August 29, 2003, by Léon Krijnen
'Brights' come out of the closet Tweet
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E-skeptic d.d. august 28, 2003
As many of you are aware by now, there is a movement afoot to introduce a new meme into our cultural lexicon to substitute for the melange of descriptive words such as atheist, nontheist, agnostic, nonbeliever, infidel, heretic, skeptic, humanist, secular humanist, free thinker, and the like. The new meme was introduced at the Atheist Alliance International conference last April in Florida, by Paul Geisert and Mynga Futrell, from Sacramento, California.
Interestingly, this proposal followed my own lecture at the conference, in which the promoter had encouraged me to address the "labeling" problem in a slightly different context. (I did not know about the new meme about to be introduced.) It seems that this promoter had received some flack from some Atheist Alliance International organizers over whether or not I should be allowed to speak because I wrote in How We Believe that as a statement about the universe (there is a God or there is not a God) I am an agnostic (in the sense Huxley meant the term when he coined it in 1869, meaning that this is an insoluble question), and as a statement of personal belief I am a nontheist. Since I did not strictly identify myself as an "atheist," apparently some felt that my participation at the conference was not welcome. Essentially, I explained what I meant by these terms, that labels are arbitrary and loaded ("atheist" has all sorts of pejorative baggage in our culture), and that in any case there are so few of us in America who do not believe in God (between 5 and 10%) that to squabble over which nonbelievers in God should be allowed in the club is doing the same thing so many nonbelievers dislike about religion, along the lines of the Baptists and Anabaptists quibbling (fighting, really, to the point of splintering the church) over when baptism should be employed.
Paul and Mynga noted that, by analogy, homosexuals used to suffer a similar labeling problem when they were called homos, queers, fruits, fags, and fairies. Their solution was to change the label to a more neutral term--gay. Over the past couple of decades, gays have won significant liberties for themselves, starting with gay pride and gay marches that have led to gay rights.
Analogously, instead of calling ourselves nonbelievers, nontheists, atheists, agnostics, skeptics, free thinkers, humanists, and secular humanists, it was suggested that we call ourselves Brights. We are the Brights. I am a Bright. The evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins, the philosopher Daniel Dennett, and the magician and paranormal debunker James Randi have all announced publicly that they are Brights. In fact, Dawkins, Randi, and I were the first to sign up on the spot at the conference.
However, just as there is no one gay organization, the Brights Movement is not an organization; it is a constituency which, if it grows large enough, may one day influence society in a positive direction of increasing tolerance and liberty for both Brights and non-Brights.
What is a Bright? At the Brights web page it is explained: "A Bright is a person whose worldview is naturalistic--free of supernatural and mystical elements. Brights base their ethics and actions on a naturalistic worldview."
Bright is a good word. It means "cheerful and lively," "showing an ability to think, learn, or respond quickly," and "reflecting or giving off strong light." Brights are cheerful thinkers who reflect the light of science, reason, and tolerance for all, both Brights and non-Brights. I believe that the long-term future of humanity rests in the hands of those who embrace a naturalistic worldview and a secular society (regardless of what personal religious beliefs are embraced by individuals within the society). Our future is bright.
I have a more formal and literary statement on this subject, that closes the final chapter of my next book (The Science of Good and Evil, released next February from Henry Holt/Times Books) and goes into more detail, but for now I am officially out of the "other closet" in print. ----------------------------
ORIGIN OF "GAY" MEME
Ever since the "Bright" meme was introduced, with the "gay" analogy, I have wondered about the actual origin of the usage of word. Was this a top-down organizational strategy or was it a bottom-up emergent property of social self-organization? The following explanation comes from a correspondent, Rik Isensee (email@example.com). Thanks Rik.
Following up on your question about "gay" origins and usage:
I ran across this fascinating description of how the word gay made its way from a form of insider code to identity:
In George Chauncy's "Gay New York: Gender, Urban Culture and the Making of the Gay Male World 1890-1940," he sets out the history of the word "gay":
"Originally referring simply to things pleasurable, by the seventeenth century gay had come to refer to more specifically to a life of immoral pleasures and dissipation (and by the nineteenth century to prostitution, when applied to women), a meaning that the 'faggots' [a term used by gay people to refer to themselves at the turn of the century] could easily have drawn on to refer to the homosexual life.
"Gay also referred to something brightly colored or someone showily dressed -- and thus could easily be used to describe the flamboyant costumes adopted by many fairies [another term used by gay people to refer to themselves at the turn of the century], as well as things at once brilliant and specious, the epitome of camp." Chauncy, "Gay New York" p. 17.
"Over time, however, the word "gay" moved out of the slang of the effeminate gay men (the self-described fairies, faggots and pansies) and was used more and more as a code word by the non-effeminate gay men (the self-described "queers"). As one gay writer explained in 1941:
"Supposing one met a stranger on a train from Boston to New York and wanted to find out if he was 'wise' or even homosexual. One might ask: 'are there any gay spots in Boston?' And by slight accent put on the word 'gay' the stranger, if wise, would understand that homosexual resorts were meant. The uninitiated stranger would never suspect, inasmuch as 'gay' is also a perfectly normal and natural word to apply to places where one has a good time.... The continued use of such double entendre terms will make it obvious to the initiated that he is speaking with another person acquainted with the homosexual argot." Chauncy, p. 18.
Having moved from being part of the "fairy" slang to a "queer" code word, the meaning of the word gay changed again. Gay became not only an adjective but also a noun -- and a new way to identity oneself.
