Forgiveness and Abuse

Update: Justin Vacula has resigned his position as co-chair. The petition to remove him is no longer necessary, and I congratulate him on making the right move for the Secular Coalition.

There are a number of odd ideas going around about the petition to have the Secular Coalition for America remove Justin Vacula from the leadership position they put him in. Let’s address those.

First is the idea that this is just like the petition to remove Rebecca Watson from the Skeptic’s Guide to the Universe podcast. There are three similarities that I can think of.

  1. These are both volunteer positions.
  2. Both petitions are hosted on change.org.
  3. The pictures accompanying both have a strong element of teal.

The differences, on the other hand, have some substance to them. The petition about Rebecca says she should be removed because she’s promoting a particular ideology. The petition about Vacula lists specific behaviors that make him unsuited to his new position. The petition about Rebecca is trying to remove her from a podcast, which anyone can choose–or not–to listen to. The petition about Vacula is trying to remove him from a position in which he would be representing the interests of atheists and secularists for an entire state, which isn’t a matter of choice. The petition about Rebecca was accompanied by a harassment campaign directed at her. The petition about Vacula was accompanied by private communication with the SCA to make sure they understood what they were getting into. Additionally, my name and reputation are attached to the Vacula petition. I take the heat the petition gets. The SGU petition? “John Smith”.

Then there are a couple ideas from a comment that Jason highlighted.

I don’t really read blogs much, so perhaps I am just out of the loop on how “bad” Justin is. But I think that’s sort of the point: a lot of activists in our movement (e.g. Edwina, Kelly, myself, etc.), just don’t keep up much with all this internet drama stuff; it’s just not a big deal for many of us (for better or worse). I think there is definitely merit to some of your complaints that you have backed up with evidence, but I just don’t think it is enough to warrant an attempt to systematically ostracize an activist from our movement who seems to be doing SOME positive things and many people seem to respect.

I love the idea that respect based on ignorance should somehow be weighed on an equal basis as the facts of the matter. “I don’t pay much attention, but a bunch of people just like me all think the way I do”, just isn’t something that should ever be used as an argument. (For that matter, neither is “I don’t read” something to be proud of, whatever the medium.) If you don’t have the time or energy to be educated on an issue, perhaps you should give some credence to the opinions of those who are, or pay attention to the evidence you’re presented, or at the very least, stop acting like ignorant opinions have equal weight as informed ones.

He is DEFINITELY polarizing, and has apparently made some pretty bad judgement calls, so you and others who dislike him should certainly ban him from the orgs. that you guys control, but is it really necessary to attempt to exclude him from ALL corners of this movement?

I’m still trying to grapple with how “Sure, make your corner of the world better, but can’t you ignore the rest?” is an argument.

Show me that this guy has a history of violent crimes/felonies and then MAYBE you would have a case for total exclusion. But I mean, are you really going to circulate petitions outlining the allegedly nasty things he’s done online to get him fired from every secular leadership position he ever achieves his whole life?

Aside from the nonsense about online behavior being somehow irrelevant, notice that we have several different ideas being conflated here. Apparently, because I started this petition about this position at this point in time, I am:

  1. Trying to have Vacula completely removed from the entire secular movement.
  2. Trying to have him removed from the position he holds in NEPA Freethought Society.
  3. Going to pay attention to his actions forever.
  4. Going to object to every he position he receives from here into eternity no matter what.

I just got back from northern Minnesota, where all the Smokey the Bear signs said, “Fire Danger: High”. I think the same applies here, with the straw version of this petition. I will agree with the commenter that a petition that tried to do all that would be useless. Luckily, this one doesn’t.

Sadly, Emily Dietle repeats that idea about this being a complete condemnation of Vacula as a person forever and ever.

So, I did a bit of digging, looked at the concerns of others, and found their claims somewhat substantiated. Regardless, I’m one to give second chances, and let people prove themselves. [...]

