This piece is about the current atheist movement â but I think it applies to almost any movement for social change.
There’s a lively debate in the godless movement about how we should be going about the business of atheist, agnostic, skeptical, humanist, and other godless activism. Some, like Richard Dawkins and PZ Myers, favor a more passionate, confrontational approach, speaking directly and without mincing words about the absurdities and contradictions and troubling manifestations of religion and religious institutions. Others, like Michael Shermer, prefer a more respectful, more sympathetic, less confrontational approach towards religion and religious beliefs.
Here’s what I want to know:
Why is this an either/or question?
Let me give you an analogy. In the queer activist movement of the ’80s and ’90s, pretty much this exact same question was a subject of hot debate. Loud, angry, in-your-face street activist groups like ACT UP and Queer Nation accused the more mild-mannered lobbying and electoral-politics groups like the Human Rights Campaign Fund of assimilationism, excessive compromise, and generally selling out. And the mild-mannered lobbying groups accused the street activists of being overly idealistic, alienating potential allies, and making their own job harder. (Obviously, this kind of division isn’t limited to the queer movement of the ’80s and ’90s — Malcolm X and Martin Luther King leap to mind, as do Booker T. Washington and W.E.B. Du Bois. The queer movement is just the one I was around for.)
But in retrospect, it seems clear that both methods were effective. Still are, for that matter. Far more effective than either method alone.
Part of this is simply that different methods of activism speak to different people. Some folks are better able to hear a quiet, sympathetic voice that wants to find a workable compromise for everybody. Others are better able to hear a passionate cry for justice that demands to be heard and honored. So when both kinds of voices are heard (or rather, all kinds of voices, since this difference is much more of a spectrum than a simple either/or dichotomy), then more people will be reached.
But the effectiveness of the two-pronged, “good cop/bad cop” strategy goes far beyond a simple numbers game. The two methods together combine to make a symbiotic whole that’s far more effective than the sum of its parts.
Again, let’s look at the queer movement of the ’80s and ’90s. The street activists got attention, got on the news, raised visibility and awareness of the issues. The lobbyists and other negotiator-types could then go to the politicians and corporations and institutions and raise a more polite, nuanced form of hell, knowing that the politicians etc. they were working with had at least a baseline awareness of the questions at hand. (One of the things you notice when you look at ACT UP’s early years is that, when they took on an issue — speeding up the approval process for drugs, getting treatment for women with HIV, etc. — that issue would commonly be on the agenda of the medical and political establishment within six months to a year.)
In addition, the street activists presented a more extreme, hard-line set of demands… which made the lobbyists and other negotiators seem more reasonable in comparison. The line for what constituted an extremist position versus a moderate one kept getting moved, and lobbyists could go further and ask for more while still seeming moderate. (We see this dynamic now, alas, being used very effectively today by the far right. And we see it more happily with the way that supporting civil unions instead of same-sex marriage has become the moderate political position — something that was not even close to being true ten years ago.)
And, of course, you had the very straightforward “good cop/bad cop” dynamic. The nice polite compromisers could get a lot more accomplished with the political/ medical/ corporate establishment when they knew the street activists were there to create unholy hell if they didn’t get what they were asking for. The “I don’t know if I can keep my partner in line much longer” gambit works just as well for an activist movement working over a pharmaceutical company as it does for a cop working over a suspect.
But perhaps most importantly:
Or, if you don’t like the religious implications of that phrase: We do what we’re inspired to do. We do what we’re good at. Some of us are good at passionate, confrontational idealism; while some of us are good at sympathy with our opponents, and at compromise. (And some of us are good at balancing these approaches, or at using different ones at different times.)
And since the multi-pronged approach to activism is so much more effective than any one prong alone, it seems patently absurd to insist that everyone else in the movement should be working the exact same prong that we’re working.
I’m not saying we should all just hold hands in a circle and sing “Kumbaya.” There are real differences within the atheist/ non-believer community, differences not only about our methods but about our actual agendas. What’s more, the difference between compromise and confrontation isn’t merely one of tactics — it often has serious practical implications, having to do with what is and is not an acceptable compromise. And those differences are worth arguing about.
But when it comes to the basic question of “sympathetic compromiser versus passionate idealist” tactics, I think we’d all be better off if we stopped spending our time and energy squabbling with each other, and left each other the hell alone to do what we’re good at and what we’re inspired to do.
P.S. I’m home at last. The trip was great, but exhausting. Pictures are coming. I have a couple of deadlines to attend to in the next day or two, but I should be back to my regular blogging schedule after that.