CONVIVIUM: You're a leading voice on ethical issues in two Commonwealth countries that couldn't be much farther apart geographically. How many times a year do you shuttle back and forth between Canada and Australia?
MARGARET SOMERVILLE: At least one, often two and rarely three because that's a hell of a long way to go three times a year.
C: You still have family there?
MS: All of my family's in Australia. Also I have a lot of contacts there. When there's something coming up in the federal parliament [in Australia] or some of the state parliaments — especially South Australia or New South Wales or, most recently, Tasmania — I almost always get consulted, asked to put in a submission. I've got a whole lot of submissions that have gone into those Australian legislatures and into the Commonwealth parliament, all on the same sorts of topics I'm involved with in Canada. The work that I do in Canada, they use in Australia. I've got a finger in the pudding or a toe in the pond; sometimes I think I may drown.
C: But you've lived in Canada for a long time.
MS: Thirty-eight years.
C: Do you still think of yourself as an Australian in Canada? Or when you go to Australia, are you a Canadian in Australia?
MS: Somebody asked me a while ago, when I was getting an honorary degree from an Australian university, to give the convocation speech on what it's like being an expatriate Australian. I sat down and thought about it and I called the speech Leaving Homes — in the plural. I came to this realization that when I'm in Montreal and I'm going back to Australia, people say "Where are you going?" and I say "I'm going home." When I'm in Australia and I'm coming back to Montreal, I say, "I'm going home." I realized that whichever way I flew across the Pacific, I was going home. Really, I have two homes. Doris Lessing once wrote that once you've truly lived in more than one place, you can never put your heart altogether in one place again. You leave a little bit of it wherever it was that you really were at home.
I feel deeply connected to the land in Australia. I think it comes from my interest in Australian Aboriginal culture. In fact, my brother, who died 10 years ago from cancer when he was only in his 50s... it's a strange thing...the last present he gave me was a gravesite in a cemetery in northern South Australia where he's buried, and where all of our ancestors are buried. My family on both sides comes from northern South Australia.
British Columbia with her husband and infant child. My grandmother hated Canada, and my grandfather hated Norway. Shortly after the picture was taken, my grandmother went back to Norway and my grandfather travelled back and forth between Canada and Norway for the rest of his life. It's so strange to look back at these people, from whom I descended, having that connection and disconnection, with place. We are where we come from and yet we transcend it, don't we?
MS: On my family's property, there are these caves called the Yarranbella Caves that have 25,000-year-old Aboriginal drawings in them. That was part of the Aboriginal spirituality and their myths that they called Dreamtime, which I think is a wonderful, wonderful word.
When I was a child and we played in those caves, they were not famous. They were not known. Now, they are protected because they're a tourist destination. They were just on my grandfather's property. We never, never defaced them; we just looked at them when we went there. My father used to take us there.
I often wonder how kids do a heart with an arrow through it, put the initials of their girlfriend or boyfriend. We never did anything like that. I do a little bit of writing of poetry. Some of the poems I've written are about those caves and how ancient they are. What they display in images is even more ancient; that sense of connection with the universe — what I'd call it — is even more ancient than the drawings.
I feel enormously fortunate to have had that unstructured experience as a child. I think quite a bit about it and about what it does to people who don't have that.
C: Chesterton has a wonderful passage in The Everlasting Man where he talks about cave drawings and how, to him, they're a reminder that this idea that civilization emerged out of barbarism is nonsense. Civilization and barbarism have always existed side by side, he says. What happens in history is the lapsing back and forth between the two. One doesn't simply emerge out of the other. They are both forces of the human heart and we proceed from one to the other.
MS: One of my concerns at the moment is what George Weigel has called adolescent progressivism, which I think is a wonderful term. It's this idea that you can deny human history. Professor Udo Schuklenk, a philosopher at Queen's University who is not very keen on me, recently wrote an article about how it was ridiculous to turn to tradition as an argument or as a justification. We should just abandon that. I often think of John Ralston Saul's term for history: human memory. I think human memory is extraordinarily important, and it's what I would call a way of knowing. And we abandon that at our ethical peril.
A colleague of mine, Dr. Donald Boudreau, who's also a close friend, wrote a reply to it, in defence of the Hippocratic Oath. His field is medical education. He's devoted a lot of time to how doctors become doctors. It's a transmutation almost in your being. You are now a doctor — it's something different from what you were when you weren't.
