How Confrontationalism Can Open Doors

A woman walks into a café, orders a coffee and, before she pays, crosses off “In God We Trust” on her $20 bill. The woman is me, and scratching the motto off money is something I often do.

This time the woman behind the counter gave me a look. Irritated, offended. She looked like she wanted to tell me off, or start an argument. But instead she shrugged, and said (paraphrasing here), “Whatever floats your boat.”

I felt uncomfortable. Like most people, I don’t like upsetting others or making them mad at me. I’m fairly comfortable with confrontation online—heck, it’s my job, and it’s a job I enjoy—but when it’s in person, it makes me feel self-conscious and anxious. While the woman was getting my coffee, I had a brief argument with myself in my head. Was this bit of visibility for secularism worth the irritation and offense I had caused? Had I actually turned someone off to the ideas I was trying to convey? Was it obnoxious of me to do my little “secular government” visibility action in front of the barista, who is professionally required to be polite to me and doesn’t have the option of telling me to piss off? In doing my visibility shtick and trying to open some eyes to some new ideas and questions, had I instead just closed a door?

Here’s what happened next.

*

Thus begins my first piece in my “Fierce Humanism” column for The Humanist magazine, How Confrontationalism Can Open Doors. To read more about how confrontation can start conversations rather than stopping them, and why confrontationalism and diplomacy aren’t necessarily mutually exclusive, read the rest of the piece. Enjoy!

Comments

  1. Danny W says

    I read the rest of the piece and I still think that your initial feeling of discomfort was justified.

    In your piece you gave many examples of the success of confrontation in exposing ideas to people. I agreed with everything you had to say there. The issue that sets your stunt apart is one you identified yourself:

    Was it obnoxious of me to do my little “secular government” visibility action in front of the barista, who is professionally required to be polite to me and doesn’t have the option of telling me to piss off?

    I don’t see how you’ve addressed the issue of this imbalance of power aside from “the ends justified the means in this case”.

  2. Eidolon says

    Danny @1

    first off, I note that you characterize Greta’s act as a ‘stunt’ which can imply that it was done only to show off or attract attention. Does this mean that crossing off the motto should only be done in private? How about an atheist T shirt or jewelry?

    The essential fact that Greta pointed out is that our very existence and being out is going to be confrontational. It is unavoidable. I have been honked at and flipped off for having a Darwin fish (later stolen and replaced) on my car. On nearly every comment thread in the local paper, an atheist comment is quickly characterized as hateful and a ‘why don’t you keep it to yourself’ usually follows as well.

    For me, the take away from this piece is how confrontation and communication are not mutually exclusive.

  3. Danny W says

    Eidolon @2

    Greta called it “my little “secular government” visibility action “. Stunt is my word and I believe it can be justified in this case.

    You are about to pay, then you pause and deliberately cross of the phrase on the money so that the barista can see. Doing it when you have her attention and making the normal transaction unusual could be regarded by many as a stunt.

    The only way it is not a stunt is if it wasn’t the intention to have the barista see the action. But then what does the word “visibility” in the quote mean?

    Why is it different to Darwin fish, t-shirts etc? In my view, target audience. Sure, an atheist t-shirt can be seen by the barista, but it is not specifically meant for her. It is confrontational to everyone. Ditto the fish. This action could only have been seen by someone who was not free to respond to the confrontation in the same way that a person on the street could.

  4. says

    Was this “confrontational”? The word conveys some sense of person-to-person aggression, of “face-to-face” interaction.

    But what you did wasn’t actually directed at her. As far as we can tell from what you wrote, you had no idea of her own views, and you were in no way attacking them. It wasn’t personal.

    Aren’t you letting “them” set the agenda, making you question actions that you should be comfortable with?

    Now, if you had handed her a copy of your super book that I’ve just finished reading, that could have been interpreted as confrontational! A masterpiece of coherently-expressed rage.

    (I’m speaking from a country that has Darwin on one of its most common currency notes, so perhaps I’m missing some of the nuances here).

