What Cost Is Too High? On Justin Vacula and Secular Leadership

Last spring, I wrote about the Secular Coalition for America's new executive director, Edwina Rogers, a Republican lobbyist whose selection raised more than a few eyebrows. While I had (and still have) my doubts about Rogers, I have to admit the SCA has been doing some good work, including setting up state chapters all across the country.

This is an excellent step, one that extends the reach and shows the increasing grassroots support for the secular movement, and they've signed up some outstanding activists to head the state chapters, including church-state hero Ellery Schempp in Massachusetts. But the SCA hit a bump along the road when they picked, as the volunteer co-chair for the Pennsylvania chapter, an activist named Justin Vacula.

If you've been following the great internet flamewars over Atheism+, this may be a name that's familiar to you, and not for good reasons. Vacula had a reputation as an anti-feminist, and while he wasn't as gleefully malicious as some of them - I've never seen him personally threaten anyone, use sexist slurs, or join in mob harassment - I think it's undeniable that he had made some very poor judgment calls. Prominently among them were:

  • Contributing to A Voice for Men, a pro-misogyny website designated a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center.
  • Posting the home address of Amy Davis Roth, a.k.a. the artist Surly Amy, on a hate forum that calls itself the Slimepit. (I had a conversation with him about this at the time, and he asserted that her address was already public information, which is true but irrelevant, and that he didn't do it with threatening intent, which is just barely possible but reflects bad judgment even so.)
  • Posting a taunting message when Jen McCreight announced she was taking a break from blogging for the sake of her own mental health, due to the volume of threats and abuse she was receiving.
  • In my understanding, the SCA did no vetting for the state chair positions (which is something, in and of itself, that worries me). Vacula volunteered during the conference call, and they accepted him without a second thought. It's not clear whether they would have accepted him anyway if they'd known about his background.

    But the wider community didn't accept this so readily. Freethought Blogs' Stephanie Zvan started a petition on Change.org asking the SCA to reconsider their decision, which quickly garnered almost 1,000 signatures. It almost certainly would have surpassed 1,000, except that she closed it when it had the desired effect: the other day, Vacula announced he was stepping down, posting a resignation letter that simply has to be seen to be believed. As I wrote on Twitter, it was probably the nastiest and most ungracious resignation I've ever seen, which makes me wonder if it was written under duress. Here are some choice examples:

    The Secular Coalition for America was founded in order to "formalize a cooperative structure for visible, unified activism to improve the civic situation of citizens with a naturalistic worldview." Unfortunately, some persons in this community who have been quite vocal in objecting to my appointment - and many who were quick to dismiss me — do not seem to be interested in that.

    Almost immediately following my appointment with the Secular Coalition for America, I was the target of a campaign of lies, character attacks, and distortions.

    My detractors have blown these mistakes out of proportion almost never bothering to mention my concessions, never to personally contact me in a constructive manner to address grievances, or correct their own mistakes — and treated me unfairly.

    As Jason Thibeault wrote on FTB, I regard this not as a victory, but as a lost opportunity. Vacula had made several decisions that were indicators of poor judgment, but nothing that I personally would consider unforgivable, and I think it's fair to say this sentiment was shared by many others in the community. In this post by blogger Emily Dietle, who asked why we didn't just forgive him and give him a second chance, the most common response was that we'd consider it if he had been willing to apologize and change his behavior. But he didn't do that, and by burning his bridges in such spectacular fashion - lashing out at everyone who opposed him, blaming his departure on a malicious conspiracy, rather than honestly facing up to the reasons why people were upset at him - I suspect he's cemented his reputation for bad judgment and ended his career as a secular activist.

    Let me say it clearly: this is not the end result I was hoping for. Contrary to what many detractors of A+ seem to think, I don't want to kick people out of the secular movement. Why on earth would I? I've been an atheist writer and activist for more than eleven years. I care about this passionately, and I have every reason to want the atheist movement to be influential and to succeed. I want to see politicians listen to us; I want our society to become more rational. If we're going to accomplish any of these things, we need all the activists and allies we can get.

    But what I'm not willing to do is to accept volunteers at any cost. People who participate in or condone sexism, racism, or any other kind of prejudice or harassment divide the movement, drive others away, and make our community weaker, not stronger. The whole point and purpose of A+ is that for the secular movement to succeed, it has to appeal to the broadest possible cross-section of people. If we tolerate bigots and trolls and condone their behavior, we'll never achieve that, and we'll ensure that atheism stays confined to the white-male demographic that's historically dominated it, even as that group becomes an increasingly smaller share of society as a whole.

    Image credit: Deep Rifts, via Wikimedia Commons

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