Don was writing about how important it is to provide these human memories and these traditions. What you're really talking about is engaging those students' memories, their emotions, which you hope would be examined emotions; their imagination and their creativity; and their authenticity and integrity, conforming themselves to wisdom that's been passed down through the generations. I think we're in grave danger of trivializing all of that and losing it.
C: My son, who is finishing a PhD in the history of science, can't understand why people think euthanasia is a progressive gesture when, in fact, it's the worst aspect of the neo-liberal agenda. It's essentially a reactionary approach to things. His argument is there seems to be a loss of memory about what progressive ideals actually are. As a historian, at least an emerging historian, he's confounded by how people have forgotten so quickly...
MS: The trivialization of the act of inflicting death is what I find so astonishing. I had a cat euthanized. When you're standing there holding this animal, and you see the veterinarian walking in with a steel tray with a lethal injection on it — try to imagine that's a doctor walking into a hospital room to do that to a human being.
I find it extraordinary. Also, the clear line that we don't intentionally kill each other — once you step over that, you can't hold it back — as we've seen so powerfully in Belgium and the Netherlands. People don't understand that. There's an old saying in human rights law that nowhere are human rights more threatened than when we act purporting to do only good. I think that's what's happening in the euthanasia debate.
There's a whole conglomeration of factors. There is a loss of human memory. There's the loss of imagination about what it really means, and particularly what it means for the future. Try and imagine how your great-great-grandchildren will die if we say that this is acceptable. There's this very dominant idea that suffering is the worst of all evils, and so whatever you do to relieve suffering, even if it's not what you think is the best thing, is still justified.
I think that comes from a loss of ability to find any meaning in suffering. I don't know what we're going to do about that. The way that we've traditionally found that is through religion.
C: It goes back, doesn't it, to your metaphor of a hand in the earth and one reaching for the stars? We're reaching for abstractions. As a result, we yield to a technical response to everything: well, it solves the problem, therefore somehow it's ethically valid. It solved the problem, so we don't have to think about the problem anymore.
MS: That's right. That's a bureaucratic response. I think also this scientism, this making science the answer to everything, that's another area that I've thought and written about a lot. There's a Japanese saying that as the radius of knowledge expands, the circumference of ignorance increases. I think you can see science in two ways.
You can see it as explaining something, and therefore it will be able to explain everything. Or you can see it as going out into the darkness of our unknowing and opening up so much more that we don't know that it increases what I would call the mystery of the unknown. I was on a television program a while ago. One of the discussion topics was UFO sightings, and I was asked if I believe in UFOs. Here I am on a national television program and they're talking about UFOs. That's really what I needed. [Laughs.]
What I talked about was that when you go into the Australian outback, you see these amazing anthills. They're very tall — seven or eight feet tall. They're all built on the magnetic lines of the earth. They all face the same way. They've all got the same shape. We know that ants have a social organization. We know that they've got worker ants and other drone ants and goodness knows what else. I thought about those ants, and I thought, "Well, those ants, as far as we know, have no idea of the world that we know, that we live in." I really don't know about UFOs, but I said I think we are the ants of the universe. We build our things on Earth and we can look out a certain distance, but there's a huge amount that we can't see or know. Just like there's a huge amount that we know about that those ants can't see or know.
I think it's being able to have a sense of comfort in living with mystery and not to think that you have to explain every mystery and get rid of it. That's another result of our technology. One of the things that happens is that people who are frightened of mystery convert the mystery into a problem, and then they find a technological solution to the problem.
For example, there's the mystery of death, which becomes the problem of dying, to which the technological solution is a lethal injection. That's how you get euthanasia.
C: There's the distinction, isn't there, as John Adams said, between facts being stubborn things, then knowing, then believing and then believing in. I can believe that it's cold outside. I don't believe in the cold. I don't give myself over to the cold. I put a coat on. But I can also believe in something. As you said, I can enter into the mystery of that thing. I give myself over to it completely, as fully as I must accept a stubborn fact.
MS: Maybe that's the big difference between people: how much they can accommodate mystery or can't. I was at a conference at Oxford and Richard Dawkins was there. It was a very small meeting, only about 35 people. Jim Watson, the guy who discovered DNA, and Richard Dawkins and I were having a knock-down, drag-out battle. The English knight, this Sir Nigel Something-or-Other, who was chairing it said, "Oh dear, oh dear, I think we'd better have a break. It's all getting a little heated in here."
