A Crisis of Professionalism

That is what the secular and skeptics movements face right now: a crisis of professionalism. We’re not the only ones, of course. The gaming industry faces one. The industry of science fiction and fantasy publishing is facing one. Several disciplines of science face them.

What we all have in common is that we used to be relatively exclusive clubs. As the world in which we exist has grown, we can’t be that anymore, not if we want to thrive, possibly even not if we want to survive. We have to change.

We are relatively young movements, at least from where I sit here in the U.S. We’ve barely grown past the point where a few charismatic figures have an idea or two about what we should do and convince others around them that this is a good idea. We even still have some of those leaders in place. Paul Kurtz we only lost last year, though his leadership role had been sharply curtailed for a few years before that.

Charismatic leaders like Kurtz and O’Hair can start a movement , but they leave particular marks when they do. They promote a top-down approach that rewards, even necessitates, deference to authority. If a movement runs on the energy of a leader or two, it has to placate the leaders.

That deference to authority has other effects on the shape of a movement. It promotes people who get ahead on politicking rather than accomplishments. It gives more weight to people who flatter the authorities than it does to people who do the work of turning ambitious visions into reality. It promotes shunning of people who are significantly unlike the authority in charge.

In other words, movements that rely on charismatic leaders for their energy are shaped and defined by social concerns more than they are by the work that needs doing.

Don’t get me wrong, as long as the charismatic leader in question values accomplishments, a movement under their influence can accomplish great things. It’s simply that the reverse is also true. If such a leader loses focus on the work, so will the movement they lead. And any work they don’t make their focus will be neglected.

So will any people those leaders don’t value. In these movements, there will be social stratification. The leader and his or her friends will be on one level. The people who can influence the leader, directly or through those friends, will be on another. Those people who have annoyed or offended the leader will be pariahs. The great mass of people, who may care and be as motivated on these issues as the leader, will generally be ignored until needed for something.

Not infrequently, this something will not be the work of the movement. Between the stratification and the acceptability of creating pariahs, the potential for abuse by leaders and their friends is serious.

It’s not an efficient way to get work done, but most of the work is done by a few people anyway–often much of it directly by the leader. It’s a system that can work for a while, as long as that leader lives and stays focused.

Movements based on this model, however, have very limited potential for growth. Growth will eventually bring diversity. People enter a movement based on ideals they share with these charismatic leaders, then differ with them on priorities or clash with them personally or run afoul of the top tier’s personal prejudices. They go from being ignored to being lumped with the pariahs. Then they either leave or splinter off from the main part of the movement to do their own thing.

This splintering, by the way, is not necessarily a bad thing. It’s one of two ways a movement gets beyond the charismatic-leader stage. Multiple organizations and leaders lessen the influence of the small group that can create pariahs and lessen the opportunities for abuse by providing refuge elsewhere in a movement. They provide continuity when one of these charismatic leaders dies or loses focus. They provide a conduit through which other people whose priorities don’t match those of the charismatic leader can still do meaningful work. They keep a movement from being a closed club.

The other way a movement gets beyond this stage is by passing the leadership of organizations out of the hands of these charismatic leaders and into the hands of leaders who focus on the pragmatics of running organizations. They have skills that the charismatic leaders have generally not had to develop, skills developed outside the movement or under fire as the old leadership breaks down and someone has to try to hold things together.

However these movements open out and become less the playgrounds of a few elites, new, more professional leaders still face the challenges of a movement culture that grew around these elites. The habits of deference, the stratification, the tolerance of abuse–these still exist even after leadership has changed.

That’s where we sit today. We’re working hard at fixing it. Both the Secular Student Alliance and CFI on Campus are working hard to teach a new generation of leaders how to deal with the pragmatics of running and growing a movement. People like Todd Stiefel are working to help organizations focus on their work. Leaders of organizations are coming together to coordinate on shared goals, putting work in front of personalities to at least some extent.

At the same time, we still allow some personalities–and some leaders–to put cronyism first. We still allow them perqs that harm people not on their “level”. We still accept abuse of those who challenge and disagree with leaders or with that club mentality. We still put social factors ahead of getting work done.

This weekend, we have two tests of our movements. Leaders of two of the largest and best-known organizations are being watched as their decisions tell us what they’re willing to put up with. The board of the Center for Inquiry, obviously, makes a decision on whether they are willing to allow their organization and their conferences to be used to exercise the ignorance and personal grievances of their CEO. [ETA: I don’t expect an announcement until Monday. See comments for a discussion of why.] Their meeting ends today. On Sunday Saturday, the president of American Atheists will appear on the podcast of someone who calls himself a “brave hero” for openly advocating for the culture of abuse that exists within our movements. He’s given preliminary indications he’s ready to challenge that culture, but we’ll have to see what the outcome of that appearance actually is.

What will happen? I don’t know. Rebecca has compared our leadership to leadership found elsewhere, and she’s not hopeful. I don’t blame her. She’s seen much of the worst of our movements, both from those who enforce stratification through abuse and from leaders who have enabled, accommodated, or ignored that abuse. Too many people in our movements have helped to put and keep her in the place of the pariah who is fair game for anything. Her lack of faith in our leadership has been earned in ways that cynicism as deep as hers often is not.

Others are more hopeful. They see the ranks of those of us calling for change growing, getting more organized, being more active. They don’t know how the situation can continue as it is. They see the passion for making a difference around them and feel it has to have an effect. Maybe not now, but sometime.

Me? I really don’t know. I’ve seen my share of the abuse. I’ve stood in the middle of drastic failures of leadership. But I’ve also watch the demands for better leadership, the end to cronyism, and a healthier movement culture grow. I’ve seen, and helped, people get more organized. I’ve seen some wins. I’ve seen good examples set.

