Bully for Free Speech

Now that we’ve reached the ides of June, commencement ceremonies are in full swing.  Not only is this a romantic time for students finally untethered from their foster mother, the university, it’s also a great time for notable individuals to give commencement addresses.

While I’ve never attended one of my own graduation ceremonies, I do have fond memories of my brother’s when he graduated from USC.  The commencement address was given by Michael Eisner, who was at that time the Chief Executive of the Walt Disney Company.  He talked about email.  For about 45 minutes.

For many famous or successful people, the opportunity to give a commencement address is also the opportunity to speak about something important to them, something they feel passionate about, in the form of ‘advice’ for the students awaiting their diplomas.  This is based, I can only assume, on the idea that a commencement address is the final word these students will hear at this liminal stage in their lives, one last lesson for them to take to heart before passing through that threshold into the ‘real world.’

Back in May, Ian McEwan, for whom I I have had the great pleasure of obsessing over for the last four years (my PhD Thesis uses his work), gave a commencement address at Dickinson College, in Carlisle, Pennsylvania.  He was also awarded an honorary doctorate for his incredible body of work.  For those interested, here is a video of his speech:

As well, here is a link to a transcription of that speech, provided by Time magazine:


The content, ‘thesis’ even, of his address was the importance not only of free speech as a human right, but of our need to support and defend it, especially against those who wish to hinder, or even restrict it.

“Let’s begin on a positive note,” he begins, followed by:

[T]here is likely more free speech, free thought, free enquiry on earth now than at any previous moment in recorded history (even taking into account the golden age of the so-called ‘pagan’ philosophers). And you’ve come of age in a country where the enshrinement of free speech in the First Amendment is not an empty phrase, as it is in many constitutions, but a living reality.

However, he then turns to the more harsh and ‘negative’ reality which he sees as threatening the ‘life-blood,’ the ‘essential condition’ of the liberal education they have all just received:

But free speech was, it is and always will be, under attack – from the political right, the left, the centre. It will come from under your feet, from the extremes of religion as well as from unreligious ideologies. It’s never convenient, especially for entrenched power, to have a lot of free speech flying around.

He then makes a number of sincere, and sometimes accurate, arguments about the importance, even necessity of free speech:

It’s worth remembering this: freedom of expression sustains all the other freedoms we enjoy. Without free speech, democracy is a sham. Every freedom we possess or wish to possess (of habeas corpus and due process, of universal franchise and of assembly, union representation, sexual equality, of sexual preference, of the rights of children, of animals – the list goes on) has had to be freely thought and talked and written into existence. No single individual can generate these rights alone. The process is cumulative.

However, and this is where I find myself disagreeing with his argument, his speech soon veers into a personal aside, an example that represents his disappointment in seeing certain individuals who have, in their active disaffections, come to challenge free speech by means of not supporting the use of it by others.  This example stems from his disappointment in a number of American writers who publicly disassociated themselves from a PEN gala in honour of the murdered journalists of the French satirical magazine, Charlie Hebdo.  To further underscore his argument, he refers back to a quote which, he admits, is likely incorrectly assigned to Voltaire (‘I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it’):

American PEN exists to defend and promote free speech. What a disappointment that so many American authors could not stand with courageous fellow writers and artists at a time of tragedy. The magazine has been scathing about racism. It’s also scathing about organised religion and politicians and it might not be to your taste – but that’s when you should remember your Voltaire.    

While the horrific and disgusting terrorist attack on the writers of Charlie Hebdo is inexcusable, I find myself thinking that his argument here is in many ways myopically misguided.  He states, shortly after the previous quote:

There’s a phenomenon in intellectual life that I call bi-polar thinking. Let’s not side with Charlie Hebdo because it might seem as if we’re endorsing George Bush’s ‘war on terror’. This is a suffocating form of intellectual tribalism and a poor way of thinking for yourself. As a German novelist friend wrote to me in anguish about the PEN affair -“It’s the Seventies again: Let’s not support the Russian dissidents, because it would get “applause from the wrong side.” That terrible phrase.

As I will argue in my conclusive statements below, I do not (for the most part) agree that the reason behind those writers ‘disassociating’ themselves from the PEN gala was a decision made by ‘fear’ or ‘apprehension’ in being affiliated with, and thus in support of, Bush’s ‘war on terror.’ Rather, and as I will reveal below, I think this arises from something very different.  Likewise, while I do agree that all religious beliefs are ‘worthy of respect,’ at least in the academic use of empathetic methodological agnosticism, I especially find myself disagreeing with his sentiment that ‘free speech’ is somehow inextricably linked with ‘criticism’ or ‘mockery:’

Islam is worthy of respect, as indeed is atheism. We want respect flowing in all directions. But religion and atheism, and all thought systems, all grand claims to truth, must be open to criticism, satire, even, sometimes, mockery.

What I think he has confused here is the idea that ‘criticism,’ in the sense of examination and open and free discussion, particularly related to political, social, and cultural restrictions and amendments concerning ethics, is somehow the same thing as ‘mockery.’  These are not the same thing, or, if nothing else, because of my objective lens, I do not see these as the same thing.  One I see as the mythological hope of the First Amendment: the idea that all religious individuals are free to exercise their beliefs in a manner that isn’t harmful, dangerous, or threatening to others.  The other I see as a type of bullying: knowingly harassing, inciting, or disrespecting an individual whose beliefs do not match your own, and thus appear foreign, odd, or worthy of insult.

This differentiation, for the sake of simplicity, is the thesis of this post, and the focus of the following discussion.

