Open letter to Justin Vacula.


It will come as no surprise to you that I have gripes with your post from the other day.  I will not lie and say that I do not believe you stepping down was for the best.  I will also not lie and say that I am happy with how this has concluded.

But, because I’m ever the cynic, let’s dive straight into my gripes first.

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.

You are simply wrong.  We are interested in all of those things, and most of us are so disappointed because we realize that the SCA does important work.  But we’re also interested in holding the organizations who represent us, to whom many of us have donated, to a decent standard.  The two are not mutually exclusive.  The things you have done, for which you had not exhibited any remorse, were not things we wanted to see embraced by an organization we viewed as important.

Instead of mainly focusing on issues such as religious privileging, defending the separation of church and state, strengthening the secular community, engaging in ‘real-life activism,’ improving the perception of secular individuals, or even constructively discussing how to constructively guide others who may err – a ‘you are with us or against us’ attitude is coupled with personal vendettas and whispering campaigns taking the stage regardless of concerns about the cohesion of the secular movement.

Wrong.  We focus on all of those things.  Just this weekend I’ll be presenting a workshop on effective activism.  I was presumably invited to do so because I have a history of being pretty good at it.  I continue to “engage in ‘real-life activism’” to this day.  However, this does not stop me from also worrying when a person who has behaved in a fashion bereft of compassion on several occasions gets endorsed by an organization that has a mission of diplomacy and concern for the well-being of others.  That has been my gripe since the beginning, and in your first two paragraphs you’ve shown that you’re more concerned with tossing out slants at your detractors gussied up as disappointments in the movement than dealing with the stated concerns, as if the fault for your actions belongs to anyone else but you.

If our message is “compassion is amongst the most important things to us,” then yes, those who behave in a way suggesting a lack of compassion are either with us or against us.  It’s not because of contrary opinions, it’s not because we hate the sound of the names “Justin” or “Vacula,” but rather because we disdain someone who prioritizes winning an argument over concern for the people with whom they disagree.  If there is a personal vendetta, that is undoubtedly why.

What’s more, there has been no “whisper campaign,” at least not on my end.  I have been loud and clear since the beginning.

Organizations are attacked, leaders of major organizations are condemned, prominent authors are boycotted, and ‘real-life’ careers are targeted as a result of disagreements or misunderstandings which likely could have been resolved by a simple telephone call…or ignored. Many have left the secular community, similarly vacated leadership positions of national organizations, or have been discouraged from participating as a result. This is not a constructive and positive way to address conflict.

Perhaps we could have resolved our conflicts by celebrating the exacerbated depression of another person, keeping them out of the playing field of ideas instead of banking purely on the superiority of our own position?  Perhaps we could have resolved our disagreements by writing an article for a hate site as monitored by the Southern Poverty Law Center or by intimidating someone by posting their address in a forum of people likely to harass them?  Are these what you had in mind?  In your self-reflection, did you take a moment to think about how hard it is for someone who has done these things to try and claim the moral high ground?  It also destroys whatever credibility you had when you try to tell others how to resolve conflict.

When organizations do foolish things, they should lose support.  You call this an attack, but I call it accountability.  I am not obligated to support any organization that I feel is being incompetently run or that is supporting people whose behavior I despise.  How could you possibly think otherwise?  It also says a great deal about where you are, in terms of regret for past actions, that you can suggest that we should have ignored your behavior, as if abdicating our very modest standards for our potential leaders is a way to build a better secular movement rather than a way to benefit Justin Vacula.

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

And these were…?

My detractors did not only brand me as an ‘enemy of the people’ in a similar fashion to the respective play written by Henrik Ibsen, but also attacked the Secular Coalition for America – an organization with women as staff members including the organization’s executive director – claiming it “dislike[s] feminist secular activists in Pennsylvania,” is responsible for “alienating women,” and “is woefully out of sync with the atheist movement” to just mention three items.

Saying “you fucked up and that shakes what confidence I had in the organization” is not an attack.  It’s a reaction.  By consistently calling it an attack without even acknowledging the reasons we/I have given for being disappointed with the SCA, you’re trying to shift the blame to us with rhetoric, rather than dealing directly with our complaints.  Perhaps you could spend some of your letter explaining how they didn’t fuck up by answering the charges against you?  Or do you think we were all sitting around bored and elected to slash the heels of an organization representing our interests just for kicks?

