Open letter to Justin Vacula.

Justin,

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.

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.

  • http://www.SecularWoman.org Bridget Gaudette

    I find this letter fair and reasonable. I think Justin missed an opportunity to apologize properly.

  • http://brutereason.net Miriam

    I agree so hard with everything written here.

  • http://sci-ence.org Maki

    Never should we allow people to be disenfranchised for the sake of “can’t we all just get along?”

    This was a snide not-pology on Vacula’s part, and I found myself laughing in stunned disbelief at all the people who flocked to his side citing “bullying” and “silencing” under the shadow of all the nasty tweets he made towards Jen.

  • Pteryxx

    Tangent, but y’know? Worth it IMHO to say, Thanks JT for including such good alt text and captioning for your screenshot here. *thumbsup*

    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/wwjtd JT Eberhard

      I’m trying to get into the habit. I’m not always remembering, but I’m making the effort.

      • fwtbc

        Let me second that. Thanks.

  • http://csdphumor.com Steven Olsen

    I think he will be an asset if he learns compassion and humility. I will keep an eye out for that.

  • http://www.twitter.com/nicoleintrovert Nicole Introvert

    Very well said JT.

    I commented on various blogs stating that I would not be volunteering for my state chapter of the SCA because I do not feel safe working with Justin. What part of that is a lie? I was also scared that he would have access to personal information (names & addresses & perhaps phone numbers of members) to which he has a proven track record of abusing such information if he has a disagreement. That goes for any gender of person. Think of how poorly that would reflect on the SCA as an organization if he got upset with someone and decided to attack someone similar to how he retaliated on Surly Amy.

    I find those to be very solid worries given the track record. I don’t think he denies any of that happened… so again, where is the lie?

    And even for how HORRIBLE those things are, if he gave a true apology, I could completely understand giving him a go at a chair position in PA.

  • Nothing

    It amuses me how much creationist-like would be the reactions around the Slymepit if someone were to post there a link to this.

  • Kevin Schelley

    I’d rather see a homegrown Secular/Atheist community form in Vermont before the SCA tries to form one in the state without having any grassroots support. Plus, Edwina Rodgers doesn’t fill me with warm fuzzies.

    • http://www.twitter.com/nicoleintrovert Nicole Introvert

      I agree with the same thing for Richmond, VA. That is where the SCA is looking to form in VA and we have nothing here. I’d love if I had the personality type to stand up and get a ball rolling but as you can see, my chosen moniker is “introvert” because it’s true. I think Northern VA has a lot, at least with people participating in things in DC. But Richmond is dead as far as secular community.

  • Pingback: Vacula Retreats | Reasonable Conversation

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  • Bruce McGlory

    A reasonable, clearly-worded, easily understood piece. $20 says they’re already searching for your address to post.

  • John Horstman

    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.

    Irony fail. Being an asshat and getting chummy with misogynists is itself divisive and gives us a bad image.

  • Azkyroth

    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?

    Of course he doesn’t think about it, because these things were done to WOMEN. He treats PEOPLE with compassion, you understand.

  • CommanderTuvok

    What’s more, there has been no “whisper campaign,” at least not on my end.

    There was a campaign of misinformation, with regard to the reasons Justin posted Surly Amy’s already-publically available address.

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

    A bit snarky, but Jen has repeatedly marked ALL of her opponents as basically scum, and as Stephanie Zvan snarkily says “is the pushback getting you down”. Jen is not immune from criticism, and the campaign against Justin was significantly worse than any criticism of Jen. Jen throws around a lot of criticism herself. Oh, and if that comment is the standard level of unacceptable comment, I don’t expect to see PZ “fuck you into the ground” Myers in an important position in the secular/atheist community any time soon. Not that it is likely – too busy coining it in by being abusive about people on FtB.

    But we’re also interested in holding the organizations who represent us, to whom many of us have donated, to a decent standard.

    I didn’t see you holding that conference for which Greg Laden wrote the anti-harassment policy (LOL) up to the same standard. These standards only apply when you have grudge against someone.

    by writing an article for a hate site

    He didn’t write it for the hate site.

    intimidating someone by posting their address in a forum of people likely to harass them?

    These are just baseless assertions. Again, you are deliberately missing details of what went on before Justin posted that address. What evidence do you have that the people in that forum are “likely” to harass anybody. Greg Laden does not post there – and he is the one with a track record of harassing people’s private lives, not anyone at the site where Justin posted. Do you have any evidence at all that anybody at ‘The Pit’ is interested about where Surly Amy lives? The address was already available. You don’t like the people at ‘The Pit’, and you are free to that opinion, but don’t start insinuating that the people there are eager to find address information to they can harass people. That just is not true.

