But How Will You Unite Us?

David Koepsell has a post up on his blog at Center for Inquiry that looks familiar.

It is natural for us to dissent from one another. We are freethinkers. We have our own ideas, our own visions, and at our best we encourage open debate. At our worst, we attack our allies, demonize those who disagree with us, and splinter our forces and efforts needlessly. It seems that every minor ideological or procedural disagreement we have with one another becomes an opportunity to attack, to lambast, to shun, or worse – purge our ranks. This is a tremendous strategic mistake. The culture wars are not over, and the bastion we have begun to build is always capable of being undermined.

If it rings bells for you too, that is probably because it hearkens back to Ron Lindsay’s post from nearly three years ago.

Shunning and boycotting may be gaining acceptance in the atheist and skeptic communities.   In particular, it appears they are being adopted as tactics against fellow atheists and skeptics.  This is regrettable.

Unfortunately, I think Koepsell’s post has as much chance of changing the situation as Lindsay’s did. I say, “unfortunately”, because I have sympathy for the goals behind both posts. Both Koepsell’s and Lindsay’s perspectives are organizational perspectives and they get right at the administrative geek portion of my divided heart. Yes, I want us all to find ways to combine our might on those issues we agree on.

However, after years of being pointed at as “divisive”, I know full well that it’s going to take more than an appeal to getting things done to make that happen. Such appeals aspire to a veneer of civility, and such a veneer is incompatible with seeking justice. In order to maintain it, we have to be passive in the face of the injustices we see.

Saying that someone is perpetuating injustice will always be viewed as uncivil. We have seen this over and over and over again. It’s even correct, in that such statements are a challenge to the current order, a social threat to the person named as acting unjustly. To make this personal and specific, we’ve seen repeatedly that we are chastised for labeling someone’s behavior “sexist”.

So passive civility is out of the question as a solution, at least if we intend to remain activist. What next?

This is the part of the post where I point out that I’m writing this because I think CFI is well-positioned to make a difference in solving these problems for several reasons. They already have to balance many of the competing interests in atheist/humanist and skeptical organizing. They have people in leadership who understand the complexity of the problem. They are poised to examine the role they want to take within these movements as they take on new leadership next year.

However, if CFI wants to make progress on this front, it has to move beyond the general appeal to peace and harmony. Here are a few actions that would be steps in the right direction.

Acknowledge that we have core principles. Koepsell says, “I have seen good people torn apart for what amount to doctrinal differences in a movement that ought not to have doctrines.” Elsewhere, I’ve seen appeals against “dogma” or other words that invoke organizational rigidity as the antithesis of freethinking.

What I don’t see is recognition is that both secular humanism and skepticism are built around core values and principles. (Secular humanism even has a manifesto–or two, one of which was co-written by CFI founder Paul Kurtz.) These values and principles are what define us as movements, meaning that those who oppose them are definitionally outside the movements.

The disagreements that we have that lead to “splintering” are fundamentally disagreements over these principles. They are disagreements about how we prioritize values when they come into conflicts or about what it means to act in keeping with these principles. They aren’t trivialities. They are basic disagreements over what it means to be an activist in a particular movement.

Recognize that these disagreements often underlie change. We are activists. We’re in this because we’re not satisfied with the status quo, and we want to do something about it. Sometimes the work is as simple as saying, “Hi, person in power. We’ve noticed this thing isn’t right, and here’s how you can fix it”, but that’s incredibly rare.

Far more often, making change means changing the minds of the mass of people of support the status quo. The people with power to make change have kept things the way they are because the people they represent (customers, investors, donors, voters) like things the way they are. Shifting public sentiment means making a case for what is right and applying persuasive pressure for others to agree.

Black and white photo of men fencing with a crowd watching.
Better than the alternatives.

Sometimes that means setting limits. It means saying, “This is harmful behavior, and I won’t be part of it.” It means, yes, splintering. It may be unpleasant and uncomfortable, but it’s one of the (imperfect) ways we demonstrate our commitment to our beliefs. It’s also one of the ways in which we test the appeal of our ideas; instead of endlessly arguing among ourselves, we allow people to get on supporting the work and expression of principles that appeals to them.

Champion active peace. If we want closer relationships between people who disagree on the expression of the values and principles that motivate them to action, we have to move beyond a “civility” model. If we think that passionate people–who have challenged each other about those passions and about their willingness and ability to live their values–should be able to set aside that history to pour their passion into common goals, we need to find ways to facilitate that.

