Sometimes you just don’t find the right words until it’s too late. This is one of those times. Damnit.
I’ve been plugging the Alexander Aan petition since the Center for Inquiry posted it. (Aan, in case you’ve missed the story, is an Indonesian atheist jailed for posting about his disbelief–on Facebook.) I didn’t write about it because I didn’t have anything to add. “I agree. That’s bad. Go sign” has never gotten much response when I tried it. Maybe I still should have.
I just passed it around when others did a good job of explaining why the petition was needed. I signed it, as much of a pain as the White House petition system is. And I watched as it spectacularly bombed, attaining only 8,000 signatures.
Now I’m watching as pe0ple try to figure out “why” this happened.
- “Oh, signing petitions is worthless.”
- “Oh, the system was glitchy.”
- “Oh, Obama wouldn’t do anything in an election year.”
None of those are the reason the petition gained only 8,000 signatures. The reason it ended up with so few signatures is that next to none of us signed. Around a third of the number of people required in order to put this petition in front of the president got off their asses long enough to make this happen.
Sadly, only now do I have the words to tell you why this is such a problem. Or at least why it’s a problem for anyone other than Aan and those who have poured their hearts into being his champions (thanks particularly to Paul Fidalgo and Michael De Dora).
1. Hey, Look! We’re in the News!
For the first time in forever, what atheists do hits the news regularly. We’re being taken seriously, and we’re being watched. So, the day after the petition closed, we got this:
What was supposed to be a slam dunk for nontheists has become a slap in the face after a petition on behalf of a jailed Indonesian atheist failed to attract even one-third of the signatures it needed to gain White House attention.
That failure has left many atheists, humanists, skeptics and other nonbelievers scratching their heads. If, as they believe, their community has grown in numbers, strength and organization in the last decade, why didn’t more people sign the petition?
Yeah! Why didn’t those atheists stand up for one of their own who is in a way worse situation than they are? What kind of monsters are they? Or are they not really as big a deal as they say?
Honestly, I’m asking myself similar questions, and I know this community better than that. I’ve seen what we can do when we care, so when we don’t do anything, it just ends up feeling like we don’t care. Not caring is not the kind of message we want to put across in the news.
2. I’m Ready to Be Used
Is every petition out there for a good cause going to do good work? No. Some of them are bad ideas. Some of them say little more than, “Fix the world now.” Some of them target people who can’t fix the problem–or don’t target anyone specific at all. They’re just screaming to the sky and about as useful as any other method of doing that, like prayer.
Then there are petitions put together by activist groups. I don’t just mean affiliation groups or groups that represent an issue, although activist groups are usually that as well. I mean groups that have a track record of work in their own right to lobby, issue press releases, organize rallies, etc. I mean groups that are themselves activist.
Signing petitions authored by these groups is more than just adding your name to a list. Why? Because the activist group that created that petition has plans for it when it closes. They’re not just going to forward a list of signatures attached to a couple of paragraphs and be done. They’re going to talk to the press. They’re going to lobby. And they’re going to say, “Yes, you’re talking to me, but I’m speaking for all these people who cared enough about this issue to put their name to it. I’m speaking for numbers, and I’m speaking for people who are politically active.” That’s not small.
CFI was ready to run with the petition for Aan. They weren’t simply going to let it go to the President. They were going to do interviews and get Aan’s story out to a wider audience. They were going to use our support to generate more support and more scrutiny of the White House’s behavior on this matter. They can’t do that now, because what that number of signatures says is that no one is paying attention.
These groups do a lot of work on our behalf. The least we can do is make it easier. When I run into representatives from these groups at conferences, I tell them, “I’m a blogger. I have an audience. I’m on a network with a wider audience. Tell me when and how I can help you.”
You don’t have to do that, of course. Not everyone has time to do what I do. However, if you are at all interested in making progress politically, you should find out what these groups want you to do. As Michael De Dora points out, you should sign up for action alerts. Click below to sign up.