However, and for pragmatic reasons, my argument against McEwan’s defence of this type of ‘free speech’ is in need of some background data, which I will break into three sections: what I mean by ‘bully,’ a description of a story by McEwan about bullying, and a final argument about empathy using McEwan’s own description.


To better elucidate my use of the term ‘bullying,’ I think it is terribly important to first understand what I mean by the term ‘bully.’  Let’s first look at a lexical example.

The Oxford English Dictionary defines the term in two ways.  First, as a noun:

A person who uses strength or influence to harm or intimidate those who are weaker: he is a ranting, domineering bully.

Synonyms for this definition include: persecutor, oppressor, tyrant, tormentor, brow-beater, intimidator, coercer, subjugator, scourge, tough, heavy, bully boy, ruffian, thug, and attack dog.

Second, it is defined as a verb:

Use superior strength or influence to intimidate (someone), typically to force them to do something: a local man was bullied into helping them.

Synonyms for this definition include: coerce, pressure, pressurize, bring pressure to bear on, use pressure on, put pressure on, constrain, lean on, press, push, force, compel, oblige, put under an obligation, hound, harass, nag, harry, badger, goad, prod, pester, brow-beat, brainwash, bludgeon, persuade, prevail on, work on, act on, influence, intimidate, dragoon, twist someone’s arm, and strong-arm.

For the purposes of my usage herein, I will stipulate the term to mean:

someone who uses force, or the threat of force, either in a manner meant to terrorise, or control, another individual. 

A ‘bully,’ then, is someone who knowingly insults, incites, or threatens another.  This stipulation will be important later.  For now, however, I think it will help if we briefly turn to a discussion of a story, a sort of fairy tale, about bullying, and the healing power of empathy.

The Bully

In 1994, McEwan published a short little novella called The Daydreamer.  Consisting of eight vignettes (chapters) about the early life of a young boy, Peter Fortune, The Daydreamer is, as McEwan describes in the novella’s preface: “a book for adults about a child in a language that children could understand” (9).  In each of these chapters Peter learns something new about himself, so that like young Briony Tallis coming to terms with her own existence at the start of his renowned novel Atonement, these chapters become singular moments of self-discovery, blended into a story about a young boy’s coming-of-age.  While these fluctuate between fantastical and realistic physical and emotional alterations, one story stands out for my intentions here.

“The Bully” tells the story of Peter’s interaction with a fellow classmate, Barry Tamerlane, who is known for terrorising the students at their school.  While the story reflects much of the metaphorical nuance that McEwan is so good at, such as the notion that the bully, as well as Peter’s ability to confront and defeat him with nothing more than his logic, is emulative of an almost Atheistic enlightenment about God’s existence through our own creation, his description of this interaction is quite poignant for my argument herein.

In the beginning, the bully is described as such:

He didn’t look like a bully.  He wasn’t scruff, his face wasn’t ugly, he didn’t have a frightening leer, or scabs on his knuckles and he didn’t carry dangerous weapons.  He wasn’t particularly big.  Nor was he one of those small, wiry, bony types who can turn out to be vicious fighters.  At home he wasn’t smacked like many bullies are, and nor was he spoiled.  His parents were kind but firm, and quite unsuspecting.  His voice wasn’t loud or hoarse, his eyes weren’t odd and small and he wasn’t even very stupid.  In fact, he was rather round and soft, though not quite a fatty, with glasses, and a spongy pink face, and a silver brace on his teeth.  He often wore a sad and helpless look which appealed to some grown-ups and was useful when he had to talk himself out of trouble. (74-75)  

With such an innocuous description, we might wonder, as Peter does, what would make Barry a bully?  Peter decides that there are two reasons for this:

  1. “The first was that he seemed to be able to move in the quickest way between wanting something and having it.” (75)
  2. “The second reason for Tamerlane’s success was that everyone was afraid of him.” (75)

However, he also adds: “No one quite knew why.” (75)

At this point in the story, and in a random turn of ‘grown-up logic,’ Peter is invited to, and attends, Barry’s eleventh birthday party.  This experience shocks him as he finds no trace of the ‘bully’ in Barry within his home environment.  In fact, he is polite, and friendly, and refers to his guests as ‘friends.’  He laughs, and plays, and is genuinely polite.  Peter, deciding to investigate, finds Barry’s room to be much like his own: “There were books all over the place, a train set on the floor, an old teddy on the bed wedged against a pillow, a chemistry set, a computer game.” (77)

So, he concludes, Barry lives a ‘double-life.’  At home, he is a regular boy, much like himself.  Then, on the way to school each morning, he transforms into ‘the bully.’  This thinking sends Peter into a long daydream in which he begins to consider his own existence, particularly after overhearing two girls debate whether or not ‘everything’ in the wider existence is really a dream.  If, he wonders, everything is a dream, then he is the dreamer, and everything is thus his own invention.  In this same way, he is the creator of all life, meaning likewise that as everything is a dream, then ‘dying’ would merely be the moment one wakes up.

