You Want a Space for Political Incorrectness? You Got It

Last Sunday, I laid out what I thought a proper space for “politically incorrect” questions and opinions would look like, because such a space can go drastically, cruelly, wrong. Now, I’ve decided to make one. I’m making a subreddit where those questions and opinions can get answers.

There are many reasons people might have a question about race, sex, disability, or related issues they’re afraid to ask their friends, family or teachers. They may not know how to phrase it respectfully. They may have a question that they know will offend but that they’re desperate to know the answer to. They may actually be bigots who are looking to make people mad. For whatever reason, I think there should be a space where, if they abide by principles of respect, civility and good faith, they should get their questions answered. The subreddit I intend to create will be an educational and discussion-based place. Questions will be answered without judgement. Answers will explain how and why some actions or word are appropriate or not, and place questions of bigotry or prejudice in their proper academic, sociological, political, economic and historical context. They will inform and educate while minimizing harm to the relevant marginalized groups. They will include concrete tips, approaches and scripts, so as to really help people move forward in the world. They will be respectful, civil and charitable, perhaps far more charitable than what is deserved. After all, charity can be totally badass activism.

This will be its own space, with its own rules. I do not think these rules make sense elsewhere, nor should people have to abide by them elsewhere. But I like the idea of a place where everyone agrees to be just ridiculously civil and respectful, to use their emotional energy or their privilege or their desire to educate to great effect. This is not the only form of education and activism. There are many others, which are crucial and vital and must exist as well. But this is a form that I think there isn’t enough of. Tumblr upon tumblr will tell people that it is their job to educate themselves about social justice issues. That may be right. So this is one place they can do it.

Some of the rules:

  • No slurs unless you’re asking about them
  • Disrespectful/cruel/obnoxious questions and comments get deleted
  • Unhelpful/uncharitable/not-intended-to-educate responses get deleted, even if they’re completely correct
  • The mods enforce these rules and give users suggestions on how to be more respectful or helpful.

You can find more of the rules here and at the actual subreddit when it goes live.

If you think this is important and useful, if you agree largely with what I’ve written here, and you want to get involved, look out for the link when the subreddit goes live! And if you want to be even more involved, I want you to be a moderator for the subreddit. Just answer a few questions here, and if you have the same vision I do, you’re in!

I think this could do some real good. Here’s hoping!

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P.S. If anyone is wondering why I think this is so important, here’s something I wrote in a blog post about Social Justice education some time ago:

I do not deny for a second that it can seem like a waste of time, that it can be painful, and that rather more often than we might hope, the people we’re arguing with are not arguing in good faith. That is why we leave it to individuals to decide whether it is worth their time and effort. But those not willing to do this kind of work should not stand in its way. They should not base their arguments on assumptions others do not share and be surprised when they are not understood. They should not make it more difficult for others to do the challenging work by interrupting ongoing conversations with jeering and mockery. And most of all, while there are perfectly good reasons to stop being able to have a conversation or to not enter one in the first place, no one should engage in arguments with people who might be persuaded if they have no intention of taking the process seriously. Ideas rise and fall every day in the public sphere, and there’s no reason to lose arguments or adherents because some don’t think the work of public reason is worth doing properly.

If you want to know more about my take on activism, social justice, better arguing and charity, check out these links:

[Blogathon] Brain Crack

Brain Crack is the stuff in the back of your mind that you wish you could bring into existence that you hold onto, hoping and hoping to write about it or create it. But it’s better to let it out, to let other people see it and add to it and make it better, and maybe one of them will make it happen. Here’s some brain crack I have lying around:

