A new episode of The Humanist Hour is available for listening. Keep reading to find out about the guest on this month’s show.
In this month’s podcast, Todd and Kim interview author, speaker and humanist advocate Nikki Stern. Listen as they discuss her latest books Hope in Small Doses and Because I Say So: The Dangerous Appeal of Moral Authority, including her humanist-fueled insights into the complex nature of hope, how hope is often misunderstood, the need to teach hope to children, looking for hope in the midst of wide-spread injustice, and more.
Nikki Stern writes political, social and cultural commentary with what NPR host Kurt Andersen has described as “even-keeled grace, tolerance and common sense.” Her first book, Because I Say So: Moral Authority’s Dangerous Appeal, details her experiences as a 9/11 widow in the context of our culture’s belief in unequivocal moral certainty. Hope in Small Doses recommends a version of hope that thrives in times of uncertainty. Nikki is also a contributor to Beyond Zuccotti Park, published by New Village Press.
Nikki’s pieces have appeared in the New York Times, Newsweek, USA Today, the AHA’s Humanist magazine, Princeton Magazine, and online at Salon, TruthOut, and Talking Writing. She has been a guest on NPR’s “All Things Considered” and CBS “Sunday Morning,” among others.
As the first executive director of Families of September 11 (FOS11), a national outreach organization, Nikki advocated on behalf of victims’ families. Under her leadership, FOS11 received an award from the conflict transformation group Search for Common Ground. An experienced public speaker, Nikki is a member of the Center for Inquiry’s Speakers’ Bureau and a frequent speaker on issues of social relevance.
To keep up with news about Nikki and get a bi-weekly sample of her observations, subscribe by sending her an email with “subscribe” in the email subject field.
Links from this month’s episode:
- Website: NikkiStern.com, Nikki Stern’s website
- Book: Hope in Small Doses, by Nikki Stern
- Book: Because I Say So: Moral Authority’s Dangerous Appeal, by Nikki Stern
- YouTube videos about Hope in Small Doses
- Foundation Beyond Belief’s Light The Night Walk team raising funds for the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society
- Freethought Equality Fund PAC
- American Humanist Association local groups
Music from this month’s episode (in order of appearance):
Transcript: The Humanist Hour #88: Nikki Stern, Hope Can Be Found
Kim Ellington: It’s The Humanist Hour. Today we will be talking to author, Nikki Stern about making cynicism unfashionable and appreciating the small things.
Todd Stiefel: Nikki will also be talking about bitch slapping the bullies, and Kim will be discussing her adventures in humanist homeschooling.
Kim Ellington: We might even hug an atheist. Hi, I’m Kim.
Todd Stiefel: And this is Todd.
Kim Ellington: And this is The Humanist Hour, the official podcast of the American Humanist Association.
How are you doing, Todd?
Todd Stiefel: I am great. I’m so itching to give the definition of humanism that we are not going to give anymore.
Kim Ellington: You’re itching to give something we don’t have?
Todd Stiefel: It’s better than itching because you have something.
Kim Ellington: Good point. Good point.
Todd Stiefel: I’m doing well actually. Very, very well. I hear you’re doing well, but you’ve been doing something a little bit interesting on the home front. You are a humanist homeschooler now.
Kim Ellington: I am a humanist homeschool parent. We started our homeschool about three weeks ago and it is going really, really well.
Todd Stiefel: Has your daughter latched on to the creationism yet?
Kim Ellington: To mock it. She’s still — yes, she’s amazed that people would even think that — we’ve mentioned it before in a podcast that we started her out with Greek mythology, so she’s pretty skeptical of anything that’s not quite interesting as the gods and goddesses of the Greek days. If it didn’t start up there on Mount Olympus, she’s a little bit weary of them. But, yes.
And I’m in North Carolina, I think we’ve talked about that, and North Carolina has pretty lenient homeschool rules. They have a very strong homeschool lobby that makes sure or does their part, I guess, to make sure that people leave homeschoolers alone. So, there’s, kind of, I think across the nation from what I read, there’s a lot of articles about a lot of Christian homeschooling and fundamentalist homeschooling, and I was very pleased, as I was doing research to start this process, that there is actually a lot of secular homeschool groups and people that are just like me. So, we have hooked up with several secular humanist groups and we are teaching our children about all religions and not just one, and as well as their math and science and getting dirty and having a lot of fun with other kids.
Todd Stiefel: What about the textbooks? Because I’ve heard that there’s a huge domination of the homeschool textbook market but books with things like the Loch Ness monster in it and kind of crazy fundamentalist religious texts. Are you having any trouble finding them or do you have good selection?
Kim Ellington: I’m not having any trouble finding the religious ones. Yes, there’s a place in Raleigh that sells homeschool curriculums and I actually walked in one day; after about five minutes, I had to walk out because it blew my mind. The history section was all white-male history, and I’m not exaggerating. The science books –
Todd Stiefel: The [indiscernible] history?
Kim Ellington: Yes, apparently. You know, there apparently are other people in the world. I’ve heard rumors.
Todd Stiefel: China is a real place.
Kim. China. China. Yes, I think I’ve heard of that. It’s on the other side somewhere.
The science books, I flipped one open and it literally said, “Why is the snail shell in a spiral? Because God wants it that way.” And I couldn’t. It actually blew a fuse in my little brain. I had to walk out and get myself together. And it does turn out there’s another section of the store that has other things besides religious texts. But I find that for us anyway, my daughter reads voraciously, so pretty much just giving her books to read and letting her choose her own books has been the most humanist thing we can do. We keep the Idiot’s Guide to pretty much everything in our home library. There’s the Idiot’s Guide to World Religions and all the different specific religions. She was studying up on paganism and Wiccan religion or — I guess we call those religions, like the earth religions? So, yes, it’s actually kind of neat. There’s a lot more out there. You can create — I think you have a wider variety of curriculum by just using books that are out there as opposed to the answers in Genesis series.
