How to lose friends and influence fewer: on being good allies

September 15, 2015

About thirteen years ago I wrote about the culture wars we faced and their roots in the Dominionist movement. Much has changed in that time, and it seems that we are winning against those forces -- those who would try to undo secularism. Through victories big and small, in courts, legislatures, and by slow cultural change, we have successfully pushed back in many ways against the onslaught on secularism, although some exceptions remains, there are battles still to be fought. It is at times like this that movements become vulnerable. We are vulnerable.
Our mission and our goals remain the same: continue the project of the enlightenment, ensure safety for secularism, continue to critique religion and superstition and promote the methods of empiricism, naturalism and humanism. There are many who share some of the same goals, and those of us who work even within the same institutions have differing views on how to pursue those goals, or even differing visions of those goals. As with any “movement” it shifts and sways, alters course and accommodates changes, becomes more or less urgent depending upon the cultural milieu. And as with any movement, it depends upon groups of individuals, and individuals are prone to their own interests and concerns. 
All of this is fine. That’s how humans are. We have self-interest, and we often have common interests and find ways to work together. Sometimes we do not. For whatever reason, personalities clash, egos get bruised, we simply get annoyed with some people. Sometimes that leads to dynamics that can threaten progress. One method that governments have employed for at least a century to try to quash dissent is infiltration of dissenting organizations with the intent of sowing dissent within that organization. In the case of secularists, humanists, atheists, etc., that hardly seems necessary.
It is natural for us to dissent from one another. We are freethinkers. We have our own ideas, our own visions, and at our best we encourage open debate. At our worst, we attack our allies, demonize those who disagree with us, and splinter our forces and efforts needlessly. It seems that every minor ideological or procedural disagreement we have with one another becomes an opportunity to attack, to lambast, to shun, or worse – purge our ranks. This is a tremendous strategic mistake. The culture wars are not over, and the bastion we have begun to build is always capable of being undermined. 
I have lost friends over very minor disagreements, friends who still share many of my same interests and goals, but who shut me out because we didn’t agree. I have seen good people torn apart for what amount to doctrinal differences in a movement that ought not to have doctrines. I have seen people demonized and publicly shamed for honest discussion of differences in approach or priorities, or even over tangential issues, despite largely sharing our overarching goals and having apparently the best of intentions. I am dismayed by this and I suspect that many who share the interests of our “movement” such as it is are dissuaded from joining us, working with us, or even just socializing with us because of the vitriol and anger that spews in social media and bitter public infighting that makes us often look petty and spiteful.
Perhaps because we feel like we’re winning, some feel that this sort of movement cleansing and doctrinal purges or airing of personal disagreements out in the open is worthwhile or harmless. It isn’t. Our potential allies are increasing in numbers, but the image of a group of spiteful splintered individuals, or groups vying for preeminence, is off-putting to say the least. We need allies wherever we can find them, and turning against our allies will only ensure that those who oppose us will be fighting fractured forces. 
We need not all agree on everything, and when we do disagree we can do so agreeably. I have said this before, and I’ll keep saying it until we act less divisively, behave more civilly, or until I too get shunned, shamed, or purged. And even then, I’ll say it to whomever will listen. The culture wars are not yet won, and our project cannot afford to falter over egos and personalities. There are much more important ideas at stake.