Everybody was watching Richard and me like they were watching a tennis match. Jim came up to me afterwards, put his arm around my shoulders and said, "You know, the problem with you, Margot, is you're full of mystical nonsense." Afterwards I thought about it. Well, the problem with Jim and Richard is they're mystically tone deaf. I think that's a big difference between people.
C: There's a confusion, too, isn't there, between mystery and obscurantism?
MS: And myth in the sense of fake. And myth in the sense that that's the only way we can communicate these things — myth and metaphor. Which is true. We need that. We definitely need that. I think what we need to recover is what I call the language of poetry for ethics. I think there's much in ethics that we can't communicate in cold, hard terms. We have to give people the experience of the things we're talking about.
It's not just a reasoning experience. It's an imagination. It's a human memory. I'd call it "examined" emotions. It's bringing creativity to bear. It's not just the cold hard facts, and that's all that's relevant. I think that's a huge mistake.
C: We've gone that way in history before, haven't we? It's funny. We know where that ends, yet we still keep going back there. Over the course of the 20th century, we went there on a number of occasions, and it didn't end well.
MS: I've been invited to do a Ted Conference, and one thing they want me to talk about is the whole new field of genetics called epigenetics. What we now know is that this strict nature/nurture divide is wrong. You don't just have genes that are set for life and nurturing experiences that give you certain knowledge or abilities or capacities.
In fact, you've got some genes that, depending on whether or not you have an environmental trigger or experience, will be activated in what's called imprinting. The genes actually chemically change and they will give you a certain capacity or they won't. I've been thinking a lot about how we might have a gene for spirituality.
When you find a phenomenon that goes on over such a long period of time, across all sorts of cultures, for all sorts of people, there has to be something to it. As far as we know, animals don't have any spirituality, but humans do; and that distinguishes us from other animals. Might it be imprinted by some sort of experience early in childhood? Because what we know is that with some of these genes, there is what's called the window period. If you don't have that experience in the window period, it shuts down for life.
I want to be very, very careful. I'm not a genetic reductionist. I don't believe we're just the product of our genes. But I do believe, from what we're learning with the epigenetics, that there are capacities that we can have because of our genes, but to have those capacities we need certain experiences.
I think this idea, coming back to what I started with, of a hand in the earth and a hand reaching out to the stars is the kind of thing that children need to experience perhaps, for that capacity to open up. I describe the capacity as being like a radio or television set. You would be sitting in this room and you wouldn't know that there could be television or radio, and if you didn't have the set to receive it, you couldn't see it or hear it. When you do have the set, the set doesn't determine what you see or hear. It can be whatever comes in.
What I worry about...quite a while ago, somebody wrote in one of those personal essays on the back page of the Globe and Mail. It was a schoolteacher teaching 11-year-old kids. She asked them to write a short essay on what they would like to do that they had never had the opportunity to do. One little 11-year-old wrote that he would like to climb a tree and look at the sun going down. That's pretty frightening when you think of a child of 11 who's had no experience of nature.
C: Never mind climbing a tree, which is what everyone should do from age five to 10½.
MS: I've thought a lot about urban environments, especially for kids. It's as though we've put asphalt or bitumen or concrete all over our earth, and we almost put a glass ceiling between us and the sky. For some reason, I think about the Coyote in the Road Runner cartoons. He's going faster and faster and faster and then he gets steamrolled — spread flat on the road — and then you see him gradually pick himself up and off he goes again.
It's perhaps not as surprising that people are looking for opportunities for contemplation and things like yoga...seeking spirituality, actually.
C: There's almost a kind of hubris, isn't there? When we look back even to the drawings that you were talking about in the cave, we assume that because we're a more technologically sophisticated generation, then those people were somehow more stupid than we are, therefore more easily duped. It's the Dawkins mentality of "well, it's just ignorant superstition and obscurantism. They believe simply because they're too stupid to understand that it isn't true." It is really arrogant when you think about it.
They may have believed it because it actually made sense to them and because something in them said "this is true. I experience this as being true. I believe in God."
You're, I think, cautious about the overtness or the public nature of your faith. Is that...
MS: There's a reason for that. I don't even consider myself a fully practising Catholic now. I was brought up Catholic. I married somebody, in the Catholic Church, who wasn't Catholic. He left me after we came to Canada and divorced me. He messed up the divorce so, as a lawyer, I had to fix it up. Then I decided that I would apply for an annulment of my marriage, which I did.