Todd Stiefel: How do you supplement the social aspect of school?
Kim Ellington: Oh, you don’t even have to supplement it. It just is. The social aspect of school is part of the problem that we were having in the public school system — and she went to a fantastic public school and I am not maligning her school at all because they were really, really good, but they have limited resources and the social aspect was her trying to do a science project with 15 kids of whom 14 of them would rather play with the materials rather than do the job that they were doing. So, for her, the social aspect turned into frustration. And with one teacher and a classroom full of 30 kids, it was not what I would consider to be the kind of situation that she’s going to need to learn how to deal with growing up, whereas with a homeschool situation, the kids — we have a co-op — they want to be there.
Todd Stiefel: Wow.
Kim Ellington: Yes. So, she’s constantly — she is alone for a few hours — or alone, her and I, for about two or three hours in the mornings, and then the afternoons are spent going to wildlife centers and the library and museums. We’re always out doing field trips with a lot of other kids, so there’s no lack of socialism. I think that’s changed a lot [cross-talking].
Todd Stiefel: No lack of socialism.
Kim Ellington: Socialism.
Todd Stiefel: I thought homeschooling was the opposite of socialism schools?
Kim Ellington: Yes, it’s the complete opposite of socialism.
Todd Stiefel: There’s a total lack of socialism in your schooling.
Kim Ellington: There is. There is. So, yes, it’s been a wonderful experience so far, and she’s having fun with it.
Todd Stiefel: Have you ever considered actually bringing in some of the, like, actual fundamentalist teachers just to expose the children to that side of the coin?
Kim Ellington: Well, you know, it’s interesting, one of the co-ops that we’re part of that is doing classes right now is actually held in a Lutheran church, and the classroom that most of her classes are in is called the Christ Café, and there’s a biblical timeline on the wall, the walls are just covered in Bible verses and posters about the glory of God, and there’s a cute little picture of David Archuleta — he was a guy from American Idol several years ago who is like out and out Christian and sang a lot of gospel songs, and he’s got like the requisite him jumping in the air and pointing a finger at the camera and winking. And of course, she’s like, “Who’s David Archuleta,” which made me happy.
Yes, it’s interesting, but we walked in and her first — she was sitting across from me, because the first day the parents are all there as well, and her eyes got real wide and she started snickering behind her hand and I had to take her out and was like, “We’re going to be respectful. This is someone else’s place that we’re in, and you’re not going to laugh. We can talk about it later.” And she’s like, “I know, Mommy. It’s so funny though. There’s the Genesis first over there about the moon giving its own light, and we know that’s not true.”
Todd Stiefel: Yes, I think that’s important though. I mean, when in Rome, do as the Romans. So, if you’re in the Christ Café, you eat Christ just like they do.
Kim Ellington: With or without nuts, whichever one they have.
Todd Stiefel: If you have an allergy though.
Kim Ellington: Right, right. Definitely go no nuts.
Todd Stiefel: So, Kim, there’s a new Freethought Equality Fund that’s been covered by Huffington Post and Lawrence [indiscernible] and others. Can you tell our listeners a little bit about that?
Kim Ellington: I think it’s interesting. They’re, I guess, putting everything together to help support candidates that they feel are furthering humanist values, and I think there’s a lot of other PACs that do a lot of support for other kind of people, so it’s probably good to have some equality.
Todd Stiefel: Yes, it’s an interesting concept. We’ll see how that goes. There’s a lot going on in the movement, it’s kind of hard to keep up sometimes with the amount of change and the amount of new organizations popping up and the amount of — just even local groups, for example, I was just hearing that the AHA now is over 175 different local affiliates which is incredible. Apparently it was only like 100 a few months ago. So, yes, the movement is booming and that’s pretty exciting. And actually if there’s anybody out there who’s interested in affiliating — this wasn’t intended to be a plug, but I guess it became a plug for AHA, but you can go to the AHA website and get more information. I believe the link is americanhumanist.org/getlocal if you want to start a group or affiliate your group.
Kim Ellington: That’s exciting. I’m already part of an affiliated group.
Todd Stiefel: You are. And your affiliated group recently did a hug-a-heathen or hug-an-atheist event. Tell us about that.
Kim Ellington: We did. We did. We had — North Carolina’s main Pride Festival was in Durham last weekend, and we had a float. We teamed up with a lot of other meet-up groups and atheists and freethought groups and we had a hug-an-atheist event and that went amazingly. We had signs painted, hug-an-atheist for a dollar, hug-a-heathen for a dollar, and of course, all the proceeds went to our Light The Night team which is under the umbrella of the Foundation Beyond Belief’s national team, and we raised, I believe, almost $400 of hugs.
Todd Stiefel: Oh my gosh.
Kim Ellington: Yes, it was amazing. At $1 a hug, that was a lot of hugging. There were actually, I have to admit, a lot of free ones that were going on too. We let people try the merchandise before they bought.
Todd Stiefel: So, it’s $1 if you hug a humanist, but is it like 50 cents to hug an agnostic?
Kim Ellington: Actually, we did 50 cents for Christian side hugs.
Todd Stiefel: Excellent.