As he’s further considering this, one day alone on the playground, the bully re-enters his life, demanding the apple that he is holding.  Soon, a crowd forms.  All the other children surround the two as the bully threatens Peter with a beating if he does not relinquish the apple.  However, Peter does not hand it over.  Rather, he amends his philosophical hypothesis about the world existing as his own dream by adding into it a theory about Barry’s ability to suddenly become a bully:

What made pink plump Barry so powerful?  Immediately, from out of nowhere, Peter had the answer.  It’s obvious, he thought.  We do.  We’ve dreamed him up as the school bully.  He’s no stronger than any of us.  We’ve dreamed up his power and his strength.  We’ve made him into what he is.  When he goes home no one believes in him as a bully and he just becomes himself. (84)

Then, in response to Barry’s final threat, and in a manner emulative of Genesis 3:6, Peter puts his theory into practice:

In reply, Peter raised the apple to his mouth and took an enormous bite.  ‘You know what,’ he said slowly, through his mouthful.  ‘I don’t believe you.  In fact, I’ll tell you something for nothing.  I don’t even believe you exist.’ 

This revelation works like a tonic, inspiring within Peter an almost sinister justification for the insults he soon directs at Barry.  He calls him a ‘fat little pink jelly with metal teeth,’ he reveals his ‘ordinary nature,’ tells the gathering crowd about his ‘teddy’ tucked up in his bed.

Barry begins to cry.  The crowd begins to loudly taunt him.  His crying becomes sobbing, and the crowd falls silent.  Barry sobs into his hands, defeated, the bully now gone.

Later, after the sense of his accomplishment begins to subside, Peter begins to regret his actions:

He had mocked Barry for being fat and having a brace and a teddy and for helping his mum.  He had wanted to defend himself and teach Barry a lesson, but he ended up making him an object of scorn and contempt for the whole school.  His words had hurt far more than a straight punch to the nose.  He had crushed Barry.  Who was the bully now? (88-89)

In an effort to reconcile their relationship, while at the same time pacify his guilt, Peter offers an olive branch in the shape of a note that reads: “Do you want to play soccer?  PS.  I’ve got a teddy too and I have to help with the dishes.” (89)  The two become friends, and Peter, after empathising with his enemy, comes to realise his own faults as a bully, and the shocking ease and simplicity there is in taunting and criticising others.

Only Love and Then Oblivion

On 15 September, 2001, The Guardian published an article by McEwan entitled: “Only Love and Then Oblivion.”

As a direct response to his feeling the horrid sense of loss and tragedy after witnessing (albeit, like so many of us, on his television) the events that unfolded as the World Trade Center came melting to the ground, this short article is about love, and empathy, and last words.  It is about the emotional bereavement felt at watching such a terrible event unfold.

As well, and in many ways mostly, it is about his own philosophical perspective on morality.

This stems, in this context, from an empathetic feeling of connectivity, of feeling in some way a part of this event, as those most victimised by this tragedy were ‘people like us:’

[…] we remember what we have seen, and we daydream helplessly. Lately, most of us have inhabited the space between the terrible actuality and these daydreams. Waking before dawn, going about our business during the day, we fantasize ourselves into the events. What if it was me?

This, he describes, is the inherent meaning of empathy:

This is the nature of empathy, to think oneself into the minds of others. These are the mechanics of compassion: you are under the bedclothes, unable to sleep, and you are crouching in the brushed-steel lavatory at the rear of the plane, whispering a final message to your loved one. There is only that one thing to say, and you say it. All else is pointless. You have very little time before some holy fool, who believes in his place in eternity, kicks in the door, slaps your head and orders you back to your seat. 23C. Here is your seat belt. There is the magazine you were reading before it all began.

Then, empathy becomes morality via the fact that, as he sees it, no person capable of feeling another’s emotions, or seeing the world through their eyes, would be able to, in any capacity, inflict harm on that person:

If the hijackers had been able to imagine themselves into the thoughts and feelings of the passengers, they would have been unable to proceed. It is hard to be cruel once you permit yourself to enter the mind of your victim. Imagining what it is like to be someone other than yourself is at the core of our humanity. It is the essence of compassion, and it is the beginning of morality.

In a final indictment, he solidifies this notion:

The hijackers used fanatical certainty, misplaced religious faith, and dehumanising hatred to purge themselves of the human instinct for empathy. Among their crimes was a failure of the imagination. As for their victims in the planes and in the towers, in their terror they would not have felt it at the time, but those snatched and anguished assertions of love were their defiance.

Empathy is essential to his sense of morality here, the backbone of his argument that the terrorists on that fateful day had somehow lost the ability to feel what another person felt, to imagine what it might be like to be sitting in their seat, leaving messages for their loved ones, or praying to their own gods.


McEwan’s argument that free speech is a universal right in need of defence and support is indeed appropriate and commendable.

His argument that individuals disassociating with those whose usage they might not agree with is somehow a threat to that right, is not.

This is, I would argue, most apparent in his notion of ‘bi-polar’ thinking.  While maybe the individuals who did not participate, or excused themselves from the PEN gala, did so because they did not want to somehow be associated with Bush’s ‘war on terror,’ I think there is a sincere lack of empathy within this idea.  Perhaps, we might consider, they were doing so not out of fear of supporting someone else’s agenda, but because they simply did not want to associate themselves with a type of bullying.  Perhaps their reasoning for not standing with Charlie wasn’t about a fear of retribution, or of supporting Bush’s campaign against terror.  Perhaps it was merely a decision not to stand with someone responding to a bully by bullying back.

In my own personal aside, I’ve never quite understood the reason for doing an act that one knowingly will offend another.  Sure, this is free speech, but is it the best use of free speech?  For instance, does protesting a soldier’s funeral with signs reading, ‘God Hates Fags,’ really convey a message we all want to stand behind?  This is free speech, after all, and we would likely agree with the right to express such a message, regardless of our disagreeing with the sentiment behind it.  This is especially the case with this example as the Westboro Baptist church is, legally, representing the First Amendment by speaking un-prohibited.  The Supreme Court case Snyder vs. Phelps affirmed this in 2011.