As a humanist, I seek to resolve differences cooperatively, joining our unique individual selves into a web of support, so that we can enrich society together. Sometimes, those individuals make horrid mistakes, or present unfavorable characteristics. They still have value, and are part of the web, and are able to change. It’s against my better nature to blacklist, berate, and defame.

As an aside, “defamation” is a legal term. In the U.S., for a statement to be defamatory, the law requires that it be untrue. False accusation of defamation have, themselves, been found to be defamatory. Also, unlike stalking laws, defamation law does actually involve additional leeway when discussing “public figures”. In other words, please don’t play with the law, boys and girls, unless you know what you’re doing.

As for Emily’s broader point, yes, it’s often good to offer guidance and correction to someone. However, no one abused by that person is ever obligated in any sort of moral sense to be the person to offer that guidance and correction. No one who has ever been harassed by Vacula, no one who has ever watched him harass a friend, no one who has ever seen him stand up for and pal around with their harassers has the tiniest responsibility to try to fix Vacula either for his sake or for the sake of the movement. No one has any obligation to “suck it up”. No one has any obligation to “get over it”.

Certainly no one has any obligation to “let bygones be bygones”, particularly since there’s nothing bygone about any of this. According to the transcripts here, Vacula has held this position since early July. It was after that call that he did almost everything presented in the petition. He’s been relatively quiet lately, but based on the recent conversations with SCA representatives, he’s been behaving because he’s been on probation. So, while it’s nice for the SCA that he hadn’t done anything vicious right before their announcement, it’s not evidence of a change of heart, merely a change of priorities.

Anyone is able to change. One of the great things about humanity is its malleability. That doesn’t mean, however, that anyone abused by Vacula has any responsibility to assume he’s changed without being presented with substantial evidence. Distrusting someone who has abused you isn’t malice. It’s rational self-preservation.

Nor is there any evidence that Vacula has changed or wants to change. There is, however, evidence to the contrary. Yesterday, I posted some of the abuse posted on Twitter in response to the petition. If you take a look at the list of people Vacula follows on Twitter, you can currently (as I write this) find more than 50% of them. You can also find about half a dozen or so more slimepitters, including a second alias of “Franc Hoggle”. You’ll also find @girlwriteswhat, the MRA and Vacula’s fellow A Voice for Men author who claimed that someone at FtB had posted a DMCA notice on one of her videos in order to get her address and threaten her family.

Some people have tried to suggest that it’s inappropriate to label Vacula as an MRA for one post on a Southern Poverty Law Center-identified “woman-hating site“, that it’s assigning guilt by association. Some will likely come along and point to the above paragraph as the same thing. After all, Vacula also follows a number of members of the Westboro Baptist Church, right? Except I don’t think Vacula ever had something like this to say to the WBC:

@ Thanks so much for what you do and your unwillingness to be bullied by #dmca #ftbullies
@justinvacula
Justin Vacula

Nor, I assume has he ever gone out on one of their protests with them, whereas he did join in the Twitter harassment. And he probably doesn’t subscribe to their YouTube channels, the way he also has with other A Voice for Men authors like JohntheOther and NurdyDancing.

Has Vacula said or done anything to suggest he no longer thinks contributing to A Voice for Men is appropriate for the SCA’s pick? Has he said or done anything to suggest he no longer thinks that the actions of the people he is following is worthy of praise and emulation by someone who is supposed to be a leader?

Anyone?

Any indication?

Anywhere?

Then, no, those of us whom Vacula abused and those of us who were otherwise injured by that abuse have no obligation to put ourselves back within his reach for more abuse in order to gently lead him someplace he has no intention of going. If Emily wants to get active in that respect, she is more than welcome to. However, that will require her or anyone else who wants the job to start paying attention to what Vacula is doing.

Additionally, it’s still something that needs to be done before Vacula is fit for the job he was just given.

