I dislike disagreeing with Ron Lindsay. He has done and continues to do an amazing amount to rejuvenate and professionalize atheist, humanist, and skeptical activism within the U.S. I have a great deal of respect for him.
Usually, I don’t have to disagree with him, either. He’s a smart, nuanced thinker, well-versed in a number of subjects. Usually, I learn from him.
This morning, however, he posted “Divisiveness Within the Secular Movement” at the Center for Inquiry blog. It’s his answer to the discussions of the “divisiveness” of Atheism+. There are parts I like. His suggestion to not borrow trouble over something that is designed to broaden the appeal of movement atheism is good. His description of the current divisions within movement atheism, and the diagnosis of the source of the division, however, I think is badly off.
Go read his whole piece. I won’t do it justice by describing it. I’m copying the comment I left there to here because I think it articulates some general principles well, not because I want it reflect on Ron’s remarks out of context.
Ron, with a great deal of respect, I’m going to have to disagree with much of what you use to create your argument here. To be more precise, I’m going to have to fill in missing details.
You point to Amy’s series of guest posts and recent changes by atheist groups as an indicator that things are largely all right in organized skepticism. Those moves are much appreciated. I think you’ve felt that in the feedback you’ve been getting.
They are, however, all *very* recent moves. They are all also moves that have come after years of mostly polite complaint from female atheists about the treatment they’d received. Those complaints did not lead to changes. The nearly a year of abuse hurled at Rebecca and others of us who took part in those discussions did not lead to the changes. The converstations at Women in Secularism about harassment did not spontaneously generate promises of anti-harassment policies. My blog post documenting the problem, which was framed as a FAQ because these discussions were becoming almost rote, did not spontaneously generate promises of anti-harassment policies.
What made that particular change was Erista stepping up to say, “This is bullshit. These organizations are not entitled to my attendance, and unless they change, they won’t have it.” What made that change was me sharing that message with people and telling them to make the same demands.
What led to Amy’s series of posts were a bunch of people stepping up to say, “This harassment is bullshit. Why are the guys in charge of our institutions treating it like a non-problems? What douchebags.”
I appreciate the eagerness with which many of you spoke up and with which many of you adopted policies, but it was not spontaneous. It didn’t happen until the discourse had already become quite accusatory.
(I apologize to Dave Silverman if he already had something in the works beyond merely thinking a policy had become necessary. I acknowledge and appreciate that many other changes over recent years have opened, in particular, leadership of our movement to women. I appreciate your role in these changes, Ron. We’re talking about the source of the discord right now, however.)
You’ll notice as well that there was some swearing and invective involved in the important tipping points. That is not accidental. It is not because these people are inarticulate. It’s not because they’re abusive. It isn’t even simply because they were justifiably angry. It’s because this kind of langugage serves a purpose when there is a power differential.
This has been explained a number of times in a number of ways, but I’ll do it again here. The people at the top of a power hierarchy set the rules for what constitutes “polite society”. Those rules are frequently arcane and look pointless until you understand that they are the shiboleths of power. Seriously, there’s no reason to use three forks over the course of a meal. Clothing designers don’t suddenly go from good to bad or vice versa in a season. These things are used to determine who is “us” versus “them”.
The same is true with the language of insult. There is no real difference between “You cannot compel me to talk to you” and “Fuck off” except the difference assigned to protect the social order. Similarly, there is no difference between “You’re unfairly opposing my interests as a woman in this situation” and “Douchebag” except the difference assigned to protect the social order. The first example in each case defers to the social order. The second challenges it while conveying the same information.
I think that by now you’ve noticed that we are challenging a social order that did not work for us as women—and several as other minorities—trying to be active in atheism. The swearing and invective serve a purpose in that. The evidence suggests that they are, if not effective in themselves (because they have never been used on their own to test this), then part of an effective strategy. The strong challenge to the current order has brought about change where other strategies haven’t.
If you want them to stop, the best way to make that happen is to work toward a movement in which that strategy isn’t needed. When that happens, we’ll all be part of the power structure, with interests in it to protect, and this sort of thing will end up strongly discouraged. Until then, you’ll need to get used to it, or at least to understand better why it bothers you, as an important part of the existing social order.
In the meantime, however, the movement is still stratified, well beyond any leadership model that is useful in getting things done. That is a division, it is an important division, and it is a division that the kind of harassment and misrepresentations we’ve been subject to have been designed to uphold. Many of our official and unofficial leaders have enthusiastically heeded the calls to change. Several others gone far beyond what is ethical to protect the current order.
Russell Blackford’s behavior in this regard consists of much more than what you describe here, but others will tell you all about that. The point is that he is entrenching power and division, often in ways that add to the harm being done. What you see in his treatment is a reaction to that. If he insists that others must remain down, he will be reduced to the same level. It is ugly, but power politics are generally ugly. And they’re happening here and now in reaction to that stratification.
That stratification is the division. What you complain about here? Those are symptoms.