Kim Ellington: And I actually did have — and this is — I’m disparaging myself, which I don’t usually do, I did have a gentleman offer me a dollar to not hug him. I took it gratefully. It was going to a good cause but it did hurt my heart a little bit.
Todd Stiefel: “Don’t hug me you filthy heathen.”
That’s actually an interesting sub-concept, isn’t it, like, “We won’t touch you if you pay us.”
Kim Ellington: Yes. Well, I tell you it went really, really well, and I was very pleased that we were able to do as much as we were for our Light the Night team.
Todd Stiefel: That’s actually kind of taking off. We had a little bit of a slow start this year, but things have boomed lately. We have over $217,000 raised as of this morning for our overall national team which is pretty cool, and who knows how much that will grow just between now and when this ends at the end of the year. So, that’s pretty cool.
Kim Ellington: It is pretty neat. I was — the same thing happened, it’s interesting that my personal experience follows that trend. I had nothing and I couldn’t believe that all my fundraising was doing nothing and then overnight, I went from 27 percent of my goal and I’m now at, I think, 250 percent of my goal.
Todd Stiefel: It sounds like you need a higher goal.
Kim Ellington: I know. I’m just going to keep going and going.
Todd Stiefel: Raise that roof.
Kim Ellington: Raise the roof.
Todd Stiefel: Raise the roof.
Well, we have a pretty fascinating guest this month. Her name is Nikki Stern. Nikki Stern is an author, a public speaker, and is also the widow actually of a 9/11 victim. She has written the books Because I Say So: The Dangerous Appeal of Moral Authority as well as her latest book Hope in Small Doses.
Kim Ellington: Yes. And I have done some research on Ms. Stern because, of course, we are going to be talking to her today, and the word “feisty” came up a couple of times in different people’s reviews of her books, so I’m curious. Because feisty is not a word that I usually enjoy, but I bet she’s more fun than feisty.
Todd Stiefel: Do you find feisty to be condescending?
Kim Ellington: Well, it does seem to be a word that is only used for women.
Todd Stiefel: Interesting.
Kim Ellington: I have never heard of a feisty man.
Todd Stiefel: Yes, that’s true. I guess I haven’t thought about it like that. But that’s true, it does seem kind of specifically tailored to one group. So, is it to you almost like if somebody used the word “uppity,” it’s kind of insulting? Like, “Don’t call me feisty,” “don’t call me uppity.”
Kim Ellington: Yes, I guess I don’t mind it, but it is interesting to me. It’s something that I’m not active on yet but my antennae are up there in that direction.
Todd Stiefel: Fair enough.
Kim Ellington: Nikki Stern, welcome to the show.
Nikki Stern: Thank you for having me.
Todd Stiefel: It is great to have you here. Thank you for joining us. I’m excited. I’ve got all sorts of cool questions for you today.
Nikki Stern: Okay. Well, I hope they’ll be questions I can answer.
Todd Stiefel: I’m wondering how many times we’re going to use the word “hope” during this conversation, actually. Should we take a wager on that to start?
Nikki Stern: Yes. I’m going to go with 864.
Todd Stiefel: I’ll take the under on that.
Nikki Stern: Yes, I think that’s probably wise.
Kim Ellington: I’m going to go with one to make sure that I get in there.
Todd Stiefel: Oh, you’re — this is not the Price is Right.
Nikki Stern: Yes, yes.
Kim Ellington: The Hope is Right.
Nikki Stern: Yes. You’re a real conservative. I think you might want to up your investment just a little.
Todd Stiefel: So, you wrote the book Hope in Small Doses.
Nikki Stern: Yes.
Todd Stiefel: Did you hit the Thesaurus to find out alternate words for the use of the word “hope”?
Nikki Stern: Completely. I thought you were — you may think you’re kidding, but that’s exactly what I did. I wanted to see how people defined hope, and I looked at — I used dictionaries, I used Thesaurus, I used my favorite synonym dictionary. It keeps coming back to hope. I mean, expectation kind of — of course, I would say, yes, oh — or belief or — no, it’s hope. There’s not a lot of synonyms for hope. Expect, maybe, but I think that’s a bad one.
Kim Ellington: And you used anticipation too. That was –
Nikki Stern: And that’s — the brain scientist — and I didn’t study them all, but the ones that I looked at and whose work I read seem to feel that anticipation is a different kind of thing than hope. It’s more mechanical. It’s a little less in our control. Hope is this weird combination of emotion and belief system. So, it’s not one of the primary emotions that are on those circles that you see that I would’ve put in the book, except there are copyright problems, but it’s not purely instinct and it’s not purely emotion. There’s also some belief system at work with hope, which is kind of cool. It makes it very complex.
Todd Stiefel: What would you consider the difference between, let’s say, optimism and hope?
Nikki Stern: Ah, yes. That one in — I had hoped somebody else — sorry, there we go. What are we, on number three already? That someone else would make that more clear for me. Optimism — so, if I could just [cross-talking] –
Todd Stiefel: I’m not answering the question, Nikki. This is your interview.
Nikki Stern: Yes, I know. Gosh, darn it. Gosh, darn it.
Okay. But, no. A couple of the books I read about optimism including someone who teaches happiness at Harvard University — and of course, if they come from Harvard, we read them twice before we say, “I don’t agree with you.” But optimism appears again to be more of an emotional reaction, something that seems to be innate, and in fact the whole view of depression now is the brain gone wrong because we are presumably, as human beings, hardwired to seek or go for the most hope, optimistic that is positive outcome. So, again, hope has to do a little bit more with planning and aiming for something, and there’s more of some sort of a deliberate-thinking process and a set of actions than there is with optimism. How does that sound?