Comments

  1. says

    Note how none of the misogyny apologists have ever asked the misogynists to back off and give their victims the benefit of the doubt, and now demand that we give misogynists a “second chance” when they are still screwing up their first chance!

  2. says

    It would still be helpful to have a comprehensive list (more detailed than the petition) of the stuff of concern.

    Also, when and how does this community, which obviously does not support sexism, misogyny, and MRA style bullshit, start backing away from the SCA? Should we be asking the affiliated organizations to back off? Should we be cancelling memberships from those organizations?

    One problem, frankly, is that the SCA has something of a political hold over the organizations it is supposed to represent. Whoever is calling the shots at SCA is either not paying attention or worse, paying close attention. Either way, the secular, skeptical and humanist community needs a different voice in Washington. Not this one.

  3. simonsays says

    My favorite objection is that writing an article for AVFM is “guilt by association”. For crying out loud the site’s page for writers has a URL of /join-the-choir and ends with (emphasis mine):

    Send me a submission (no attachments, plain text only please), include whatever name you want placed as the byline for the piece, and let’s add another voice to the choir.

    If you don’t agree with the site, I have no idea why you would submit an article there in the first place.

    And believe me, there is plenty to not agree with at AVFM. Check out their ‘Don’t get Fucked’ page and the 12 commandments including “NEVER buy breasts for your wife or girlfriend” and “Do not date, period.”: http://www.avoiceformen.com/mission-and-values/dont-get-fucked/

  4. says

    What gets me is how the virulent misogyny infecting the movement is casually dismissed as “internet drama”*.


    *The usage of the word “drama” in this phrase, seems to have a semantic (and perhaps etymological? I’d be curious to know) relationship to the usage in “drama queen”, which means that it has an underlying sexist connotation as well, even if it’s not deliberate.

  5. says

    Greg, many of the details of the bits that didn’t happen on Twitter are linked from here: http://freethoughtblogs.com/butterfliesandwheels/2012/09/news-from-the-secular-coalition-for-america/

    Rebecca put together more in her post: http://skepchick.org/2012/10/secular-coalition-picks-anti-woman-leader-for-pennsylvania/

    As for a lot of the rest, it happened on Twitter. Documenting it now would be all but impossible. You can always go look at Vacula’s favorite tweets, though: https://twitter.com/justinvacula/favorites

  6. says

    Stephanie, Stephanie, Stephanie.

    You start right out with a load of crap.

    There are three similarities that I can think of.

    1. These are both volunteer positions.
    2. Both petitions are hosted on change.org.
    3. The pictures accompanying both have a strong element of teal.

    Are we to believe that you didn’t “notice” that both were petitions? How can we trust anything else you say when you begin with this kind of man-hating, feminazi disingenuousness.

    Okay. Now I’ll read the rest of your post.

  7. LeftSidePositive says

    Oh, man, I was talking to someone who was trying to seem like some “reasonable” fellow who couldn’t understand why we have to act like MRAs are sexist. I tried to explain, and was generally trying to keep my exasperation in check…and then he goes and says that I’m “misrepresenting” GirlWritesWhat (whom he apparently admires!) in her explicit pro-domestic-violence stance. I thought maybe–just MAYBE–he was new and hadn’t seen anything objectionable…oooooohhboy!!

  8. says

    Okay, skipping humor.

    I have a personal problem with this issue in that the more often I stop to comment on this, the less credibility I’ll have as an outsider. My very participation in this discussion makes me an insider. So, this might be the last thing I say that won’t be dismissed as just another echo in the bubble.

    Justin Vacula appears, to me, to be a misogynistic asshole. To some within the movement, he is a controversial figure whose voice deserves to be heard despite his having offended some. For the issue at hand, neither of those is relevant.

