I have reached a point of saturation. After my participation in ThinkAtheist many years ago, and the negative way that ended for me, I have been somewhat dormant. That began ending last year when I joined the Siouxland Freethinkers, and continues with all the more alacrity this year as I become more involved. I’m tired of just doing little things: the quiet talking, the passive wearing of certain names and labels, the being there for people who think similarly. It’s not that such things are wrong or worthless, it’s that they’re easy and simple and, as beneficial as they are, they’re simply inadequate when compared against the greater need. Don’t get me wrong. Someone should be doing these things; it’s just that if those are the sum and total of our efforts, we fail the greater need.
And what is the greater need?
We are not alone in this world, we who understand gods to be human constructions. We live in communities of people whose livelihoods and well-being are just as threatened as ours are. The religions and dogmas that they adhere to hurt them just as much, if not more, than us. There is a bigger picture to be seen here than our struggles to have our voices heard within the cacophony of religious-based litigation and legislation. Far more. To be perfectly honest, those struggles are only the beginning. For, once we manage to make it perfectly clear that religious-based laws are unacceptable in the Land of the Free, we will have the ensuing fragmentation to deal with, and that’s going to take far more work than can adequately be imagined at this point.
The greater need is, to put it succinctly, to chart a path along the continuum of time towards an end result that will truly be beneficial to all mankind, and will, in fact, fundamentally promote the survival of our species as a whole. And then to hold to that path, to reshape it as circumstances change, and to protect ourselves from fucking it up along the way. And that’s exactly why I’m fed up, over-saturated, and otherwise have no patience for these nearly-incessant, self-aggrandizing, bullshit things we do in place of more meaningful actions that serve the greater good.
I have not at all been idle, these years I’ve spent away from being an active participant in non-religious communities. On the contrary, I have taken considerable time and invested considerable effort watching and learning about what “we” do. Today, I present the one observation which is the specific catalyst for why I’m changing how I do what I do. While I believe what I’m about to lay out for you is accurate, I’m aware that this observation comes from a limited perspective (mine) and from limited experience (again, just mine). Nevertheless, I believe you may find it worthy of consideration.
So, let’s clear the air on the definitions of certain words. I’m all for the usage and definition of words changing over time, so please understand I’m not about to make this a “you must use [word] in a particular way, or you are wrong” kind of thing. I find that kind of discourse (especially regarding the word “atheist” itself), to be pedantic, unfortunate, and frankly, downright ignorant. Words change over time largely because the ideas behind those words become conflated by user action. In this case, the conflation I’m about to present isn’t about the meaning of the words, it’s about the actions behind them. Let me stop beating around this bush:
Provocation is not activism. Successful activism may require certain forms of provocation from time to time, but if our actions can be summed as as a set of provocations, we are not, by any means, practicing activism. Those who conflate these two concepts do a grave disservice to our collective ability to serve the greater good and fulfill the greater need. So, Let’s take a look at the definitions of these words, review some examples of how provocation is regularly mistaken for activism, and then consider some scenarios and juxtapose the two.
- Activism: the policy or action of using vigorous campaigning to bring about political or social change.
- Provocation: action or speech that makes someone annoyed or angry, especially deliberately.
These are very simple definitions: the kinds of answers you get if you google “[word] definition.” But, you get the point. The two words really have nothing to do with each other at all, but are unfortunately conflated in terms of action. Some examples:
- Activism: Members of a group of freethinkers attending the state legislature and engaging legislators in discussions regarding bills that will be up for vote. Such discussions are often heated, but when handled correctly, allow opponent legislators to reveal themselves as the bigoted, misogynistic ideologues that they are. This serves the greater good as extremist legislators tend to inadvertently reveal their personal proclivities to the moderates within their voter base.
- Provocation: Isolated individuals engaging members of the state legislature (or other governing body) in argument on comment threads to news articles on Facebook, which typically causes all parties involved to reveal themselves as bigoted, close-minded, unyielding extremists, especially when the word “freethinker” or “atheist”, or even worse, the related group name is used in a way that infers that the individual’s activities are sanctioned by the group. Such “discussions,” are firstly anything but, and secondly, are conducted in social platforms in which the freethinkers are viewed as denigrating the status quo. “We” come away looking foolish and petty, and the greater good is by no means served.
- Activism: Members of a group of freethinkers or skeptics attending a psychic convention where they engage so-called psychics in discussion and conversation, revealing gaps in critical thinking, wholesale gullibility, and the incurious disregard for what we understand as reality. In the process of that, the group members provide alternative reasoning and factually-based analysis in a manner that is respectful and responsible to the convention hosts and participants alike. The group may not succeed in changing minds, but does reveal itself to be respectful, concerned members of the community, which serves the greater good.
- Provocation: Members of a group of freethinkers or skeptics attending a trade-show hosted in on church grounds, wearing clothing that promotes the group. This is the moral equivalent of walking into someone’s home and pissing in their living room. Again, in such a relatively social setting, especially in conservative areas, such members unfortunately portray themselves as attention-seeking, affirmation-needing juveniles, and the greater good is again not served.
