Do you recall the story of Lady Godiva?
Most people recall an image of a woman with long flowing hair, on horseback, naked. But less people are actually familiar with the legend behind the image.
In summary, the good Lady was married to a greedy tyrant who exacted painful levels of taxes from his subjects. She issued repeated pleas on their behalf, that her husband should be less overbearing and exercise pity for his subjects. He finally answered that he would agree to her request if she would ride naked through the streets—pitting her pity against her sense of personal honor and dignity. In the end she agreed to expose herself to public shame. The subjects were asked to stay indoors, and she endured the now-famous ride. According to the tale as it was told to me as a child, everyone in the district, out of respect for her generosity and sacrifice on their behalf, closed their shutters and made no attempt to take advantage of her situation, as she was, quite literally, laid bare before them.
Richard Dawkins, awhile back, headed up the now famous “Out Campaign.” The idea was for atheists to come out publicly as atheists, in order to aid the entire community in a number of ways: We could see there were more of us than we thought, let others know they were not alone, help atheists feel less intimidated by religion, let theists know they know good people who are atheists. In general, the idea was, and is, to encourage atheists to be “out,” because it benefits the entire community, but, most especially, those in our ranks who need support.
I have rarely, but occasionally, seen theists expose, or threaten to expose, atheists who work under pseudonyms, or threaten to publish private contact information of atheists who work as activists under their legal names. But it is only in recent months that I have begun seeing atheists threatening to do this, or doing this, to other atheists. And I’ve counted at least four instances, and am wondering if this constitutes some unhappy trend?
Can I ask, “What the hell is wrong with you people?”
It is very important to our community that people be able to be safely out. We have pushed hard to encourage people to be out, and promised them our support from this sort of reprisal. Has our goal now become to push atheists as far back into the closet as we can? Are we now going to make sure that any atheist who wants to work for atheist causes must do so under a false name, or never show their face, or worse, forget the idea all together? What exactly is it we’re trying to accomplish here, because I thought the goal was to encourage people to come out publicly and make sure they had as little fear of doing so as possible? Did I misjudge that message? Was that not the goal? I get on TAE, using my real name, and encourage others to be out. But I will not continue to do so if what they can expect is to be harassed at home or at work or in some other personal fashion, as soon as they have a heated debate with some other atheist within the community.
A tactic used by the anti-choice community has been to publish public information online about physicians willing to do abortions. The fact this information is often already publicly available does not change, in the least, the clarity of their motives. Generally just a home address is sufficient to put such a doctor on notice. And their efforts to intimidate have been very successful. Not many doctors want to be on an anti-choice website with their home address public—an address where not only they live, but also their families. This tactic has never been honorable. It has always been disgraceful. And I want to encourage our community to close their shutters on behalf of those who are threatened with this sort of exposure. I don’t care if they’re posting ideas that are anti-feminist. I don’t care if they’re A+ and you hate that label. I don’t care what idea they have decided to address at their blog or in comments. If you don’t like it—you post back an opposing opinion with some honor and some substance. You comment at their blog or at your blog as a response. You don’t issue threats or pull up their personal, public data in order to encourage harassment and intimidate silence.
People facing this, very often, have taken the step of coming out and putting themselves out there, publicly, on behalf of this community. The fact you disagree with them on some subject-X is not license to try to bully them into silence. It’s never acceptable, but I find it particularly cowardly when such threats come from someone using an assumed name, themselves, taking advantage of the fact that others have bravely opted to work under their actual names. If you have done this, then may shame be upon you.
Since there is no way I know of that these types of people can actually be stopped, I am putting out a call to the community to close your shutters to this when you encounter it. Responding in kind is not the answer. When a person posts such information publicly, or threatens to, or says they’ll contact someone’s employer, show your support for the person being harassed—regardless of ideological differences. State loudly and proudly that you refuse to be a party to something so petty and damaging, or to take advantage of the fact someone else bravely agreed to be laid bare in their efforts on behalf of you and this community. Make it clear you absolutely will not harass someone for expressing an opposing viewpoint, no matter how opposed to it you may be, and that you have no respect for someone who would do, or encourage, such a thing. People who are out about their atheism, who work on behalf of this community openly and bravely, do not deserve this sort of response or treatment. Nor does anyone, for that matter.
If we can’t look after our own, then what is the point of anyone bothering (or should I say, at this point, daring) to come out? Why should anyone come out and support this community if members of this community will take full advantage of that “out” status, the moment there is a disagreement, and post someone’s personal information, or threaten to harass them at their job, because the Internet has made it that easy for them to do so?
If this trend continues, I will not be able, in good conscience, to encourage anyone else to come out as an atheist or work for this community in any open fashion.
If someone will, then, just let me know when it’s safe to come back out?