    As I understand it, the Secular Coalition for America is an umbrella group for a number of secular/rational/atheist/skeptical groups. It aims to speak for all of its members. Vacula is a person who creates divisions within the movement(s). His job description is to erase divisions. Vacula openly despises some within the movement, when his job description is to represent everyone within the movement. Vacula’s personal history is a highly visible issue, when his job description is to be a nearly invisible conduit for the message of the movement.

    The very fact that you people are having this argument shows that he is a bad candidate to represent the united movement. It’s not about Justin Vacula. Would the you defenders of Vacula be as quick to defend Rebecca Watson Surly Amy, or Stephanie in that position? Each would be controversial. Forget what you think about the individuals and simply look at the job description. Can this person do the job of representing all of you to the unconvinced public?

    Let me repeat that. The issue is not Justin Vacula. The issue is what you want the public image of your movement to be. Whether you within the movement want to tar and feather Vacula or or cover him with unicorns and glitter is of no interest to those of us on the outside. We want to know what your groups stand for. We need a reason why we should give you some of our limited amount of time. We don’t care about your soap operas.

    Right now, I don’t want to have anything to do with SCA or anyone associated with them, at all.

  9. F says

    Regardless, I’m one to give second chances, and let people prove themselves. [...]

    Certainly no one has any obligation to “let bygones be bygones”, particularly since there’s nothing bygone about any of this.

    See, I was gonna ask if we have to wait before his first chance ends before we continue counting.

  10. says

    I always thought that the prerequisite for a second chance was that the person didn’t only fuck up their first chance but also understood that they were wrong and were seriously trying to avoid doing so in the future.
    I mean, if your partner cheated on you, you wouldn’t give them a second chance to stay monogamous if they didn’t believe in it…

  11. jackal says

    Justin Vacula appears, to me, to be a misogynistic asshole. To some within the movement, he is a controversial figure whose voice deserves to be heard despite his having offended some. For the issue at hand, neither of those is relevant.

    How is a person’s status as a “misogynistic asshole” not relevant to their suitability to a leadership position in the SCA? Would it still be irrelevant if they were an antisemite? A white supremacist? Newsflash: half the people in PA are women. Forget how it makes the SCA look. How could you expect someone to function effectively in an outreach position knowing that they have deep-seated issues with half of their target population?

    Secondly, even if he were just an “asshole,” how is that not relevant to his suitability for a leadership position in a volunteer organization? In general, people don’t want to work with assholes.

  12. LeftSidePositive says

    John McKay, are you seriously telling me that being an outspoken advocate of harassment policies should disqualify someone from a leadership position because there are people around the movement who like to harass people? Are you seriously claiming that “divisiveness” is the greatest sin, without regard to what behavior people are dividing away from? Are you seriously belittling people who are harassed, receive rape and death threats, and are cyberstalked that their discussion of these issues is a “soap opera”?!

    This is seriously not okay, and I strongly suggest you re-assess your values and priorities.

    Yes, damn straight I want the public image to be “We support secularism in the United States and we don’t tolerate harassment of our members, affiliates, or fellow human beings.” It’s embarrassing that this last part even needs to be SAID, but it’s certainly not the fault of those standing up against harassment. “Representing all the movement to the unconvinced public” should not in any way mean “keeping harassers, misogynists, and bullies in good standing.” Frankly I think that would be a huge detriment to our image with the public if our message were “We support secularism in the United States and we welcome harassers and victims of harassment equally!” Seriously?!

  13. says

    LSP, I didn’t read that the same way you did. I read it as “Controversy is not the issue. The person in that position will be representing you to the public. Pay attention to whether that person will represent who you are and want to be.”

  14. LeftSidePositive says

    Stephanie, what I was getting from it was largely from this:

    Would the you defenders of Vacula be as quick to defend Rebecca Watson Surly Amy, or Stephanie in that position? Each would be controversial. Forget what you think about the individuals and simply look at the job description. Can this person do the job of representing all of you to the unconvinced public?

