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Man’s inhumanity to man: a humanist perspective on the crucifixion story

MusingsPosted by emma@ecwilliams.me.uk Mon, April 15, 2019 13:49:57

Historical, mythical or legendary, the crucifixion of Christ represents the story of many. Whether or not the man called Jesus existed – and the modern scholarly view on this seems to range from ‘probably’ to ‘possibly’ – the gospel narrative reflects a wider human story, the story of thousands upon thousands of nameless and forgotten individuals who were crucified at the hands of the Roman state.

For anyone who assumes that crucifixion was an unusual or extraordinary event in Roman times, they should consider the case of the rebels led by Spartacus. This low-born Thracian gladiator-slave led a revolt so successful that it caused considerable embarrassment to the ruling Senate. When Crassus finally crushed the rebellion in 71 BCE, he ordered the crucifixion of an estimated 6,000 slave-rebels along the Appian Way, the main road leading out from the city of Rome; he also brought back the ruthless practice of decimation to punish and terrorise the cohort of soldiers that he deemed to have failed him the most in his earlier attempts to quash the rebellion.

Crucifixion was public and humiliating – deliberately so – and its use in the case of the slave-rebels illustrates several important points about this notorious and brutal method of execution. Its aim was to demean the victim and intimidate the observer – this was what happened to you when you challenged the Roman rule of law. Crucifixion was a servile supplicium – reserved for slaves and foreigners, non-Roman citizens, deserting soldiers, pirates and insurgents; wealthy Roman men were often removed from society due to political machinations or the whim of current authority, but never was crucifixion used to dispense with them.

In its broadest definition, crucifixion meant that the victim was impaled and/or tied to some form of frame, cross, stake or tree and left to hang for anything from several hours to several days. Causes of death included exhaustion and shock brought on by extreme pain and exsanguination (sometimes in part from a scourging prior to the crucifixion), heart failure and/or pulmonary collapse from the immense pressure put upon the victim’s heart and lungs; the victim’s demise could be hastened dramatically by increasing the intensity of this pressure, hence the common practice of breaking the legs to precipitate collapse. It was a sadistic and grotesque formula for murder, exploited in extremis by the Romans.

It is not clear whether the emperor Constantine outlawed crucifixion in the 4th Century CE, as is claimed by Christian triumphalist writers, but certainly it had been outlawed in the Roman empire by the mid 5th century. However, the Classical world is not the only context in which this abhorrent method of slaughter has been practised. Japanese haritsuke started with the execution of 26 Christians in Nagasaki in 1597 and recurred intermittently up until the last century. Islam has also subsumed the practice, with verse 5:33 of the Qur’an calling for the crucifixion of those who wage war against Allah or the Prophet. Crucifixion is still practised in some Islamic countries and there have been recently documented cases in Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Iran, Syria and Yemen; it is most commonly used to make a degrading and threatening showpiece of the victim’s body rather than as a method of execution, but this is not exclusively the case.

The Easter story means nothing to a humanist from a spiritual perspective; we do not believe that Christ was the son of God, nor do we believe that he died for our sins and was resurrected. Yet each year the human side of the Easter story can serve as a sober reminder of man’s inhumanity to man. In a modern context, we can and should take action by giving support to the work of organisations such as Amnesty International, who campaign tirelessly and effectively against the use of torture and capital punishment right across the globe.

But as a Classicist, I cannot help but see the story of Christ as a legend within its ancient milieu and recall the incalculable number of wasted human lives that resonate through its narrative. In the name of Roman civilisation, hundreds of thousands of ordinary people were tortured and crucified, forgotten souls with no afforded legacy of reverence or pious gratitude to preserve them in the conscious minds of the living.

At this time of year, I choose to remember them.

This piece was first published in Humanist Life in 2016.

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For the Love of Kindle

MusingsPosted by emma@ecwilliams.me.uk Sun, March 24, 2019 08:55:35
On holiday once, I was berated by an elderly Yorkshireman for “staring int’ computer again.” It took some considerable explanation to convince him that I was in fact reading a book and even when convinced, he shook his head in disapproval. His supposed reasoning was about the “feel” of a book, and it was irrational but not unusual. The fact that books feel and smell like what they are – ink on paper – seems to be the core reason why many people reject eReaders. Now, I have no wish to berate anyone for partaking in sensual pleasure – good luck to you! But if you are so inclined, why not just keep a small handful of books for sniffing and feeling? You don’t need hundreds.

