From: Dace (firstname.lastname@example.org)
Date: Sun 07 Sep 2003 - 01:00:04 GMT
The following was posted by Michael Shermer on his E-Skeptic list. I'm
passing it on here, first of all, because the commentary on the evolution of
the "gay" meme is well worth the read, but also because I strongly object to
Shermer's use of the term "meme" in regard to "Brights." This is not a meme
but a simple neologism which, judging by subsequent feedback, is unlikely to
"catch on" and therefore will fail to become a true meme.
"BRIGHTS" COME OUT OF THE CLOSET
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. (For more
information go to www.the-brights.net or write Paul Geisert and Mynga
Futrell at P.O. Box 163418, Sacramento, CA 95816, e-mail:
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
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
"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.
"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
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).
This was distributed via the memetics list associated with the
Journal of Memetics - Evolutionary Models of Information Transmission
For information about the journal and the list (e.g. unsubscribing)
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