"While such men spoke of 'gay bars' more than of 'gay people' in the 1920's and 1930's, the late 1930's and especially World War II marked a turning point in its usage and in their culture. Before the war, many men had been content to call themselves 'queer' because they regarded themselves as self-evidently different from the men they usually called 'normal.' Some of them were unhappy with this state of affairs, but others saw themselves as 'special' -- more sophisticated, more knowing -- and took pleasure in being different from the mass.
"The term gay began to catch on in the 1930's, and its primacy was consolidated during the war. By the late 1940's, younger gay men were chastising older men who still used queer, which the younger men now regarded as demeaning. As [one man], who came out into the gay world of Times Square in the 1930's, noted in his diary in 1951, 'The word "queer" is becoming [or coming to be regarded as] more and more derogatory and [is] less and less used by hustlers and trade and the homosexual, especially the younger ones, and the term "gay" [is] taking its place. I loathe the word, and stick to "queer", but am constantly being reproved, especially in so denominating myself."
"Younger men rejected queer as a pejorative name that others had given them, which highlighted their difference from other men. Even though many 'queers' had also rejected the effeminacy of the fairies, younger men were well aware that in the eyes of straight men their 'queerness' hinged on their supposed gender deviance. In the 1930's and 1940's, a series of press campaigns claiming that murderous 'sex deviates' threatened the nation's women and children gave 'queerness' an even more sinister and undesirable set of connotations. In calling themselves gay, a new generation of men insisted on the right to name themselves, to claim their new status as men, and to reject the 'effeminate' styles of the older generation. Some men, especially older ones, continued to prefer queer to gay, in part because of gay's initial association with the fairies. Younger men found it easier to forget the origins of gay in the campy banter of the very queens whom they wished to reject." Chauncy, p. 19.
I also found a reference to the French gaie, (or Old French gai) referring to homosexual men in the 16th century--which makes one wonder whether gay meant light-hearted and fun because so many homosexuals were gay, or gay men were called "gay" because they were light-hearted and fun? (Do we call ducks, "ducks," because ducks duck, or do we call ducking "ducking" because ducks duck?)
This may have been more than you wanted to know about origins--but I think it does speak to the point that the word gay has a very long history.
It had some aspects of in-group code, especially for more flamboyant homosexuals, but then was claimed by most gays as preferable to the more sinister 'queer.' This history is all the more ironic, given that nowadays, many younger men identify as "queer," claiming it's more inclusive, whereas now it's the older men who object to its derogatory history! (Some of whom may be the very same men, who, when they were younger, claimed "gay" as their own, in contrast to "queer.")
But the queer controversy speaks a bit to what you're trying to do--it was a conscious effort by a small group (Queer Nation, in the early 90s) who decided to reclaim the expletive as a word that could include all of the lesbian/gay/bisexual/transgender/intersex/leather-s/m and questioning community. It's caught on a bit, especially amongst more activist and artistic communities; whether it will catch on generally will be interesting to see. (Don't expect to see queer replace gay in the New York Times just yet--since it took them 30 years to use gay instead of homosexual!).
As for bright as an all-inclusive term for the non-religious --when I ran across the bright website, my initial reaction was that it was needlessly alienating, implying that people of faith aren't very bright? It's also the top-down sort of attempt at influencing language that I suspect won't go very far in terms of general usage (although it has a far better chance than eupraxsophy ('good practice of wisdom'), the rather academic neologism that Paul Kurtz (Center for Free Inquiry) advocates).
I recently heard a linguist named Allan A. Metcalf discuss his book, Predicting New Words, on NPR. He describes how language evolves, and provided a number of criteria for a new word, phrase, or usage catching on, which might be helpful in deciding on your next steps!
>From Houghton-Mifflin's promo:
"Why are some new words adopted while others are ignored? Allan Metcalf explores this question in his fascinating survey of new-word creation in English. By examining past new-word contenders, Metcalf discerns lessons for linguistic longevity. For instance, he shows us why the humorist Gelett Burgess gave us the words blurb and bromide but failed to win anyone over with bleesh and diabob. Metcalf examines words invented for political and social reasons (African American, pro-life), words coined in books (edge city, the Peter principle), brand names and the words derived from them (aspirin, Ping-Pong), and words that started as jokes (big bang, couch potato).
"On the basis of this research, he develops a scale -- the FUDGE scale -- for predicting the success of newly coined words. The FUDGE scale has five factors: Frequency of use, Unobtrusiveness, Diversity of users and situations, Generation of other forms and meanings, and Endurance of the concept. By judging how an emerging new word rates for each FUDGE factor, Metcalf is able to predict which words will take root in the English lexicon and which words will dry up and blow away. In this highly original work, Metcalf shows us how to spin syllabic straw into linguistic gold."
I myself prefer "free thinker"--it has a history, and it seems more inclusive, since it originally included some religiously-inclined, but independent-minded folks as well (such as Quakers and Unitarians). It was also considered pejorative and subversive, and many free thinkers have claimed it as a positive identity. Anyways, I certainly support the efforts of non-believers (whatever we call ourselves!) to support the separation of church and state--organizations such as Americans United for Separation of Church and State, your own magazine Skeptic; Free Inquiry, Skeptical Inquiry, American Humanist, and American Atheist are all doing their parts! It's an interesting question whether a common term will enable us to represent our interests better, but I suspect organizing non-theists is a bit like the proverbial herding of cats!
Posted: August 29, 2003 06:21 PM (2300 words). Tweet