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.

  • I think you have handled that which was voraciously hurled your way rather well and that you maintain your composure in the face of conflict and vitriol much better than most. The post begs the question ‘Why?” in many instances that you are not likely to get the honest answers to however. Nice reflection and analysis. Some of the members of the class could could likely serve as peer mentors for individuals who find Conflict Management 101 too difficult.

  • ool0n

    “Why bother engaging when I knew that my engagement would just add more fuel to the fire and result in more irrational attacks?”

    Bullshit Justin, you linked to the post by emily dietle in the slymepit as someone ‘on your side’… She said you should apologise and move on, many FtB’ers also agreed an apology and understanding that you had alienated some of the community you were meant to be representing would go a long way to being forgiven – in that comment thread. So it is your boneheaded inability to say exactly what you did wrong (You said there were some things but not what) and apologise for them that led to the inevitable conclusion.

    You can be a martyr if you want but with so much evidence to the contrary you just look like someone who is incapable of apologising.

    • Mykeru

      Oh, someone remind me, exactly what is it Justin is supposed to apologize for?

    • You missed “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.”

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  • Kate Donovan

    I handle controversy really well; I do not break down in tears, jump to unreasonable conclusions about my safety, or have mental breakdowns.

    This is ableism. Thanks for playing!

    • ^^ this

      • Edward Clint

        Does it feel good? To feel so right, so completely correct that snarky dismissal, name-calling and insult are suitable replacements for any kind of reasoned discussion? It must be nice.

        But it isn’t welcome here. Here we stand on argument and evidence and I’ll thank you not to applaud such behavior, from anyone.

        • “name-calling”?

          Pointing out the use of language that is marginalizing to others is not “name-calling.” But yes, I will applaud such behavior.

          • Edward Clint

            You know Cassy, I’ve long respected and liked you. I know you to be a sensitive and passionate person, particularly so when it comes to social justice issues. I will assume an overexuberance in that area accounts for your odd remarks here.

            While some may indeed be guilty of using marginalizing language, others use accusations without justification in an attempt to dismiss those they disagree with. One of the ways this is done is with hasty use of epithets like ‘racist’, ‘sexist’, ‘bigot’ et cetera. While this may not have been the intended effect, it is regardless indistinct from such behavior and in any case, unfair, unpersuasive, and rude.

            If you truly wish people who disagree with you not to dismiss you or to marginalize you with unjustified labels, then you must grant the same consideration to those who disagree with you.

            I suspect that Kate, or you, has a reasonable point to make because you are both thoughtful people. However, dropping in with glib, rude “ablest bubye!” type comments is not constructive. It could only serve to cause acrimony and likely will close the ears of people you wish to persuade. Where is the rationality in such an action?

            It might be that you consider Justin beyond reasoning. If that is the case, then such drive-bys appear immature and spiteful. if you think so lowly of Justin, or me, then there is no purpose in engaging either of us and you should spend your time on more productive pursuits.

            Whatever your choice, know that unsupported claims which disparage anyone are unwelcome in discussions at Skeptic Ink, as are any accessory “othering” behaviors. The truth is not decided by applause.

          • jqb


            Such a thoughtful, rational post surely deserved *some* sort of response.

    • Windows

      ^ THAT

    • Windows


    • Andrew Tripp


    • Kate, I never said that these responses are bad or good. You know of the naturalistic fallacy, yes? Just because something exists in nature does not give it a moral basis. I would not find people who react in these ways to be ‘bad’ or blameworthy by any means. Some people just handle conflict well and some do not. This is no ‘stirke’ on a person’s character.

      I, for example, know many situations in my life which would not turn out well for me, so I don’t engage in them. The same should go for everyone. If it’s possible to improve these situations or approach them in different manners, great, but it’s not always the case. People should think about consequences before they act.

      • HJ Hornbeck

        Those phrases sound like veiled references to Surly Amy, Ophelia Benson, and Jen McCreight, though. Given the charged atmosphere and context, it is very easy to read that line as implying a negative connotation, and it was only in the comments that you provided clarity to your actual meaning.

        You also do not deal with the sorts of consequences people receive. Take Amanda Todd; did she deserve all the consequences her choices created? No, of course not. So we not only need to consider the consequences of action, we need to consider the expected, received, and deserved consequences. Your article above neglects this angle, making it either incomplete or misleading.

        Please be more careful with your writing, there’s a gap between what you intend and what other people are thinking your intent is. More clarity in your posts would be welcome, and might lead to a better reception.

        • Wow – did I just see Surly Amy, Ophelia Benson, and Jen McCreight compared to Amanda Todd???? Yep, I just did.

          Yeah, because they’re *just like* isolated high school being driven to suicide. Well, the *high school* part is correct.

          • HJ Hornbeck

            No, you didn’t. Todd was an extreme example used to make the point clearer, not an analogy to what Amy, Benson, or McCreight have experienced. Please read more carefully next time.

        • jqb

          “Those phrases sound like veiled references to Surly Amy, Ophelia Benson, and Jen McCreight, though.”

          When the shoe fits …

    • Kera Vote Left Morris

      Have you ever read Vonnegut’s ‘Harrison Bergeron’? o.O

    • Asking that people become fully cognizant of or at least consider the potential reaction to their actions is ableism?

  • You totally could have improved the situation. It’s called an apology. It’s what grown ups do when they realize they were wrong.

    • CommanderTuvok

      Justin has nothing to apologise for. However, a number of bloggers at FreeThoughtBlogs should be issuing them out by the dozen.

      • HJ Hornbeck

        Here’s one thing, courtesy Opelia Benson:
        “I’m pretty sure the only thing I’ve ever asked you to do is to correct the lies you told about me in your podcast. Needless to say you have steadily refused to do that (while writing posts about my “complaining” instead).”