I clung to the notion myself for a while. My first eReader, a Sony, was beautiful but felt strange. In the end, the hassle of plugging it into a computer and remembering how to download things proved to be too much of a challenge. I am a lazy technophile and I expect my gadgets to do everything for me in the style of '70s futuristic Sci Fi. But lo, then the Kindle appeared. Wireless. Instantaneous. Scarily easy to spend on. And I saw that it was good.

How anyone that claims to “love books” can be suspicious of these little devices amazes me. As a child I had numerous book-related fantasies, and I’m not talking about the book-smelling that I mentioned earlier; I mean the heady fantasies of a child who spends most of her waking hours living and breathing the narrative of her current favourite story. One of my abiding fantasies was to be able to open up my hand and summon a book of my choice in an instant. With the Kindle, my fantasy became a reality and now I feel like a child again. The only question is – what the hell do I do with all those old paperbacks?

I mentioned to my late father-in-law that I was culling my book collection and his reaction was one of horror: “I couldn’t possibly get rid of a book!” he thundered, as if my recent decision to donate around half of my ludicrously large collection to charity were an outrage to Jehovah. Not that I ever actually saw him reading a book, mind you, and by his own admission he tended to sample a small snippet before he got bored and moved onto another. This is something, incidentally, that the Kindle is perfect for; he wouldn’t even have had to leave his chair.

I assumed that I would meet with more rational thinking at work, but yet more irrationalism greeted my pragmatic remarks on space and the relative likelihood of me ever actually getting round to reading Lawrence Durrell’s Alexandria Quartet. (I mean ... really?! Where did I even get it?!) Most of the romantics that I work with are considerably younger than I am and yet they speak in the same terms as the elderly Yorkshireman and my father-in-law. (God help us). More mumblings about smells and the rustling of paper, more lofty claims about how wonderful it is to live surrounded by a myriad of book-spines.

Now I wonder how many of these people have had to move in and out of countless college rooms, jobs and houses with a large book collection? I spent eight years in Higher Education, and for some of that time I had to move in and out of my room six times a year. When I moved into lodgings near my first place of work, I was given a month’s notice in the first few weeks. Flat shares followed and a good deal of further moving before I even began to settle down. Then I met my husband and moved again, twice in one year. Since moving to our current home I have moved my books on and off temporary shelves and up and down stairs ad nauseam, as we progress through a decorating process that will probably never finish.

And by the time you have moved hundreds of books hundreds of times, trust me: you start to resent them. Not their contents, you understand, but their physical presence.

In Stephen Fry’s first novel, The Liar¸ the wonderful Professor Trefusis, a character who lives surrounded by improving volumes in what he calls his “librarinth”, is similarly fed up:

‘Waste of trees. … Stupid, ugly, clumsy, heavy things. The sooner technology comes up with a reliable alternative, the better.’

A wise man, Professor Trefusis, who elsewhere in the novel points out that the physical existence of a book is irrelevant to its intrinsic value:

‘Books are not holy relics. … Words may be my religion, but when it comes to worship, I am very low church. The temples and the graven images are of no interest to me. The superstitious mammetry of a bourgeois obsession for books is severely annoying.’

Books are a vessel for learning, a gateway to knowledge or a vehicle that can transport you to another world. They are not of intrinsic value, yet what they bring to those of us that love them is incalculable. For me, anything that speeds up and facilitates that process is a Godsend.

This piece was first published on the Kindle Users' Forum in 2012.

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Herd Mentality

MusingsPosted by emma@ecwilliams.me.uk Sun, November 18, 2018 11:42:20

At primary school, I rarely played with other children. For me, playtime usually meant a walk around the edges of the playground, observing others and thinking to myself.

There were lots of reasons why I found it difficult to connect with my childhood peers, none of them particularly interesting or unusual, but I do sometimes wonder whether my early experiences have defined my temperament; I’ve never been much of a joiner and find many people frankly depressing.

