How Not To Be a Jerk to the Future of Your Movement

(This post could be more accurately titled How Not To Be a Jerk To, Like, Anyone Younger Than You, but the skepto-atheist movement is actually one where we can directly see how young students and activists are making waves. Also, they’re the ones reading this.)

These guys make it possible. (And make funny faces.)
These guys make it possible. (And make funny faces.)

It’s no secret that the secular movement has grown into a movement full of students, enthusiastic young people who go and do and write and organize cool conferences. SkepTech, Skepticon, Secular Student Alliance anyone?.

And that means young people are watching what the secular movers and shakers are saying. They’re blogging about it and retweeting and memeing and quoting. These, secular leaders, are the future of your movement. They’re listening to you.

And honestly, we’re a little tired of being the punchline.

At Women in Secularism last weekend, one speaker described young activists as annoying. Of course, being annoying get things done, she clarified, over the laughter of the room. But you have to grow up to have perspective, she continued, and went on with her message. From my perspective in the fourth row, watching two-thirds of the room agree that my demographic was annoying and nearsighted didn’t exactly have me leaping to volunteer my time.

“You’re so young for an activist!” Look, this one doesn’t even make any sense at all. Students have always been integral to activist movements. If it would be weird (though more accurate) to tell you “but you’re so old to be interested in social movements!” then I’d strongly suggest avoiding the reverse. Besides, what does one say in response? Why yes, I am young! Thank you for noticing!

Watch your language. The Secular Student Alliance has all my love for getting this one consistently right. Student activists, young activists, teens….all great! Kids? Less so. For one, it’s simply less descriptive: kids doesn’t tell you what someone is doing as much as it conveys tousled hair and sneakers. Unless your subject is under say, 13, you’re picking a word that’s both inaccurate and dismissive.

Don’t qualify our achievements with our age.  This part is complicated, because sometimes, it negates part of the previous. Say someone blogs or does activisty things as a result of their studenthood, or for a student organization (Like the MU SASHA Blog!). Congratulations–you’re completely correct in calling them a student blogger. However, if someone does activism whilst simultaneously happening to be a student…not so much. Go for “blogger and student”. And ask yourself why you need to point out their studenthood in the first place. After all, both my co-blogger Ashley and #FtBully Ian Cromwell are students. Would you describe them as student bloggers? Why not? Why do you need to point out the student part for young collegiate or high school students, but not graduate students? Why is it relevant to their blogging? [CFI On Campus has been great about this.]

A word on facebook friending those same young activists:

Facebook is wonderful, and social media has been a huge asset to this movement. And, speaking from experience, it’s just exciting to friend and be followed by those people whose writing you’ve read, whose speeches you’ve followed on YouTube. And it’s horrifying to watch those people you’ve looked up to for long stop by your status to tell you that you just don’t get it yet. To wait five years–you’ll understand better.

For many of us, this was the first thing we got involved in, the first time we felt part of a movement bigger than ourselves, like we could make a difference and change the world. I bet you felt like that too. And I bet you heard it was silly, that you didn’t get it, that the world didn’t work that way.

So, if you find yourself considering telling that young whippersnapper about how you remember that time in your life, and really, they’ll know better later, I encourage you to continue to harken back to your teenagerhood. Can you recall, also, exactly how helpful it was for everyone older than you to inform you how little understood about the ways of the world?

Yeah, me either.

Shoutout to Chicago Skeptics, a group that responded wonderfully to suggestions and has been bringing in new and young speakers, noted when locations were age-restricted, supported the ventures of secular groups at universities, and generally have been my favorite way to get involved in the secular community. 

How Not To Be a Jerk to the Future of Your Movement

25 thoughts on “How Not To Be a Jerk to the Future of Your Movement

  1. 2

    It is stellar that Ms. Donovan sees no flaws in her own character. Nor does she see she has anything to learn. She’s on par with Dawkins, Hitchens and Harris just because she says so. You want to stop being the punch line? Stop being the set up.

    1. 2.2

      How do you get “I am a perfect human being with no conceivable flaws or things to learn whatsoever” from “Yo guys here’s how to be more inclusive to younger folks in your movement”? What an amazing feat of brainstorming. Do explain.

    2. 2.5

      You know, I read this blog post and thought “oh, I’m sure this happens sometimes but I haven’t experienced this kind of age-related condescension myself. I wonder how often it actually happens…”

      …and then I read your comment. Thank you for confirming what Kate is talking about. Now I see.

  2. 3

    That shit annoyed me when I was a teenager and I still despise it now that I’m in my 30s. I have to wonder if the people who pull that shit got disrespected just for being young when they were kids themselves – and later concluded it was just and correct? Bah.

  3. 4

    Personally, I like to call you young’uns “twittersnappers”, when I’m not shaking my cane and shouting about getting off my lawn. 🙂

    Great post, and some important points, thanks.