Yet, I might also concede that this is an inaccurate and unfair association in its own way.  The publications of Charlie Hebdo and the protestations of the Westboro Baptist Church are in no way related, and I would never simply lump them together as such.  However, what cannot be separated here is their equally shared position on free speech, particularly when it is based on statements which convey their central ideals.  Because this is free speech granted by judicial law, and upheld by the Constitution, both should be equally defended.  In this same way, as well, if we were to employ McEwan’s own notion of empathy, we would further come to realise that standing with Charlie would, via his promotion of free speech, be the same as standing with the Westboro Baptist Church.

How, then, does this relate to bullying?  Depending on whose side you stand on, any sort of free speech that comes across as criticism or mockery brings with it a sense of bullying.  That is, while due to our liberal educations we might all agree that we need to support, defend, fight for, and eternally use free speech, we also need to recognise how what we say freely might be perceived by others.  In this way, we might also consider if offending another’s religion is free speech or free bullying?  Is the critical mockery of another’s sacred beliefs something that benefits all of us, or just certain individuals who’s own beliefs centre around the idea that believing in something clearly disprovable, something that fetters scientific, political, and cultural advancement, something that breeds hatred and racism and violence against innocent people, is also something deplorable, backward, and harmful to mankind?  In the opposite direction, then, is an attempt at censoring that, or silencing it in any way, an act of free speech or an act of bullying back?

There are clear dichotomies at work here.  Like rather obvious stances of ‘your side against mine,’ these lead to stalemates and debates about who is better supporting whose free speech.  This, I would say, is central to McEwan’s argument in the commencement address above.  Which seems rather odd.  He clearly understands humanity’s ability to understand the perspectives of other people.  Not only does his empathy-as-morality support this, but so does his description of Peter’s realisation that he himself has become the bully in his own self-defence.  Empathy is something that not only comes through in his work, it also seems inexplicably attached to his sense of ethics.  Yet, with his statements in the commencement address above, it seems he has either forgotten this, or is revealing the fact that his empathy is selective.

This, I would lastly argue, is where the benefit of an objective lens comes into play.

Because I might methodologically approach these same examples with an objective sense of empathy, it’s arguable to conclude that just as much as we might collectively agree that any sort of terrorist act is an act of bullying, from the other end, we might also see how the critical mockery presented in Charlie Hebdo‘s publications is a similar type of bullying.  Given our ability to ‘imagine ourselves into the thoughts and feelings’ of others, we can, if nothing else, at least come to an intellectual or philosophical understanding about why each side believes and acts the way it does, especially when it comes to their uses of ‘free speech.’  In this way, we are at least able to free ourselves from the biased position of believing our free speech is better, or if nothing else, more ‘free’ than another’s.

Finally, I would like to conclude here that this does not mean that empathising with a terrorist who murders writers and cartoonists because they are offended by their critical mockery is in some way permissible, nor is this the same as saying, ‘they deserved it.’  Rather, this is meant as a critical assessment of empathy, and the skewed sense of it I see in McEwan’s defence of free speech.  If we are to defend that right, and if we are required to empathise with others who might bully us into refraining from speaking freely, or who wish to silence our voices entirely, perhaps the best way to do that wouldn’t be a further criticism of those whose own free speech we might not like (such as those who disassociate with a group that appears to be bullying back).  For this reason, perhaps my larger argument here is really just a defence of McEwan’s fictional philosophy, rather than what he expresses in ‘real-life.’

As such, I think that the McEwan who gave the commencement address at Dickinson college could learn a thing or two from the lessons learned by Peter Fortune.

In a somewhat shameless plug, I’d like to point out that the International Society for Heresy Studies recently published its second newsletter, Excommunicated, and much of that deals with, and discusses, Charlie Hebdo.  The individuals involved with the ISHS, and the editors of the newsletter especially, are excellent scholars and wonderful people.  It is definitely worth a read:

Excommunicated, Vol. 1, No. 2. 2015.


We’re All Novelists.

Last week I was sitting in the bar at the Cameo Cinema in Edinburgh, enjoying a glass of wine, when my drinking companion pointed out that she suddenly felt special.  On every table in the bar was a small glass vase, inside of which was a yellow gerber daisy.  The vase on our table had two.

It was a relatively warm day, and since spring tends to come later than usual in Edinburgh, these little flowers were a nice touch.

The bar itself was fairly crowded for a weekday afternoon.  The King and I, starring Yul Brenner, was playing on the television.  The sound was turned off.

I commented to my companion that on certain occasions, like this one, I like to imagine the world (everything) as part of some great novel.  In moments like these it almost feels like you can see the crossover between fact and fiction, as if the world suddenly seems to have been quite specifically designed, ‘put together’ for metaphorical effect.  On the table behind us, against the wall, two men were engaged in a heated conversation.  It wasn’t an argument taking place between them, but rather one they were sharing about something else.  They were both sitting forward, arms resting on knees, their language peppered with indignant terminology.  “It’s not fair,” said one.  “It’s criminal,” said the other.

Their conversation carried on like this for a while, until their raised voices began to melt into the background.  However, something interesting about them stood out to me, something that prompted my seeing our surroundings through the novelist’s eye.  Everything about the scene within which they were acting appeared to compliment their shared mood.  Their body language was rigid and combative, the language in their discourse was atonally violent.  They seemed to be heating the room, and I got the sense when looking at them as if they were somehow marginalised to the back corner, isolated in their misery by their own choosing.  They looked like characters, constructed for a purpose, like representatives of discomfort or despair or hardship.  They were almost cliche, like action figures of a novelist’s tableau.