Large scale groups make me feel particularly uncomfortable and I hate the idea of “losing myself” in a crowd. A crowd takes on a mind-set and a force of its own, one that’s both independent from and beyond the control of the individuals it contains. It gave us looting and destruction during what started as a protest about the tragic and violent death of Mark Duggan in Tottenham; it gave us the devastating online lynching of Justine Sacco for a misguided and poorly-worded tweet; it gave us the Salem witch trials.

Herd mentality – in all its forms, both ancient and modern – is probably the thing that frightens me most in the world.

That is not to say that my failure to merge cohesively with a group has not caused me some anguish over the years – it can be a lonely existence. A few years back, it meant separation from a group of writers with many values that I share due to my innate inability to agree with them on everything – or at least, to pretend that I do. More recently, it has meant the editor of the magazine blocking me for defending people's right to ask questions. Apparently, I am "no longer an ally".

As a lifelong supporter of social justice, the new wave of “social justice warriors” and their denunciation of healthy debate has come as a horrifying shock to me. Until recently, I believed that the fight for equality would herald a new age of empathy, diversity and understanding. Instead, many of my previously liberal allies have been taken over by the cult of victim-hood and a collective fear of rejection. Like the teenagers in my classroom, they constantly check in with each other to affirm whether or not what they think is acceptable – and who can blame them? The consequences of dissent are excommunication from the tribe.

Experience has certainly taught me that being part of a group is not in my nature, and broadly speaking I am proud of the fact that I won’t play ball for the sake of staying on the team. It may not be my most attractive quality, but it’s the one that will drive me to raise the alarm whilst everyone else stays silent; it makes me the kid who will shout that the emperor’s got no clothes on.

In the past, I found myself briefly drawn to a range of people, many of whom describe themselves as “libertarians” – only to find once again that there’s a hymn sheet of horrors I'm expected to sing from. According to most of the Americans that I have met online, to be accepted as a “libertarian” then I have to be in favour of guns. Lots of guns. I have to agree that the act of carrying a gun is a liberating experience (I mean – what?) and certainly that the act of carrying one is none of the government’s business. Every time I try to propose a different line of thinking (held by most sane individuals on this side of the Atlantic), I am simply told that I’m “not a libertarian”. So there we are.

Another “libertarian” approach that I struggle to respect is the puerile desire to offend, bolstered by the dubious claim that this is somehow a noble and worthwhile antidote to the equally tedious culture of taking offence. Certainly, I relish challenge and debate, and I also believe that free speech is more important than the inevitable risk of causing offence to some. As Salman Rushdie said following the horrifying attacks on the staff at Charlie Hebdo in 2015, “I … defend the art of satire, which has always been a force for liberty and against tyranny, dishonesty and stupidity.” But in an article on what he has termed “cultural libertarianism,” Breitbart author Allum Bokhari argues that “deliberate offensiveness plays an important role in the fight against cultural authoritarianism, … showing that with a little cleverness, it’s possible to express controversial opinions and not just survive but become a cult hero.”

This surely sums up the unambitious and self-seeking aims of those who make it their business to offend – preening contrarians whose sole function is to cause shock and awe, their online communications a heady mix of clickbait, worthless insults and self-aggrandisement. Depressingly, I have observed this behaviour on #edutwitter as much as anywhere else; I thought better of the teaching profession, but once again I am proved mistaken. There is no evidence whatsoever that anyone’s personal liberty is furthered by such infantile sneering; yet swarms of self-proclaimed "liberals" rejoice in this toxic effluence with excited applause, like an encouraging mother will celebrate her toddler’s first shit in the potty.

Maybe I am still that little girl on the edges of the playground, the one with the problem joining in – but as I stand at the periphery, I see the herd mentality all around me. At its best, it gives us a sense of solidarity as we strive for the greater good or find our feet in the world. At its worst, it gives us mindless thuggery, the kind of collective violence exemplified and explored in Golding’s Lord of the Flies. On a mundane level, however, it gives us neither of these; it simply endorses mediocrity and prevents us from thinking.

This is an updated version of a piece I wrote for Quillette magazine in 2016.

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