Simply calling for peace won’t do. It diminishes the parties’ sincerity, passion, and even dignity to suggest that these are petty squabbles easily put aside. If we really want this to happen, we have to recognize the work involved and facilitate it.

One of the models for moving forward in these situations is based in the theory of “active peace”. This model posits that what we commonly recognize as peace, a lack of discord, is inherently unstable in the face of recognizing injustice. While that theory is tailored to political and economic justice (and has some significant wobbliness in its language), the principles of collaborative dispute resolution, witnessing conflict rather than avoiding it, and building spaces with an eye toward justice are all used successfully in managing activist conflict.

We can’t just hope peace will come. We can’t just say we need peace. If we’re going to achieve peace, we have to make it.

Value the role of coordinator. I’ve said before in these activist culture wars that good fences make good neighbors. Aphorism though it is, it has an important element of truth. Those of us in conflict often do better work apart. It isn’t only children who fight more when forced to share a backseat.

Nor does working apart have to mean that our work can’t complement each other’s or that our numbers can’t be counted together. I frequently post on the same topics and sometimes even on the same news articles as people I have no interest in working with directly. We don’t stop having some common interests even when we have ugly history, and when we have enough distance to keep from fighting directly, we spend more time on those common interests. But it is the distance that makes that possible.

We even work with many of the same organizations, sometimes on the same campaigns. And for any organization that doesn’t want to take on the role of active peacemaker in these movements (which, I suspect, is every organization in these movements), putting together these campaigns is the primary way in which you can help get things done despite the conflict.

Telling people to get along won’t help. Telling them they need to rub shoulders won’t help. Both will only set people’s backs up for the reasons I outlined above. Creating campaigns that people can independently support will help. Coordinating the efforts of people with fundamental disagreements so that they don’t have to work directly together will do more to make these movements strong and effective than anything else I can think of.

The Center for Inquiry is incredibly well-posed to offer those campaigns. In fact, it has a long history of doing just that. It would do my geeky heart a great deal of good to see them embrace that tradition as a solution instead of continuing to point to these divisions as a simple problem we all just need to get over.

But How Will You Unite Us?
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6 thoughts on “But How Will You Unite Us?

  1. 2

    The argument that we should have no central doctrines/dogma, but we should all work together is self-defeating. If we have no core common doctrines what should we be working together towards? And isn’t the idea that we should all work together harmoniously itself a doctrine?

    For example, I could be an atheist/skeptic who wants other people to remain credulous so they’re easier to take advantage of. Maybe I’m a Straussian who thinks religion is useful for society even though I’m personally a non-theist. Should I be welcome in the movement? If we have no doctrines, why not?

    Fundamentally a movement without any doctrines is not a movement; it’s just a label. And if it’s just a label, why should I suppress my actual values to make peace with people I share a superficial descriptor with?

  2. 4

    At last, just what we needed! A vague, artfully non-specific appeal for two divergent factions with incompatible values and priorities to just forget about their differences and come together to cooperate in service of the goals that a third party tells them are the important ones! Thank goodness.

  3. 6

    “every minor ideological … disagreement ” Dismissive as ever. To racist suffragettes, the “ideological” concerns of black women were “minor” compared to their own goals, no doubt.

    adam lee @4 – dead on.

    As I’ve become more aware of other people’s struggles over the last several years, that of american atheists like myself is seeming paltry and unimportant. People should do the activism that feels important to them, but having fucking anything to do with organized atheism as it presently stands is just too unpleasant to be worth it. Want to help US victims of xtian oppression? Donate directly to LGBT homeless shelters and Planned Parenthood. If fighting xtian privilege directly means hanging out with right wingers, I have less than zero interest in anything like unity. Fuck the movement. US muslims deserve more support, even if their beliefs are flat wrong.

    Hell, I used to be on the gnu atheism side of Rifts 1.0, but condell/dawkins/thunderfool/etc ad infinitum gradually turned me into a total accommodationist. As many people around here have been saying, I’d rather work with a progressive xtian or muslim than any regressive atheist. Some of them recognize that secularism protects them, whereas all these MRAtheists seem immune to recognizing anything of use to anybody past their own assholes.

    I guess this article is coming from the skeptic side more than the atheist, CFI right? I have even less interest in organized skepticism. Seems to me like the primary motivation of the entire skeptic movement is ableism – hobnob with people who compliment your brains, deride others with ableist slurs, repeat. All of their achievements are poisoned by that, and the cult of celebrity.

    Maybe I’m just cranky today and need a nap. -_- Good bye.

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