July 22, 2020

Effective Secular Activism is More Important Than My Feelings

children playing

There's been a dust-up on Twitter going on for several days involving a few people I follow. It has been covered elsewhere, and I don't think it is worth digging into the details here. But since this sort of thing has become increasingly common among atheists who are active online and is potentially harmful to secular activism, I am inclined to share some thoughts that may apply to this and similar situations involving prominent atheists and/or secular activists saying things on social media others don't like.

To the Outraged

To those who are outraged, I'd like to say that I think that much of your outrage is warranted. I think you are right to be surprised, disappointed, angry, and/or whatever else when someone in a position of power at a secular organization says something racist, sexist, homophobic, ableist, or otherwise objectionable. I often feel the same way. The people who hold these positions need to do better. I also think you are right to want to distance yourself from those who call people names or treat people poorly on social media in other ways. I do the same because I am not interested in supporting the people who do this crap. I also see no problem with your efforts to seek clarification by asking them why they said what they said or explaining why what they said was a problem.

On the other hand, I don't think our feelings (yours or mine) about any of this stuff are as important as effective secular activism. For that reason, I am not inclined to participate in vigilantism aimed at otherwise valuable secular activists for offending me. This does not mean I think they deserve a pass and should be able to say whatever they want without consequences, but it does mean I'll stop short of trying to get them fired for saying things I don't like. It also means I'd prefer that this sort of thing not interfere with their efforts or the efforts of others to advance secular activism. And so, my suggestion would be to point out what you found objectionable and move on. When whatever you found objectionable eclipses the secular activism, we all lose.

None of this should be interpreted as me claiming that I'm not bothered by prominent people saying incredibly stupid things on social media. It does bother me. The issue is that I don't want to let this (or anything else) get in the way of the secular activism we so desperately need. I do wish certain people could refrain from saying obnoxious things on social media, but I'm not interested in allowing that to distract any of us from what we need to do. There is far too much at stake here to allow ourselves to be distracted and descend into counterproductive squabbles. Again, we've got to learn how to say what we need to say and then move on.

To the Outrageous

To those who have been making objectionable statements repeatedly and who have been receiving consistent feedback that it is a problem, I'd encourage you to listen to what others are telling you and give it some serious thought. Being an effective leader of a secular organization does not require one to be an asshole. If you seem to be the epicenter of recurrent drama, I think we all need to consider the possibility that you and not those who are upset with you are the problem. I'm not going to join the mob calling for your head, but I may wonder if the organization you are working for is best served by bringing in someone like you. Perhaps they are confusing "firebrand" with "asshole."

I'll acknowledge that the "asshole" label, like many other pejorative labels, is arbitrary. It becomes less arbitrary when a clear pattern develops so that one is widely recognized by others as an asshole. I know this may be hard to believe, but some of us are able to recognize assholes even when they are on "our side" and before they've said anything that bothers us personally. We can do this because we pay attention to how people treat others. As a result, we are rarely surprised when an asshole says something objectionable on social media. What does surprise us is why some people seemed content to ignore the evidence that someone was an asshole until they said something that upset them in a particular way. If they were okay with how the asshole has been treating others, why would they expect to be treated any differently?

To the Secular Organizations

If a secular organization brings someone into a leadership position whose social media accounts contain ample evidence that the person has been divisive or treated others poorly (even if they've also done some good stuff for secular activism), it is just a matter of time before they'll have a controversy on their hands. When such an organization hires someone who has a reputation for being abrasive, expect them to continue being abrasive. There are times when this can be an asset, and there are times when it can be a liability. The organization needs to approach the risk in an informed manner and decide if they are up for the inevitable controversy.

Far too often, it seems that secular groups confuse an abrasive personality style (i.e., the asshole) with the "firebrand" they may be seeking. This sort of personality should not be confused with leadership or effective secular activism. There are at least two large secular organizations in the United States that have managed well for some time without having such a personality at the helm: Americans United for Separation of Church and State and the Freedom From Religion Foundation. A pattern of treating others poorly is not a prerequisite for effective leadership or secular activism.

To the Bystanders

It is okay to be upset about many things at once, and I see no reason why we can't stay focused on secular activism while simultaneously addressing other important issues. Unfortunately, some people seem to have real difficulty doing this. For whatever reason, they appear to be more interested in grinding their pet axe than in maintaining a focus on secular activism. This is a problem because secular activism is too important to throw out every secular activist who says something we don't like or to give up on every secular organization that disappoints us.

When people talk about "eating our own," this is the sort of thing they are referring to. That is, members of the secular community turn on each other and undermine their shared goals. This leaves all of us more vulnerable to those who would prefer Christian theocracy to secular democracy. Too much is at stake to allow something like word-policing or assorted offense-taking to derail secular activism. We bystanders should be prepared to say our piece and move on too.