Lessons for Atheist Leaders From the Republican Party

Ted Cruz at the Republican Leadership...
Ted Cruz at the Republican Leadership Conference in New Orleans, Louisiana. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
I recently tweeted something about how the mistakes the Republican leadership have made with regard to how they've tried to handle the far-right extremists at the fringes of their party may hold some lessons for the leaders in the secular community for how to deal with the "social justice warriors" in our midst. In this post, I'll explain what I meant.

The Republican Party's Identity Crisis

In the U.S., the Republican Party has been an uneasy collection of fiscal conservatives and social conservatives for some time. Many of the social conservatives are evangelical fundamentalist Christians, and their presence has been essential to the success of the party. However, it has been necessary for the establishment Republicans (e.g., the more traditional fiscally conservative segment which usually end up holding most of the leadership positions) to reign the social conservatives in from time-to-time. When they are able to do so, they can harness the power of their numbers and energy reasonably well. When they fail to do so, they party starts to look sufficiently fanatical so as to scare away voters. But for the most part, this alliance has been successful.

Some of the far-right have never quite been satisfied with this arrangement because they want greater influence over the party and more power. Under the "tea party" label, some have found it. They have run against establishment candidates in Republican primaries and have won several races. Thus, we now have significant numbers of elected officials who come from the far-right side of the party. Many of these officials are rabidly ideological social conservatives who seem to have little interest in public service but great interest in advancing their own personal careers (e.g., Sen. Ted Cruz, R-TX).

Their rise has put the Republican leadership in a difficult position. The far-right has been largely unwilling to bend to the will of the party leaders. They seem to want little of what the establishment can offer them. This makes them hard to control, and that makes them dangerous. On the other hand, opposing them can be politically risky, especially for Republicans in extremely conservative districts who are vulnerable to having candidates run against them from the right in primary elections.

For these reasons, the Republican leadership appears to have adopted a policy I will label as ignore when possible; appease when necessary. They try to ignore the far-right and go about their business, avoiding any sort of direct confrontation or challenge. In situations where that proves impossible, they resort to appeasement, giving the far-right as little of what it wants as they think they can get away with but still enough to quiet them down for a bit. A recent example of what this sort of appeasement looks like would be the 40 some votes in the House to defund the Affordable Care Act.

What Does Any Of This Have to Do With the Secular Movement?

This will begin to become clear as we examine what is meant by "social justice warrior." A "social justice warrior" or SJW is not simply someone who cares about social justice, works toward social justice, or engages in activism around social justice. In fact, this is not even close to what the term means. Urban Dictionary aptly defines SJW as:
A pejorative term for an individual who repeatedly and vehemently engages in arguments on social justice on the Internet, often in a shallow or not well-thought-out way, for the purpose of raising their own personal reputation.
Many examples of this can be found today on the Internet, particularly from those who are now championing Atheism+ or who are die-hard fans of Skepchick and a few of the bloggers who write for Freethought Blogs. One of the most common red flags one will see for identifying a possible SJW is use of the term "mansplaining" (e.g., American Atheists president David Silverman was recently told that he had been added to the Atheism+ Block Bot list of abusers because of "'splaining").

Like many of the far-right Republicans, SJWs seem fanatical about their ideology, seek ideological purity when it comes to their in-group (e.g., "You are with us or against us"), desire far greater influence over their community, and a quick to claim that they are victims even as they victimize others. They engage in smear campaigns designed to damage the reputations of their critics or others who are perceived as standing in their way. They have invented their own terminology for disparaging those they do not like (e.g., "rape apologist," "sister punisher") all the while complaining about the "abuse" and "harassment" that comes their way. They reserve their harshest criticism for women, going so far as to label women who question their ideology "gender traitors." It is almost as if they deny the fundamental truth that how one treats others often has something to do with how one is treated by others.

Where is the Secular Leadership?

The secular community does have leaders in the form of those who head national organizations (e.g., David Silverman); however, one could reasonably argue that anyone with a large enough platform may have some role in leadership (e.g., Hemant Mehta at Friendly Atheist). So where are they and other leaders on what the SJWs are doing? There have been some notable exceptions (e.g., Ron Lindsay), but for the most part, they are practicing a strategy of ignore when possible; appease when necessary.

This strategy seems to have failed miserably in the hands of the Republican leadership. The influence of the far-right has increased dramatically, and establishment leaders end up looking ineffective. There is a sense that things are beginning to get away from them. Could the same strategy be more effective in the hands of our leaders? Yes, it could. The atheist movement differs from the Republican Party in many important ways. Then again, I'm not sure the strategy is working terribly well so far.

When a few bloggers at Freethought Blogs had Justin Vacula removed from his position with the Secular Coalition for America, many atheists wondered if anyone else was worried about the message this sent to potential activists. When several prominent bloggers and their fans attacked Ron Lindsay for his opening remarks at Women in Secularism 2, we noticed the lack of public support he received from other leaders. When three bloggers at Freethought Blogs participated in doxing a woman and nearly everyone seemed content to ignore it, many atheists wondered how safe our community was. When PZ Myers publicly accused Michael Shermer of rape, and most of the leaders in the atheist community ignored it, that communicated something. When Stephanie Zvan recently doxed @AmbrosiaX and most of the leaders in our community said nothing, this too tells us something. The message seems to be that this sort of behavior is going to be tolerated by our community. I think we need something more than the open letter to the secular community.

I understand why prominent atheists would prefer to ignore this stuff. Addressing conflict is seldom enjoyable, and many would rather focus on activism. They may think that ignoring it deprives the SJWs of attention and that this will make them go away faster. They may be concerned that they would be the next target if they were to speak out. Such concerns are perfectly understandable, and I can empathize with them quite easily. And yet, like the rank-and-file Republicans looking to their leadership and wondering what is happening, many atheists are beginning to wonder why so few of our prominent players are not speaking out against what the SJWs are doing. We know it is risky, but continuing to ignore and appease the ideologues among us might be even riskier.