    This seems to me to indicate that controversy **is** the issue, and I find “each would be controversial” to be some major false-equivalencing, and that the first goal is to represent “all of you” without regard to what the person’s desired outgroup is actually doing.

    And the idea that whether Vacula (who again, does actual things that have actual effects on others) is repudiated or praised is immaterial as long as a united front is presented to the outside (as though, apparently, “what we stand for” is somehow unconnected to our position on harassment?!).

    And, of course, “soap operas.”

  15. onion girl, OM; social workers do it with paperwork says

    I’m still stuck on the fact that SCA doesn’t appear to do any type of background check on their volunteers. I missed the MD call because I was testifying for a client, (and I’m honestly too busy right now to start another project) but I was intending to find a way to fit the SCA in, and get involved with the MD chapter.

    I’m putting that on hold for the moment.

  16. says

    Wow. Was I really that unclear?

    That was too wordy. Let me try again. JUSTIN VACULA IS NOT A FIT SPOKESPERSON FOR YOUR COMMUNITY.

    Jackal,

    I wasn’t saying his being a misogynistic asshole isn’t relevant; I was saying my opinion of him isn’t relevant.

    What I was going on about was that I think the conversation has been sidetracked into arguments about whether he is or is not a misogynistic asshole (I think he is), about whether you, Stephanie and others are being hypersensitive (I think you are not), about whether he deserves another chance (I most emphatically think he does not). The way he is offensive (sexism, ageism, racism, etc.) is less important that the fact that he is offensive. If he has alienated half the group, and openly despises that half, then he can’t represent the group.

    LeftSidePositive,

    Actually, yes, I am saying that, in the context of the job description, “divisiveness” is his greatest sin. All I said is that he makes a crappy representative.

    I have no idea how you interpreted that to mean I was belittling people who are harassed, receive rape and death threats, and are cyberstalked. I take those kinds of things very seriously and have zero tolerance for bullies and bullying.

    I did not intend to imply that Rebecca, Amy, or Stephanie are in any way equivalent to Vacula. They are not. That was an awkward paragraph that I probably should not have included.

    I didn’t intend to say anything at all about how you manage your organizations, your membership, or what your message should be. I only intended to comment on the very narrow, mechanical point of choosing a spokesperson.

    Here’s the part where I’m going to get in trouble again.

    I also don’t know how you got the idea that I think you should keep harassers, misogynists, and bullies in good standing within your groups. I would hope you that you run them out on a rail. You said you want the public image of your groups to be, “We support secularism in the United States and we don’t tolerate harassment of our members, affiliates, or fellow human beings.” I hope that’s who you become. That is a group I might be interested in supporting.

    But, from my perspective, that’s not what I see. From the outside I see a movement infested with the kind of people who engaged in a years long campaign of vilification against Rebecca Watson, who are just getting warmed up in their attacks on Surly Amy, who are engaged in major pushback against something as benign as A+, and who drove Jen McCreight off the internet. I see a movement that does keep harassers, misogynists, and bullies in good standing. As an outsider, I see a movement represented by Justin Vacula. And I think those are bad things.

    I want you to win. I want you to create a movement that is compassionate, tolerant, and a force for social justice. I really mean that.

    Now, I’m going to go away before someone rips off my arm and beats me to death with it.

  17. LeftSidePositive says

    That was too wordy. Let me try again. JUSTIN VACULA IS NOT A FIT SPOKESPERSON FOR YOUR COMMUNITY.

    Yes, we know you said that. That’s really 101. We’re talking about 201-level objections to your post.

    The way he is offensive (sexism, ageism, racism, etc.) is less important that the fact that he is offensive.

    But the problem is, what about people who claim to be offended by people who are outspoken about important and necessary issues? Our objection is that you’re framing “offensiveness” as a stand-alone thing, without regard to the merit of those claims of offense, and this is a real problem for people who have a little too much experience being told that we should shut up simply because we’re “too divisive” or “offensive,” etc. (See, for example, tropes brought out against atheists on the national stage.)