  • When children are old enough, they should run part of the classes they’re in. It forces them to do research, prepare work, be accountable to their peers and work on something that has literal, immediate real world applicability. It cultivates confidence and social skills, and also lets them be creative about the kind of class they would want to see and want to be in. It would certainly give the teacher something to think about. Might take too much time out of class, but maybe it could be extra credit?
  • Everyone with a social security number should be automatically registered to vote when they turn 18. They can just show up at the polling place on election day and vote.
  • Open a restaurant with one table. Everything on the table is for everyone, so if you’re full, you just leave what’s left over for the next person. People who can’t pay can just sit at the table and wait for people to order (there would be some kind of maximum occupancy). People who can might need to buy some more.
  • Every church, mosque, synagogue and other house of worship should have an area where homeless people can sleep. It can be separate from the main area, but just somewhere warm so people don’t have to sleep in the cold. (I can think of a lot of problems with this one, actually).
  • What if instead of fixed distances between two points there were fixed times between two points? So if you walk faster, you would be walking a shorter longer distance. What would that look like? Is that even meaningful?
  • I’ve been thinking about movies that play with atheist = bad, religious = good dynamic but also the liberal = good, religious right = evil dynamic. What would that look like? The good guys are super intense religious people but still good, and then bad people are atheists somehow? Not sure. Would love thoughts.

I’m not defending these ideas to the death, or even at all. I’m sure many of them are morally ridiculous or economically unfeasible. They’re just ideas. But I’d love to hear thoughts on them!

And that’s the end of blogathon! Thanks everyone for the favorites and retweets and comments! Until next time!

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[Blogathon] Safe Spaces for Racists

I said in my post criticizing the Politically Incorrect UChicago Confessions page that I agreed with various people that it would be a good idea to have spaces where people could ask “politically incorrect” questions or say “politically incorrect” things that would then be discussed calmly and charitably, with no backlash or criticism. The question, though, is what that kind of space would look like and how it would work.

Here’s what I envision (there are other ways this could work, of course, this is just one idea):

A subreddit, much like AskScience or AskHistorians, called something like AskSocialJustice or PoliticallyIncorrectEducate (like Transeducate, a great subreddit)

  • You have a verification system that gives flair (tags next to your username, essentially) that indicates what your field of knowledge is. Things like “sexism” or “racism”, or perhaps framing it the other way “feminism” or “anti-racism.” Just as in AskScience or AskHistorians, it might be optimal to have only academics in the subject be given flair, but I’d be happy to have Jessica Valenti or Ta-Nehisi Coates in there, obviously. People who know a lot about the subject and are accustomed to writing about it.
  • The rules in the sidebar are:
    • No slurs unless you’re asking about them
    • Disrespectful/cruel/obnoxious questions and comments get deleted
    • Questions that are good questions but not phrased as well as they could be get rewritten, with the original in strikeout (I don’t even know if this is possible). This lets questions from people who don’t know as much through, but keeps things more respectful and demonstrates how discourse should work.
    • Unhelpful/uncharitable/not-intended-to-educate responses get deleted, even if they’re completely correct
  • The mods enforce these rules and also mention to people that they’re being less respectful or helpful than they could be, and give concrete advice and even rewritings of the comment or question to model what the discourse should look like.
  • Mods also allow any good responses, but emphasize the flaired/tagged experts on the topic

So in the end what I envision is questions like:

  • Why can’t I use the word X, but other people can?
  • What’s wrong with calling someone a Y, doesn’t it just mean blah blah blah?
  • Why do Z people always do A? (Actually, this one would probably get rewritten as “I notice that Z people are more likely to do A than Y people. Why?” so that we encourage people to write what they observe instead of what they infer.
  • I know it’s a stereotype, but actually, B’s totally always do C.
  • Is G X-ist?

And I envision the responses being of the form:

  • Well, here’s the history of that word and what it means to people and what harm it causes when non-Z people use it.
  • So, in some sense, Y does mean that, but its meaning has changed because of these historical events, and now this is the effect it has on people.
  • You may notice that because you’re influenced by the stereotype of Z doing A, and so you don’t notice that Y does A a lot as well. It may also be that they’re more likely to as a result of alpha, beta and gamma cultural influences, and there’s nothing wrong with that. Why does A bother you?
  • Well, B actually isn’t true. The statistics indicate that C is a lot more common, even though popular media and even news outlets emphasize B far more.
  • G certainly comes out of an X-ist culture, and it might perpetuate it, but the benefits of G could outweigh those in the cases of R, S and T.