Then I never went to Mass, I'd say, for 30 years. This is another reason why I'm interested in the idea that maybe you're given this gift of spirituality at a very young age. I've got quite a few friends who are recovering a spirituality that, in some ways I think, is more authentic. I don't want to put down people who continued on a straight and narrow path, but I think that when you come back to it, you come back to it with a very different perspective.
It's not just the childhood spirituality that the nuns gave you or the priests gave you when you were young. I think it's a very important insight that a lot of religious people retain what they knew of their religion as children. They don't think about the fact that maybe that needs expansion.
I'm a fan of the Holy Spirit, and I believe that the Holy Spirit is really out there, and sometimes I think He must put His wing over His eyes and then go "Oh, no, she's really going off the deep end."
I've had amazing things happen in my life and I've always felt as though I don't have to plan my life. It just opens up in front of me and I see what I need to do. I nearly died when I was 11. I had very serious peritonitis in the early days of antibiotics. I was one of the first people to get streptomycin, and it saved my life. The doctors told my parents that I almost certainly wouldn't make it. I had a 50/50 chance of living.
I think that makes a difference. I'm older now and more likely to die, but I lived my life always saying that I never plan my life more than six weeks in advance because you can't know what's going to happen. I think that gives you an enormous freedom to say, "Well this is happening, so I'll take advantage of it."
Actually, tomorrow morning I'm going down to Amherst Island. I'm visiting a friend of mine, Rev. Dr. Carol Finlay, who is an Anglican [minister]. It was, again, a strange circumstance in which I came to know her. I was thinking about whether I should go back to Mass and I talked to Carol about it. I said, "Oh, yeah, but I can't go along with all this stuff." She said, "Oh, Margaret, don't worry about that. Just go and sit there. Don't think about anything; just go and sit there." I did that, and I've been going to Mass ever since.
C: How long ago was that?
MS: That's probably about five or six or seven years. I like going to Mass, which surprises me. When I was young, I used to go to Mass because I felt I had to go, but I didn't like going to Mass. When people say "She's a Catholic," I think "Crumbs, they really don't know much about me."
C: Especially if they are Catholics who still don't like going to Mass. You mentioned you don't look beyond six weeks, but have you got ideas for what the future might hold?
MS: I feel that I don't have to plan that. It just happens. It really just happens. I'm thinking I'll probably go back to Australia to live at the end of this year. I hope that it's the right thing to do. What I'm considering is reversing what I've got at the present. I'm living in Canada and I do stuff in Australia. What I'll do is live in Australia, because as you get older this is really cold and also I haven't got any family here. What I would do is go back and live in Australia but hope that I could keep my contacts and do some work in Canada.
C: You would make the trip this way rather than in the other direction.
MS: Yeah, I'm still going home. Any way I go, I'm going home. I've lived more than half my life in Canada. Half my life, and all of my adult and professional life.
C: Is it exhausting having to take the leadership role that you've taken on some really difficult issues? Do you get tired and say "I wish somebody else would just take this on?" Is it the fighter in you that says "As long as I'm breathing, I'm going to be fighting for these causes?"
MS: I get tired in the sense of physically tired, but I don't get tired of what I'm doing. I love it. I love thinking about it. I get really excited when somebody says something that I haven't heard before and I think, "That's an important idea. That's something that we need to think about."
I tend to assume that my students are not going to agree with me because the vast majority of younger people these days think traditional values, or conservative social values, really belong to the dinosaurs. But I'm constantly surprised by the number that come to me and say, "I agree with you." Some of them add, "But I would never say it in public because it would cause me too much trouble." I had a brilliant student who wrote a paper for me and I said to him, "You really should submit this for publication." He said, "Oh, I'm worried. My future hope is to be a legal academic, and if I publish this maybe that would harm my chances."
C: That's terrifying, isn't it?
MS: But it's true. I have a lot of that. You just never know what you're dealing with. I know colleagues who can't identify with the young new hires who are Catholic because they're in the closet. In fact, the word going around at the moment is that the most in-the-closet group anywhere is the Catholics. They're all in the closet.
I got a hell of a surprise last year when I went to midnight Mass at St. Patrick's Basilica. There were all my colleagues with their kids and their wives. I couldn't believe it. I didn't know they were Catholic. I don't hide it, but I don't sort of proselytize about it because what I do, I don't do from a Catholic basis. I do it from what I believe is ethical and right and moral. That might be informed by my Catholic upbringing, but it's not because I'm Catholic that I think it's right.
C: Did you get a chance to read Evangelii Gaudium, the apostolic exhortation that Francis...