The Course of Reason

How Far is Too Far—For a Professor, and For Us?

February 6, 2013

In my last blog post, I discussed the less-than-supportive response to our "This is what an atheist looks like" campaign flyers, which went up around the GWU campus back in early January. There were some physical responses - i.e. tearing the flyers to pieces - as well as some cyber commentary, which the GWSS executive board responded to by interviewing with student newspapers about the disappointment in our student body for responding in such a way.

After a GWSS meeting one night, a member pulled me aside and informed me that a flyer with her picture on it had been taken down by a professor and "discussed" in front of his political science class. I use quotations around the word "discussed" because it was not exactly a discussion, but more of a rant on his distaste towards the supposed synonymous use of "atheist" and "secular."

I believe that the professor misunderstood our campaign. The flyers simply say "This is what an atheist looks like" and due to a requirement by the university, it also says "GW Secular Society" to signify who is hanging the flyers. The professor interpreted that only atheists are in GWSS, that our message as a group was purely advocating for atheism, and that we were inaccurately depicting the word "secular" as being synonymous to such a message.

He also feared that we had taken the student's picture without her knowledge, and then planted it onto these public atheist flyers. Thus, he asked his class if anyone knew who she was. This is how the girl who was featured in this particular flyer discovered the incident. She did have friends in this political science class and they went to her immediately relaying the story.

Therefore, on the night of our meeting, I was hearing a second-hand account of the professor's lecture, as she had not heard the professor's actual words, but she expressed discomfort and concern. This ought to have been taken with a grain of salt, however; another member of GWSS was in the class at the time, and her first-hand account was just as uncomfortable and concerning.

one of the flyers

We were faced with a dilemma: What do we do about this? Here we had, not teenage students responding to our flyers, but a professor who had torn a flyer down, then lectured to a hall of students about how our message was deceiving, misleading, and inaccurate. Our first desire was to take a complaint straight to the university and contact the student newspaper about what happened. But after a night's sleep, we decided to just contact the professor ourselves first.

We helped the first-hand witness, as well as the second-hand witness who was featured on the flyer, draft emails to the professor. We did our best to make them as professional and politically correct as possible, but I will admit some language was borderline melodramatic.

What followed was a series of seven long emails collectively sent by the professor. The first emails were charged with frustration and defensive standpoints, but the messages that followed sought more compromise and reconciliation. He invited GWSS to come speak to his class to explain our secular mission. Those involved in this incident were gung-ho about doing this, but I was not so enthusiastic.

I had received an email as well, but not from the professor. It was from a member of my executive board who sent me a private email with a concern of her own. She explained that she was unhappy with our recent retaliation-attitude as a group. She felt we came off as hostile and unwelcoming when we publicized and criticized the negative responses towards GWSS. It left me wondering if she was right.

I titled this blog post "How far is too far for a professor, and for us" because I do believe the professor did go too far in bringing his personal opinions towards a student organization into an academic setting. However, have we as a group gone too far with our negative efforts in bringing discrimination and intolerance to light?

Most of our knee-jerk reactions are "No way." I myself can only think of the countless lawsuits brought by atheist organizations when we are not allowed to advertise, be properly represented, etc. Though in a society as opinionated and prejudiced as ours, perhaps we should stop and think, "Is there some other way we can address this?"

This was the point of our flyer campaign from the beginning. It was genuinely meant to be a friendly, calm way of addressing intolerance and discrimination. Did we belittle this message when we publically criticized those who opposed it? As the president of GWSS, I intend to take on a slightly new mindset when dealing with public affairs. I do not want to come off as unwelcoming, hostile, or bitter. I want to come off as open, friendly, and understanding. That's the humanist approach and that's the kind of difference I want to make.


About the Author: Julie Mankowski

Julie Mankowski's photo
Julie Mankowski is the president and founder of the George Washington University Secular Society.


#1 Monica Harmsen (Guest) on Wednesday February 06, 2013 at 9:34am

Confronting someone in a civil way about a potential discrimination issue is not hostility. Discrimination against atheists and misunderstandings about what an atheist is are, sadly, very common and they should be pointed out so that people know about them.

The fact that you guys feared being classified as "hostile" for trying civilly converse with someone you believe treated or portrayed atheists unfairly is really indicative of the problem. That atheists have to sit down and shut up (even in the face of discrimination) or be considered hostile or unwelcoming is a discriminatory attitude in itself. As long as the conversation was civil and no decisions were made on a knee-jerk basis, there's nothing wrong with confronting a problem where one exists.

Hopefully, this can be turned into a learning experience for everyone involved. :)

#2 jemankowski on Wednesday February 06, 2013 at 9:46am

Hi Monica,
I completely agree. We are in a pretty unfortunate situation in our society where no matter what we do, we can't win. If we are too sensitive and nice, people won't listen to us. If we are too aggressive and forward, people won't like us. I think the lesson to be learned is there needs to be a nice balance. We should address instances of discrimination, but not go overboard to the point where we are coming off as aggressive and/or hostile, which is what my exec board member was worried about.

Thanks for your thoughts! All input/advice/comments/feedback are greatly appreciated!

#3 charlesrichter on Wednesday February 06, 2013 at 10:44am

I wouldn't really classify GW as a particularly liberal university, as it was described in the earlier post. It's liberal kind of in the same way that Barack Obama is liberal: embracing a loosely progressive worldview while dedicated to maintaining the general structural status quo. Part of that is adherence to social forms, including reverence for religion, that support those structures. The student body is largely composed of the the children of extremely privileged families who benefit from conservative policies.

Thus, this sort of response to the flyers at GW is not surprising. The comments on the GW Patriot article (especially those of "Derek") are absolutely typical of how atheists and other irreligious people have been described in America for more than a century. To most Americans, a declaration of atheism constitutes a personal attack on their beliefs, even if they are not particularly pious in their own religion. You are saying they understand the world and their very existence incorrectly, and they lash out in response. I have collected hundreds of examples throughout the 20th century of this phenomenon. You don't need to say or do anything overtly hostile to come across to most people as hostile.

#4 jemankowski on Wednesday February 06, 2013 at 10:55am

Charles -

I agree with every point you made.

Loved your blog post from yesterday afternoon, by the way. Very fascinating.

For those who aren't familiar:

#5 charlesrichter on Wednesday February 06, 2013 at 11:30am

Thanks, Julie! I'm not on campus much this semester, but I have seen the flyers up. I only wonder why you didn't go the usual GW postering route and cover upper-story windows with the text facing out so no one can see what they actually say.

#6 Arnold Wilson (Guest) on Wednesday February 06, 2013 at 11:34am

WHO is this gobspit? I mean, respectfully, who is the GW Prof who did this? Are you just making this up? Name this person.
Also, where can I get a t-shirt?




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