Kim Ellington: No, I like that. I think that’s good. I think that’s good. So, why do you suppose it is — and I bet you have some ideas –
Nikki Stern: Oh, wow.
Kim Ellington: — that we are going to have it in small doses?
Nikki Stern: Well, okay. The reason I went with Hope in Small Doses is because I think that hope’s gotten — I don’t even know if I want to say “a bad rap” although I will say a bad rap, but I just think it’s been misunderstood and blown out of proportion, and I don’t presume to be the last word on hope, although I would like to think I’m the best word on hope but I’m not the last word on hope, but I think that one of the elements with the kind of hope I’m suggesting is that it has an element of pragmatism, so that the good parts of hope, the parts that make you feel, “I want to get up in the morning and I want to look towards the future and I want to think about what I can do to make my life better or other lives better and enjoy the life that I have,” I think that has to be enacted or followed within the constraints of the realities that make up what life is. You can’t always get exactly what you want, things will not turn out the way you plan them. The idea of a charmed life sounds fantastic in real life, but it doesn’t always work out that way.
Todd Stiefel: What led you to become passionate about the concept of hope and sharing that with other people?
Nikki Stern: Well, I have a very specific vantage point, because I went through the trauma of losing my husband on 9/11, and that’s a euphemism, he was killed on 9/11, and besides that being very shocking and sudden and extraordinarily unexpected event was also a very public event. And so, in addition to going through whatever I would go through as a grieving person, there was a public component to the process which allowed me to see what everybody was going through, a lot of which people tried, maybe without meaning to and in some cases with meaning to, trying to put on me and on other family members expectations they had about what I would think or how I would react, and needs that other people had. And so, what I found is I couldn’t — my belief system would not allow me to either rest assured that a higher power had a plan and everything would be okay and it would not allow me to believe that if I just practiced and got better at putting things out to the universe, that I would also be okay.
But on the other hand, not having this thing that I called hope, which was a feeling that things could be okay, that they were going to be better than okay, that there was a way forward, not having that was very depressing. I’m not by nature a cynical person. I have cynical thoughts and I see things for what they are, but I am — and I would’ve never believed this of myself, but I am innately optimistic. All sorts of caveats, all sorts of reality checks about what’s going on in the world and how mean people can be, blah, blah, blah, but I am innately optimistic. And so, to not have a reason to get up in the morning or a way to find myself to that reason compelled me to figure out how to have a hope that I could own and then maybe share with other people, like-minded people.
Kim Ellington: Is it trite to ask you, did you have hope that you would have hope?
Nikki Stern: Not initially, not at all. One of the things that I discovered right in the middle of 9/11 is — the first thing I had to discover is that I wasn’t going to die. And I know that sounds very direct, but anybody who’s gone through a shock and a grieving process, that’s the first thing — they’re not sure whether they want to go on, and I didn’t really have anybody cheering for me from the sidelines because we were childless and there were two, and then there was one, and it’s 50 percent down and 50 percent loss of power, if you will, is a pretty devastating cutback in energy and in love and all that kind of good stuff. So, I didn’t have anybody saying it’s going to be okay. So, the first thing I had to do was, “No, believe,” that I was going to be around. And then, the thing that took much, much, much longer was the belief that I was going to be around and be able to be joyful. That took a lot longer, but I kind of crawled my way and researched my way towards it, which is kind of the way I do things, I guess. So, it came slowly.
Someone asked me a couple of months after 9/11 if I thought I’d feel hopeful again, and I thought she could have been speaking Greek to me. I had no idea what she was talking about. And I had cocked my head to one side, kind of went, “What?” And then I said, “No.” And then she looked so stricken, I said, “Oh, but it’s okay. I don’t need help.” But I did. I do. We do. And I think that people that don’t have in place a rock solid, by which I really should say inflexible, immovable belief in something else controlling their destiny, they’ve got to find a way to on their own and in concert with other human beings, find a way to come to their own purpose and reason to see ahead. So, that’s how I got — I didn’t believe in it, and that’s how I got to it, it was four little letters, and I said, “I can get there from here. I just have to figure out what my path is.”
Todd Stiefel: So, is it hard for you still — and I guess, really, how do you feel now that you — a lot of your life since 9/11 has been about leading organizations directly dedicated to the aftermath of the event and its impact on people as well as now writing a book about hope, and it’s almost hard to interview you without the concept that the reality of your husband being killed on 9/11 coming up; how is that for you? How does that make you feel to have that come up over and over again just in every conversation like this?
Nikki Stern: Well, I fought it for a while. And in fact, I left the organization Families of September 11 in 2005 and I wrote my first book which was directly about 9/11 and the impact on families and the way it felt to be a 9/11 family member in a country that was so desperate for certainty, and I wrote that in 2009, and then this one 2011, 2012. But honestly it informs what I’ve done over the last 12 years but it doesn’t, it didn’t, and it will not and it never will be who I am, and one of the greatest discoveries that I’ve ever made — and I knew some of it right away which was also incredibly fortunate is that this was an event and it was an event that shaped my path but it did not reform the essential me. I grew up in a household where questioning, discussing, and inquiring and having a healthy sense of skepticism was welcomed, celebrated. So, that was already there, my way of looking at the world. All of that was there. What I didn’t know how to do it was to how to pull that all together and maybe share it with other people, or how do you even turn that into joy.