On their table, the yellow gerber daisy was wilted and dead.

This week I submitted my doctoral Thesis.

Roughly 90,000 words of four year’s research.  After I submitted the copies necessary to the School of Divinity, I passed around my own copy at the bar.  At dinner that night, it sat on the table at a spare place setting, like an empty plate waiting to be bussed away.  This felt like another one of those occasions where my life felt like a novel, and it reminded me about how I found myself writing about fiction.

At some point in the early stages of my PhD I suddenly decided I wanted to do something with fiction.  As I had come to Edinburgh to study Atheism, combining these two interests seemed like a fun idea, that made no real sense.  It took a few years to figure it out.

Originally, I had come to do an ethnographic study of the Humanist Society of Scotland, but soon my interest in this subject waned as I began to plot out how I might turn that into a Thesis.  As well, because Atheism is such a new topic of interest in the world of academia, I found that there wasn’t much of a foundational base in the ‘anthropology of Atheism’ on which to build my own.  Defining the term was bad enough, but defining how we might study individuals who use ‘Atheist terminology’ in a broad and abstract manner is even worse.  So, instead of following what some might consider the ‘academic route,’ I turned toward fiction.

On so many occasions over the years I’ve found myself either taking or tutoring courses that use a novel as a source for the subject being taught.  I once took an American history class where every text was a novel.  We read Baum’s The Wonderful Wizard of Oz to discuss the political and civic alterations taking place at the turn of the century; Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath to discuss the Great Depression; Yate’s Revolutionary Road to discuss the lost sense of identity discovered by many during the mid to late 1950s; and O’Brien’s The Things they Carried to discuss the harsh realities of the war in Vietnam.  Here in Edinburgh, we’ve had some great success with our course on Religious and Ethical Debates in Contemporary Fiction, which I have written about a bit already.

Not only did I want to use fiction in this same way, I wanted to elucidate a deeper meaning about why we might use the novel in this capacity, as well as how that might be accomplished.

I took as my focus the use of a novel (two, actually) as an ethnographic text.  This required a number of establishing details, which I separated into three ‘pillars:’ a discussion on how ethnographic texts are constructed, and the literary focus adopted into that methodology in the 1980s via the sorts of theoretical arguments started by Clifford and writing cultureMarcus’ Writing Culture; a discussion about how novels are critiqued within the context of specialised fields in Literary Theory; and the manner with which we approach concepts, especially when they are attached to religious identity construction, within the context of an anthropological analysis.  By marrying the first two into a methodological approach, that is then theoretically supported by the third pillar’s focus on the concept ‘Atheism,’ I created a means with which we might read a novel ‘ethnographically.’  I called this ‘Ethnographic Criticism.’  I’ll likely write much more about this, and how it is done, in future posts.

While my use of Ethnographic Criticism seemed rather successful in regard to using fiction as an ‘ethnographic source’ of British Atheist identity (though any certainty about that must wait until after the Viva), there arose in the process a rather precarious defect.  This has to deal with the role of the author in the construction of an ethnographic text, and how our acknowledging that role shapes the way in which we read his or her ethnography.

For example, if an ethnography is written in an omniscient voice, adopting the strict objectivity we find in classic texts like Malinowski’s Argonauts of the Western Pacific, the culture argonautswe read there is presented in a manner quite different from an ethnography written from a reflexive first-person perspective, such as we find in the ‘ethnographic novels’ of Michael Jackson, Timothy Knab, and Richard and Sally Price.  In the latter this is greatly determined by what Geertz (Works and Lives, 1988, 8-9) refers to as the ‘signature of the author,’ or ‘author-function,’ which he borrows from Foucault.  Recognising the enigma variationsauthor’s role in writing the text, and thus in also recognising that the text has been ‘authored,’ means that our perception of the culture within the text is dictated by our acknowledgement that it is an artifice, designed and structured by an intermediary.  Thus, when it comes to reading a novel ‘as ethnography,’ our perception of the culture being represented is equally dictated by our acknowledging the author’s role in writing the text in the first place.  Where we might simply look at how the author (let’s say Ian McEwan) designed his novel (let’s say Enduring Love) with an intention based enduring loveon his own discourse, context, and opinions, this is much less simplistic when we consider the ‘author’s signature’ in a novel written from a first-person perspective (such as in Enduring Love).

In other words, where reading a novel as ethnography would require our acceptance and comprehension of McEwan’s role in shaping it from his imagination, when written from a first-person perspective, that novel ceases being written by McEwan at all.  That is, it becomes something more akin to the first-person ethnographic novels cited above.  In this way, it is no longer a novel.  It becomes an ‘auto-ethnography,’ a text written by an individual within the context being depicted, who is writing about his or her own culture.  Thus, McEwan ceases to exist.  The text we are reading is now a text written by an individual who might now be perceived as ‘actually’ existing.  Which also means that the novel equally transmutes out of the realm of ‘fiction.’  This has repercussions on a number of levels.

If the novel ceases being a novel, then Ethnographic Criticism isn’t actually reading a novel ‘ethnographically.’  Likewise, if McEwan ceases being the novelist who created the text, then the lead character narrating his or her story is now suddenly ‘real.’  Brought together, these two issues determine even larger ones concerning how we perceive texts (like ethnographies) as representing fiction, non-fiction, or something somewhere in between.  In this way, we might actually start to believe, because a ‘text’ in each and every instance is something both made-from (designed via research and data) and made-up (invented from one’s imagination), that everything is fiction.

