Two authors (one who writes about physics, the other on issues of gender and race), a trans activist, an environmentalist, and a couple of satirists walk into a Las Vegas casino…
They make their way through the swirl of kitsch, smoke, hope, despair, and mirth permeating the lobby of the Flamingo Hotel & Casino (along with the occasional offense) and head up an escalator to the 77th Annual Conference of the American Humanist Association. That’s where things get interesting. Challenging. Enlightening. (But don’t take my word for it; see for yourself in their adapted remarks herein.)
The 2018 honorees who journeyed to the Nevada desert last spring gave AHA members and other attendees lots to think about. Humanist of the Year Jennifer Ouellette, a science writer who often uses pop culture, fantasy, and science fiction to illustrate physics, told me she visits Vegas fairly often with her husband (Sean M. Carroll, keynote speaker at AHA’s 2013 conference). Her 2010 book The Calculus Diaries is even subtitled How Math Can Help You Lose Weight, Win in Vegas, and Survive a Zombie Apocalypse.
But Ouellette didn’t discuss mathematical applications in her acceptance speech. Nothing about quantum cats or the physics of Joss Whedon’s “Buffyverse.” Instead, she shared very frank and moving thoughts on the death of her brother and the need for humanists to call for honesty and compassion surrounding terminal illness and to advocate for right-to-die legislation. “As a science writer, my job is to not flinch and to tell the truth,” she said. “And I think that’s also the mark of a good humanist.”
The recipient of this year’s Lifetime Achievement Award, Canadian author and host of scientific TV and radio programs David Suzuki, spoke at length about what’s at stake in our energy future and about the need for more humility in science. My favorite line was something he said to an oil company executive who wanted to meet with him to discuss the mining of tar sands, a practice Suzuki has strongly opposed: “I said of course. I’m not into fighting. We’ve all got to be winners.” We’ve all got to be winners—not a bad humanist slogan.
Sitting front and center for Feminist Humanist Award recipient Ijeoma Oluo’s address was intense. Oluo is the author of the New York Times Bestseller So You Want to Talk about Race who often describes herself as an “internet yeller.” Her remarks, however, were delivered in a tone I’d describe not simply as quiet but as sincerely simmering, conveying a genuine desire to enlighten the rapt audience before her. As you’ll see, she challenges white humanists to do the hard work of addressing privilege in order to change the system that so benefits us, letting us know in the most positive way that “it requires being willing to see yourself as less great and more human.” I’m grateful to Oluo for speaking to me one on one that evening about my past, present, and future editorial role in this effort.
The Humanist Arts Award was presented to Deven Green and Andrew Bradley, the creative team behind the satirical social media character Mrs. Betty Bowers, America’s Best Christian™. They came ready to entertain and to skewer the hypocrisy of conservative Christians, careful to point out that it’s the zealots they’re after, not the moderate believers who are our allies on issues of tolerance and human rights.
Gavin Grimm’s keynote address was the final presentation of the four-day gathering, and I’m very happy to be able to publish his story here. Grimm is the now-college freshman who sued his school district for not letting him use the boys’ bathrooms at his high school in Virginia. The ACLU is representing him in this fight for transgender rights, which we’ll be following closely. I would also strongly encourage you to watch Grimm’s speech on the AHA YouTube channel, as his telling of his fifteenth birthday, at which he was finally called by his name, is uniquely moving in that medium.
Against the backdrop of national disaster (hurricanes, gun violence, racism, Brett Kavanaugh), against the backdrop of global doom projected in the latest UN climate report—as we careen from one crisis to the next—humanists will continue to convene in order to reaffirm our values and the practical goals of the humanist project. It won’t always be in the swirl of Sin City, but we can also commune to help each other cope. Until we meet again, may we see each other in the pages of the Humanist.