Responses would follow the guidelines of charity and civility laid by myself, Dan Fincke and others. They would be academically rigorous but as free of jargon as was humanly possible, and accessible to readers of a variety of educational levels. Responses would also contain concrete advice for how to act or what to say, giving useful potential scripts where helpful. Questions asked frequently would probably end up constituting their own page that people would get linked to if they asked the same ones.

That way, people of all beliefs, from the merely curious to the rabidly racist, get their questions answered, and they stay anonymous. They get thoughtful, charitable answers filled with resources, should they want to investigate further. The answers are logically and academically rigorous, and delivered without moral judgement or abuse, even if moral judgement would in general be thoroughly warranted. (I think there would also be a way to say, “Yes, that’s X-ist and it’s an awful thing to say to someone. Here’s why..) within these guidelines, since that doesn’t have the same effect as simply calling them an awful person. There would be plenty of empirical data provided whenever possible. Responses would emphasize the real, tangible ways that bigotry and prejudice affect people and their lives, so as to cultivate empathy, but also place responses in historical, economic, political and sociological context.

What do you all think? Would this work? Would these spaces be good? Productive? Would they still “make bigotry fester”? (Which I’m not really sure is a thing) . Would they still hurt people and spread bigotry? What would you add or take away from the rules or approach? I’d love to hear people’s thoughts.

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[Blogathon] Emotion-based Arguments and the Atheist Community

We know that much of our morality comes from visceral emotions rather than pure, crystalline reasons. We know that Kant’s categorical imperative not to murder comes long after the evolution of human disgust at the thought of killing someone in the in-group. We know that a great deal of anti-gay sentiment comes from the notion that men having sex with men is icky. And since we know these things, we also know that sometimes,even if reasonable-seeming arguments exist for some position, they are predicated primarily on some deep emotional basis. If we were to recognize this in ourselves, it would be very important for us to reconsider our position, and be sure that we weren’t just sticking to it because it was so uncomfortable not to.

There are two potential examples of this in the online atheist community. Now, I don’t want to imply that there are no good arguments on the issues I’m about to present, or that everyone’s just being irrational. Only that on these issues, I think there is more emotional motivation than we as skeptics should be comfortable with, in large part because good evidence on the issue is difficult to find or thoroughly absent, leaving us with only our gut reactions.

Issue 1: The Badness of Infighting

We online atheists have been talking about infighting pretty much as long as we’ve been infighting. Is it good? Is it bad? Is it harmful? A lot of people really don’t like it, think it’s divisive, bad for the movement and all around ill-advised. Now, they could certainly be right. Beth Ann Erikson has made very compelling arguments that infighting makes the community look very bad from the outside, which discourages people from joining us and fails to give new atheists a safe place to land. I often think that while arguing against sexism and racism is very important, one of the most powerful things we can do is just to keep writing, keep blogging, about sexism and racism more generally, but also about just everyday skeptic and atheist topics.

All that said, my distinct impression is that the reason people don’t like atheist infighting is because it’s uncomfortable. If you don’t have a dog in the fight, it can feel exactly like holiday dinners where dad is mad at sister, and aunt’s not talking to uncle, and grandma is lecturing brother for not saying grace and standing up for his atheist principles, and you’re there, tense, anxious, staring at your turkey getting cold and wishing everyone would just calm down.

I understand this feeling, I do. But I think it’s misguided. We’re not at a holiday table, after all. Most of us don’t know each other in real life. That doesn’t mean real feelings aren’t at stake, but it does mean that it might be easier to distance yourself from the people doing harm. Most importantly, we’re not physically trapped. No one is keeping us on the internet. We are free to leave, to engage in self-care, to rant and vent to our friends, or simply to do something else for a while which will alleviate the discomfort.