- Center for Inquiry (right-hand sidebar)
- National Center for Science Education (right-hand sidebar)
- Freedom From Religion Foundation
- American Humanist Association
Or follow these groups on Twitter or Facebook. Make a list so you see them even on a busy day. Much of what you can do for them takes little time. It just isn’t that hard.
3. Cynicism and Slacktivism: Good for Nothing
Yes, those stupid, “99% of people won’t repost” bits of nonsense on Facebook are, well, nonsense. No, raising “awareness” of the simple fact that child abuse exists isn’t going to make a difference. Yes, posting your bra color to (tee-hee) confuse those guys about the–I don’t know; the fact that breasts exist maybe?–that’s childish and pointless. No, getting a hashtag to trend won’t change the world.
Yes, slacktivism exists.
It’s important to know why it exists, however. It exists because we’re lazy. That’s not an insult as much as it is recognition that there is more to be done than we have resources to do. We try to find ways to avoid over-committing ourselves. We’re lazy, and slacktivism is a trick for allowing ourselves to think we’ve done all we need to do on one of the many, many issues we care about when we haven’t at all. But so is cynicism.
Slacktivism tells us we have accomplished something when we haven’t. Cynicism tells us we don’t need to accomplish anything because nothing can be done. They’re both lies we tell ourselves.
Cynicism in this case is the idea that petitions never work. It’s the idea that Obama never moves on any of these White House petitions. It’s the idea that Obama can’t do anything about religious freedom this close to an election because it would be bad for his chances at the polls.
Petitions do work, of course. They don’t work all the time, but petitions work significantly more often than silence. Obama does follow petitions sometimes, if not always. He isn’t known for a willingness to use his own political capital, but he uses ours. Democrats pushed some of these petitions to show there was a mandate for actions they wanted to take. And I can’t imagine why telling a Muslim-dominated government to protect its non-Muslim citizens would be a losing move in this country right now, particularly for Obama.
Any of these things could have worked in this case, if they’d been given the chance.
4. It’s Time to Start Acting Entitled
Even if we’d made a huge showing on the petition only to have it ignored, we would have won. Aan would not have, but the rest of us would. Why?
Those of you old enough to remember the rise of the Moral Majority to power in the eighties might remember the little joke of resistance, “The Moral Majority is neither.” It was on buttons, t-shirts, and bumper stickers. It was true. The Moral Majority was a very small evangelical minority who won a ridiculous number of concessions from state and national legislatures.
They did this by being loud and demanding and very, very persistent. If there was an issue they were interested in, they were there. If they didn’t show up in force, they were represented by lobbyists who were very clear that the next step toward getting what they wanted was showing up in force. If a legislative body handed them a victory, they showed up for the next fight ready to fight. If a legislative body handed them a defeat, they showed up for the next fight ready to fight. The Moral Majority was inescapable and unflagging, and everyone knew they weren’t going away.
I don’t want us to be the new Moral Majority. For one thing, I’d prefer we be both moral and eventually in the majority. I do, however, want us to learn from the ethical bits of what they did.
Showing up strong at the Reason Rally was great. Doing that and then not following up on such a clear-cut political matter makes it look like the Reason Rally was just a nice party. Parties are good, but they don’t put pressure on the government.
Voting blocs put pressure on the government. Being able to say, “So, you remember those 30,000 people who stood out in the rain for hours? Yeah, we have a lot more people than that who pay attention to their interests. They sign. They write. They call. Most importantly, they vote their interests too. Do remember that.”
Trust me, politicians do remember that. Even if they feel they can’t give you what you’re asking for today, they remember. If you act as a bloc, they remember pleasing you and they remember disappointing you. And they want to keep that in some sort of balance. That’s good for us and good for our interests.
All of that is why, though I’m sick for Alexander Aan, I’m worried by what this means for us as a movement too. Take a little time and go do something for Aan, something that will take more time and more work now that we don’t have that petition to use for leverage. Then resolve to not let an opportunity like this one go by again.