Controversy, activism, and the internet

Sharon Hill of Doubtful News asked me a compelling question following my recent speech at the PA State Atheist/Humanist Conference pertaining to controversy. What advice might I have for someone who does not handle controversy well and may want to become involved in the atheist/skeptic communities, specifically with real-world activism? She noted that I, as should be quite apparent to many of my long-time readers, am no stranger to controversy.

I handle controversy really well; I do not break down in tears, jump to unreasonable conclusions about my safety, or have mental breakdowns. When I was preparing to challenge the constitutionality of a religious holiday display on a courthouse lawn in Luzerne County, I was told that I will very likely receive death threats, threats of violence, and a great deal of nastiness. I was ‘warned,’ one might say, and had every opportunity to back down and ‘pass’ the issue to someone else. I did not. I was aware of the potential outcomes of what turned out to be my very public challenge and weathered the nonsense.

Had I been a person who did not deal well with controversy, the responsible action for me would have been to not go forward with the challenge. If possible, I could have remained anonymous, passed the ‘public torch’ to my friend Rodney Collins, or completely stepped back from the issue. In a climate that is generally extremely hostile to atheists who raise church/state complaints, there are obvious ramifications for those who go public with a complaint.

It seems extremely obvious to me that people should consider the results of their actions before they make them and then act appropriately depending on various factors including their coping skills, past experiences, support systems, financial stability, etc. This line of reasoning is quite uncontroversial in some areas of the secular community when people consider ‘coming out’ as an atheist; many will say persons should not come out if they will have to face dire consequences for doing so. People who give this advice are almost never told they are ‘blaming the victim’ or ‘giving a warrant for bullies,’ but when the topic is changed to people who write on the internet — and often engage in vitriolic writing — all bets are off for some reason.

I am quite amazed, when considering what I see as a very uncontroversial statement [persons should not engage in activities if they do not want to deal with the potential outcomes], that people who express controversial ideas on the internet complain about the commentary that follows their writings…and continue to write in a similar manner revisiting drama, launching character attacks against certain individuals, and even going so far as to insinuate that ‘some male speakers in the atheist/skeptic communities are dangerous individuals’ and ‘atheist conventions are hostile climates for women.’ Such writings, one would think, would result in a great deal of vitriol and negative feedback…especially when they are written in a hostile manner.

I could understand a person riding a roller-coaster for the first time and, after riding, expressing that the experience was a very bad one that resulted in sickness, extreme dizziness, and was generally very scary. After all, this person hadn’t ridden a roller-coaster before and didn’t know what would happen. Perhaps the person would try to ride again thinking that he/she just wasn’t prepared or perhaps just had an ‘off day.’ After the second ride, the same results from the first try manifested. Enough is enough, one would think…and most thinking responsible persons, one would assume, would not ride the roller-coaster again. Continual attempts, especially after experiencing the first two outcomes, would be foolish. Even more foolish would be if the person were to blame the manufacturers of the ride and the park attendants who allow people to ride the roller-coaster.

The same could be said of a person who has a fear of crowded places. Perhaps, to try and overcome the fear, he/she might visit a very crowded bazaar. Upon entering, the person has a panic attack, becomes very nauseous, and must leave the bazaar. Trying to enter again, the same results are seen. It would be foolish for the person to start yelling and screaming while blaming others for crowding them, coming to the event, and triggering their panic attacks.

I see the beforementioned roller-coaster rider and bazaar visitor in many ways I see people who write on the internet and, time and time again, receive a great deal of vitriol as a result of their writing (which is often attacking others, instigating conflict, and making ridiculous claims). If you can’t handle particular situations and continue to engage in said situations despite similar results happening, why bother engaging? Might these people actually like the conflict and just be painting themselves as victims or otherwise acting dishonestly?

As a program assistant for a class of students, I work alongside other program assistants and instructors who teach students how to manage conflict and exercise responsibility. One part of ‘Conflict Management 101’ is to not engage in situations which you know will lead to non-desirable results. If one student knows that interacting with another student may lead to hostility, it is best for the student — if other methods such as ‘using your words’ and trying to be friendly do not work — to simply not engage with the other student.

Whether we consider classrooms, internet forums/blogs, or the hostile climate against atheists, it should be understood that nasty people exist. The nastiness is, of course, unfortunate. We can work to change this nastiness and hope that people will be nice, but this just isn’t the case and likely won’t be in the near future. We should, then, make responsible decisions based on our environments. If you don’t get along with another student in class, avoid interactions with that student. If you can’t handle negative feedback online and have received it many times, disengage and write about another topic (or stop writing). If you are uncomfortable with coming out as an atheist or filing a church/state complaint, do not do it.

It is very possible to be active in the online atheist community and with church/state activism while not disclosing your personal information or ‘going on the front lines.’ For those who can’t handle conflict well, I would recommend that these people find friends who can and do engage in conflict. Perhaps, too, you might consider being an anonymous contributor to specific websites as many do. Might you have a church/state complaint that you would like to see addressed? Send it to the Freedom From Religion Foundation or another organization of your choice.

Earlier this month, when I was being attacked by persons in the atheist community and being labelled as an “anti-women leader,” “sexist,” “misogynist,” etc., I largely ‘stepped back’ realizing that almost nothing I would say would improve the situation considering that the people attacking me did not understand what was going on, never met me in real life, or bothered to even ask me questions despite my openness and the public listing of my phone number on a press release. Why bother engaging when I knew that my engagement would just add more fuel to the fire and result in more irrational attacks?

These matters shouldn’t be so difficult.

Justin Vacula

Justin Vacula hosts the Stoic Philosophy Podcast; serves as co-organizer and spokesperson for the Northeastern Pennsylvania (NEPA) Freethought Society; and has hosted monthly Stoic Philosophy discussion groups for the Humanist Association of Greater Philadelphia. He has appeared on and hosted various radio shows and podcasts; participated in formal debates and discussions; was a guest speaker for college-level courses; was featured in local, national, and international news; and has been invited to speak at various national, local, and statewide events. Vacula received bachelor's degrees in Philosophy and Psychology, a minor in Professional Writing, and the distinguished W.A. Kilburn Memorial Award for Philosophy from King's College in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania. He is currently living in the Scranton, PA area attending Marywood University's graduate-level Mental Health Counseling program and has worked with the Arc of Luzerne County's Transition to Community Employment program as a teacher's assistant and job coach alongside adult learners with intellectual and developmental disabilities. He also plays poker; volunteers as a member of the website and media team for the Greyhawk Reborn Dungeons & Dragons campaign while playing at events in the Eastern United States; and enjoys metal music.