That means all that’s left to argue about is whether there are empirically demonstrable harms or benefits that come from “infighting”, and that’s a dreadfully hard question to answer. But whatever our position, we should try to make sure it’s based on fact and not preference or discomfort.

Issue 2: Accomodationism vs Confrontationalism

This is an old debate in the atheist movement, so perhaps I’m behind the times, but I remember when it was The Thing To Talk About, back in 2010 or so. The question was: how nice should atheists be to religious believers? Should we mock their beliefs? Argue against them stridently? Be charitable? Not argue at all? Try instead to build bridges? Now, this ended up being even more complicated than I’ve laid out here, because people were actually asking totally different questions from each other. Some people claimed that it was simply the moral choice to argue fiercely against religion, no matter what the consequences. Some people distinguished between criticizing people and criticizing belief. Some people argued that either mocking and stridency or gentleness and charity were empirically more likely to convince religious believers. We had consequentialism, deontology and personal preference all jumbled up and split roughly into two opposing camps. It was a mess. And even on the empirical stuff, we don’t really know what convinces people to change their minds in the long term, especially on big issues like religion.

This makes this issue ripe for being primarily motivated by emotion rather than reason. In this case, I think the motivating emotion is distaste. People who like criticizing religion harshly find it completely distasteful, yes, icky, when they read people saying that it doesn’t matter if theistic claims aren’t true, it only matters what theists do, or saying that we should overlook our differences in order to engage in interfaith work. And I think that people who don’t like confrontation, who personally prefer to avoid it, who are uncomfortable at the metaphorical holiday dinner tables, find it extremely distasteful to watch the PZ Myerses of the world lambast and tear apart religious commenters or bloggers, pulling no punches. It’s gross to them. It’s just too much.

And I respect people’s personal preferences. Certainly people should choose for themselves what type of argument to engage in (though if we find that one approach is strikingly more effective than another, perhaps we might have some oblgation to subsume our discomfort for the good of atheist activism (if convincing religious people they’re wrong is to you a worthwhile goal)). But distaste is not a good argument. If we’re criticizing the argument styles of others (and I do it all the time), we should make sure it’s coming from a place of reason and evidence, just like everything else.

Conclusion

By no means do I think everyone engaging in these discussions is irrational, or has no good arguments. But I think anyone arguing on these issues should be examining their arguments with extra scrutiny, so as not to fall into the trap of constructing arguments ad hoc to fit their preconceived emotional stance.

What do you all think? Am I completely wrong? Are these not the motivating emotions at all? I’d love to hear in comments!

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[Blogathon] Maaaaaaaaath

Have I scared you yet? Talking about math seems like one of the easiest ways to terrify people, make them feel stupid, and cause them actual pain. I think that’s a shame, because math is AWESOME. I’m going to try to convince you of that in the next few hundred words.

What is math?

Math is the study of patterns and logic. Any repeating pattern or system analyzed rigorously and logically can be math. The coastline of Britain? Sure! The spread of diseases? Absolutely! What the relationship between the number of sides of a shape where all sides are the same length and the area of the shape? Definitely.

Since any pattern or system is up for grabs, math is incredibly creative. You get to just pick whatever rules or approach or framework you think might yield useful or interesting results and see where they lead you. Let’s say you were interested in triangles. You could take the points of the triangles as coordinates (like (2,5) and (3,4) and stuff) and do all kinds of calculations to see what the area was. OR, you could not care at all where the points are and just take lengths of sides. OR, you could not bother with calculations or algebra at all and do the whole thing geometrically. You can even prove things with gifs!

Ok, why are you getting so excited right now?