But I don’t know. This kind of energy, organization, and work is welcome–needed–in lots of places. If this weekend shows people that they’re not being listened to in our movements, there are lots of good places for them to go. We can leave part or all of these movements. People do it all the time. This time, more people are watching. More people will be making decisions based on what happens this weekend.

Events have conspired to put us in a crisis of leadership, a crisis of professionalism, this weekend. Two of our largest organizations can choose to embrace the old ways of doing business or the new. I really don’t know which they’ll choose. All I know is that these few days are going to make a difference for some time to come.

A Crisis of Professionalism

22 thoughts on “A Crisis of Professionalism

  1. 1

    Great post, Stephanie. So many eyes are watching, from all over the world. One way or another, some wake-up calls are about to arrive.

  2. 2

    Yes. And those of us who are watching will be putting our money where our mouths are — or not, depending on the outcomes.

    I have no desire to rebuild the wheel. CFI sounds like it does incredible work. But the leadership vacuum is astounding. The roar of silence has been quite deafening. They won’t see a penny from me unless I’m satisfied they’re truly committed to equal human rights for everyone. That this is even a question is what is so troubling.

  3. 3

    When are we likely to see an announcement? Is it an “any moment now” thing, or a “wait six weeks, while they prepare an 800 page report” thing?

  4. 4

    I wouldn’t expect anything out of CFI before Monday unless it comes directly from Ron. Otherwise, there will be announcements to be prepared and perhaps other actions to be taken. Also, their communications director is on vacation, though I suspect it won’t be as much of a vacation as it could be. Kind of like Melody’s “vacation” right after WiS.

  5. 5

    Could be a good weekend… Its hard to imagine CFI doing anything other than a telling off which will annoy the other “side” as a climb down and capitulation to the “#FTBullies”. Silverman may well have seen Fincke’s “debate” with Justin, if so I doubt he’ll put up with as much civil avoidance of the issue that seemed to eventually drive Fincke up the wall.

    As for Vacula’s performance – I know Stacy mentioned live tweeting it on #bravehero. So @hashspamkiller is set up to retweet from that hash when the person is not in the block list. I’ll be interested in seeing live tweets from ppl rather than subject myself to it …

  6. 6

    yes, Stephanie! I have been saying that my problem with CFI is that Ron Lindsay is bad at his job. A leader should always be focused on unifying the org toward a common goal, recruiting new members, and bringing in money. He or she should be above the fray (allowing others to champion their issues) so that they can continue to mediate and not create divisiveness. Everything that Ron did stirred up division. Since then the org has not even made a public statement to show that the issues are being carefully considered, and when we can expect a response to fully address the issues. I am losing my hope for the value of CFI. I hope they can resurrect it.
    On the other hand, I have high (or at least pretty-high) hopes for Silverman. He has shown great political savvy in many difficult situations. I don’t agree with everything he has done, but I think he is very principled.

  7. 7

    I’m torn. On the one hand, I don’t see how the movement can continue as it was. It has to change.

    On the other hand, it’s very hard to know which side has more support, and the fence-sitters seems to have a bigger voice than they should (being… you know… fence-sitters and all). So there’s a part of me that’s feeling rather pessimistic… like that this will all end in failure instead of success.

    I move between the two on a how-I’m-feeling-at-that-moment basis. But we’ll see. I’m definitely hoping, but I’m not sure if I’m hopeful… if that makes any sense…

    I think the announcements by CFI will give us the first hint of how this is going to go…

  8. 8

    I’m not sure what you think the crisis is that faces SF&F publishing, but I’m fairly certain it’s not a matter of professionalism, any more than it is in publishing in general.

  9. 13

    Sure. Minnesota Atheists would still be up and running, the Freedom From Religion Foundation in Madison would still have their home, and so on. It’s not as if freethinkers are a monolithic group.

  10. 16

    I’m not sure what you think the crisis is that faces SF&F publishing, but I’m fairly certain it’s not a matter of professionalism, any more than it is in publishing in general.

    Erm, you don’t think that out of control sexism is unprofessional?

  11. 17

    David Wilford appears to have a habit of arriving to threadjack discussions into being all about justifying one tangential point in the OP to him via JAQ-ing off. Is this a habit which anyone should encourage by engaging with him as anything other than a chewtoy?

  12. 18

    I looked at his comment history before replying the first time. He’s been better than this everywhere else he’s commented, and it isn’t just a different subject matter either. Everyone has an off night, I guess.

  13. 19

    The thought occured to me that this is very similar to the process that happens in businesses as they grow, if they started out enterprenerially and move to more formal organizations. The people who started the businesses were more keyed on product development, production and marketing and while they had plans for growth didn’t necessarily have the skills to direct and maintain larger organizations once they had achieved their initial goals.

    In that, I don’t know much about Lindsay beyond his talk at WiS2, but if that is truly representative of his leadership style then I really don’t think that he is the right person in place as the CEO of CFI and I will be watching with interest, too. Sudden spurts of growth in membership are very difficult to handle administratively and I hope that the leadership groups of the secular organizations make personnel decisions that will make good business sense, ie, encourage rather than discourage new membership among the currently pissed off.

  14. 21

    This is a brilliant analysis of the situation. It provides a framework for the stages of how organizations grow or fail to thrive in much the same way that Rebecca Goldstein’s talk pulled together the rise of philosophy and the great religions as different responses to much the same set of circumstances. I’m still disappointed by many of the responses I see from the defenders of the status quo, but I’m much less baffled by them now.

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