    1. 4.2

      I love “twittersnappers.” I sometimes jokingly refer to young atheist activists as whippersnappers, but mostly to make fun of myself as an old fart. I am so encouraged and excited by this young generation of activists. There are just so many energetic and brilliant young people, including Kate and Miri, and they really are starting to make their mark on the movement. I think the future is very bright as a result.

      1. I’m totally with you – I’m regularly inspired anew by the energy and drive of younger activists, as well as by new takes on old issues. FTB’s got a nice group of smart, dedicated younger people, with bright ideas and engaging writing styles, and I often appreciate the more natural progressivism they’re showing. Having grown up in a world where the Internet has always been there, they’re more comfortable than a lot of us older folk who had to adapt to it as adults (because it wasn’t there when I was a teenager, or at least not in a form the greater world used – a few nerds at DARPA, maybe, but I was mostly on FidoNet before the Interwebs came). Younger activists are regularly coming up with exciting and fascinating new approaches to old problems.

        Oh, and count me as another who could live without alcohol or bars being part of my life. I spent plenty of time in bars when I was younger, but I’ve had enough bad experiences (as a trans* person)** with people using alcohol and with crowds where alcohol is readily available to not really be all that jazzed about what it does to people’s ability to reason. Also, exclusion of people by age seems a poor choice, to me, for a movement that wants to keep growing. It would, in fact, lead to atheism going back to being a hangout for old white guys who spend their time grumbling, and wondering why it is no one else can see the sheer awesomeness of just being allowed to hang out with them.

        ** I use “trans* people” to indicate the whole range of trans-experience, in the “*-as-wildcard” sense.

  4. 5

    June is a typical month for us at CFI-DC and here’s our calendar where we host several types of events almost all recurring on a monthly basis and typically free to attend:

    With the exception of Secular Family Network which really is for parents and children, all of the venues and event types we do are open to adults of all ages. Even the two Drinking Skeptically events we have are not in places that admit only 21+ (nor in fact is drinking alcohol required and we say so on the description). I bring this up because I think Greta (might be wrong) brought up at WIS2 that happy hour events can exclude younger college students.

    The main obstacle that’s been communicated to us by undergrads on a few occasions that live on campus is that there is typically so much occurring on campus it’s hard to get motivated to venture out. The only cost-effective way for us to do events at DC area university campuses is to co-sponsor events with the local student groups, which we’d love to do more of. But if you have thoughts on other ways for getting more undergraduate students to come we’re always looking for suggestions.

    1. 5.1

      This is lovely! Some of these drinking events (though obviously not yours) do exclude. For instance, at Reasonfest this year, those ages 18-21 had to pay to get into the sponsored social gathering, while those of age got in free. I’m really glad to hear that CFI-DC works this way.

      A lot of what I have gotten into has been the free-very cheap events. It usually costs me a good amount for a student in transportation to get to the venue, so something that won’t add much to my costs is great. For instance, Chicago Skeptics does Watch Cool Science Stuff in a local library. Interesting things are brought and played on a project for anyone who wants to come in. I realize this doesn’t help support CFI, however, the ability to bond with people makes my interest in coming to other, more expensive, events later–I know I’ll be among friends when I do.

  5. 6

    I hate the “wait 5 years and you’ll understand it better,” but it has a seed of truth – at 50, I see a lot of things very very differently than I did when I was 22. Depending on the issue, I can be either more or less optimistic about the possibility of change than I was then, and I generally see issues as more complex than I did when younger. I’d like to be able to talk about whatever the issue is without being dismissed as a cynical or out of touch old person, and in response, I will not whap anyone with my cane and order them off my lawn.

    I have learned a lot from and been inspired by young activists, and conversation (complete with mutual shutting-up-and-listening) is what makes for that learning and inspiration..

    1. 6.1

      No doubt we learn as we get older, but if someone’s worldview or opinions aren’t nuanced or complex enough, I think it’s best to criticize *that* and leave the age question alone.

  6. 8

    I love young whippersnappers. They help me through doors, and make sure I have a seat, and carry my bags (Thank you to all Minions!). Since I am getting old and feeble, young whippersnappers are a real joy in life. They occasionally let me tell them the lessons I learned when I was a young whippersnapper.
    OK, they are noisy. So was I upon a time. And probably worse behaved. It’s joie-de-vivre. Leave them alone, we were probably worse.
    Being maudlin about it – they are the promise. We are the result of our youth. Gd, what a depressing thought.

  7. 11

    FWIW, I’m 47 and those comments at WiS2 rubbed me the wrong way, too. I loved it that there were so many intelligent, dynamic and enthusiastic young activists at the meeting, both women and men. It makes me feel optimistic about the future, in spite of all the backlash going on in the community right now.

  8. 12

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