Because that makes math AWESOME. Anything can be explored. Look, pick some rules you’ve decided to follow. See where they lead. BOOM, you’re in an entire world of your own making. Those rules are axioms. Seeing where they lead, logically, means you prove things with them, sometimes you call those conclusions theorems. And now you have a totally new mathematical world. It might as well be writing fiction or LARPing.

You think I’m kidding, but I’m not. There are 5 axioms called the Euclidean axioms. They are as follows.

  1. A straight line can be drawn between any two points
  2. A finite line can be extended infinitely in both directions
  3. A circle can be drawn with any center and any radius
  4. All right angles are equal to each other
  5. Given a line and a point not on the line, only one line can be drawn through the point parallel to the line.

You can have all kinds of fun with just these. Take a piece of paper and see if you can convince yourself, even informally, that these seem to be true. Use crayons, markers, pencil, whatever.

Now throw them all out. Fuck ‘em. We’re going to start our own mathematics with blackjack and hookers. What if instead of a straight line being the shortest distance between two points, a semicircle is. Seriously. You just invented geometry on a convex (curving inward, like the inside of a beachball) plane. It’s called hyperbolic geometry.

It looks like this.

And this.

And people freaking crochet hyperbolic curves.

You could have done basically the same thing by saying, ok, I learned in like 7th grade that all triangles have 180 degrees. Well, what if they don’t? A triangle is a shape with three sides, right? What if I want more than 180 degrees? Well, you can have whatever you want. In math, the only rule is that you have to follow your own rules. What those are, you get to decide. So draw a triangle with more than 180 degrees. Ok, it’s hard, I grant you. It seems like it would have to have more than three sides. What are we missing? What assumptions are we making? Oh! That the sides have to be straight! What if they curved out! Like a triangle you blew air into?

Congratulations, you just invented elliptical geometry. It’s the geometry that explains why planes fly like the curved line instead of the straight one:

Because the earth is curved, not flat, so the geometry changes. And triangles, just like you wanted, have more than 180 degrees.

Then Why Does Math Feel So Awful to Learn?

There are a few reasons why people hate math. For one, no one teaches math as something fun and creative. They teach it as something boring and rote, where the rules are set up beforehand and totally unchanging. To get fun math, you have to go to youtube to see people like Vi Hart make math the beautiful thing it is.

Second, because math is so abstract, it can be hard to visualize, and it makes it feel mysterious, even after you understand the problem. Like in biology, once you understand why evolution works, you get it. You know how it works. Sometimes, I’ll prove something for a class, and I’ll know it’s right, and that everything follows logically, and still not really know what I just did. For instance, visualize a line for me. That’s one dimension. What’s the two dimensional form of that? Right, a square. And three dimensions? A cube, great. And next? That question is the intellectual equivalent of moving both index fingers together in front of someone’s face, asking them to follow the fingers with their eyes, and then suddenly moving them in different directions. You just don’t know what happened to you. (For readers of Flatland, there’s a reason the sphere gets very upset when asked if there are more than three dimensions)

That shape, by the way, is called a tesseract, and it looks like the picture below in three dimensions, even thought it’s a four dimensional thing. But what does the next one look like? At some point, visualizations run out and logic and proof must take over.

Thirdly, math has a language, and it’s not an easy one to learn. There are all the symbols, for one: numbers, logical operators, less than, more than, exponent, subscript, and on and on until you think you’ll drown in them. And then there are the rules for how they fit together. This implies that. Why again? Oh yes, because this. And that makes sense because? Oh, right. But eventually, if you follow math far enough, you develop a deep respect for mathematical notation, its minimalism, its utility, and you begin to deeply distrust anyone who says, “Math would be fun, but why are there so many symbols?” (Though of course, there’s tons of math to be done without them. You get to make the rules, remember?). But you also get to criticize notation, decide that some is better than others, and take sides on Newtonian vs Leibnizian differential notation.