Being married to the person I was married to allowed me to discover the inner optimist, because I was always a little bit afraid, a little bit nervous and a little bit worried about things and getting older and having him — not losing him, really, but certainly having him allowed me to get to that point, and then, believing that I was still the same person, only with another component that he helped unlock, helped me to go on. And honestly, — and this is so corny, I almost felt, you know, because we’re all tough humanist here, but the guy wasn’t a god or anything like that. He was just a regular guy, but he was a guy with such an intrinsic love of life at the simplest levels, and knowing that that’s another way to live, it just seems like it’s a really good way to honor the essence of him to live that way. And so, it all came together and made sense to me to be that way. And so, I don’t feel like 9/11 so much defines me as it said, “Here’s a road.” That road has not been clear, by the way. I mean, I left Families of September 11 in 2005 and, between 2005 and 2008, everything I wrote was about 9/11, not because I wanted to, but that was the only thing people were paying me to write about. And so, that was very challenging.
But then, a couple of people started asking me to talk about other things, about community, about healing, about resilience, about — my friends, the architects in New York who I just love forever were the first ones, their organization, various organizations to ask me to participate on panels about re-imagining New York and re-imagining ground zero. Now, I worked for architecture firms, but I was a public relations, I wasn’t a designer. So, for them to invite me in and ask me to talk about things that had to do with envisioning the future and moving forward, and there were a couple of schools that also invited me on to panels where I was talking about what might be and what might happen in the future, so, it wasn’t all about how does it feel to be a 9/11 widow. And I’m so grateful to those people for giving the opportunity to use my voice in another way. So, it’s a path that’s still got some little pebbles and boulders in the road but it’s a little more clearer now, which is nice.
Kim Ellington: It’s interesting that you mentioned growing up skeptical and being taught to think. And I think — I know for a fact that in our humanist community, the parents — I’m part of several parenting beyond belief and other groups with parents that share similar humanist values, and teaching our children to question is — and that’s something we’re talking about all the time, the difference between — we teach our kids how to think, not what to think — it’s kind of a mantra almost that we hear often and read often — what are our your thoughts on — do we need to teach children to hope? Is that just as important?
Nikki Stern: Yes. Well, one of the things I’ve noticed — and I don’t know whether it’s my generation or it relates to people who are skeptical inquirers — and I love those people, of course — is that they get a little confused when it comes to hope. One of the things I do love about humanism is that it’s good without a god — so, good, doing good, being good, thinking about good. But I also noticed that humanism itself always had a bit of a struggle with being even the slightest bit optimistic. It was kind of like, “yes, well, you know, we’ll struggle by here in this sorry little life we have,” and all of that. And a lot of smart people I know, a lot of smart, skeptical inquirers that I know seem to be missing out on the joyous element of being alive. I say that and I can almost picture some of my friends rolling their eyes, but I think that the kind of hope — and it goes along with something that’s coming up in humanism more and more that I also love intensely, which is the idea of mindfulness.
So, it’s not a gratitude, it’s not something that thanks something else, but it’s an awareness of the wondrous, inexplicable but wondrous things that occur along the way, some of them spontaneous and some of them not. And so, I would like to make cynicism unfashionable because I don’t think it leads to action of any kind that’s very helpful. I’m not recommending a Pollyanna or a passive version of hope, but I’m suggesting it’s a way to get beyond a constricted kind of cynicism that sometimes befalls really smart people. Because I think the smart people, my smart friends are the ones that have to be helpful because they’re the ones that were not in the world doing the activist’s stuff.
Todd Stiefel: It’s actually a really interesting point because I do know there are some people in the movement, myself included, where when you’re an activist working on church-state separation or working on equality for LGBT or humanist for that matter, you’re dealing with a lot of injustice and bigotry, you’re dealing with people who despise gay people just because the Bible says so, or who are trying to strip the rights away from humanists and force them to pray in the schools, in their public schools, and some of the stuff is somewhat infuriating, to be honest, or even depressing at times. It’s like, “Gosh, will they stop? They lost this in court 50 years ago. Are they really still trying to push prayer down our throat?” And I get frustrated, I’ll admit, sometimes just reading about some of the news on church-states issues. What would you suggest for me and others like me, because I know there’s a bunch out there, who sometimes find it fatiguing to have to deal with injustice and bigotry so often?
Nikki Stern: It is fatiguing. It’s absolutely fatiguing. And I tell myself not to get involved in some of these discussions on Facebook where people say absolutely outrageous things about everything from Obamacare to end of days, and you just want to start pulling your hair out. And of course, if you’re progressive as many, if not all, the humanists are, you find people who disagree with you have co-opted the language but not the intelligent thought that goes behind the language. They’ll say, “Well, you’re just spouting talking points, where what you’re doing is presenting a logical argument.” And so, they’ll use the language but not make any sense, and you know, it makes me want to scream. But you’ve got to kind of look and think there’s the umbrella and then there’s the stuff that goes under the umbrella. There’s the goal and then there’s the past to the goal. So, if I decide and I argue in favor of Steven Pinker’s idea that our better angels, so to speak, our better selves, the better human being is there and possible, it’s not obvious and for some reason that I can’t quite put my finger on, we seem to be — there’s a step backwards every time you take two steps forward, and so, we get gay marriage and then I have to see Michele Bachmann getting any kind of news coverage for talking about end of days [sounds like] — I mean that woman shouldn’t have a single camera on her, but, you know, we’re a country, I guess, we’re a world where anything sensational and provocative, regardless of how ridiculously unreasonable, gets the same amount of airtime.