This is, in essence, part of the focus of my Thesis.  Again, I’ll discuss more of this later.

Next week two friends of ours will be defending their Theses.

Some time ago, one of them shared this Tumblr page with me, with this particular post:

Screen Shot 2015-05-01 at 18.59.55http://wheninacademia.tumblr.com/post/85825733964/when-you-write-a-secret-novel-while-youre

I love the idea of a ‘secret novel,’ as if writing fiction is something we’re just not meant to do.  We’re academics.  We write facts, not fiction.  Our work is empirical and objective.  It isn’t just ‘made-up.’

I find myself disagreeing with this now.  Four years of reading and writing and thinking about the thin pragmatic line we maintain between fiction and non-fiction has brought me to a somewhat vague conclusion.  Everything, I’d argue, is fiction.  This doesn’t mean that everything is the product of imagination, solely made-up and invented with no connection to what is ‘real,’ but it also doesn’t mean that imagination is entirely left out of it.  When we sit down to write a wholly objective text, we are still imagining how it will take shape.  It’s still designed.  It is still an artifice, no matter how empirical we are about its creation.

A thesis is no different.

A thesis is, just as much as McEwan’s Enduring Love, a novel.  We’re all novelists, merely by the fact that we are writers.  Our novels are a particular genre.  So, the idea of a secret novel is not that secretive at all.

Here’s an example.  A good friend of mine (Jonathan Tuckett) just successfully defended his thesis and passed his viva.  His focus was on phenomenology, and the text he produced was very ‘academic.’  Yet, it was designed to tell a particular story.  On one level it told the story of his research, defending his argument, a narrative driven by a plot that came to a particular conclusion.  On another, it told the story of his research, of his efforts in proving his knowledge and expertise on the subject.

Whilst he was writing this novel, farholthe was writing another (and likely others, he’s quite the wordsmith).  That second novel was published recently.  It is the first of a saga, titled: The Mystery of Farholt.  You can read more about this, and his other ‘fictions’ here: https://johnstonewilson.wordpress.com

I use him as an example because his writing works well for my argument.  Both of the texts produced by Jonathan are novels, designed and created by an individual employing the art of writing to tell a particular story.

As well, the fact that each represent a plotted narrative designed for a particular purpose furthers my argument that everything is fiction.  How we determine the meaning of that term in relation to the ‘fiction’ of Jonathan’s thesis and The Mystery of Farholt, is merely a difference of genre distinction.  Therefore, I will conclude here by once again arguing that, because we are writers, and because what we are writing is fictitious in its being written, we are all novelists.  There’s nothing really secretive about that.  In fact, when you look around, there’s usually good evidence for the idea that not only is everything fiction, but that we are all of us living within novels of our own devising.

Thank God for Book Reviews

Other than as an assignment for courses taken long ago, I had never written a book review.  Or rather, I had never written a review for the purposes of publication.  So when I volunteered my services for the Journal of Secularism and Nonreligion, I wasn’t entirely sure what the experience, or outcome, would be.  This post is a short story about that, with a specific emphasis on three aspects of that process that stand out in my memory.


I am no stranger to editing, and I hold no envy for those who do it.

I am also, by my own admission, what I call an ’emotional writer.’  This doesn’t mean that I get ’emotionally attached’ to my writing, or that my feelings get hurt when my writing is evaluated or edited.  Rather, my writing is ’emotional’ in the sense that for me the time and place when and where the writing gets done play a large part in how I ‘do’ the writing itself.

In this way, I’ve always been keenly interested in how writers write.  I love hearing about the process, how they establish a place to write, how they do it, whether they type or write by hand, what bizarre and personal little rituals they do.  I love that kind of stuff.  I also think it tells us something quite unique and specific about the character (perhaps even identity) of that person.

For example, Hemingway was notorious for writing while standing, as well as designing the writing process in such a way as to be inspired or influenced by his surroundings. hemingway-standing-deskLegend tells us that a number of his novels, such as The Sun Also Rises, and For Whom the Bells Toll were written in sections, in different countries, to convey a certain mood.

Likewise, my Thesis has been focused on certain novels by Ian McEwan, and I found myself giddily excited a few years back to find this video of him describing his writing process (with, interestingly, an embarrassed curiosity as to why people would be interested in that sort of thing).

See also this description:

When I wrote my review of Nick Spencer’s Atheists: The Origin of the Species, the writing process was divided into two parts: reading and writing.  It took a week or so to read the book, make notes, re-read sections, and formulate the structure of the review.  I made a list of important passages, as well as compiled an outline of the text itself, isolating what I thought was Spencer’s lead argument, and the basic criticisms and compliments I thought I should point out.  When I wrote the review, I created a number of drafts, making sure to return to the text to ensure my consensus was well designed.

A few weeks after submitting the draft I received the first round of edits and suggested changes.  This was an interesting experience.  Aside from my supervisor’s interaction with the Thesis, as well as suggestions and critiques made by lecturers over the years, I’d yet to have any sort of editorial suggestions made about something I had written for publication.

At first I found myself feeling defensive about the suggestions.  ‘Why,’ I thought arrogantly, ‘would there be suggestions?!’  ‘It’s perfect!’  I then reminded myself to grow up a bit.  In fact, and in retrospect, the editorial process was quite rewarding.  The individuals involved made very distinct arguments about structure and style, and in the end I think they truly helped in making the final draft feel much more coherent. However, there was one suggestion that kept appearing that I thought interesting, and it leads to my next aspect.