Proofs Without Words

But because it is in some sense, a language, I wish it was taught like one. I wish that young children read proofs without fully understanding them, just as we are encouraged to read texts in Spanish without looking up every single word. I wish we contented ourselves with the gist of the proof, the point, so that we learned to prioritize the meaning over the form, just as we may not be able to word-for-word translations of our French teacher’s request, but we know it’s time to sit down.

What’s the Point of Math? And of this blog post?

Well, math is beautiful. And fun. And creative. And the point of this blog post was to convince you of that. But if pure practicality is important to you, know that if you set up the rules properly, in that they reflect the way the universe works, then you’re going to get empirically verifiable predictions from the logical conclusions of the rules. That’s how physicists knew there had to be a Higgs Boson long before we could even in principle find one. That’s how we started building bridges.

Math can describe with incredible accuracy how the world works. But it can do so much else besides. It is a powerful discipline, and it deserves our respect. For some of us, it has commanded our reverence.

(If you’re still not convinced math is awesome, I really encourage you to check out Vi Hart’s videos and these math gifs)

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[Blogathon] On Challenging Religious Beliefs

I have a confession to make: I have an entirely negative attitude towards people who ask religious people about their beliefs. When I hear at a party, “But how do you know God exists?” or when I hear over a Friday night dinner table, “But what about the contradictions in the bible?” or anything similar in any social situation, I cringe and walk the other way. Part of that is for decent reasons: I have no reason to expect that anything will be said I haven’t heard a hundred times before, the conversation is likely to be unproductive and/or combative, and there’s high probability of someone getting offended or upset. I honestly don’t want any part of that, especially in a social context.

But that doesn’t really excuse how little I think of the people asking. If I’m being honest, I see asking such questions as low-status. They are, to me, a marker of a 101-type, a newly christened atheist still asking the basic questions. Atheism is boring, after all. There are so many other questions to discuss besides God. I would obviously never be so gauche as to ask my friends what evidence they have for god; my intellectual sophistication means that I instead discuss Talmudic sources and argue about the consistency of John Calvin’s theology.

This is what a page of Talmud looks like, by the way

This attitude also means I’ve bought wholeheartedly into the truth of the Courtier’s Reply. That is, atheists are silly to counter the claims of fundamentalists or youtube commenters. Those are easy to rebut. If you were to read Platinga (I haven’t) or Calvin or Luther or Vatican II, you would understand. Again, it’s a marker of low-status to be pointing out silly things like lack of evidence or evil in the world. Haven’t you examined the best possible counterarguments to your position? Humph, done with you, I’m off to read Luke Muelhauser and Leah Libresco, they’re atheists (or used to be) who take religion seriously.

Now, I’m not throwing out all of this approach. I do think discussions about God at a party are largely uninteresting and unproductive, I do think asking such questions gives me good evidence that someone is a 101 level atheist, and I do think that atheists could stand to know more about common counterarguments to their positions.

But I am deeply questioning the morality and accuracy of my position. Firstly, the sneering superiority really isn’t a good look for anyone. Atheism isn’t my primary hobbyhorse, and I might argue it shouldn’t be anyone’s, but that doesn’t mean that the people who like to argue about it a lot or talk about it a lot are to be looked down on. People have their interests and their preferences, and it’s much more appropriate for me to disagree with the extent to which these people have implicitly prioritized their atheism than to dismiss them entirely. (Somewhat to my credit, consistency-wise, is that I tend not to have a lot of patience for anyone who has just the One Big Thing that they care about, hence my general disapproval of hedgehogs. But the whole low-status business is pretty disgusting on my part.)

Furthermore, some subset of the people who talk about atheism a lot online or in person are new to atheism. Anyone new to a belief system and community deserves the space and patience to do the whole 101-thing, to figure it out for themselves. We should be happy and excited that they’re asking questions and being skeptical, and recognize that there are things we’re all still figuring out. That’s how we make atheism a safe place to land.

