Lessons From the Justin Vacula Debacle

Justin VaculaAtheist activism is hard work. After toiling for countless hours to promote the separation of church and state in one's community, one is more likely to be met with jeers and threats of hell from Christians than anything passing for appreciation from like-minded individuals. In many communities, such activism may bring social exclusion, vandalism, and may even interfere with one's career. Is it any wonder that it can be difficult to recruit and retain such activists? Those who work publicly to advance the causes on which most of us agree deserve our thanks. Without them, I'm not sure we would have the atheist community we enjoy today.

At the same time, we cannot accept anyone who volunteers for service, especially when such service involves leadership. Some people are simply not cut out for leadership, and there may be many valid reasons to suspect some would be poor in a particular position. It makes sense that we'd want leaders who will represent us well and not with too many skeletons in the closet.

Having said all of that, I find myself uncomfortable with the public effort of many in the atheist community to push Justin Vacula out of his position as co-chair of the Pennsylvania state chapter of the Secular Coalition for America (SCA). I say this not because I disagree with the petition; I can see some merit there. What bothers me have been the many vitriolic attacks on the character of someone who has done quite a bit for the atheist community. I'd like to take a look at the case against Justin and see what lessons this entire situation may hold for our community, divided as it appears to be.

The Case Against Justin Vacula

Rather than attempt to recreate the case against Justin only to summarize it again, I've decided to rely on the judgment of an atheist blogger I respect who has publicly allied himself with the "atheism plus" camp on multiple occasions: Adam Lee (Daylight Atheism). Here's what Adam identified as the most salient accusations made against Justin:
  • Contributing to A Voice for Men, a pro-misogyny website designated a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center.
  • Posting the home address of Amy Davis Roth, a.k.a. the artist Surly Amy, on a hate forum that calls itself the Slimepit. (I had a conversation with him about this at the time, and he asserted that her address was already public information, which is true but irrelevant, and that he didn't do it with threatening intent, which is just barely possible but reflects bad judgment even so.)
  • Posting a taunting message when Jen McCreight announced she was taking a break from blogging for the sake of her own mental health, due to the volume of threats and abuse she was receiving.
I have seen these same accusations in multiple blog posts and Tweets, as well as in the text of the petition itself. Thus, I agree with Adam's assessment that these seem to be the primary concerns expressed by Vacula's critics.

Of these three concerns, the first seems to be the most important. I have seen it mentioned in nearly every bit of criticism aimed at Justin. I've heard at least two very different versions of the story around his post to A Voice for Men, and I am not sure about the accuracy of either. In the first, pushed hard by Justin's most vocal critics, he is an evil "MRA" who hates women and wrote the post because he supports A Voice for Men whole-heartedly (i.e., he is one of "them"). In the second, which I've heard from some of Justin's defenders, A Voice for Men posted his work without his permission, and he has subsequently filed a request to have it removed. Perhaps one of these is true and the other is false, but neither strike me as very plausible.

The second concern, posting "Surly" Amy's address, seems to be a far easier call. Even though the address appears to have been publicly available before he posted it, the fact that he posted it where he posted it is not in dispute and is not defensible. I agree completely with everyone who has said that this sort of behavior cannot be tolerated by the atheist community. It was a dumb thing to do, and I believe Justin has said as much. It is my understanding that he had it removed and acknowledge that it was an error in judgment. That's good because, like Adam said, it did reflect bad judgment.

Now take at look at the tweet about Jen McCreight, widely cited by Justin's critics. Shortly after introducing the world to "atheism plus," Jen announced that she was quitting her blog. This tweet was Justin's initial response. What does it even mean? I am aware that he probably wasn't a fan of hers and decided to take a poke at her. Is that what this is, or is there some deeper meaning I am missing? I fail to see how this tweet is even mildly relevant to Justin's suitability for his SCA position, grounds for calling him a "bully," or much of anything else.

Does the Punishment Fit the Crime?Pillory stocks

The "taunting message" about Jen strikes me as thoroughly insignificant, and unless there is some hidden meaning I'm not grasping, I think it can be dismissed. The other two are far more problematic. Posting Amy's address was a stupid thing to do and reflects an obvious lapse in judgment. But Justin did acknowledge this and did correct it by having it removed. Should this mistake disqualify him from his volunteer position with the SCA? Maybe. By itself, it is difficult for me to imagine anyone seriously arguing that it should.

The thing is, we aren't considering the posting of Amy's address by itself; we are considering it in light of the post for A Voice for Men. I went to check out that site and read a couple articles by Paul Elam. That was more than enough to convince me that I don't want anything whatsoever to do with the views expressed on that site. If someone had directed me there and told me that Justin agreed with their views, and if I accepted that assertion uncritically, I almost certainly would have signed the petition against him. However, the Justin Vacula I've seen writing on his blog and on Twitter, active in the atheist community, and working perfectly well alongside women does not strike me as the sort of person who would agree with such views.

Maybe I'm wrong. Maybe there is additional evidence showing that he really does side with Elam, evidence I have not seen. That would be damning indeed. But without it, I'm not sure that the punishment here fits the crime. Petition aside, the many attacks on Justin's character seem excessive and a touch hypocritical.

Can We Learn Anything From This Situation?

I hope so. I hope we learn that publicly condemning one of the few who is willing to step forward and assume some added responsibility in the atheist movement is not in our collective interest and that before doing so, we make sure it is both justified and necessary. I hope we learn how to disagree with one another on our blogs and on Twitter without demonizing our opponents. I hope that we appreciate the courage it takes to speak out against power, including the power in our own movement. I hope we recognize that valuing diversity means that we encourage disagreement and dissent with the status quo rather than seeking to crush it. But most of all, I hope that we will eventually recognize that we are far stronger if we can work together despite our differences than if we continue to divide our community by turning atheists who disagree with us into enemies.

As atheists who value the separation of church and state, we have our work cut out for us. While I certainly agree that there are issues within our community that cannot be ignored in the meantime, I'm not sure how attacking each other in public advances our larger agenda. Are we becoming a group who eats our own? I really hope not. Who would want to be part of such a group?

Update 10/11

Since publishing this post yesterday, I've heard from Justin. He addressed each of the three accusations as follows:
The A Voice for Men post was originally on my blog. I received an e-mail asking me to post there...so I posted portions of the post and added short commentary. I indeed disagree with some of the content there from other writers, but those views are not mine. My views are my own. I posted there to shine light on the DMCA issue.
The address of Surly Amy was posted in response to allegations that I counter DMCA'd to get her personal info. I posted the address on a forum I frequent in order to debunk this claim. http://www.justinvacula.com/2012/08/a-clarification-surly-amy.html
The jen tweet was a jab concerning her saying her boyfriend made her leave the internet and a reference to Karla Porter's "As the atheist world turns." Note Karla was tagged in that tweet.