    If he has alienated half the group, and openly despises that half, then he can’t represent the group.

    The thing is, I really don’t see this as a numbers issue–if half the people in the group (and realistically I don’t think it’s anywhere close to that in this case) are doing actual bad things that will limit the group’s development and cause it huge problems in the future, getting rid of that half is not only good but necessary. Now, if you mean that Vacula is alienating group members for no valid reason, then say that, but as written this could just as easily apply to why the pro-social justice side should tolerate the bigots (and we hear this all the time so it’s a bit of a sore spot).

    I have no idea how you interpreted that to mean I was belittling people who are harassed, receive rape and death threats, and are cyberstalked.

    The issue is that you said that Rebecca Watson, Surly Amy, and Stephanie would *also* be controversial as leaders, and given that the main cause is that they engender controversy is that they speak up about being harassed, etc., it seems to me that you are saying that someone who gets zirself notoriety solely because others decide to hate on zem for irrational/bigoted reasons should be avoided, instead of standing by zem and holding the haters to task.

    Also, ProTip: when discussing people being harassed/threatened/stalked, if you do not wish to belittle them, never ever ever use the phrase “soap opera.”

    I did not intend to imply that Rebecca, Amy, or Stephanie are in any way equivalent to Vacula. They are not. That was an awkward paragraph that I probably should not have included.

    You know, it would be really helpful if you were to explain what you actually meant by it. Because it still seems that, “equivalent” or not, you were saying their controversy should be held against them for leadership positions. Anyway, if you clarify what you meant, we can all understand each other better and move the discussion forward.

    I also don’t know how you got the idea that I think you should keep harassers, misogynists, and bullies in good standing within your groups. I would hope you that you run them out on a rail.

    Do you at least understand how your statement that it doesn’t matter whether we “want to tar and feather Vacula or cover him with unicorns and glitter” conveys exactly the opposite of this sentiment? And might you also consider that in the context of a year-long controversy where a certain faction insists on lionizing figures who have dismissive attitudes to women, throwing that out, joke or not, might hit a sore spot?

    From the outside I see a movement infested with the kind of people who engaged in a years long campaign of vilification against Rebecca Watson, who are just getting warmed up in their attacks on Surly Amy, who are engaged in major pushback against something as benign as A+, and who drove Jen McCreight off the internet. I see a movement that does keep harassers, misogynists, and bullies in good standing. As an outsider, I see a movement represented by Justin Vacula. And I think those are bad things.

    If this is what you said in the first place, we wouldn’t be having this argument. So, I’m really confused now–if this is how you feel, why did you act as though it didn’t matter why Vacula was divisive, and why did you imply that Rebecca Watson, Surly Amy, and Stephanie would also be controversial?

    Now, I’m going to go away before someone rips off my arm and beats me to death with it.

    Please, drop the martyr complex. You are just being criticized on the Internet. It’s okay. People don’t exactly like what you wrote–maybe you weren’t clear, maybe you were overly glib with some people who were seriously smarting from a lot of similar wounds…but the point is we objected to the substance of what you wrote, and this is not some unique horror we are visiting on you, and in fact you can even explain what you mean and find common ground if you so choose.

  18. Martha says

    This is such a brilliant post, Stephanie. I wish I could be sure that everyone who reads it will see how beautifully you’ve made these arguments. Actually, as I doubt that your detractors actually read what you write, perhaps everyone really will!

    I understand the perils of wading into an argument like the one between johnmckay and LSP, but I’m concerned that LSP (@20) is focusing more on the the words john (@11) used than the very strong position he meant to convey– and restated in @19. I agree with both of you that a secular movement has no value if it tolerates misogyny and harassment. I certainly don’t want to join forces with the likes of Justin Vacula. On the other hand, from what I’ve seen so far, I’d be glad to fight side-by-side with johnmckay any day.

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