Also, I’m often secretly happy that this kind of person challenges religious people, and actually makes them argue for their position. As we know, religious people frequently get a pass on their beliefs that no one else gets on any other type of belief, and I’m only contributing to that state of events by not asking. Good on them for being willing to have the intense conversations, even if I wish they were more charitable and/or less focused on “winning.” And after all, without Dawkins, Harris, Hitchens, Jacoby, Dennet and others writing books that tackle these issues, the atheist movement really wouldn’t be what it is today, whatever else one might say about them.

On the empirical part, I’m currently reading the entirety of Calvin’s Institutes for a class, and I recently attended a Veritas Forum on Truth and Tolerance that I livetweeted. You know what I’ve noticed? The sophisticated arguments for the truth of scripture and the existence of God? Really not much better than the ones I see on facebook every day. Why is humanity sinful? Because of the fall. Why did god make us fall? He didn’t, we did. Then we have free will? No. Then why is it our fault? It was necessary, but also voluntary. Why would god make our wills such that we would fall? God is perfect. Really? Yes. (The format is different, but this is the actual content of Calvin’s argument). Similarly, the Christian (David Skeel) at the Veritas forum made utterly uncompelling arguments for the existence of god and the redemption of Christ. So I seem to have been wrong about at least a large part of the my belief in the Courtier’s Reply.

That’s why at the Veritas Forum, I asked Professor Skeel what it was like to live in a world where most of the people he cares about and interacts with were going to hell. He’s a public intellectual, making public claims about the nature of the world I think are both wrong and disturbing. Many, many other religious people are making similar claims, equally wrong and equally distressing. They should have to defend those claims, and the fact that I think it’s boring or low-status to be the one to make them doesn’t erase that truth.

Professor Skeel himself

Now, I think there’s a difference between public intellectuals and people at a party or online. And I think there’s definitely a difference between people who personally believe things and people who are very public about them. But I no longer think it is a useless or rude thing to ask about and challenge religious beliefs (except when it is, and I trust my readers can figure out appropriate contexts). I may still find it uninteresting, and I may still find many of the actual arguments made in such discussions uncharitable or badly made, but I am committed to working on no longer seeing the very act of asking as a low-status thing to do, as something worthy of derision. On the contrary, it’s deeply important.

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[Blogathon] What I’ve Learned as President of the Secular Alliance at the University of Chicago

As I may have mentioned once or twice, I’ve been the president of the University of Chicago’s affiliate of the national Secular Student Alliance for two years. It all started when, as a first year, I found out about this new group, comprised of maybe 8 people, who got together and talked about atheism. I loved it. I was in my Dawkensian stage, when religion was stupid and I was brilliant for having figured it out. The group was fun, lively and argumentative. At the end of that year, I decided I wanted to be more involved, so I ran for secretary, and won. The same year, I became president of the Jewish social justice student group Jewish Action, so I was really thrust into the steep end of the learning curve of how student groups are run. But I still loved it, so when the president that year stepped down, I ran for president. That was an incredibly hard year. I had professional and social difficulties with some peers in the group, membership dwindled as the year went on, our events’ occasional successes seemed to be a matter of luck more than planning, and I just didn’t know how to make things better. Nonetheless, that year I ran my first ever Carl Sagan Day, Darwin Day and Ask an Atheist Day. We had a game night. We had some good meetings. The club persevered.

At that point, I was exhausted. I thought I was done. Someone else could take on the totally thankless job of planning meetings week after week, delegating to exec knowing I would have to do it all myself anyway and coordinating large scale events that would get a crowd looking only for free food. But then, for reasons still not totally known to me, I ran again. I still wanted to be part of the effort for what I thought was an important cause. I wanted to give my efforts to where I still thought they could do some good.

And without claiming that last year was a failure, since it absolutely was not and had many good moments, this year has been so much better. We (with DePaul and Northwestern) had another Sagan Day, bigger and better than ever. Our membership has grown, we’ve had successful social events, our meetings are bigger and more fun, our events are better, and I have a great deal of hope for the future.

