If You Ban Your Child From Reading A Book You Are Your Child’s Enemy

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I’ve just read this story over on Death and Taxes about US parents who successfully banned the book The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie because of sex and because, apparently, it was insulting to their christian values.

The book tells the story of Junior who leaves his school on the Spokane Indian Reservation to attend an all-white high school and it has come under fire for reasons ranging from offensive language to sexually explicit scenes. The school board in the Meridian district in Idaho last year voted to remove it from the high-school supplemental reading list, where it had been used since 2010..

The Guardian reported at the time that ‘one local said it subjects children to filthy words “we do not speak in our home”, reported the paper [banning the book], which said the book features “reference to masturbation, contains profanity and has been viewed by many as anti-Christian”.’

In response to this some students raised 350 signatures on a campaign to lift the ban and a local bookstore took heart from this and started a crowd-funding campaign to get all 350 students a free copy of the book. They succeeded, yay! But then, on the evening at which they handed out the free books some parents called the police.

Death and Taxes report that ‘Rediscovered Books worked with a student involved in the petition, Brady Kissel, to distribute the books on World Book Night, an initiative to turn reluctant young readers onto reading with free, super-readable books. They distributed all but 20 books to kids who came in to claim them, but not before parents called the cops to shut down the operation. Police told local news channel KBOI they had been called by “someone concerned about teenagers picking up a copy of the book without having a parent’s permission.”

The book distribution went ahead and then when the publisher of the book, Hachette, heard what had happened and sent Rediscovered Books a whole load more free books to hand out to teenagers which is just so cool. This is a great response to such closed minded actions.

Firstly, World Book Night sounds like an incredible initiative! Secondly,

Fuck. That. Shit. 

Calling the cops on a people for giving out a book you don’t like? Seriously? I genuinely believe that if you ban your child from reading a book you are your child’s enemy. I love reading and I always have. As a child I was considered an advanced reader and not once did my parents ever deny me a book. Perhaps that’s why I turned out to be the liberal, atheist, skeptic, humanist, feminist that I am today (in which case I can understand why conservative Christians would quake in their boots.) Seriously though, when we develop as children and then later during adolescence it’s really important that we are allowed to question the world through our own eyes and minds so that we can make sense of it and ourselves. Books can help us do this and denying a teenager a book because you believe you know what is right for them is patronising and wrong.

“There’s been a lot of talk in American school districts about choice and it centers almost exclusively on parents, without taking into account that young people themselves are individuals with rights to a quality education and to access to information.” – Acacia O’Connor, National Coalition Against Censorship

This whole episode shows just how powerful books are. Inside books live ideas and these ideas are so strong that they scare the closed minded who ban then and burn them. If the scariest thing you can imagine is a teenager thinking for themselves then you’ve got a problem. Why be content with being afraid of ideas?

I’m now off to buy a copy of The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie which I hope serves as a lesson to those who got it banned from the schools. You can try to ban books but you will fail because people will read them anyway because books are powerful.

A reader lives a thousand lives before he dies. The man who never reads lives only one.” – George R. R. Martin

Note: Following the publishing of this post I had a debate on Twitter about banning certain books, the transcript of which is here.

Please Help Me Make My Video Series

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I have today launched an Indiegogo campaign in an attempt to fund a video series that I plan to produce to reach a wider audience in a way that isn’t restricted by written word.

Can you really find water with dowsing rods? How easy is it to make a ghost hoax go viral? What happens if you lock a skeptic in a haunted house? Why do Ouija boards seem to work? Can you really trick the human brain into seeing ghosts?

I have a long list of fun, informative videos that I want to produce but I need your help. If you can make a donation that will help me fund this project I would be extremely thankful and you’ll get some really cool rewards!

Check out my Indiegogo campaign now and please consider making a donation and spreading the word.

CLICK HERE TO MAKE A DONATION!

JREF In Forgetting-Women Shocker?

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Some people have reacted in horror, anger and confusion as the James Randi Education Foundation (JREF) revealed the confirmed speakers for their 2015 conference, The Amazing Meeting. Why? Because there are 20 men and 2 women and, out of these 22 speakers 21 are white.

So much diversity!

There are more speakers to be announced for TAM 2015 and I can only hope that they are all the minority speakers otherwise this is just a startling under representation.

I was curious though. Is this really a one off? Or is the JREF just guilty of what so many others are also guilty of? I had just returned from speaking at the 2015 convention for the AHS Students Society where the topic of attracting more diverse members into non-believer communities came up during the panel session I sat on. With this in mind I had a look at some of the other skeptical/atheist/humanist/freethought conferences that I am aware of/attending/speaking at personally this year and this is what I found:

AHS Student Society Convention 2015
9 announced speakers  / 5 women. 4 men.

QEDcon 2015
19 announced speakers / 11 men. 8 women. panels tba.

SkepKon 2015
21 announced speakers / 12 men. 9 women. panels tba.

Centre For Inquiry conference 2015 
38 announced speakers28 men. 10 women. more tba.

BHA Conference 2015
10 announced speakers / 7 men. 3 women. more tba.

American Atheist Conference 2015 
40+ announced speakers / 20+ men. 20+ women.

NECSS
34 announced speakers / 18 men. 16 women.

SkeptiCal 2015
9 announced speakers / 4 men. 5 women.