  5. hexidecima says

    I recently confronted my aged aunts about their bigotry and ignorance. It was by email, but was this a “stunt” too since per Danny, any attempt to get attention for a cause seems to be deemed just that?

    Many people, including me, don’t like to tell someone they are wrong, even if they are. We are inculcated by society to be “polite” and unfortunately “polite” has come to mean shutting up if you disagree. In Greta’s example, why should the barista assume that this is meant toward her and that Greta doesn’t do this everytime she gets out a piece of paper currency? I agree with Barry on this. It is letting theists control this situation and so many others. I got into a very heated discussion on a forum I used to be on when someone insisted that only theists should be able to bring up the subject of their religion. This is ridiculous, since their religions are directly harmful, and ignoring this simply tacitly accepts this harm. I am not willing to ever do that.

  6. says

    Regarding the “defacement” of money:

    It’s Not

    Defacement of currency is a violation of Title 18, Section 333 of the United States Code. Under this provision, currency defacement is generally defined as follows: Whoever mutilates, cuts, disfigures, perforates, unites or cements together, or does any other thing to any bank bill, draft, note, or other evidence of debt issued by any national banking association, Federal Reserve Bank, or Federal Reserve System, with intent to render such item(s) unfit to be reissued, shall be fined under this title or imprisoned not more than six months, or both.

    Bolding is mine.

    Just wanted to get this out of the way early.

  7. says

    @Ye Olde Blacksmith #6 – Correct. Writing on paper currency — scratching out “In God We Trust” or stamping a bill with “Happy Birthday” or “www.wheresgeorge.com” does not meet the legal requirements for defacement, as the bill remains and is identifiable as legal tender.

  8. Eidolon says

    Danny@3

    I think the crossing out of the motto is the ‘visibility action’ not doing it in front of the barista. I think Barry @4 summed it up well.

  9. Entrained says

    Greata
    I felt uncomfortable. Like most people, I don’t like upsetting others or making them mad at me. I’m fairly comfortable with confrontation online—heck, it’s my job, and it’s a job I enjoy—but when it’s in person, it makes me feel self-conscious and anxious. While the woman was getting my coffee, I had a brief argument with myself in my head. Was this bit of visibility for secularism worth the irritation and offense I had caused? Had I actually turned someone off to the ideas I was trying to convey? Was it obnoxious of me to do my little “secular government” visibility action in front of the barista, who is professionally required to be polite to me and doesn’t have the option of telling me to piss off? In doing my visibility shtick and trying to open some eyes to some new ideas and questions, had I instead just closed a door?

    I find your point regarding confrontation on line v. in person interesting. I wonder how much of the dialogue that is occurring now in the blogosphere would occur if the conversations were in person. Would people be as brave with their opinions. It’s one thing to be bold with opinions anonymously on line, quite another to look someone in the eyes.

  10. Attila says

    I haven’t crossed out “In God We Trust” in front of people. But when I have taken it off my bills, I have crossed it out and written in, “E Pluribus Unum.” Hey it was a perfectly serviceable motto for over 150 years. We should bring it back.

  11. artharjar says

    @9

    I too wish that more of these conversations would happen in face-to-face settings. In law school I started wearing atheist t-shirts to class. At first I was a little afraid of what would happen but it turned out that I created a safe space for atheists at the school. Several of my classmates came out as atheist or agnostic and a conversation was started that lasted throughout the full 3 years of the program.

  12. Danny W says

    @5.

    Do I have to point out the difference in confronting people whom you know are bigoted and ignorant and some random employee who is paid to serve and be nice to you, about whom you know nothing?

  13. Martha says

    … confrontation can start conversations rather than stopping them..

    and

    …confrontationalism and diplomacy aren’t necessarily mutually exclusive.

    Yes, yes, a thousand times yes! People on both sides of the debate need to understand this. This is true on both a personal scale and within a movement. In the latter case, the moderate voices more often win the day, but they wouldn’t even get a hearing without the confrontational ones.