For whatever reason, I have found myself over the years Capitalising words or terms that really don’t need it.  This occurs most often with research fields, like ‘Religious Studies’ or ‘Ethical Criticism.’  I’m usually quite open to amending this in my writing.  However, where I will stand-fast on capitalisation is in the title of things.

Throughout my research, and even throughout this blog, I have, and will, capitalise the terms ‘Atheism’ and ‘Atheist.’  As well, depending on the context, I will do the same with ‘Theism’ or ‘Theist.’  While the latter is done in direct reference to the former, it has become something that comes up time and again when people evaluate my writing.  My reasoning for capitalising the ‘A’ in Atheism is quite simple to explain.  In my research of the concept itself, I have adopted a particular methodology in order to study Atheism.  While I will likely discuss this in vivid detail in the near future, I can summarise this methodology here as follows:

rather than contribute to the present discourse on defining the term, and in that way avoid the precarious notion of stipulating what Atheism might mean to those individuals who identify themselves as ‘Atheists,’ I approach the term in a discursive manner.  What this means is that I am more interested in how individuals use the term, how it is constructed, what ‘agency’ they give to it, and how that then dictates the way it is given meaning.  I think of the term as an ’empty signifier,’ that is then ‘defined’ by the individual filling it with their particular meaning.  What this also means is that the term itself transmutes from a ‘defined thing’ into an ‘identity.’  In this way, just as we might capitalise terms like ‘Christian,’ ‘British,’ ‘American,’ or ‘Buddhist,’ so ‘Atheist’ receives the same treatment.  This likewise removes it from the category of ‘descriptive terminology’ like ‘blonde’ or ‘short.’  This does not mean, however, that I use the term in an apologetic or promotional manner.  That is, for me, capitalising the term ‘Atheism’ does not mean that I am making the argument that it is equal to ‘Christian’ in that ‘Atheist’ signifies the title of an individual who belongs to the ‘religion’ Atheism.  While that is an extremely interesting conversation I might take up (and likely will at some point), it is not my justification here.          

Copy Editing 

This brings me to my final aspect.  With the final draft submitted, and with my use of the capitalised ‘A’ in ‘Atheism’ accepted, I awaited final approval from the copy editors.

Now, as I have stated, the editorial process was a very rewarding experience, and I am truly indebted to those individuals involved.  The copy-edited alterations are another thing entirely.  Interestingly, a colleague was going through a similar experience around the same time.  For her, the final draft that she had submitted for a chapter in an encyclopaedia came back with a number of ‘re-written’ sections, including her lead argument, thus altogether changing what she had intended to say.  While my experience was in no way this drastic, it did offer an intriguing insight to the process itself.

For me, the changes that I found were mostly structure-based.  Sentences were re-written, and arguments were restructured.  Nothing was so drastic as my friend had found.  Still, it was a bit jarring to see something I had worked on re-designed.  A similar thing happened years ago on a group project I participated in on a course about American politics in the 1960s.  The four of us involved had each elected to write about a thousand words of a group essay, which we then sent off to our group leader, who compiled it all together.  After we got the paper back a few weeks later, we all noticed that our group leader had re-written each of our contributions.  While the grade we received was not as high as we had hoped, my greatest issue with this was that the work that was evaluated under my name was not, at that point, ‘my work.’

I felt a similar feeling with the copy-editor’s re-writes.  While my experiences with the editing process at the start were quite humbling about the benefits of other’s suggestions about my writing, this seemed different.  After all, since I was being critical of Spencer’s work, I felt it should be my writing, and wholly my writing, that did that.  Otherwise, I thought, it wouldn’t be fair to him.  Fortunately, when I returned the final draft with my original writing, there was no argument and the published version appeared as I had wished.  Which brings me to a conclusive point.


Writing this book review came at a very useful time for me.  I am quickly approaching the point where I need to submit the Thesis, and after roughly four years of working on one piece of writing, it was good to have a bit of a distraction (even though the topic was still on Atheism).  However, writing this review was not just a distraction from the Thesis, it was also a healthy reminder of some important things.

  • Now that I am reaching the end of the writing process, it is proving, perhaps for no other reason than anxiety, more and more difficult to accept criticisms about the writing.  My experience with editing the review helped with that.  It reminded me that another perspective is not only useful, but important.
  • Likewise, defending my capitalisation of ‘Atheism’ was a reminder of the methodology I had adopted for the Thesis, and seeing it written out as simplistically as possible in a brief defence helped me clarify my reasoning within the Thesis.
  • Lastly, seeing the copy-editor’s re-writes, and defending my original draft, was a reminder that the Thesis is my work.  While there have been a number of individuals who have played a major and important role in helping me get it done, when I defend it, it will be my writing and no one else’s.  Defending it as such, I would argue, is quite important.

In the end, then, writing this review helped me in a number of important ways, from distracting me from the anxieties of finishing and submitting the Thesis, to reminding me of the importance of taking advice, clarifying my argument, and defending my finished product.  For these reasons, I think it is perfectly fair to say: ‘thank God for that.’

A Feeling of Ownership

Though perhaps not as many as others I know, I have presented at a good number of conferences.  One thing that I have learned throughout the process is the utility in using these experiences to better shape my research narrative.