On this long and taxing way, I’ve learned a few things about running a Secular Alliance group, and I’d like to share them. (I’m sure a lot of them would translate to other student groups as well.)

What I’ve Learned as President of the Secular Alliance at the University of Chicago

  1. Not everyone who isn’t talking in meetings is bored or uncomfortable. They may just like to listen or want to learn. That said, it’s totally fine to ask them privately if there’s anything you can do to make meetings more comfortable for them. Just make sure to believe them if they say no.
  2. Intellectual meeting topics are fine (we’ve talked about transhumanism, vegetarianism, death, bias, Islamophobia, ethical obligations of politicians and more), but when leading a discussion, ask questions that allow people to share stories from their lives. We’re not all West Wing characters; we can’t list statistics at the drop of a hat. But even the most abstract ideas make for good conversation if people can connect it back to their experiences and share them with others. The idea is to care what people think and where they’re coming from, not about the conclusions the group may reach.
  3. Intersperse the nonintellectual meetings! Maybe I’m the only group leader to have trouble with this, but I thought that at UChicago, I didn’t dare have nonintellectual meetings. Turns out, all college students like meetings where you just hang out and meet each other, Funny Youtube Video meetings, Creationist Bingo, egg drops off an enormous chapel, and the like.
  4. On the same note, not all meetings have to be atheist/agnostics/secular-related. We’re a community! We like talking about all bunches of things! Mix it up!
  5. On the other hand, don’t be afraid to do the atheism 101 stuff. There’s a reason we all are in the club. Talking about it is a good thing, in moderation. Why don’t we believe in god? Does religion do more harm than good? Totally reasonable questions.
  6. It’s ok for things not to work out. Planned a movie night and three people showed up? Great! That’s three people who are going to have a good evening because of you. You’ll figure out how you can improve publicity and get a bigger turnout next time. (I’m very much still working on this one). One meeting was kind of awkward? Oh well! It’ll be better next time. You’ll try something different, and see whether that works. None of us are experts at this.
  7. Follow-up to that: everyone is not judging you all the time. Your members aren’t looking for ways to think badly of you or waiting for you to fail. They’re just looking for your leadership, and they will forgive when things go wrong.
  8. Delegate and demand! Execs should be helpful. If they’re going to be in a position of leadership, it’s ok to demand that they step up and actually be helpful. They should contribute to meetings, give ideas for events and speakers, be delegated to and follow through on responsibilities, and not shirk their duties to you and the organization. Those are acceptable things to demand from them. It’s sometimes better to have no exec than a bad one.
  9. But also, have a big exec! People with named responsibilities are far more likely to follow through on them, as well as show up to meetings and contribute. As long as they’re not making your job harder, there are very few downsides to a lot of exec members. More people to do work, more burden sharing, more fun exec meetings, and more opportunities for first and second years to get involved, making transitions easier and more secure.
  10. The end of a club isn’t a failure. Just as a relationship’s success should be measured not by whether or not it ends but what it gave to the participants, a club was worthwhile if it improved the lives of the people in it, not only if it lasts forever. Any president of a student group should be proud of themselves for leading a group for whatever length of time, if they sincerely worked to give a tangible benefit to those in the group. It’s hard work.
  11. And on that note, this is hard work. It’s ok to be scared. It’s ok to be overwhelmed. It’s ok to be frustrated or mad or annoyed or sad. The work is exhausting and thankless, and you should be proud of yourself. It’s ok to make one meeting just a hangout if you don’t have the energy, or delegate an entire event to other people. And it’s definitely ok to ask for help. That’s what all other group leaders around the country are here for. And by the way, that’s what the Secular Student Alliance is there for. Which is why they could really use your donation! Any small amount you have helps!

Group leaders or group members, what did I miss? Add in comments or on twitter!

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