On the narrative of dying

There are two terms I hate with a passion in relation to death.

Abel dying. Marble, reception piece for the French Royal Academy, 1785. Jean-Baptiste Stouf (1742–1826). © Marie-Lan Nguyen / Wikimedia Commons

The first is “passing”. This has become a trendy euphemism that seems to have seeped into the popular discourse from the sewer of spiritualism. The transitive sense of the verb to pass is movement of something from one place to another. Even arguing that it’s passing out of life won’t wash, because the implication is that it’s out of life into something else. I’ve even heard atheists and humanists use the term, as if it’s somehow become more socially acceptable and compassionate than dying. Death is our ultimate finality; there is nothing beyond it for us as individuals. Euphemisms that detract from that finality remove the acute sense of ending that comes with death. Perhaps that’s why we shy from the term, it’s easier to suggest some sort of ethereal hope of reconnection when we speak to the bereft and grieving, rather than acknowledge the finality and completeness of their loss.

The second object of my bile this morning is “battling with cancer”. There is a scientific and societal battle with cancer, but there’s bugger all an individual can do who’s got cancer than seek out the best medicine available in terms of cure. In terms of mental wellbeing, then there is much a patient can do to live with the reality of the disease and the possible outcomes. There is always an implied criticism in the use of the verb battle for those who die from cancer; obviously they didn’t try hard enough. I consider this to be offensive and objectifying of cancer patients as either winners or losers when no-one would dream of using the same language for, say, pneumonia. But, again, I can understand that when someone is very sick, it’s comforting to say to one another “she’s a fighter” as if it somehow casts a spell of recovery over the patient. And perhaps that’s why we do it; to persuade ourselves that this dreadful thing isn’t going to take the ones we love and place the onus of their own fate on the person least able to change it.

And in the last, here’s a warning to my family. I’ve got as good a chance as anyone else of dying of cancer. And if any one of them refers to me battling bravely or passing or other similar bollocks, I’ll break all the rules of the universe and come back to haunt them.

Cork Evening Echo Opinion Column: Why I spoke up for marriage equality

140 characters is usually enough

My feet were sore and my back was at me.

It was two days to the Marriage Equality referendum and I’d taken some time off work to help with Yes Equality Cork. I had never canvassed for anything in my life and my experience of going door-to-door in rural towns and villages had been almost universally positive. I was finding standing on the street in Cork a lot more daunting.


Outside the city library at lunchtime, I decided a friendly, indirect approach was best.  Holding my Yes Equality leaflets in my hand, I greeted people “Hello! Are you voting on Friday?” The most common answer I got was along the lines of “I am voting. And I’m voting Yes.” Some people said they hadn’t made their minds up yet. I asked if they had any worries or doubts and almost all said they didn’t, which led me…

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The Cruel Cut

Channel 4’s excellent documentary on female genital mutilation was an eye-opener. You can find out more about the programme here and it’s due to be re-broadcast on Channel 4 at 0105 GMT on Monday 11th November 2013. I found it variously shocking, beautiful, exhilarating, life-affirming and unwatchable. I’ve become increasingly aware of the issues of FGM over the last couple of years through feminist and humanist bloggers and attended a campaign meeting in London earlier this year.

A friend of mine in the village saw the documentary herself, and took to Facebook. This post is about what happened next. Names have been changed … Continue reading

IDAHO – May 17th

Today is the International Day Against Homophobia and Transphobia. I’m going to celebrate the day here on this blog and I invite you to support it yourself in whatever way you can.
Social and cultural change doesn’t just happen, however much it seems as if it does. It requires the positive intentions of people of good will to stand up, speak out and challenge prejudice and reactionary attitudes against social ills. It’s the same with homophobia and transphobia – we can all make a difference simply by acknowledging it remains a serious issue which affects the happiness and wellbeing of many in our society.
So, go to the www.idahouk.org website, and find out more.

HSS meeting in Glasgow

Yesterday afternoon I drove the 90 miles in to Glasgow for a meeting of the Humanist Society Scotland’s Glasgow branch. This was my first visit to this group, although I recognised a number of faces from the Glasgow Skeptics.

The main speaker was Paul S. Braterman, who gave the Darwin Day Lecture on the subject, Darwin, Science and Religion in the 21st Century. Paul is a chemist to trade, but extraordinarily knowledgeable and articulate on Charles Darwin the man and matters evolutionary. His talk was wide-ranging, covering a number of topics.

On the matter of the origin of biological information, something which causes creationists problems but not scientists, he quoted Francis Crick, “chance is the only source of true novelty“. In other words, variation through random mutation is the principle source of genetic novelty, but it takes selection to identify and preserve the biologically useful and therefore meaningful from the purely novel. Neither variation nor selection can, of themselves, generate useful new genetic coding which gets fixed in the genome, but rather both processes require to work together to do this.

Paul also gave an overview of Darwin’s progress through his life from Christianity, through theism (what we’d now call deism) to agnosticism in the terms of Thomas Huxley. Darwin’s autobiographical writings make his position later in life very clear; that’s more for my reading list!

Paul’s lecture concluded with what Darwin wrote to Edgar Aveling:
“freedom of thought is best promoted by the gradual illumination of men’s minds, which follows from the advance of science.”