I Think I’m a Little Bit in Love with the American Secular Census

Apparently, there’s an Open Letter to the Secular Community going around. Once again, people are running about in a flutter trying to find ways to make our online dialogue more civil. And once again, they’re missing the point.

The American secular census really gets it, though. Their whole letter explaining why they didn’t sign is worth reading, but let me just put my favorite bit here:

The role of feminism in the secular movement

The handling of this topic is actually my greater concern about the Open Letter. Despite good intentions, this area of the document in my opinion has the potential to broaden the rift between secular women and the formal secular movement.

There’s nothing to disparage in the Open Letter’s affirmation of equality of the sexes as fundamental to a secular worldview. Where the Open Letter falls short is in simply expressing these principles philosophically without any acknowledgment of intent to act on them organizationally. Stating support for an abstract idea is not the same as a pledge; groups that want women to feel welcome, safe and valued in the secular movement need to demonstrate that with their actions — or women won’t be convinced.

The War on Women

In 2011 and 2012, a record number of anti-abortion bills were passed in state legislatures. These measures and their connection to a broader theocratic agenda have been largely ignored by secular identity organizations. Meanwhile, secular women are asked to support Darwin Day resolutions, lawsuits against religious symbols, and other issues far removed from this most basic and simple right to bodily autonomy. Many women view the War on Women as the most significant and damaging church-state threat of their lifetime. Secular organizations’ silence and inaction on the religious basis of declining abortion rights and access represent an enormous wasted opportunity for movement expansion and, to some women, a betrayal.

Women online

The fact is that some secular women and their allies have been victimized online. The abuse has ranged from insults and name-calling on one end of the spectrum to rape and mutilation threats on the other. What separates these incidents from the hate mail and threats typically experienced by atheists at the hands of religious fanatics is that these are atheists (mostly men) targeting other atheists (mostly women).

The Open Letter clearly condemns online threats and hatred, but I was troubled that the “Our Approach” section could be interpreted by some victims as trivializing their experiences, blaming them, or even exposing them to further risk. In offering a one-size-fits-all formula of listening more, being more compassionate, and so on, the Open Letter fails to distinguish between spirited debate where such strategies may be helpful and more serious situations where they won’t be — and might even be dangerous. This problem was paramount in my decision not to sign.

Let me state very clearly what I wish the Open Letter had said: Women who are harassed or cyberstalked are not being harassed or stalked over some failure of theirs to practice appropriate online discussion techniques. They aren’t being targeted because they see grouping patterns among their harassers (what the Open letter appears to condemn as “guilt by association.”) They aren’t singled out because they lack the patience to educate others. They are being victimized because their harassers have a pathological need for attention, a feeling of entitlement, or some other deficiency that leads them to attack other human beings. Harassment is the fault of harassers, and harassers bear the responsibility for stopping it.

The unfortunate truth ignored by the Open Letter is that there are good guys and bad guys in many of these situations, each group needs to be dealt with differently, and in the case of stalking and threats, only trained experts should be offering advice.

Excellent points, all. I wish more of our community leaders would pay attention to them. Good on Mary Ellen Sikes for pounding them home.

slam dunk

Secular woman and Ophelia Benson aren’t happy, either. I imagine there will be plenty of others.

I Think I’m a Little Bit in Love with the American Secular Census
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5 thoughts on “I Think I’m a Little Bit in Love with the American Secular Census

  1. 1

    The problem isn’t the tone in some blogs and websites. The problem is the rampant sexism of certain secularists and skeptics. Once that problem is dealt with, then tone can be addressed.

  2. rq

    Thank you, Dana, for posting this.
    Lately I’ve come to understand that I despise the word civility (and, slightly less so, politeness) for these specific reasons: being civil or polite downplays the actual harm being done, and addressing the way somebody says something completely dismisses what they say.
    I’m all for being loud and obnoxious and having progress as a result. Here’s hoping!
    Regarding sexism, yes, I think once the rampant sexism disappears, much of the tone problem will resolve itself. (Then again, some people just like a lot of yelling in their discussions. ;) But maybe when nobody’s being marginalized, we can actually do some polite yelling – you know, staying on topic instead of batting away falsehoods and personal insults. [/wishfulthinking])

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