- Activism: Members of a group of freethinkers or skeptics protesting the protesters outside an abortion clinic, etc. after having obtained the proper permits and permission to do so. These legally-permissible actions serve the greater need for several reasons, not the least of which are to remind the women seeking abortions that they are not alone, and have respect and support of a group of people who don’t even know them. They also prove to the public that we can be respectful even in our disagreements upon such hot-button topics.
- Provocation: A member of a freethinkers group coordinating, without permission of the board, and without regard for legal process, a protest at a similar event as just described. This fails the greater need in several ways: It reveals the member to be a petty, self-aggrandizing fool; it displays an unfortunate lack of critical thinking; it demonstrates a lack of respect for legal process in a way that forces the group’s leadership to either justify or correct the member’s behavior; it runs the risk of creating a rift within the membership.
There are, of course, a myriad of potential examples; I’ve provided but a few which happen to be pertinent within our regional community. It does get a little worse. Consider again, “the policy or action of using vigorous campaigning to bring about political or social change.” Activism doesn’t even have to be public, actually. Over the years, I’ve been working on an interpersonal level, helping some friends and acquaintances to see their way through some tough times and to improve their understanding of the world around them, all the while watching and analyzing activism and so-called activism in the public sphere. I have identified, therefore, some things that Activism succinctly is not:
- Hosting a website for a freethinking group or event. The type of person who would even describe this as a function of activism must fundamentally ignore the fact that large-scale hosting services unilaterally have disclaimers against exactly that premise. If the freethought group had gone with Rackspace or Bluehost (for example, as opposed to “local freethinking dude”), would either of those organizations then promote themselves as Activists for the group’s cause? Absolutely not. It’s “just” a service (quite often a magnanimous one) to the group or event, and the wonderful gift which such service represents should be enough; there’s no need at all to blow it out of proportion.
- Wearing a shirt with a freethinking/atheist group’s logo on it in public. This is a gentle provocation (should anyone take the bait), but it’s by no means “vigorous campaigning to bring about political or social change.” There’s really nothing wrong with it in general, but it’s not activism, as it doesn’t serve the greater good. In fact, in conservative areas, it merely serves to identify the person as someone the general public should distrust and marginalize (from their perspective).
- Empty sponsorship: making a relationship with a group or person who is engaged in some sort of service or activism to the public; in essence, using that service or activism for self-promotion while doing nothing that supports the concept of sponsorship: No money, no effort, no time. Even when such “sponsorship” is requested by the organization or individual without charge, one would expect a respectful, conscientious sponsor to offer something formative in exchange. Especially if said service or activism faces technical difficulty which the sponsor could support or assist, but never does.
Unfortunately, I live in an area where the things I’ve detailed above are not only misconstrued as activism, but are adamantly promoted as such. It galls me, because it’s so petty and self-centered. It angers me, because it directly controverts the mission of the groups it claims to support. It offends me, because adult “freethinkers” should know better.
When I talk about activism, I mean the things that activism actually means. When I say that I aim to end this self-imposed hiatus, I also mean that I plan to take on more active (activism-istic, if you will) roles in the communities I serve. I’m tired of watching the world go to shit around me and simply complaining/pointing it out. I haven’t really been completely inactive, either: my own form of activism during this hiatus has been wholly interpersonal, and I will continue that mode as well, of course, because it’s important. But, I’ve been circumspect about a lot of things over the past few years, not wanting to create waves, and not wanting to offend. I’m stopping that now because it needs to stop. That risk we run in “freethought” and “freethinking” groups in particular is paramount, because those terms have been skewed over the years to essentially mean “if I thought it, it’s worthy of consideration and I expect you to take it seriously.” Unfortunately, memberships at large in such organizations therefore accept the conflation of activism and provocation unquestioningly, as a whole.
I take certain things seriously. I’m aware that this lends itself to taking things too seriously sometimes, so I guard against that as best as I can, but I’ll readily admit that I have deliberately taken a provocative approach to this subject matter. I believe I am serving the greater good with this, and fulfilling the greater need. Some activism is inherently provocative, but if all the provocation does is provoke, and not meet “vigorous campaigning to bring about political or social change,” then the provocation is unnecessary. I don’t believe that’s the case here. I am hopefully provoking certain self-named “activists” to really do what they say they do.
This subject matter is not just important to me, especially here in the northern midwest where freethinking and atheist groups are relatively new and needs extensive support and maintenance. There is at least one group I can think of that stands to suffer a significant setback if this conflation continues, and I’m fairly certain that the conflation is deliberate. So, I’m sure that this post will offend some people. I’m also certain that it will excite others to action, to guard against the conflation of activism and provocation. My intent is the latter, of course, but as for the former, I will only say that if we cannot accept criticism where criticism is due, that is all the more reason why any offended parties shouldn’t be doing what they’re doing. Let us end this spurious conflation of activism and provocation. We can do better, and so, we must. We don’t promote the continuance of our species as a whole by simply pissing off our idealogical opposites and detractors.