        • John C. Welch

          Ophelia calling anyone out on any form of dishonesty is like the pope bagging on one for wearing an ugly hat.

          • HJ Hornbeck

            Ah, you’re saying Benson is [dishonest/evil/smelly/whatever], and therefore she can never call out dishonesty. I don’t find that a convincing argument.

          • Pitchguest

            That’s usually how it works, Hornbeck. It’s called cleaning out under your own porch before calling out someone else’s shit under theirs. It’s called not throwing stones when living in a glass house. Because it’s hypocrisy in action. But I’m curious what Justin really has to apologise for. Ophelia’s threats he recounted on his podcast wasn’t lying. They were not taken out of context. He even assumed devil’s advocate on that podcast taking Ophelia’s position into consideration, but she didn’t consider that. The problem was that he didn’t broadcast every single threat she received. The problem was that he jokingly said “does that sound threatening to you?”

            Ah, but, of course you have to add insults to help your narrative along. When did Justin call Ophelia smelly and evil or whatever kind of insults you can think of? Even the most grievous of them all, ‘cunt’, has never been said by Justin to Ophelia. In fact, the word ‘cunt’ has been written about for longer — and more often — by Ophelia Benson than anyone on the Pit combined. Not sure what to make of that.

          • HJ Hornbeck

            “It’s called cleaning out under your own porch before calling out someone else’s shit under theirs.”

            Actually, it’s called “Ad hominem.”

            “They were not taken out of context.”

            So he mentioned the part where the person who sent the email seemed to imply Benson would get shot at TAM?

            “When did Justin call Ophelia smelly and evil or whatever kind of insults you can think of?”

            I’m not talking about Justin and Ophelia, I’m talking about Welch and Ophelia. Why did you shift the topic?

          • John C. Welch

            No, she can say whatever she wants. I’m saying, given her actions and rampant hypocrisy, her criticism in certain areas lacks any form of high ground and should not be taken even vaguely seriously.

            It’d be like me scolding someone for using profanity. I mean, I CAN, but it would be pretty fucking stupid and hypocritical. Now, poor use of invective is different, but for me to get pissy with people over merely using rude words? Yeah, that would be really, really stupid.

          • HJ Hornbeck

            I have yet to see “rampant” hypocrisy from Benson, and all the links I’ve read from people critical of her have failed to demonstrate this. Can you do any better? Because this is still looking like an ad hominem to me.

          • John C. Welch

            you’ve already established that no matter what is pointed out to you, it will be justified as “okay” as long as the source is on your side.

            As long as the proper ox is being gored, you have zero problem with anything done to facilitate said goring.

          • HJ Hornbeck

            Where so? I’ve been diligently responding to your arguments this entire thread. Even if I was as heavily biased as you claim, we’re not the only two people here; any third person reading along would benefit from your evidence, and might be convinced of your case even if I remain unmoved.

          • John C. Welch

            then they can spine up and ask me themselves. If they don’t care enough to ask, why should I care? I see no point in putting any effort out for *you*, because *you* have no interest in anything but “winning”. So for me to do any work at your request is in fact a waste of time.

            You only wish to score points for your side here. I assume you’ve done so. At this point, you just seem to want either the last word, or, you think you’re going to bludgeon me into admitting you’re right. Good luck with either.

          • HJ Hornbeck

            You’re telling me my own motives again. That only works if you’re psychic, you know.

  • Very well written. I did have a difficult time being in controversy, but that was a long time ago. Things do not bother me like they use to.

  • Very well written. I did have a difficult time being in controversy, but that was a long time ago. Things do not bother me like they use to.

  • I certainly understand the desire to step back in the face of the attacks directed at you. But I do tend to think that it would have been helpful if you had defended yourself by providing a clear and rational case for why the accusations were wrong. The missing piece in this controversy has been your side.

    • HJ Hornbeck

      From the second link:

      “I did not present the address with any malicious intent (I even noted
      it wasn’t a threat) and regret that people believe that it was posted in
      that fashion.”

      In other words, other people were at fault. There was nothing wrong with posting someone’s personal address to a forum hostile to them, on a whim, you only removed the address because other people complained loudly enough.

      You’ve also said you don’t agree with A Voice For Men on certain issues, but never clarified. Your article is still up on their site, implying you still endorse the majority of their views. Will you clarify which of their views you support?

    • I can’t be alone in having little interest in listening to podcasts, but I appreciate having the link. It will at least let me share it with those wondering why you have not defended yourself. The “Surly” Amy link only addresses one part of the controversy. I think what many were hoping for was a response to each of the main points made by those going after you, although I did post what you shared with me here:

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  • Gato Precambriano

    I was told that I will very likely receive death threats, threats of violence, and a great deal of nastiness.

    Funny. I’ve always thought this…kind of thing is what’s in need of change, doesn’t it? People should be able to jump in any kind of controversy without having to fear death threats. That’s what civilization is all about, right? That you trivializes that, kind of naturalizing it, is awfull, to say the least.

    • Yes, this is in need of change. …and the secular community is working on this and, in my opinion, doing a great job. The point of my post, though, is that people who can not handle the consequences should not engage – they can participate in the secular community in different ways which does not put them in the way of harm.

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  • The whole truth

    Sheesh! When is this childish soap opera going to end?

    All of the petty, self-serving bickering and whining between people involved in the so-called “atheist movement” just makes the “movement” look like a producer of foul excrement.

    • Vic

      Dunno, man. Looks like 99% of the blogs and websites of the godlessphere don’t give a damn.

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