    I also can’t see Greta’s action as offensive. It’s the kind of small gesture Christians make all the time in our society without comment. I don’t have any problem with making them feel slightly uncomfortable in the way that all those fish symbols, prayers, and wishes for a “blessed day,” however well meaning, make me feel.

  14. says

    As a member of a group here in Rhode Island that writes letters to newspapers and public officials, walks in protests, participates in volunteer efforts, goes on talk radio, testifies at the state house on issues of interest to atheists and humanists including reproductive rights, marriage equality, separation of church and state and social justice and is very active in confronting the public at large about these issues in a highly visible way, I applaud this article because it exposes what I think is the false dichotomy between confrontationalism and accomodationism in the atheist/humanist/skeptical movement.

    Being confrontational does not mean you have to be a jerk. What it means is that you make your point in a fair and polite way, seeking compromise where appropriate and holding fast when the values being championed are bedrock. At the same time, not every instance of allying oneself with a religious group, whether it’s building a house with Habitat for Humanity or forming a coalition of groups interested in attaining full marriage equality for LGBT persons is accomodationist. It’s quite possible to work with groups that believe differently, and not give an inch of philosophical ground in the process.

  15. jim says

    Being confrontational does not mean you have to be a jerk. What it means is that you make your point in a fair and polite way, seeking compromise where appropriate and holding fast when the values being championed are bedrock.

    In several of the prominent commenting sections here at FtB, expressing preference for this approach gets you labeled as a tone troll. I happen to prefer this approach also.

  16. John the Drunkard says

    Good gift idea: a rubber stamp of ‘E Pluribus Unum’ sized to fit on as many denominations as possible.

    Not so easy with coins.

  17. stonyground says

    Presumably you do the crossing out in public in order to make a point, which in this case turned out to be a successful stategy. The alternative would be to do the crossing out at home, before you go out. It seems to me to be a regrettable human trait, to ignore rules that are inconvenient or that you disagree with. If laws are bad or unjust then ignoring them is a duty, but in the case of “In God we trust” on the banknotes or “Under God” in the pledge, the fact that idiots have ridden roughshod over the constitution is obvious to any thinking American. I believe that these things were only brought in in the fifties so that US citizens could assert that they were different from those Godless Commies, Commies that have now turned out not to be very Godless at all.

    As has already been pointed out, we in the UK have a picture of Darwin on our tenners. We can’t be too smug however because, although most of the population have no interest in religion, our government likes to behave as if we are all regular church-goers. This seems to apply whichever party that you vote for.

  18. says

    #17: As has already been pointed out, we in the UK have a picture of Darwin on our tenners. We can’t be too smug however because, although most of the population have no interest in religion, our government likes to behave as if we are all regular church-goers. This seems to apply whichever party that you vote for.

    It is unfortunate that there are a few such people in key positions: Gove, Pickles, etc. They are having a disproportionate effect. (Clegg is openly an atheist).

    But I’m confident that the secularisation of the UK will continue, generation by generation. One estimate was that the UK becomes about half as religious every 2 generations. It isn’t fast nor smooth.

    And I suspect that the same will apply to the USA too. Again, it will take generations, and lots of damage will be done in that time. (Dennett thinks there will be a tipping point, but I can’t see that this will be a matter of loss of faith of most of the population! I suspect that most of the people who are currently religious will die religious. But the coming generations will be exposed to anti-religious views of a degree that surely no previous generation was ever exposed to. The topic of this thread is an example. And the number of active people is surely accelerating. It would be interesting to know how much public exposure to atheism there is now compared with 1 decade ago).

  19. virginia solita says

    Greta, you crazy bitch. I LOVE this idea! I can’t believe I never thought of it before. The whole “in god we trust ” thing has always bugged me but it never occured to me to scratch it out. Or to explain my actions to curious onlookers in such a succinct and elegant way. Thanks girlfriend!