So, it’s a balancing act and in small doses. I’ve been on the planet a while and so I go back and I think about — I mean, I have to remember how closeted my friends had to be, even pre-AIDS, I have to remember how carefully acquaintances of mine who are African American felt they had to tiptoe around in certain situations. I have to remember how hard my father fought just to get to play golf in a country club where anybody he wanted to bring — he was a lawyer and he had — some of his clients were baseball players, and some of them happened to be African American, one of them happened to be Jewish, and he wanted to take them golfing and he wanted to go to a place where they could all play, and they couldn’t all play anywhere, just anywhere in the ‘50s and ‘60s. So, I have to — I remember that and I say, “Well, we’ve come this far,” and the rest is blather and it’s really irritating blather. And it shows how firmly entrenched we are in our own righteousness and our own fear.
Because, you know, when I hear people say — and I don’t like this word but I’ll use it — stupid, stupid things about gays and people who are different from them, I make myself remember that their anger and their ridiculous bias is coming out of fear. It doesn’t make me like them and it doesn’t make me at all like what they’re saying, but it relaxes me because I don’t let fear own me and I don’t let fear produce the bile that is coming up and getting so much attention. You know, we’re also paying attention to it. We’re also furthering it. So, that’s just stuff. That’s just stuff. It doesn’t matter anymore.
Todd Stiefel: I think the only one place I would disagree with all that is regarding Michele Bachmann. I think she does deserve cameras in front of her. I think she should be on Duck Dynasty personally.
Nikki Stern: Oh, okay. Yes, yes. She should have a reality show.
Todd Stiefel: Exactly. Personally, what gives me hope is the concept that somebody Michele Bachmann will have to go on a reality show where she has to eat disgusting food all day and I can watch the look on her face.
Nikki Stern: You see what gives me hope is that Ted Cruz may be deported back to Canada. I mean, you never know. You just never know. I’m not sure after the guy they have in Toronto, the Mayor Ford, that they’d take him, but who knows? Who knows? It could happen. We don’t know. See, that’s the great thing. So, why not think glass half full. Texas could secede. It could happen. I try to look on the bright side.
Kim Ellington: And that’s an interesting concept to you. One of the things, looking on the bright side, again, as you were saying that a lot of humanists, there seems to be kind of — there can be, not all the time at all, but when people think that the darker side, the sadder side of life is that’s what’s real, and if you deny that, then you’re denying reality. And what keeps me hopeful is that I don’t think that that’s any more real than the hopeful side of life. I think there’s a balance in everything. And that’s what I enjoyed with your book, is that it seems like you kind of came to the same conclusion. So, I had that confirmation bias going for me which was nice.
Nikki Stern: Yes. I mean, you know that — and I always like to validate people’s confirmation bias whenever possible.
But you know that old commercial — well, maybe they always say this now, “Past performance is no guarantee of future outcome or future performance,” or whatever. The fact that the people have been kind of being — pardon the expression — crappy towards each other, the fact that we have this high level of incivility in Congress — which, by the way, if you go back in history and you look at the mid 1800s in this country, it isn’t the highest level of incivility. And if you go back and look at England, I mean, some friend of mine from London was saying, “Oh, you Americans [indiscernible].” Seriously? You have the House of Commons and you’re going to tell me that we’re rude? Your people used to throw crap at each other. Give me a break. I mean, the fact of the matter is that doesn’t guarantee that’s how it’s going to be in the future. There is no outcome. So, you have a choice. You do have a choice. You can figure the worst thing is going to happen or you can figure the best thing is going to happen or better things can happen.
And I think it’s important for me to say this takes work, okay? I still haven’t fallen in love again, and I miss the hell out of it, and there are days I get up and I go, “Oh my God,” and there is an ageism in this country — and I’m not that old, but honestly, I’m just old enough to be at the edge of feeling a real bias against me because of my age, and there is nothing — that will change, people get older and they’re seen as less relevant. So, I struggle with this. I have to tell myself, I have to be my own coach, I have to tell myself to remember to take things in balance and look at it in a different way. But you can do it.
Todd Stiefel: How much of having hope is as simple as deciding to try to look on the bright side of things?
Nikki Stern: Yes. I mean, I don’t even know about the bright side of thing, but I would say a big part of hope is having a belief that almost anything is possible. I’ll say almost, there’s the small doses, certain things aren’t possible, certain things as evidence conspires against it. But I used to tell people when they go black or white or this or that, I’d say there’s always a third way. I know there’s a third way. So, there’s always another path, there’s always another way, there’s always another opportunity, and if that’s looking on the bright side or just seeing the glass as still having some water in it rather than being half empty, yes, that is a big component of hope, is just choosing to look for the, if not silver lining, choose to not always look at the raindrops.
Todd Stiefel: Tell us about your earlier book. You wrote a book called Because I Say So: The Dangerous Appeal of Moral Authority. And I’m sure that’s — I’m sure religion is covered as part of that. But what are some of the most important crumbs of moral authority that people should be aware of aside from religion?
Nikki Stern: Yes. Well, religion was one of them. I felt that and I still think American moral authority is an issue. I think it’s morphed a little bit because people are feeling bad right now about what’s going on in our country, but they’re still taking the position that if we only did A, B, and C, and those things probably are not things that some of your listeners or I would agree with, if we do those things, we will regain our status as God’s favored child, and I think there’s a — so, there’s a political moral authority or cultural moral authority at play.
