Opinion by Joel Zakem: I recently read an account of an assembly at a PUBLIC high school in Huntington, West Virginia. According to the Associated Press report: “[w]hen students arrived at the event in the school’s auditorium, they were instructed to close their eyes and raise their arms in prayer, Mays said. The teens were asked to give their lives over to Jesus to find purpose and salvation. Those who did not follow the Bible would go to hell when they died, they were told.”
This is nothing new. An almost identical assembly took place at Newport, KY, (PUBLIC) High School when I was a student between 1967-71. During a mandatory Easter assembly, the student body was told that if they did not accept Jesus as their savior, they would all go to hell. As the only Jewish student, as far as I know, in that high school, I was appalled, but sat there without saying anything. An atheist friend of mine did walk out, and was immediately suspended. Fifty plus years later, I still regret not following his lead.
Perhaps that is why I have always been sensitive (some may say overly sensitive) about events like what occurred during opening ceremonies at DisCon III. I’m also very disappointed (partially based on the con’s quick action to the complaints concerning Raytheon) in the lack of response from that Worldcon’s committee after I raised my concern more than a month ago.
Admittedly, I did not attend DisCon III’s opening ceremonies in person. While I had purchased an attending membership, I decided I was not yet ready for an in person con. Having attended numerous Worldcons since 1973 (and having worked on a few), however, I was interested enough to follow what was going on at Worldcon on various social media platforms. It was on FaceBook where I first saw friends’ posting about Opening Ceremonies. According to what was posted, some of the musical selections performed by students from the Duke Ellington School spotlighted the religious aspects of the Christmas holiday.
My immediate reaction was that this was not an appropriate part of Opening Ceremonies, especially since, as far as I know, the religious aspect of the performance was not contained in the descriptions in any convention publication. The online description of Opening Ceremonies says, in its entirety: “Welcome to the convention. We will present the First Fandom and Big Heart awards, as well as remarks from the Chair.” The December 9, 2021, news release about the choir’s participation did not mention that there would be a religious component to the performance.
Still, as I noted, I was not there, and therefore did not make any type of inquiry to the convention committee until I had the opportunity to see the ceremony for myself. On January 8, 2022, however, I made a post on the “DisCon III – The 79th Worldcon Group” FaceBook page mentioning what I had read concerning the ceremony, which generated numerous comments from all sides, including those who attended in person.
Even though I do not believe that DisCon III has officially announced that attending and virtual members can now view portions of the program on line, I was able to watch Owning Ceremonies a few days later. Therefore, on January 12, I posted the following [slightly edited for clarity and to correct a few typos] to the same FaceBook group: Having watched [Opening Ceremonies] in its entirety, I am definitely on the side of those who thought the performance of the choir from the Duke Ellington School was inappropriate (and this is, in no ways is a judgment on the talent exhibited by the choir which, as many have noted, was excellent). It has everything to do with the groups choice of material, and the committee’s support of allowing opening ceremonies to contain an endorsement of a particular religious viewpoint.
To be honest, while the first three songs had nothing to do with SF or fandom, they were more seasonal than religious and basically innocuous. It was only in the remainder of the performance where the religious aspects of the Christmas holiday were celebrated. As a non-Christian, I thought that this had no place in opening ceremonies, especially since nothing in the schedule referenced any type of religious content.
It is hard to say what my reaction would have been had I attended the con, and opening ceremonies, in person. Would I have walked out? I think that I might well have, which would have meant that I would have missed the taped remarks from Bob Madle, which followed the choir and had more to do with fandom than their performance. Would I have complained about it during the next day’s gripe session. Most probably, so long as I was able to get up that early.
Once again, my post generated numerous comments on all sides. One individual suggested that I get off of my high horse. Another helpfully suggested that I should directly make my concerns known the the convention’s committee.
The second sounded like a good idea, and on January 13, I sent an abbreviated version of my FaceBook post to the DisCon III information address (which was the only email address that I found on the DisCon III web page). That same day, I received a response from DisCon III’s Division Head, Member & Staff Services, saying (in its entirety): “Thank you for your feedback. I have passed it on internally.”
That is the only response I have, so far, received from DisCon III. I did send a follow up email on February 4, 2022, but it also received no response.
I do realize that the performance at opening ceremony was, in no way, as egregious as forcing students to attend a mandatory assembly promoting a certain religion. Still, DisCon III’s Code of Conduct does express a goal of promoting “an inclusive community” and, in my humble opinion, I do not think spotlighting one region’s holiday does that. I would have felt the same way if the Choir had spotlighted the religious aspects of Hanukkah, or any other religions’ holiday, to the exclusion of others.
I also realize that many cons, including Worldcons, have scheduled gatherings or services for followers of particular religions, including mine, as part of their official program. I have no problem with these, and have even attended a few. The purpose of these, however, were plainly set out in the program. As far as I have been able to determine, there was nothing in the description of DisCon’s opening ceremonies that warned people that there would be a performance advancing the tenants of one particular religion. That is why I thought it was inappropriate.
DisCon III members, at least those with attending or virtual memberships, can watch Opening Ceremonies after logging in.