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:
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
Join Radiolab's Latif Nasser at 1pm ET on Monday as he chats with Malcolm Gladwell live on Big Think.
University of Utah research finds that men are especially well suited for fisticuffs.
- With males having more upper-body mass than women, a study looks to find the reason.
- The study is based on the assumption that men have been fighters for so long that evolution has selected those best-equipped for the task.
- If men fought other men, winners would have survived and reproduced, losers not so much.
Built for mayhem<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yMjY2NDIyMy9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTYxMzk4NTQ2OX0.my6nML12F3fEQu3H4G0BScdqgaMZkRQHxgyj-Cmjmzk/img.jpg?width=980" id="906fc" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="dd77af7a881631355ed8972437846394" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" />
Image source: Ollyy/Shutterstock<p>The researchers are, of course, talking averages here, not stating a rule: There are plenty of accomplished female pugilists, as well as lots of males who have no idea how to throw a punch.</p><p>Even so, says co-author <a href="https://www.wofford.edu/academics/majors-and-programs/biology/faculty-and-staff" target="_blank">Jeremy Morris</a> says, "The general approach to understanding why sexual dimorphism evolves is to measure the actual differences in the muscles or the skeletons of males and females of a given species, and then look at the behaviors that might be driving those differences."</p><p>Carrier has been interested in the idea that millennia of male fighting has shaped certain structures in male bodies. Previous research has reinforced his hunch:</p> <ul> <li><a href="https://jeb.biologists.org/content/216/2/236" target="_blank">When a hand is formed into a fist, its structure is self-protective</a>.</li> <li><a href="https://unews.utah.edu/flat-footed-fighters/" target="_blank">Heels planted firmly on the ground augment upper-body power</a>.</li> <li><a href="https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/24909544" target="_blank">A study examined facial bone structure as being especially well-suited for taking a punch</a>.</li> </ul> <p>(That last one is our favorite. Do you know the German word "<a href="https://www.urbandictionary.com/define.php?term=Backpfeifengesicht" target="_blank">backpfeifengesicht</a>?" It's an adjective describing "a face that badly needs a punching.")</p><p>"One of the predictions that comes out of those," asserts Carrier, "is if we are specialized for punching, you might expect males to be particularly strong in the muscles that are associated with throwing a punch."</p>
Testing the theory<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yMjY2NDIzMy9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTYwNzMxMTE2MH0.UXJICMy57UPYUWskhK98alctOrPidJL9yxMkz3HDQrM/img.jpg?width=980" id="98718" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="b12287684ac3e740b70392e6433a6b8f" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" />
Image source: Ollyy/Shutterstock<p>The researchers measured the punching — and spear-throwing — force of 20 men and 19 women. The assumption was that early humans were punchers <em>and</em> spear-throwers.</p><p>Prior to testing, each participant had filled out an activity questionnaire so that "we weren't getting couch potatoes, we were getting people that were very fit and active," says Morris.</p><p>For punching, participants operated a hand crank that required movement similar to throwing a haymaker. The purpose of the hand crank was to spare participants any damage that might be inflicted on their fists by throwing actual punches. Subjects were also measured pulling a line forward over their heads to assess their strength at throwing a spear.</p><p>Even though all of the participants, male and female, were routinely fit, the average power of males was assessed as being 162% greater than females. There were no gender differences in throwing strength recorded. Other untested, though presumably likely, hand-to-hand combat activities come to mind including tackling, clubbing, running, kicking, scratching, and biting.</p><p>Carrier's takeaway: "This is a dramatic example of sexual dimorphism that's consistent with males becoming more specialized for fighting, and males fighting in a particular way, which is throwing punches."</p>
Boys will be boys<p>It, er, strikes us as odd that, even in science fiction — hi-tech weaponry notwithstanding — the hero <em>is</em> going to wind up duking it out with some bad guy, or alien, in the climactic battle. What is it about men punching, anyway? Are they more sexually attractive? The study suggests so:</p><p style="margin-left: 20px;"><em>The results of this study add to a set of recently identified characters indicating that sexual selection on male aggressive performance has played a role in the evolution of the human musculoskeletal system and the evolution of sexual dimorphism in hominins.</em></p><p>It's tough to contribute to the gene pool after being killed in battle.</p><p>Also, while the authors aren't <em>quite</em> saying that males' historical fighting role is mandated by biology and not by social expectations, neither are they quite <em>not</em> saying it.</p><p>As Carrier explain to <a href="https://attheu.utah.edu/facultystaff/carrier-punch/" target="_blank">theU</a>: "Human nature is also characterized by avoiding violence and finding ways to be cooperative and work together, to have empathy, to care for each other, right? There are two sides to who we are as a species. If our goal is to minimize all forms of violence in the future, then understanding our tendencies and what our nature really is, is going to help."</p>
Innovators don't ignore risk; they are just better able to analyze it in uncertain situations.
The Labour Economics study suggests two potential reasons for the increase: corruption and increased capacity.
Cool hand rebuke<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yNDQyMTIyNy9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTY0NjY1NTYyOH0.0MCPKN3If94mYCNf3mMNrnTvJXjXN_bKLhgk9203EXk/img.jpg?width=917&coordinates=0%2C0%2C0%2C0&height=453" id="1627b" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="6d76421ba1ea0de4b09956b97e80c384" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" />
A chart showing prison population rates (per 100,000 people) in 2018. The United States has the highest rate of incarceration in the world.