Rules of Disengagement

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Sometimes the conflicts between people working toward the same goals are important and in need of serious hashing out. If you’re battling inequality, it’s important to make sure that you’re not perpetuating other inequalities in your fight. That’s not something about which you can simply agree to disagree.

Don’t take my word on the subject. Here’s Greta Christina talking about how not fixing these problems early creates more problems.

The early LGBT movement was very much dominated by gay white men. And the gay white male leaders of that movement had some seriously bad race and sex stuff going on: treating gay men of color as fetishistic Others, objects of sexual desire rather than members of the community… and treating lesbians as alien Others, inscrutable and trivial.

And we are paying for it today. Relations between lesbians and gay men, between white queers and queers of color, are often strained at best. Conversations in our movement about race and gender take place in a decades-old context of rancor and bitterness, and they can be a minefield, in which nothing anybody says is right. We still have a decided tendency to treat gay men of color as fetish objects, and lesbians as sexless aliens. And we still, after decades, have a decided tendency to put gay white men front and center as the most visible, most iconic representatives of our community.

That makes it hard on everybody in the LGBT movement. It creates rifts that make our community weaker. And it has a seriously bad impact on our ability to make effective social change.

There are disagreements we have to come to terms with and settle. However, that doesn’t mean that every dispute needs to be viewed this way. Not every disagreement has a right side and a wrong side. This is particularly true when we get into the area of priorities and processes.

One of the longest and most rancorous disagreements in organized atheism/secularism has been the “debate” between “accommodationists” and “confrontationalists”. I put so many words in scare quotes in that sentence because so much of that disagreement has been people talking past each other that it’s nearly impossible to define the sides, much less the substance of the disagreement. This is true, in no small part, because the conflict was frequently painted as a false choice between having everyone in these movement adopt one approach or everyone adopt the other.

In reality, were there a wide variety of approaches included each umbrella. “Accommodationism” could mean anything from supporting consequences for blasphemy to working in coalitions with religious groups to sharing religious arguments alongside atheist arguments for a cause. “Confrontationalism” could mean anything from sea-lioning people talking about their religious beliefs on Twitter to calling for help for victims of religious abuse to making an argument that religion is harmful to society. There are significant problems with some of those behaviors, but they don’t align neatly with the labels given.

Beyond that, these approaches have never been incompatible. They have not always even been consistent within individuals. There was and is no requirement for uniformity of approach imposed by shared goals, and history tells us that behavioral diversity, like genetic diversity, has some benefits. Whether we look at the black civil rights movement of the 60s or AIDS activism of the 80s and 90s, we find radical, confrontational activists who scared the public working in parallel with measured but firm activists who…well, scared the public slightly less. We find successes, and we find activists chalking those successes up to the combination of tactics.

I don’t know where we’d be on the accommodationist-confrontationalist front right now if the debate hadn’t largely been supplanted by the debates over making these movements more inclusive. We were reaching toward a more nuanced understanding of the question, so I’d like to think we’d have still ended up where we are now. These days, we tend to be better at pointing to problem behaviors rather than broad approaches. We’re mostly down with “Live and let live”. It’s been pretty nice.

On the other hand, we’re now facing similar disputes over tactics for making the atheist/secular movement more inclusive. The sides are different, of course. At the risk of oversimplifying, this time we have the reformers versus the revolutionaries, those who are willing to work with existing organizations as long as they continue to see positive change versus those who want to see those organizations abandoned or destroyed and replaced by new institutions.

On the surface, this feels like a more direct conflict than accommodationism versus confrontationalism. Obviously people can’t tear down and build up institutions at the same time, right?

I don’t think so. I think we’d have to live in a far different world for that to be true. Both the building up and the tearing down would have to be easier, or all of us more effective, before we came into significant conflict. The constant influx of new atheists and secularists would have to stop, so the hole the revolutionaries left when they abandoned organizations was larger and more easily felt. Reformers would have to be so successful at changing organizational behavior that there was nothing left to condemn. Either of those scenarios would bring us close enough to get in each other’s way.

Evening shot. Bridge is lit up and reflected in river. Calgary skyline in the background.
“The Peace Bridge in Calgary an HDR photo” by Ryan Quan, CC BY-SA 3.0

As things stand now, however, I think these approaches complement each other, much as accommodationist and confrontationalist approaches historically have. If you don’t have the power to shut down an organization when it has a pattern of problems, do you not want people still chipping away at those problems? If you are trying to persuade an organization to change, do you not want that organization to have seen consequences for its current behavior? I don’t expect close partnerships between reformers and revolutionaries, but I think there’s room to respect our differences without feeling betrayed by each other.