Like a story in itself, the thing that we research often becomes something told and retold on so many occasions that it transforms into a part of our personal discourse.  That is, our research topic transmutes into something that describes us, and vice versa.  It becomes a part of our identity.  This is, partly, why my twitter handle is twitter.com/AtheismGuy.  Moreover, at the early stage, when we are focused so myopically on the PhD Thesis, this is ever more prevalent as we begin to try and describe (and in the process come to realise) what it is that we are actually researching in the first place.  This is perhaps best reflected by a friendly exchange that recently took place between myself and two other individuals who are studying Atheism/Non-Religion.

The three of us met at a cafe in Edinburgh to discuss the possibility of shaping together a roundtable discussion for our Atheism in Debate course here at New College, which we each tutor on.  I wrote briefly about the course in a  previous post.  The locus of the idea came from Liam Fraser, who’s research on Atheism and Fundamentalism argues “that these apparently irreconcilable movements share a common intellectual structure, and derive from a common theological and philosophical source.”  Very interesting stuff.  The other in our group was Christopher Cotter, who I’ve mentioned previously, and who’s research at Lancaster University on the discourses that underly the social constructions of notions about Non-Religion and the ‘secular’ is definitely worth a read.

While Chris and I have known each other for a few years now, this was our first introduction to Liam, so our conversation, as so often happens when three individuals who study similar things meet for the first time, was focused as well on what Liam so aptly called our ‘elevator pitch.’  I’ve heard this phrased a number of different ways, perhaps the most popular of which is the ‘three-minute thesis,’ which is also the name of a world-wide competition that began in Australia.  In essence, the ‘three-minute thesis’ is as the title suggests, or as the website states: the reduction of an 80,000 word thesis into a three minute presentation.  It isn’t really that easy, despite the ease with which some are able to do it.  See, for example, this last year’s winner Megan Rossi:


Regrettably, I have never really tried to reduce my thesis in this manner.  So when Liam asked for my ‘elevator pitch’ he, perhaps begrudgingly, received a fairly long and detailed account of how I intend to change the academic world with my substantial and original ideas.  As I was detailing all of this to him (and Chris, who got to hear it all over again) I began to consider how this pitch not only describes what it is that I’ve done these last four years, but me as well.

This thought returned recently as I sat down to write up another conference presentation, which I will expand on a bit more later this month.  In the process, I came to realise that there exists an odd feeling of ownership to these subjects, a bizarre association with ‘Atheism’ and my name, or the way I feel as if I have some sort of hold on the notion of Atheism and fiction and Ian McEwan’s novels, the latter of which always seems to surface when I meet someone who’s read one of his books and we carry on in a special conversation only we understand.  It’s like having an exclusionary knowledge about a subject, being ‘in the know,’ or privileged in some odd way.

Whenever I find myself thinking this way I am reminded of a line Malinowski noted in his diary during his observations in New Guinea for Argonauts of the Western Pacific.

Joy: I hear the “Kiriwina” [another name for the Trobriands; more strictly the northern province of Boyowa].  I get ready; little gray, pinkish huts.  Photos.  Feeling of ownership: It is I who will describe them or create them.[1]

Though he never, as far as we might assume, intended to publish these personal thoughts, and though their publication made way for the Writing Culture debate that would follow in the next two to three decades, I would argue that Malinowski’s own feeling of ownership is not all that surprising.  In fact, because he saw himself as the translator of Trobriand culture for the Western World, his sense that he ‘owned’ it is as equally reflective of his idea that this would be his subject.  He would introduce it to the world.  He would translate their ‘imponderabilia,’ the nuanced and specific day-to-day that only one who has lived amongst his subject might be able to understand.  He would create them.

Beyond the conversation we might have about how an observer’s textual representation (or even interpretation) might in any way equal anything akin to ‘creating a culture’ (which will come up eventually, I assure you), this might better explain what i mean by a ‘feeling of ownership.’  When we undertake these sorts of research projects, we not only immerse ourselves fully into the subject, the subject begins to infect us as well.  There becomes a blurring of sorts, a consolidation of subject and object.  This might explain why, on occasion, and especially depending on the subject of one’s research, we often get confused with what we do.  This appears infrequently in religious studies.  On a number of occasions I have been asked by friends and family if my intention is to become a ‘minister,’ or if I ‘actually believe’ what it is I study.  Likewise, this might explain the jealousy we feel when we discover someone who studies what we study, but with (horrifically) a different perspective.

While this sort of thinking resurfaces from time to time, it is not something that I would argue is entirely an inaccurate assumption.  We are our subjects, because our subjects shape our research narrative.  They play an integral role in not only shaping the story we intend to tell, but the story of that story as well.  In this way, when we reduce our research into an ‘elevator pitch’ in order to easily describe it, we are likewise finding a way to describe ourselves.  Of course, and again, I do not have an elevator pitch.  Rather, I have a blog.  This is my elevator pitch.  However, the elevator is very slow, and this building has a whole lot of stories.

So, as I once again cobble together a presentation on Atheism, Atheist Narrative, Fiction as Ethnography, Atheism in McEwan’s Fiction, and Discourse Analysis and the Definition of Atheism, I am once again reminded that, for no other reason than the obsession it takes to fully baptise oneself in a subject, when I give this presentation I will be the one who owns it.  I will be the one to describe and create it.  Of course, that does not mean that it is entirely mine.  This is just a story I tell myself, a feeling of ownership I pretend exists, to keep me from feeling like what I have to say means something beyond the boundaries of my own thoughts.

[1] Bronislaw Malinowski, A Diary in the Strict Sense of the Term, Norbert Guterman, trans. (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1967), 140.