Blogathon Wrap Up

I know this is a few days late, but I think it’s nice to have a place where all the posts are in the same place. I also really wanted to have a place to put this beautiful word cloud I made on wordle. It has all the words from all my blogathon posts, scaled to reflect the frequency of their use. I love that I seem to talk about people a lot. The other top words are pretty broad: think, just, know, like, good. They’re my go-to verbs, adjectives and adverbs. But there’s also: math, religious, questions, atheists and argue, and that all seems to describe me pretty well.

blogathon word cloud

For those looking for what I wrote, here are the posts:

My Blogathon Announcement: Where I said I was doing it and explained why I thought it was important.

Beginning Blogathon: Where I talked about why the Secular Student Alliance is so important and wonderful (and also how I got lost getting to where I was going)

What I’ve Learned as President of the Secular Alliance at the University of Chicago: Just a bunch of thoughts on what makes groups succeed and thrive.

On Challenging Religious Beliefs: On why I’m working on not seeing challenging religious beliefs in social settings or online as so cringe-inducing, and why I’m glad people actually do it. (Big honking caveat: All normal social conventions like appropriateness and respect obviously need to apply)

Maaaaaaaath: How and why math is so freaking great. Includes crocheted hyperbolic spaces and some light cursing.

Emotion-based Arguments and the Atheist Community: On my suspicion that arguments about infighting and about accomodationism vs confrontationism might be based more on emotional bias than on good arguments.

Safe Spaces for Racists: On what a space where people could ask “politically incorrect” questions without hurting people might look like. Note: title is meant to be catchy/provocative, not an accurate description of what I’m hoping for. By the way, if you like that post, you might like this one, called, “You Want a Space for Political Incorrectness? You Got It“, in which I announce I’m actually trying to create this space.

Brain Crack: A bunch of silly random ideas I’ve had floating around, like getting kids to teach their own classes and having churches serve as homeless shelters.

That’s all! Thanks so much for reading.

[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] 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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This Sunday, I’m going to be blogging every hour (or possibly every half hour, or 45 minutes or something) from 10am-6pm (or something like that. Obviously, I don’t have this all figured out) for Blogathon!

SSA Week Banner

Blogathan is an annual event during SSA week in which many bloggers blog far more than they normally would to raise awareness and money for the Secular Student Alliance. During this time, donations will be matched! You donation is doubled! So, just like last year, I’ll be joining them, along with my dear friends Kate Donovan, Miri Mogilevsky and Mike Mei.

I’ve been the president of the University of Chicago’s affiliate of the Secular Student Alliance for two years, and it has been a tremendously important part of my college experience. (You can check out some of the work we do on our website.) I have seen first hand what valuable work the building of secular communities is, and how well the community can serve the nonreligious on campus who have no other built-in community for them. The Secular Student Alliance does amazing work supporting groups all over the country.

If you think the work of secular activism is important, please consider donating. If you think that secular people having communities where they can come together and be themselves is important, please consider donating. And if you think that every college and high school student deserves a place to question religion or think about their atheism or agnosticism seriously, please consider donating.

So, join me! Check out the other blogathoners all week, comment on the posts I and my compatriots write, donate, suggest topics to me in comments here or on twitter, and by the way, if you donate $20 or more, I’ll write a post on a topic of your choice.

You can see all the things I wrote about during last year’s blogathon here.

If you’re not convinced yet, here’s Greta Christina and Leah Libresco telling you why you should care about SSA and donate.

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