If we’re going to fight the rise of hard Right bigotry in the United States and around the world, we need to be willing to get uncomfortable.
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 deeply entwined with the religious Right. And this is a skeptical issue: the hard Right is openly contemptuous of science, evidence-based thinking, and even facts themselves.
This is going to be a difficult fight. Historians who study fascism say that we’re seeing the early stages of it in the United States. This is not hyperbole; this is not a drill. What’s happening now is not normal. If we’re evidence-based, we need to let go of wishful thinking and pay attention to the evidence. If we’re humanists, we need to do real work for our humanist values. This doesn’t have to be constant torture: I hate how some activists try to prove they’re “more progressive than thou” by how miserable and self-sacrificing they are. But a lot of this work is going to be difficult—and it’s going to be uncomfortable.
Here are some uncomfortable things we need to be doing. We can’t all do all of them. But we need to do the ones we can.
We need to try forms of activism we’re not used to. If we’re not used to calling our representatives, going to demonstrations, joining local groups, and talking politics with our friends, coworkers, and families—we need to try at least some of it. Obviously we each have limits: physical, psychological, or financial. But if it’s at all possible, we need to do more than we’re doing. And if we’re not activists at all, we need to get started.
We need to let go of wishful thinking. If you spend even ten minutes reading the news, you know that things are bad. Very bad. I’m reluctant to talk specifics, since one of the features of the current political situation is that it’s unfolding so rapidly, and anything I say as of this writing could be eclipsed by publication day. But even mainstream news sources, even fairly conservative ones, are appalled at what’s happening. We need to not deceive ourselves into thinking this is politics as usual.
At the same time, we need to let go of doom and gloom. Cynicism and pessimism are the mirror image of wishful thinking. They let us think there’s no need to take action. They’re the easy way out.
If we have disposable income, we need to donate more money than we’re comfortable with. I’m not suggesting we bankrupt ourselves. But one of the problems with resistance work is that the people doing it are often broke, overworked, struggling—and the people we’re fighting are loaded. If we have money to spare, then sacrificing some luxuries and comforts and donating to resistance organizations is one of the most effective things we can do. (And it’s a good idea to spend a little time on research and donate to smaller, less mainstream organizations instead of the obvious heavy hitters.)
We need to listen—the kind of listening where we stop talking, where we don’t get defensive and immediately start arguing. Some people are in a lot more danger than others right now: black and brown people, poor people, sick and disabled people, transgender people, immigrants and people who are assumed to be immigrants. When they say what they need or when they tell us we’re screwing up, we need to listen.
We need to at least consider working with progressive religious believers and organizations. I know this will be a sticking point for a lot of people. It sure is for me. Listening to prayers or religious songs is like having itching powder in my brain. But when it comes to activism and resistance work, progressive religious organizations have resources, connections, and experience that we just don’t have right now. And while we have some obvious disagreements, many of them share many of our values. That’s the nature of alliance building: we don’t have to agree about everything, just the things we’re working on. (And working with progressive believers is an opportunity to advocate for secular people.)
If you really can’t do this—if you’ve been seriously traumatized by religion and can’t be around it—I understand. But if it just makes you cringe, if it’s just difficult—well, that’s my point. We need to do things that are difficult. We need to do things that make us uncomfortable.
And very importantly, we need to be willing to sit with being uncomfortable. When we’re doing things we don’t know how to do and aren’t good at yet, we need to let ourselves feel awkward. When we’re around people who aren’t like us, we need to sit with the discomfort of not automatically knowing what to say or do. When we’re criticized or hear harsh truths, we need to let ourselves feel bad for a bit and not immediately try to resolve the cognitive dissonance.
I used to say that people should do whatever kind of activism they wanted, whatever they were good at, whatever they were inspired to do. To some extent I still say that: there are hundreds of forms activism can take, and any one person can’t do all of them. And I don’t want people to do activism they literally aren’t able to do or that they absolutely loathe. I’m saying there’s a difference between work that’s impossible or loathsome and work that’s simply uncomfortable. And I’m asking us all, myself included, to take a hard look at that difference.
It’s been helping me to think of this as exercise. If we’re simply trying to maintain our current level of fitness, we can do whatever activities we’re used to, whatever’s easy for us. But if we’re trying to get stronger, if we’re working to get more power or flexibility or endurance, we need to do things that make us uncomfortable. We need to push ourselves. We need to make our muscles ache a bit. We need to stretch. And that’s true for our political muscles as well. If all of us who are revolted by the hard Right pushed ourselves a bit more, stretched ourselves a bit further, made ourselves more powerful and flexible and enduring, we could accomplish more than we ever imagined.