As for the last two, yes, your appointment would alienate women.  I don’t see how this can be argued.  Countless women can be found throughout the social media outlets saying as much.  That allegation seems to be true, and that alone would seem to confirm the following allegation: that the SCA is woefully out of sync with the rest of the secular movement.  Not only did they not realize that you are despised by many for the way you have conducted yourself, but they have an ED who has donated money to secularism’s enemies and who doesn’t seem to understand that atheists do not like political games, we like forthright answers to questions.  If you think the SCA is not woefully out of sync with the atheist movement, defend them.  Don’t just piss and moan that I said it.

Those who demand respect and object to disrespect — as should be apparent — offer no or little respect to others, thus not modeling the behavior they wish to see.

I told you precisely how I felt without pretense.  That is respect and, frankly, it is all the respect you deserve at this point.  Pretending as though I thought your behavior was respectable, as though you were made of glass that would shatter at the mention of criticism, would condescending.  It would be beneath me, the movement, and hopefully beneath you.

I have indeed made some mistakes and handled some situations poorly in past months. These mistakes were errors of judgment and were not, by any means, coupled with malicious intent.

What were they?  You seem to think that I’m out to see you destroyed rather than out to see you learn and grow.  Had you said, “JT had these concerns, I apologize for this one, I do not apologize for that one and here’s why” I would have likely been one of the first to say that you deserved a second chance.  But that’s not what this post of yours is.  Your post so far has been an attempt to indict everybody but yourself.  If the mistakes to which you were referring are any of the issues I’ve clearly levied, this would have been the time to say so.

What’s more, consider the first example I threw out.

When Jen McCreight announced she was taking a hiatus from blogging due to numerous people exploiting her insecurities, Justin’s response was not the sympathy of someone who wants to win the war of ideas without casualties.  No, it was glee at another person’s suffering, and an elation to win by doing harm to another person.  This was his response.

So, Jen's allegedly finished blogging...and this tie it's not her boyfriend who kicked her off the internet.

So, Jen’s allegedly finished blogging…and this time it’s not her boyfriend who kicked her off the internet.

Can you honestly say, with a straight face, that this comment was not made with malice in mind?  Maybe you didn’t know that twitter was public.  Don’t lie to me.  It’s degrading to you and it suggests that you were planning on me being an idiot.

You don’t seem to realize that at any time you could have said “whoops, my bad,” and that would have been the end of it, at least for me.  I will tell you the same thing I told Edwina: you will make mistakes.  We all make them.  What makes a good leader is the ability to make them with dignity.  I know for a fact that I have said, several times, that I believe in second chances.  I simply believe they should be reserved for people who have demonstrated contrition and, in so doing, have declared that they realize the need for a second chance.  Without that, it cannot reasonably be said that such people even want a second chance.

If you think that I would have preferred to see you step down from your position instead of you actually realizing you fucked up and growing as both a human being as an activist, you are wrong yet again.  You and Edwina are correct when you say this movement needs all the hard-working activists we can get.  But we must hold them to minimal standards of competence and compassion, otherwise they will become a detriment to us.  That is the only barrier to you, so far as I can see.

But, since your post reveals to me that you continue to blame everyone but yourself, and every devious motive rather than your own behavior, I will have to settle for your resignation.  My message does not change: you need not always agree with others.  You should know that I disagree with many people in this movement, even those to whom I am close, constantly.  But you must be compassionate and conduct yourself admirably if you want the admiration of others.  Integrity is the path to absolution, and it is a path that is open to you should you ever decide to take it.

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About JT Eberhard

When not defending the planet from inevitable apocalypse at the rotting hands of the undead, JT is a writer and public speaker about atheism, gay rights, and more. He spent two and a half years with the Secular Student Alliance as their first high school organizer. During that time he built the SSA’s high school program and oversaw the development of groups nationwide. JT is also the co-founder of the popular Skepticon conference and served as the events lead organizer during its first three years.