I think there’s a — in healthcare, there has been until recently and it still exists with certain doctors, doctors sometimes act out of moral authority. You know, they’re responsible for your life, especially surgeons, and so some of their decisions may be medically sound and some of their decisions may deserve to be questioned. In any arena where certainty is at play, absolute inflexible self-righteous certainty is at play, there is a danger of somebody grabbing a piece of moral authority, and that’s pretty much what I was addressing. Including the supposed moral authority of people that have suffered a trauma, as if somehow, again, they’re all like Job — it always goes back to religion even if the people don’t think it does, because it just has to do with the belief that some people were granted or put through something or placed in a position where they were able uniquely to make personal moral decisions on behalf of all sorts of people.
Kim Ellington: That’s an interesting point. One of the things that happened two weekends ago are one of our local freethought groups — actually, several of our local freethought groups got together to march in our local gay pride parade to show our support and, you know, for the separation of church and state, and our support of all Americans and not just the ones that are being maligned by a moral authority. And what struck me was that this was the first time I had seen up close the fundamentalist protestors who come in with their signs which have foul language on them and they have their bullhorns and they just sit and read scripture on the bullhorns. And that — you know, I kind of get used to it and you tune it out because you know that they’ve got issues.
But there were several young gay men, specifically, I’m sure there were more than just the men, but there was right next to me two boys, probably in their late teens or early 20s and they had tears running down their faces and they were screaming at this man, “Who do you think you are? Who do you think you are to judge me? I can’t believe you still feel this way in this day and age.” They were very emotionally worked up, and I can understand that, not for that specific — I’m not gay so I don’t have that but I have been bullied in my life and it is nowhere near what this poor boys were going through, but I was trying to explain to them as an older, hopefully somewhat wiser person who’s had a lot of life experiences, “Don’t accept their moral authority. Why are you even listening to them?” And it was frustrating for me to have them in some way validate these fundamentalist people by standing there and arguing with them.
Nikki Stern: It’s asking a lot, I think, and again, you had some years on the boy and I have some more years, it’s really hard to — you know, sticks and stones may hurt my bones but words will never harm me. Well, no, they really do hurt.
Kim Ellington: They do.
Nikki Stern: And when you’ve grown up, even in 2013, if you’ve grown up, being bullied or being made to feel like less of something and you hear someone yelling that, I mean your first instinct is to say, “Why are you saying that to me? Stop being so mean.” And the only thing you can do is when you’re tempted to ask the question, “Who are you to judge me,” get to the answer right away which is, “You are no one to judge me.”
Kim Ellington: Exactly.
Nikki Stern: “You are no one,” okay? All you are doing is allowing your fear to inform your emotions. And I feel sorry for you, miss or mister whoever you are, because you’re afraid. You don’t even know what you’re afraid of. You won’t even look at what you’re afraid of. So, you go to a Bible that was written by humans, not by a divine authority. Even if you believe in divine authority, you know that humans put that down. So, you’re going to a book that was written by human beings and you’re using that to cover for your own fear. And you don’t even know what you’re fearful of because you won’t look at it, and I feel sorry for you. And that’s why your judgment doesn’t affect me at all.”
Kim Ellington: Yes. I wish I could’ve gotten that. It’s beautifully put to this poor boy [sounds like].
Nikki Stern: Yes. But I can imagine. I mean, I was bullied as a kid. I can still feel how — I know how long it took me to get the words and how hard it is to stand up to bullies. And you’ve got to remember that they’re bullies, that’s the very first thing. You can’t say, “Oh, they’re crazy.” They’re bullies. They’re bullies and they’re acting out of fear and probably a little bit of self-loathing, and you just throw that all on them, pile it on them, because that’s what it is. Intolerant people are self-loathers as far as I’m concerned.
Kim Ellington: Yes. Yes. You need to write your next book about not accepting the moral authority of someone who is not qualified to be one.
Nikki Stern: Yes. Well, I mean, someone called me an expert in the moral authority in not being the moral authority. I kind of didn’t like that but I know what they meant.
Todd Stiefel: All right. Well, I want to take that one one step further. So, let’s say in this day and age the judgments about people and the bullying can be very, very public. It can be online where you’re not just being condemned to your face, you’re not just being condemned in a hallway at school which is hard enough, but you might get condemned to millions of people on the Internet and others may join on the bandwagon. I mean, I’ve seen that in a variety of social movements, including the freethought movement where somebody makes either a mistake or a perceived mistake and people just start jumping on the bandwagon, bashing them and saying like, “Oh my gosh, I can’t believe they did this.”
So, let’s say — I’ll give it an example. Like, somebody like Richard Dawkins, is very outspoken and sometimes people very strongly disagree with what he says and really come down hard on him. He may not buy in to the moral authority of the people criticizing him but where would somebody like him or anybody else for that matter, how do they get rid of that feeling of being troubled by the hurtful words that people are saying about them, not because it hurts them directly but because of the way it makes other people think about them?
Nikki Stern: Okay. Let me just — wow, I’m going to get in trouble here. I really like Richard Dawkins, and I only met him once and I want to meet him again and sit down and talk with him. I think he has said some things about people who are Muslims which has transcended the disagreement with the religion and gotten personal, so he is guilty of the same thing that other people are guilty with him. And as far as, number one, making anything personal, anything at all — because we’re talking about people’s beliefs — I think if you’re making it personal, you’re a coward. I think if you’re engaged in public shaming and especially if you’re piling on, you’re a damn coward. And I think if you’re doing it anonymously, you’re a you-know-what damn coward. And I find the whole delight in public shaming now and piling on to be appalling.
