Discussions about solidarity and division in the secular community are nothing new. There are people in the larger movement that feel that only strict matters related to church and state separation or science advocacy, secular hallmarks, should be central. Feminists and those interested in addressing homophobia, transphobia, racism, xenophobia, are termed as “Social Justice Warriors”. A term that is meant to be derogatory and dismissive, as though those concerns are not “real”. When we offer critiques on the larger movement, we are seen as divisive.It is funny that within the secular movement that even organizations and leaders who claim to be humanist would regard our calls for inclusion, for compassion, and for even the very recognition of the value of lives who are not afforded the same type of regard extended to white cis-hetero bodies as divisive. What kind of humanism is that? None that I recognize.
Thankfully this hasn’t deterred brilliant leaders, bloggers, and activists like Sikivu Hutchinson, Greta Christina, Kimberly Veal, Heina Dadabhoy, Rebecca Watson, Surly Amy, and others from speaking out and confronting many of the contradictions of the professed humanism of the secular “elite”. I have taken the same position that many of them have taken regarding these “divisions”: they exist for a reason and they are necessary. Not all divisions are petty or small. And those divisions which concern deeply held principles, should not be disregarded for the sake of petty solidarity.
Petty solidarity is simply falling in line, never challenging the status quo, not speaking out when you or when you see others dehumanized. Petty solidarity demands SILENCE. Petty solidarity makes one complicit in VIOLENCE. Petty solidarity never seeks out root causes. Petty solidarity loves it’s empty slogans.
Some divisions exist for good reasons.
Not all “solidarity”, not all “allyship” is productive. Not all “solidarity” or “allyship” lives up to true humanistic ideals.
We can see examples of this throughout history in the struggle for abolition, civil rights, and gender equality. We can see where on the surface those fighting for their humanity and their so-called “allies” appeared to have similar goals but beneath the surface we see how phony and how the beliefs, actions, or inaction of so called allies undermined the overarching goal of achieving full recognition as a human being. Within the abolition movement, for example, there were white abolitionists who fought against the institution of slavery but ultimately did not believe that black people (or any people of color) were in fact equals and deserving of full human and civil rights. The video below illustrates this fact using the example of Tobias Lear:
This video, which is obviously intended to be humorous, is truthful in its depiction of the problem of the popular depictions of white abolitionists as universally heroic and humanistic in their motives. Even while abolitionists like John Brown, and his raid on Harper’s Ferry, are usually regarded with disdain. As Frederick Douglass himself noted, discussion of this incident and various insurrections (if they are ever mentioned) usually focuses on his violence towards the “peaceful” white populace, ignoring the violence that the participants were attempting to end.
Differences existed between Frederick Douglass and other prominent black leaders such as Henry Highland Garnet. Douglass regarded Garnet, who by the way was the first African American to speak before Congress, as “too radical”. Though, I wish he might have heeded, as we all should, some the wisdom of Henry Highland Garnet who once said, ” Eternal justice holds a heavy mortgage against us and will require the payment of the last farthing.” Perhaps, if he and others had heeded those words, the work of Reconstruction, The Civil Rights Movement, and other movements might not have been left unfinished and people of color, in particular, would not be as we find ourselves today.
Frederick Douglass was also a supporter of women’s sufferage even found himself contending with white supremacists within that movement just as Ida B. Wells and black suffragists did. He specifically spoke out against these elements and named Frances Willard, a women’s suffragist, who like many whites in that movement, defended mass lynchings and violence towards black men as necessary for the preservation of white womanhood.
Should Douglass or Ida B. Wells have remained silent? Should they have allowed women like Frances Willard to say those horribly racist things and simply continued raising the banner for women’s suffrage? Should Ida B. Wells have been content marching behind the white delegations just so that she could be in solidarity with the overall goal of women’s suffrage? Surely not.
Even within the activist movements of the Reconstruction Period and the 1960’s there were divisions among black men and women regarding “the place” of women in that movement. Some black men in those movements felt that black women’s clubs and black women leaders like Daisy Bates undermined their black masculinity, something they felt these movements would redeem. What was missed by them and remains missed by many is that the focus on this narratives erased the struggles of black women. Black women were not seen as having suffered as much due to racism because they were able to find works as domestics at times when black men were deliberately excluded from the work force. But black women didn’t exactly have it made, as salve nor as domestics. In addition to sexual harassment and sexual violence black women faced the were also vulnerable to wage discrimination and other unfair and now illegal practices. We still are to a certain extent.These narratives have also excluded how racism and sexism made black women vulnerable to domestic and sexual violence within their own communities as well.
Similar divisions continue to plague the mainstream feminism movement, as women of color, poor women, and women in the developing world struggle to have their voices heard in a movement where the lives of white upper middle class women are centered. A movement where some of these white privileged women tell the rest of us to “lean in” while ignoring the systemic discrimination that keeps us out.
None of these issues are trivial. None of these divisions are meaningless.
And so too, when we look at the state of the secular community with it’s divisions, we should keep in mind that some divisions, some stands, are necessary. We cannot be expected to trade our humanity and dignity for separation of church and state, atheist memorials, and meaningless rallies where we gloat over how smart we all are for coming to non-belief. Some of us need and desire more. Some of us want to challenge dogmas beyond what deity may lurk in the cosmos. Some of us don’t want to dehumanize the faithful. Some of us don’t want to blame faith for “crippling” communities of color without acknowledging the more significant impact of white supremacy and institutional discrimination. We don’t want to be Charlie Hebdo, because while we value free speech and freedom of the press, we recognize that speech can also contribute to violence and that speech can also dehumanize. We recognize that satire can also contribute to the oppression of others. And, yes, we love science and reason but we know that they aren’t enough. We know that they are tools. They are tools that can build better futures or destroy lives, humanity of others, and even the planet itself. And because we know these things we are comfortable with division. Because sometimes divisions matter.
So what is solidarity?
It is putting aside your privilege to stand in defense of others like Michael Schwerner and Andrew Goodman, who lost their lives along with James Chaney in their efforts to fight for the right of black people to be represented. Solidarity is not affirming that #AllLivesMatter when black and brown ones are ended by state violence or banished by disproportionate incarceration. It isn’t engaging in narratives that claim that the “moral arc” that Martin Luther King said “bends towards justice” is somehow pulled by “science and reason” (as is claimed by Michael Shermer*), without at the very least acknowledging that both have pulled that arc in the opposite direction as well. It means we do not simply defer to power or the privileged. And we don’t just give them credit because they utter nice things about diversity, or even because they allow a small number of minorities to have a voice in their movement. It isn’t being able to point at a single black friend (who probably has never been to your house). And as beautiful and as touching as some moments of altruism can be, that time you did a favor for a black person doesn’t count either. Solidarity is recognizing the humanity and the needs of your fellow human being EVEN WHEN IT IS NOT CONVENIENT FOR YOU TO DO SO, and responding. And it means that we challenge one another to be and to do better. That, is what solidarity is.
*Michael Shermer wrote a book, The Moral Arc, that makes the grand claim that reason and science are the forces that are driving humanity towards a better morality.