We need to say “No” to hard-Right bigotry, to authoritarianism, to racist dehumanization, to suppression of the press, to contempt for women, to government lies and disinformation, to nationalist xenophobia, to hate crimes, to the gradual or not-so-gradual roll back of our rights.
We need to say “No” to all these, as clearly and forcefully as we can. And that means saying “No” in our own backyards—in our own secular organizations, online spaces, and communities.
This is a humanist issue: the hard-Right is opposed to humanist values at every turn. This is an atheist issue: the hard-Right is an avowed enemy of church-state separation and is entwined with the religious Right. This is a skeptical issue: the hard-Right is openly contemptuous of science, evidence-based thinking, and even facts themselves.
The unfortunate reality is that there is a hard-Right strain in atheist, skeptical, and other secular communities. There has been for years. If you haven’t personally seen this, please listen to the people who have not only been watching this movement for years but have been its targets. (Go to my blog on The Orbit and search for “Slymepit Documented.”)
Perhaps more dangerously, there is a much larger strain of people who aren’t themselves hard-Right but who enable it by minimizing its importance, gaslighting its targets (even denying that it exists), trivializing its effects, telling its victims to ignore it, and falsely equating it with its opponents. At the very least they advocate giving the hard-Right a safe haven in the name of inclusivity or the free exchange of ideas. We need to say “No!” clearly, now—not just to the hard-Right but to those who deny, minimize, gaslight, trivialize, willfully ignore, falsely compare, and otherwise give the hard-Right support in our communities, organizations, and online spaces.
A hard-Right ideology ramps up gradually—and so does tolerance to it. For years, many of us have cautioned that this is why secular spaces shouldn’t permit open misogynists and racists to participate. We’ve been explaining that valuing free speech doesn’t require you to give your platform to harassers and bigots; that tolerating bigots shuts out their targets; that letting bigots use your platform without any response gives them both visibility and legitimacy; that treating bigotry as just another idea we can rationally debate helps to normalize it; that “letting people vent” amps up hatred rather than dials it down; that strong and widespread public condemnation of bigotry is one of the most powerful ways to defeat it. Just a couple of months ago, I found myself explaining the same things to the host of a secular YouTube channel—someone I considered an ally—who was permitting comments from Nazis. Actual Nazis were openly spewing anti-Semitic hatred in his space. I had to explain why this was a problem.
Fascism ramps up gradually, and so does the tolerance to it. We need to draw a line, and we need to do it now. Sometimes, that means kicking people out of our spaces. It means saying up front that we oppose hard-Right ideologies and will not tolerate them. And it means enforcing that.
I know that our culture values free expression and open debate. But we can support these things without letting hateful bigots use our platforms and without treating bigotry as a normal topic for rational debate. I know that our communities want to be welcoming, that many of us have experienced ostracism and are reluctant to inflict it on others. But there is literally no way to be inclusive of everyone: when we tolerate hatred, or the denial and trivialization of hatred, we shut the door in the faces of that hatred’s targets. I know it’s hard to kick people out or never even let them in, to draw clear boundaries and enforce them. We have to do it anyway. (Trust me—it gets easier with practice.)
Fascism is not too strong a word to describe what we’re seeing today. Historians who study fascism are looking at the United States in 2016 and 2017 and saying, “Yup, this is how it starts, this is what the early rise of fascism looks like.” As I wrote in my last column: “This is not a drill.” We of all people do not want to be the ones standing in the rubble when it’s over, insisting to anyone who will listen that we didn’t know.
To paraphrase from the play Hamilton: History has its eyes on us. When the history of this time is written, in twenty or fifty or a hundred years, who do we want to be? Do we want to be the people who gave fascism a home, who looked the other way, who denied it was happening, who said it wasn’t that bad, who said they weren’t serious, who said we needed to wait and see, who said we needed to calmly and rationally debate all ideas including fascism, who chided antifascist resistors for being uncivil, who insisted that fighting fascism was mission drift? Do we want to be the people who let the water be gradually turned up hotter and a little hotter and a little hotter until we were all boiled?
Or do we want to be the people who resisted? Do we want to be the people who saw reality, accepted it even though it was painful and frightening, and took action? Do we want to be the people who drew a line?
History has its eyes on us. Organized atheism, humanism, and skepticism have a chance to make a difference. We have much to offer to the growing resistance movement. Among other things, we know a lot about how the human mind works and how it can be fooled, and that will be invaluable in the years to come. We have a chance to be on the right side of history. Let’s take it. Let’s draw that line together.