I mean, I don’t know what I’m allowed to say on this podcast hour but it actually has me worked up so that I would bitch slap anybody that I caught doing it, and I would certainly not allow any of my kids. I would yank someone’s head off if I found them doing that online. I think trolls are the lowest form of human life. And, no, I don’t even apply the same sympathy to them as I do to these public figures that say outlandish things. They’re chicken. They’re cowards. They’re just going along to get along, and because they don’t have much in the way of an original thought — and if they do have an original thought, they haven’t worked it all the way through, so they’re just trying to jump on and going, “Yeah, yeah.” You know, it’s like the guys that used to stand around in the crowd and watched the two other ones do the bare-knuckle fighting. They’re beneath contempt. Have I made that really clear how beneath contempt they are?
Todd Stiefel: Indeed.
Nikki Stern: Okay. Yes. I actually wrote a post about public shaming because while I understand and sympathize, for example, with people that want to out rapists or out domestic abusers, I think anybody that wants to commit a crime and remain anonymous is precisely the kind of person that you might want to pull out there on public. But I think that calling people names and such, I think it’s gotten very out of control in the public forum. I have no hope for those people.
Kim Ellington: Oh my goodness. Well, that was a lot. I think all of us — I can’t imagine that anybody has not been bullied at some point or been the brunt of other people ganging up on them at some point in their life and it certainly — we could probably do three or four days of podcasts to try to –
Nikki Stern: Oh, I’ll come back for that. [Cross-talking].
Kim Ellington: Let’s end on a hopeful note. Do you have anything hopeful for us to go forward?
Nikki Stern: Yes. I mean, I do. I think that really, if you just focus on the smallest, most uplifting and possible things that are in your own life and in the lives of other people, again if you appreciate your friends, if you appreciate the small gesture, you appreciate the dog on your lap — I’m looking at mine now on my lap, she’s getting a little heavy but she’s adorable — if you can appreciate those small things and enjoy them, even if you have moments of righteous indignation like I just had, I think you can feel good about the life you’re living.
Kim Ellington: I like that. Dogs are very helpful for that, unless you’re not a dog person, I guess.
Nikki Stern: Yes. Then get a pig. Little pigs are fine.
Todd Stiefel: I hear rats are intelligent pets.
Nikki Stern: Well, yes. Not for me, but maybe for someone. Who am I to judge?
Todd Stiefel: Thank you so much for being on the show. We really appreciate having you here, and good luck with the books.
Nikki Stern: Thank you.
Todd Stiefel: And I look forward to whatever is coming next from you.
Nikki Stern: A collection of short stories, and hopefully a participation in a panel discussion at the next AHA conference.
Kim Ellington: Very nice.
Nikki Stern: Yes.
Todd Stiefel: Awesome. Well, thanks for being on the show, Nikki.
Nikki Stern: Thank you, Todd.
Kim Ellington: Thank you.
Nikki Stern: Bye.
Kim Ellington: Bye.
Todd Stiefel: Bye.
Kim Ellington: That was a wonderful interview with Nikki Stern, the author of Because I Say So: The Dangerous Appeal of Moral Authority, and as we talked about, Hope in Small Doses.
She mentioned it briefly, but Nikki was the first executive director of Families of September 11, which was a national outreach organization advocating on behalf of victims’ families. And under her leadership, the Families of September 11 received an award from the conflict transformation group, Search for Common Ground.
Todd Stiefel: Yes, it’s a fascinating subject. I liked how we hit on kind of several different aspects where hope could be challenging, and I took some good lessons from that for myself and in my personal activism. So, good stuff, good stuff.
Well, next month, listeners, we’re going to have an interesting show, a little different than usual. We’re going to do a whirlwind of humanist authors. Not just one or two. We’re going to do several humanist authors all in one show, so it’s going to be fast action and exciting, like an Arnold Schwarzenegger movie.
Kim Ellington: [Indiscernible].
Todd Stiefel: Except with humanist authors, of course, so with fewer guns and Austrian accents but otherwise it’s going to be exactly like Terminator completely.
Kim Ellington: Excellent. Can we use accents, maybe?
Todd Stiefel: We can talk in accents the whole time.
Kim Ellington: All right, we’ll talk in accents.
Todd Stiefel: So, listeners, you can go and like us on Facebook. You can also call us at (202) 618-1371.
Kim Ellington: Excellent. And if you want to look at Nikki’s book, it is at nikkistern.com or hopeinsmalldoses.com.
Todd Stiefel: Excellent. And of course, you can find previous episodes and show notes at thehumanisthour.org.
Kim Ellington: Excellent. And Todd, I have a humanist quote. Can I share that with everybody?
Todd Stiefel: Absolutely.
Kim Ellington: I found this while I was Googling humanist quotes. So, I feel like I’ve done some serious research here. This is from an author named C. Joybell C., and it made me so happy so I want to share it with everybody: “I’m not in search of sanctity, sacredness, purity; these things are found after this life, not in this life; but in this life I search to be completely human: to feel, to give, to take, to laugh, to get lost, to be found, to dance, to love and to lust, to be so human.”
Isn’t that wonderful?
Todd Stiefel: That is beautiful. I think it would be fun to have C. Joybell C. on the show sometime. We’ll have to ask her how she got her name and why she was not named B. Hopechime B.
Kim Ellington: I think that would be good. I bet nobody’s asked her that. I bet that actually may be a completely unique question for that woman.
Todd Stiefel: Yes. I think she probably has not been asked that. We’ll see if we can get her for a future show. It would be great.
Well, thank you so much, Kim. That was great.
Kim Ellington: Thank you, Todd. I enjoyed it. I hope you did too.
Todd Stiefel: Indeed. I’ll see you next month.
Kim Ellington: Bye everybody.
Todd Stiefel: Bye.