That isn’t to say that navigating those differences is easy. It isn’t. It’s hard to hear the reasoning behind someone taking a different approach than yours without feeling like your own reasoning is being challenged or invalidated. It’s hard not to feel that if everyone interested in the topic just followed your lead, we’d have the numbers to get things fixed. It’s hard to watch people walk away from the organizations and people you invest in. It’s hard to watch people interact with the organizations and people who have hurt you and your friends.

None of this is easy. I think, though, that with some broad ground rules, we can manage better than we’re doing now. What follows are some suggestions I’ve come up with after several years as a mostly-reformer who has a lot of revolutionary friends. As such, “I” in the following examples am acting as a stand-in for reformers more generally, where “you” are a stand-in for revolutionaries. Nor are these suggestions exhaustive. I would be interested in hearing more.


I will not tell you that walking away from a person, an organization, or even a movement means that you don’t care. I know better.

Many of the people who have walked away from organized atheism or secularism in the past few years are people who cared about the movements deeply. They volunteered. They argued. They took movement jobs for little pay and less prestige. They found a cause that meant everything to them, and they poured their passion into it.

In return, it slapped them in the face. Or worse.

We have a lot of ugly history in our movements. Much of it is recent history because the movement in its current form is young. We’re talking discrimination, harassment, assault. We’re talking about unworthy heroes elevated to positions from which they fell on people’s heads.

There have been damned good reasons to flee these movements, good reasons to view it as corrupt, good reasons to never want to look back. And the people who have seen this most closely have been the people who cared the most. Volunteers and staffers are in positions most vulnerable to abuse. People who have tried to change these movements for the better have received the most vicious backlash.

Walking away under those circumstances is not a mark of indifference. Neither is wanting to torch the place. It’s often a redirection of the same passion that led people to work in these movements in the first place. If you’re one of those people, I don’t think and won’t say that you don’t care.

In return, I ask you not to suggest that working to improve these organizations means I don’t care about the harm they’ve done in the past. Just as there are good reasons to go, there are also good reasons to stay as long as progress is being made.

As I mentioned before, the growth of the secular and atheist movements makes it very hard for established organizations to wither away. So does the presence of norms that suggest even acknowledging problems constitutes an attack on those organizations that requires a counterattack. In other words, these organizations aren’t going away. And as long as they stick around, I care that they change so we don’t see more people get hurt.

I also care about the people those organizations serve. Revolution is always hardest on the most vulnerable. Sometimes it’s still worthwhile, but revolution always means a disruption of services, and that hurts the people who need those services on a regular basis. For the organizations we’re talking about, that can mean anything from creating visibility of minority atheists so others know they’re not alone to creating a haven for atheists whose lives are in danger elsewhere, with a whole lot of standing up for people facing discrimination in between.

There is so much to care about around these topics that even tiny differences in our priorities and our opportunities to effect change mean that people who care about all the same things take different approaches. We all have a surfeit of caring, not a deficit. I’d like to see us all recognize that.


I will not tell you not to criticize an organization I’m working with. Not only would people–at best–laugh at me, but criticism is valuable. It’s a big part of the reason that progress is happening at all.

Nor will I ask or expect you to take that criticism private. I make some of my criticisms privately these days, but I’ve gained a level of access that gives me better prospects for having my private criticisms taken seriously. (Oddly enough, I gained that access partly through having made very public criticisms.) I know not everyone has the same access. I know that public criticism makes it easier to weigh the broad sentiments of the community as a whole.

I also recognize the value to other organizations of seeing the criticism that is leveled at their peers and rivals. It is often easier to learn from others’ mistakes. It’s certainly more comfortable. And the fact that many of these organizations are in some degree of competition with each other means that sometimes we get progress because a group wants to be a home for people who care about these issues. That works in our favor.

In return, I would ask that you spend a little time thinking about what you hope to gain from any piece of criticism. Expressive criticism, criticism that serves mostly to convey your personal hurt or disappointment with an organization, is entirely valid. However, it usually looks very different from change-oriented criticism, criticism aimed at getting an organization to take a specific action.

Expressive criticism is usually crafted to be accessible to people who already largely agree with you, where change-oriented criticism is usually crafted to be accessible to the people you want to see take action. Expressive criticism is usually shorter on specifics than change-oriented criticism and contains more judgment words. Change-oriented criticism is usually focused more on specific behaviors in the moment than expressive criticism and outlines more of a path forward, either explicitly or implicitly.

Again, both of these categories of criticism have their place and their purposes. They just shouldn’t be confused for each other.

If your goal is to make people in an organization understand how you feel, go for it, though be cautious about crossing into abuse. (See this for an impressive start on that decision tree.) Understand, however, that this kind of criticism, particularly on a sustained basis, may only persuade an organization that you don’t like them. They may not feel there’s any point to change because they may not feel they can do anything right in your eyes.