    Saying “you fucked up and that shakes what confidence I had in the organization” is not an attack. It’s a reaction.

    Not when it is based on misinformation like the facts I mentioned. Further, by your logic, Surly Amy not having a fun time at TAM was because of a “reaction”, and not an “attack”. But the thing is, you think “your people” are immune to such “reactions”.

    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.

    A bit like Svan’s “is the pushback getting you down”. I can find lots of example of nasty, gleeful comments from FtBites and Skepchicks very similar to this.

    But, since your post reveals to me that you continue to blame everyone but yourself,

    I’m still waiting for Svan to call out Laden for attempting to “victim blame” Justin Griffith. I’m still waiting for people to criticise Surly Amy for doc-dropping. Double standards as always.

    • http://groups.google.com/group/freethinkers-club/ HJ Hornbeck

      There was a campaign of misinformation, with regard to the reasons Justin posted Surly Amy’s already-publically available address.

      Whether it was public or not is irrelevant. He posted someone’s personal information to a forum that was hostile to that person. It’s true that he did it because someone accused him of counter-DCMA’ing to get Amy’s address; however, that accusation came from another website, and the author of that post probably wouldn’t see the response. As they say, intent isn’t magic, and he was still wrong to post that address no matter what his intent was.

      He didn’t write it for the hate site.

      Sorry for the lack of activity. My laptop is broken and I have now ordered a new one. I am using a really, really, really shitty computer now. My mobile phone also limits me. I hope to catch up on things soon. I see Stephanie’s post and may respond. Now, though, I am working on a guest post for AVoiceForMen on this shit computer. – Justin Vacula

      Oddly enough, this was posted to the Slyme Pit, a forum you’re active in. Did you miss this message, or are you lying?

      Not when it is based on misinformation like the facts I mentioned.

      Do you deny he has a post on A Voice for Men? Do you deny he filed a counter-DMCA on a photograph he didn’t own? Do you deny he posted Amy’s home address? Do you deny he sent out that Tweet?
      No? Then where’s the misinformation?

      I’m still waiting for Svan to call out Laden for attempting to “victim blame” Justin Griffith.

      Ah, so you think two wrongs make a right. Vacula can’t be unfit for the SCA, because his opponents are unfit for the SCA.

      I’m still waiting for people to criticise Surly Amy for doc-dropping.

      That one’s news to me. Do you have a link? All I can find is this comment by Thibeault:

      My understanding of the situation is that Amy provided the name she received from the DMCA counterclaim to conference authorities so they were aware that the ElevatorGATE hate-blog owner would be flagged as a potential security risk, and some unknown entity floated some name (that nobody’s confirmed as belonging to ElevatorGATE) on some forum or other.

    • Joe

      Where are you getting that “is the pushback getting you down” quote from? Searching Zvan’s blog, the only hit I get is here: http://freethoughtblogs.com/almostdiamonds/2012/08/23/oh-that-dawkins/. There, Svan writes “When all the pushback is getting you down, remember this,” in response to Dawkins false controversy tweet. It was directed at her allies, not her detractors.
      Also, where has Jen labelled all her critics as scum? And how was the campaign against Justin worse than what is described here?

    • http://freethoughtblogs.com/almostdiamonds/ Stephanie Zvan

      http://lmgtfy.com/?q=%E2%80%9Cis+the+pushback+getting+you+down%E2%80%9D

      ManondesSources, by the way, posts from the same IP as Tuvok.

  • Horace

    Is/are there a link or links out there to a place where the charges against Justin Vacula have been raised, discussed, shown or whatever?

  • observer

    You can delete this, but note it’s screencapped. You have been guilty of previous abuse deleting comments [and editing for your own lulz, I mustn't forget that] on fabricated grounds that had nothing to do with reality.
    Your selective screencap of Vacula’s tweet is a gem – imagine if this comment was directed at a male? You would look pretty stupid. Herein lies the *real* sexism of [gentlemen] like you – you consider [women] like [Jen McCreight] to be fragile petals that *need* to be defended by white knights like you [because clearly a man can't think somebody's a lousy human being without also defending a woman]. Were I a female, I would spit in your [handsome, manly] face. I don’t know any women that don’t find your righteous posturing vile [except, of course, for your girlfriend and all the women who read your blog, and they are legion]. For that I am grateful.

    [Also, I'm going to attempt to secure the moral high ground, from which I will lecture you, by calling a recovering anorexic "pudgy." Clearly I am a model of compassion and you should therefore take my opinion on moral matters, including my positive assessment of Justin Vacula, very seriously.]

    [I helped your comment look like it shouldn't have been written in crayon. You're welcome. ~JT]


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