European Skeptics Congress 2015 
19 announced speakers / 16 men. 3 women. More tba/calling for participants

Australian Skeptics Convention
11 announced speakers / 5 men. 6 women. More tba

Well that’s… damning, really. Other than the European Skeptics Congress that only has three women so far (mainly due to women approached being unavailable) the TAM speakers list stands out like a sore thumb. There has been so much discussion about diversity within the skeptic scene and skeptic movement in recent years and it is great to see so many event organisers putting in the hard work and finding interesting and diverse speakers to make their events reflect the audiences they want to attract.

Research has even shown that diversity (gender and racial) in speakers at non-religious conferences has increased from 2003 to 2014, as detailed in this paper written by Ian Bushfield and Chris Hassall.

…but this effort has to be consistent. The previous TAM was pretty diverse (despite women reporting they didn’t feel welcome), so what gives?

Hopefully TAM will be announcing more minority speakers over the coming months, but isn’t it a shame to launch an event with such an under-representative speaker list? It certainly raises a lot of questions.

Ghost Event Company In Being-Insensitive Shocker!

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Simply Paranormal UK, who charge the public to attend ghost-hunting themed events at allegedly haunted places across the country (“act like what them people on the TV do for a night and pay us for the privilege”) have caused offense after referring to a now-closed mental health treatment centre as a “lunatic asylum” in their publicity of an upcoming event in Leicester.

The Leicester Mercury reported that ‘in a posting on Facebook, Simply Paranormal UK used the term when announcing an event in May this year. The posting said: “We are pleased to announce another Mental Asylum. The Towers Lunatic Asylum in Leicester – Ghost hunting never got even more exciting.”  The Towers began its life in 1869 as the “Leicester Borough Lunatic Asylum” but its name has changed over the years.’

Ghost hunting… never got… even more exciting…

Terrible sentence structure aside, the name change was prompted, I’m sure, when it became obvious that describing those with mental illness as “lunatics” wasn’t actually very helpful or nice. But why on earth would a paranormal tourism company give a crap about what is helpful, decent or right? Ghost Tourism event companies never cease to scrape the barrel when it comes to decency! I’ve previously written about a similar company called Compass Paranormal who ran an event in what used to be a Prisoner of War camp… and let’s not even get started on the company saying “…another mental asylum” as though these places are collectors items. Ugh.

It’s not just Most Haunted though. You can watch any of the range “reality” ghost hunting shows out there and the chances are that you will see the hosts put on a show of bravado and “confront” ghosts and “antagonise” ghosts because their priorities lie with having a scary, fun time and not with being decent people. Of course the companies who make a fast profit by imitating these television shows are going to behave in the same way.

They don’t care about the legacy of the people whose ghosts they claim to be chasing, they just want to ramp up the fear factor to sell tickets and you don’t do that by saying “hey everyone, we’re investigating a premesis in which people received treatment for a variety of mental illnesses that will probably have little or no impact on our event.” The fear factor comes from referring to such a place using outdated language like “lunatic asylum” which loosely suggests that mentally ill dead people are scarier than regular ghosts and there aren’t enough adjectives in my dictionary to describe how fucked up that is.

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Weakly Ghost Bulletin: A Conclusion

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For the last nine weeks I have been scouring the news to find the worst ghost related news items to report on. It has been quite a depressing experience that doesn’t bring very much to the table but from which I have drawn a number of interesting conclusions, as follows.

It seems that the ghost hunting community has changed a lot since I was involved in it ten years ago. Back then you would go to the newspapers if you thought you’d found something interesting on camera, but it seems that today more and more ghost hunting teams approach the media just because they’re conducting an investigation at a location before they’ve even set foot inside or drawn up a plan. It’s such a bizarre thing, but as I scoured online news sources each day I would have to skip past all of the news items about people who were going to conduct a ghost hunt at some historic location, or the press releases from the plethora of paranormal themed event companies who take the public on “ghost hunting nights” that are as realistic as Mickey Mouse. These things are not news worthy.

Then again, neither are many of the ghost related news items that I would report on. It also became abundantly clear to me in the last few months that the media cannot keep up with the demand for 24 hour rolling news and therefore any ghost story will make it to print, no matter how ridiculous it is. If there’s an interesting photo, story or video involved it seems the press will happily report on it without even analysing the story critically. They will even publish obvious hoaxes just to fill the demand for content! This isn’t a ground breaking discovery, but it is something that was really brought home when I found myself reading the most ridiculous, straw grasping news coverage of absolute nonsense.

It begs the question: is 24-hour rolling news making society see ghosts in the slightest odd encounter instead of dismissing it or trying to rationalise it, making us contact the local paper? The answer is that as a collective, our species has always been this superstitious, this willing to make leaps of logic, to see meaning when there is none and to take comfort from it, but it’s only in recent years that we’ve been given an international platform from which to share this. Let’s just hope that not everybody believes everything they read in the newspapers, though judging from the conversations I overhear that might just be the case.

This has led to my decision not to continue with the Weakly Ghost Bulletin because it just seems a fruitless task and a waste of time. I will, of course, write about those media stories that I think are interesting to examine but I won’t do so in the style of a weekly summary because it often felt as though I was scraping the barrel and I really don’t want to share the habits of the ghost-happy media.