose I really could come out, as the most coherent statement I can make about 'my pronouns' would be "make your best guess, I won't be offended", which I feel confident some trans supporters would find deeply offensive. But I'm not going to come out as something just to offend people - that really would be a betrayal of who I am. And I seriously don't care if you call me he, she, che, or beep boop beep as long as you respect me and my ideas. If you feel its meaningful to share your pronouns, knock yourself out, but please don't force me into identifying as something that really doesn't describe me very well, whether its trans or cis, or anything else. I can respect your meaningful categories of existence without having to live in them.

There again, I could come out as bisexual in that I am capable of having sexual feelings for people irrespective of whether they possess a vagina while I quite evidently have a penis. Indeed, all my earliest stumbling steps towards sexuality were obviously gay, for all that the great love affairs of my life have been with women (and mostly unrequited at that, my wonderful wife notwithstanding). But bisexual is another of those terms that just doesn't quite ring true to who I am, and at best it has been a term of convenience to use while hanging out with the LGBT crowd at University of Manchester in the early 90s. And even then, I never really pushed any aspect of that as part of my identity. I wasn't hanging out with those wonderful people to find a lover, it was just that I adored performing karaoke with a community that sings with almost as much passion as black Christians.

I suppose I could come out as straight (are we allowed to do this yet...?), but again, since I have and can have sexual feelings for non-female people that feels like the wrong label. And now we have 'pansexual' as an option, but it's hard for me to read that word and not think it means "I'll f___ anything", which simply isn't true about me in any sense. I always strived to have sex with few people, not many, and my proudest sexual achievement was choosing not to have sex with a woman who wanted me but whom I did not respect, even though as a horny undergraduate I really wanted to get laid. Basically, I don't quite understand the concept of sexual 'conquest', since what I was seeking while I was dating was solace rather than gratification, a kindred spirit rather than a throwaway sexual partner. I love sex, but not enough to engage in it indiscriminately. Honestly, if there's a word in circulation that describes my sexuality other than 'human' I don't know what it would be.

Maybe I could come out with my trigger warnings. But I think I only have one, and its people talking about trigger warnings as if their prior trauma was a weapon to beat others over the head with, and not something to be approached with sensitivity. And I worry greatly about this shift from respect being something that exists between us as our natural state of being, as the Enlightenment philosophers once saw the matter, to becoming an excuse to turn to the law of nations towards enforcing behavioural norms that then inevitably become anything but respectful. I will be as respectful of your prior traumas as I can be, and I hope you can afford the same courtesy to me... but please don't try to order me about and claim it's a question of respect. There is enough of a shortage of respect these days without undermining it yet further.

So I guess there's only one thing left that I can come out about, something that I'm embarrassed by, something that others might identify with but would also never consider coming out as, because none of us have ever come out as this before, and there's a tangible shame attached to being this way. Something that I have been derided for, and that I might take further derision from coming out about. But it's the only thing left in my bucket of identities that I can hope to come out about, and it feels about time to break free and come out as something...

I am a person who pronounces 'melee' as 'muh-lee', not 'may-lay'.

What the hell, you may be thinking, you cannot possibly be serious! But I am. Thanks in part to Nintendo's Smash Brothers franchise, almost nobody today is mistaken about how 'melee' is supposed to be pronounced, yet I still say 'muh-lee', and I do so because I learned 99% of my vocabulary from reading books, and when I read Tom Moldvay's Basic Rules for Dungeons & Dragons in 1981 my French was too rudimentary to recognise the expected pronunciation of the word. So I said 'muh-lee', and still do. And this is embarrassing, of course, because it's not the done thing, it's not what everyone else does. But it is also who I am. I am a person who says 'muh-lee'.

And saying this, bringing this out into the open, I feel a great weight has been lifted from my shoulders, and I hope that I live to see that others have the courage to come out as a person who says 'muh-lee'. I hope and pray that some day the lexicographers who maintain the Oxford English Dictionary (a colossal two volume 'Shorter' version of which has pride of place on one of my bookshelves) will include this pronunciation as an accepted alternative, and recognise the thousands of us tabletop role-players who say 'muh-lee'... But it probably won't happen, since we are an endangered species now that reading books has been replaced with watching videos, and tables have been replaced with mandatory screens. This vital aspect of who I am is perhaps already incomprehensible to a great many people.

Although I write these words in jest, I do so in utter seriousness - as a Discordian, I understand that jokes can be serious, that serious things can be funny, and that humanity has a giant stick up its butt that we not only cannot remove we don't want to. And that's hilarious, and tragic, and wonderful, and terrible, and much more besides. Because to be human is not to be just one kind of thing, and any attempt to reduce the immense diversity of human experience to preconceived boxes to check or uncheck is either vile or naïve, and every set of prescribed labels we make is ultimately just a means of excluding yet another way of being human, indeed, all those other ways of being we have not even begun to think about.

I deeply and wholly desire we could just respect one another as fellow equal beings and not as some preset political identity above and beyond 'human', not because political identities aren't important - they surely are! - but because replacing our diversity of experience with preset political identities is damaging to the human experience. Perhaps worse is exporting those preset identities around the world as gospel truth, and even asking those in other countries to pay for the privilege of being exposed to our narrow view of how things must be via entertainment media. This is a terrible way of building political communities that can negotiate between the conflicting conceptions of a good life that inevitably collide when we assert our own truths as necessary categories that others must adopt in their thinking.

The truth is, I am many things, probably many more than the things I have chosen to talk about in this piece. And you are too. Yes, you may need to come out, especially if you have found some truth about yourself that is painful to admit, but even more painful to deny. That, after all, is why in the late twentieth century those who knew that homosexuality was an essential part of who they were had to come out, they had to do it in order to be true to themselves, and to encourage others to do the same, so that they could show solidarity with one another. But please don't come out just to draw attention to yourself, and try not to come out in a way that fails to respect the diversity of those around you. Come out because you must, not because you don't know what else you can do to get noticed.

I remember being utterly disgusted in 1991 by the fuss that was being made about Freddie Mercury when he came out in his dying weeks as gay... I think it annoyed me at the time (it does not now), because he was hailed as heroic even though the stakes were so low at that point in his life it seemed to dilute any viable concept of heroism to do so. But more than that, I came to realise he didn't in fact come out as gay at all. Indeed, he never adopted any such identity in his lifetime. He came out as having HIV and of dying of AIDS, and the press drew their own conclusions, especially since he was in a long-term relationship with a man. They had to fit him into a box. But they could have instead put him in the box marked 'Parsi' or 'Zoroastrian' (another persecuted minority, and one with far less political power than the gay community), or the box marked 'South Asian' or 'Non-White' (he was born on the island of Zanzibar as Farrokh Bulsara) and no doubt much more beside. But the press, or the public, should never be the ones to try to assign someone their identity. The process of establishing who we are is personal to ourselves, and always must be.

Be who you must be. Testify as to who you are if you need to - and especially if you know there are others who need the inspiration of your courage so that they too can be who they must be. But please, stop wielding identities as weapons to beat your neighbours with, and please try to curtail the extent that national law intrudes upon what has always been - what always must be - a deeply personal matter. I am a person who says 'muh-lee'. But that is not all of who I am or could be. Respect me, first and foremost, the way I respect you: as a fellow human being. If we can do that, perhaps we might yet find a way of living together.

Are you a person who says 'muh-lee'? Consider coming out! At time of writing, there is only one person in the world to whom this identity applies to.