If your goal is to see a particular action taken, change-oriented criticism may take you further. It’s harder to do well, though. It requires not just some sense of how to be an effective activist but also understanding the goals of the organization. It also requires either some trust that you’ll be heard or the willingness to put in the work without a realistic promise of return.

Still, your hope of seeing any return on your criticisms is greater when there are reformers working with organizations that can tell them, “This is something worth paying attention to.”


I will never try to diminish your criticism of an organization as “performative”. I’m not in any position to do so.

I know that criticism is sometimes a signal to others of who we are and what we believe in. I don’t, however, think I can reliably tell which sort of criticism is which. I would have to be in order to be comfortable telling the world any particular piece of criticism is mere social signalling.

Yes, I know that social signalling and sincere criticism are not incompatible. However, in my experience, the function of applying the “performative” label is always to paint the person leveling the criticism as insincere. This unfounded reduction of human behavior to serving a single purpose, like the incorrect premise that we can be certain about motives, is another reason I won’t do this.

I also won’t tell you that you’re doing this for attention. Not only is the premise silly–of course we don’t want to be ignored when we talk about problems–but this also suggests that people who level criticism shouldn’t receive broader attention. I disagree. People who can raise and make heard the concerns of a group of people are acting as leaders. To the extent that you do this reliably, you should be viewed as the leader you are.

Additionally, statements about doing it for the attention ignore that not all attention is positive. Anything but, particularly in these movements over the last few years. Erasing that does nothing to further our joint goal of greater inclusivity.

In return, I ask that you not suggest I’m “selling out” by working within the system. This is, frankly, not a criticism I hear leveled at me very often, but I’ve heard it leveled at other people who are working to make these movements more diverse. That I hear it aimed mostly at women and ethnic minorities gives me serious pause.

There are two ideas implicit in “selling out” that particularly bother me. The first is that we should all choose to do all our work for the movement with no reward and no resources. This is a recipe for burning through activists and very little more. And that’s before we get to the part where we’re predominantly saying marginalized people should take on that burden.

If an organization is willing to share money and platform with people broadening the scope of who these movements serve, we should generally lean toward taking them up on that. Yes, there can be strings attached to these resources that we should watch out for, some of which make it worth turning them down. Yes, there are people we may not want to quietly share a platform with and others we don’t even want to be seen near.

In general, however, sharing resources is something we’ve been pushing organizations to do for several years. If we consider it a bad thing when people put those resources to use, particularly if we do this based on the rationale that these organizations have been worse at this in the past, we’re creating a no-win situation, both for the organizations and for the people serving underserved populations. I’m not saying we should indiscriminately assume that people cannot be coopted, but I do think we can do a better job of making our criticisms proportional to the choices and power people have.

That’s just a start at laying out some ground rules for reformers and revolutionaries to keep from getting in each other’s way, but they should go a long way toward keeping our interactions productive. As I said before, I’m very interested in hearing more.

Rules of Disengagement

4 thoughts on “Rules of Disengagement

  1. 1

    Excellent piece. It does a decent job of laying out a framework for mutual existence that’s sometimes been tricky to maintain.

    I think one thing for reformers to keep in mind is ‘the most recent year’. In an organization that is evolving, it’s fair to expect them to make progress (or, at the bare minimum, not lose ground) over the course of a year. If you can point to signs of change, if you can show that things are getting better, then it’s probable that you can be secure that your efforts are doing more good than harm.

    If a year passes without any significant improvement, it may be time to turn up the heat inside the group. And if there’s been actual backsliding (to be clear, I’m speaking of a net decline, not a single incident unless it’s so outrageous that it outweighs everything else), then you may want to reconsider which ‘faction’ you want to be in.

    Similarly, for revolutionaries, I think a good mental habit is to have in mind, at the time that you leave a group, a set of criteria that could actually induce you to come back, whether this is a matter of policy changes, the removal of problematic individuals, or whatever. It can be as specific or as broad as you like, and don’t worry about plausibility, but it should exist. If nothing else, it establishes your personal victory condition–the point when you can actually smile and say, “We won”. And even if they never come to pass, those criteria can be a thing you can articulate to a reformer when you explain why you’re not willing to come back, yet.

  2. 2

    The constant influx of new atheists and secularists would have to stop, so the revolutionaries were left a larger hole when they abandoned organizations was more felt.

    I’m sorry, but I’m not parsing this sentence.

  3. 3

    freemage, I like that generally, though I also recognize that some people will have been hurt badly enough that nothing makes it worth going back to the scene.

    Beth, sorry about that. That was one sentence that morphed into a different sentence by its end. It now says, “The constant influx of new atheists and secularists would have to stop, so the hole the revolutionaries left when they abandoned organizations was larger and more easily felt.”

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