  20. Brandon Teague says

    People of circumstantial questions,

    As a person who is pro, “In God we trust.”, I have to say, that was a bold step. True the doing of such in front of the cafe barista does raise a question on my part.
    If you did it before giving the money or at home, etc. would the same effect not be felt?
    If I went up to you and gave you a five dollar bill, but first made sure you saw me writing out a Bible verse on the front and put, “Jesus loves you! <3" next to it, you may feel at least a little bit awkward because you do not believe that, which in turn may make me feel awkward because I sense your negative response, or psychological walls built immediately.

    Stepping out and sharing your belief calls for a little bit of "unconfortableness" on the part of the person trying to push past the subject [barista] comfort zone, especially in a case where the person being encroached upon sees [hears, feels, etc.] you blatantly doing the action. I am sure that you were uncomfortable, but so was she, and when you try to display any ideals that oppose that of another's that will happen every single time. Neither she nor you had blame in the situation, both of you responded as you both would and that should be what you wanted, free thoughts expressed, verbally, physically, subconsciously, etc.

    I do commend you, although I am not atheist, many Christians have a difficult time sharing their beliefs in public, including myself at times. Your act inspires me to step it up a bit.
    Yours,
    LivingDeadRevelation

  21. Gnat says

    @ Brandon Teague #21:

    Except you writing a bible verse and “Jesus loves you! <3" on a five dollar bill isn't the equivalent of Greta crossing out "In God We Trust," for two reasons:

    One, the US government has already put a religious message on Greta's money for her. You would just be adding another one. The regular old five dollar bill, unaltered, isn't starting out in a religiously neutral state. It's already proclaiming religious ideals, and Greta is just removing them. While the act of doing so is itself confrontational, and the confrontation of that *act* is not neutral, the state that she's returning the note to is neutral. She's not scrawling "Evolution is da best, lol!" on it, she's just removing the religious message.

    The second reason is that the religious message "In God We Trust" shouldn't be there in the first place. I'm no expert (I'm not even a USian), but my understanding is that this message is blatantly unconstitutional. Not only is Greta rendering the note religiously neutral, she's correcting something that should never have been there in the first place. Erasing the unconstitutional message is very different to adding another religious reference.

  22. UnderTheBroomTree says

    So I know this is an older post, but I stumbled on it again. How are the words, “In God we trust” unconstitutional? I was under the impression that the founding fathers where Christians, not deist or atheist. The major founding fathers, signers of the declaration, constitution, etc… where religious men. More specifically they were Christian. Though not all of the shared the same beliefs, or denomination they were Christian none the less.

    Would Greta be considered “returning” the bill to its neutral state, if it never had a neutral state. This statement is NOT unconstitutional whatsoever. ADL brings up an interesting statement. Separation of church and state simply makes it to where the US government cannot explicitly endorse a national religion, nor can they make said religion mandatory. This is why it falls under with freedom of speech. Faith is politically correct when shared, because it is our constitutional privilege.

    So overall, America was built and founded on Christianity for hundreds of years and then decides to abandon this; prayer removed from schools, Christianity is rarely mentioned in a public school system, founding fathers are accused of not being religious, ten commandments are no longer allowed in courts (which in and of it’s self is ridiculous. This is some of the first and most famous set of laws next to the long list of Babylon’s laws, which would take up too much pace. If not for religious purposes, at least for legal purposes it is elegant), Christianity stifled in the military and the list goes on and on. Now America is not a Christian country, but it was founded on Christian principle.

    “Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.”
    (President John Adams)

    “Of all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity, religion and morality are indispensable supports. In vain would that man claim the tribute of patriotism who should labor to subvert these great pillars of human happiness, these firmest props of the duties of men and citizens… let it simply be asked, where is security for property, for reputation, for life, if the sense of religious obligation desert the oaths which are the instruments of investigation in courts of justice?”
    (President George Washington)

    Amendments to the Constitution of the United States of America
    Amendment 1
    Congress shall make NO law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press, or of the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

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