Institutional Betrayal: My Workplace and the Atheist/Skepetic Movement

I recently had the “pleasure” of viewing the dancing nut video during an employee training event. It bothered me then, and it still bothers me; there is something wrong going on. I have pondered it, talked about it, and until today, felt it nag at me.

I know I am bothered by the “true leader” being the first, and second, follower, and that all others who come after simply join to be part of the group. As Derek Sivers puts it, people join and stay because it soon becomes unpopular not to join. This got under my skin, because I saw it as a way to justify abuse. In an organization, when “everyone” is on board, those who have dissent are targeted and punished for that dissent. Whether they have valid points is irrelevant–the masses have spoken.

Then I read a blog post by PZ Myers on Pharyngula, and he pointed me towards this article on the University of Oregon’s website. Carly P. Smith and her professor, Dr. Jennifer J. Freyd, wrote a paper about institutional betrayal, and every brief point made sent shivers down my spine–not only because it unfortunately describes my workplace experience so acutely and accurately, but because it’s the reason why Siver’s movements will eventually implode.

They note that institutional betrayal is a dimensional phenomenon, with acts of omission and commission as well as instances of betrayal that may vary on how clearly systemic they are at the outset. Institutional characteristics that the authors say often precede such betrayal include:

• Membership qualifications with inflexible requirements where “conformity is valued and deviance quickly corrected as a means of self-policing among members.” Often, a member making an accusation faces reprisal because of the institutional value placed on membership.

• Prestige given to top leaders results in a power differential. In this case, allegations that are made by a member against a leader often are met by gatekeepers whose roles are designed to protect top-level authority.

• Priorities that result in “damage control” efforts designed to protect the overall reputation of the institution. Examples include the abuse scandal at Pennsylvania State University, the movement of clergy to other locations in the face of allegations and hiding incidents of incest within family units.  More recently, Freyd and Smith noted, the NFL demonstrated this quality by denying it had seen video footage of one of its players battering his fiancee and its previously long record of minor penalties for such interpersonal abuse.

• Institutional denial in which members who allege abuse are marginalized by the institution as being bad apples whose personal behaviors should be the issue.

All the dancers in the dancing nut video are the “workers” following suit, and who amongst them will protest what is happening? Will they sit down on their own, or only do so after the “leaders” get tired and decide to take a break? In my workplace, anyway, the dancers are expected to follow the leaders no matter what, and only sit down when told to do so, no matter how tired or injured they are. Anyone who steps out of this dance and chooses to do their own thing is harshly criticized and punished and shamed. My organization loves to demote employees who do not follow exactly what the leaders tell them to do, and then send out an email telling everyone about the “new” position the employee is being moved to. Speculation rises about what, exactly, the person did to get punished and demoted in that way, and the shame that follows can kill a promising employee’s career path quickly. It demoralizes other employees to the point no one, ever, thinks of dissent. Only new hires try to think outside leadership thought, and they get pruned right fast.

This is a problem, and organizations need to look at ways to fix it, because those that don’t will never keep the best and brightest.

The reason Myers, and Ophelia Benson before him, linked to the article, is that they see the similarities in the atheist/skeptic movement to institutional betrayal. The leadership, consisting of individuals like Dawkins, Harris, Shermer and others, have, in the past few months (and quite notably in the past few weeks) become absolutely insistent that their way or the highway mentality is the only option for the movement. They are the thought leaders–no one can, or should, question or criticize them for any stupidity and/or sexism that leaps forth from their mouths because they are leaders. Follow them or be damned.

Dawkins put it this way, in a response to Jerry Coyne’s blogpost where Coyne is really, really pissed anyone would dare to question the god of atheism for any reason, ever, because screw anyone who doesn’t believe exactly what Dawkins, and therefore Coyne, tells us to believe:

Thank you, Jerry.

I long ago declared that I would not wish to go on living if I found myself in a world dominated by people who no longer care about what’s true and express open contempt for factual evidence. Either a 1984 world where the Party in power is the sole arbiter of what is “true” and enforces it with violence; or a world where truth is whatever society deems it to be, regardless of evidence, and where dissenters are ruthlessly punished by vitriolic abuse or ostracism rather than violence.

I fear we are sleepwalking towards that feared world, where people shun evidence and despise facts: a world where dogma is king, emotion is queen and evidence is exiled; and where dissent from orthodoxy is suppressed by verbal if not physical jackboots.

Whine. Go ahead. Tell the world that if you can’t be a rape apologist (if you don’t know the backstory, read the Oppenheimer piece), it’s the world who is at fault, not you. If women drink then get raped, too bad for them–shut up, sit down, and don’t ruin a man’s life. Who gives a shit if he ruined theirs? It’s to the point you are belittling and lying to a 14 year old rape victim. Good job.

Has it ever occurred to those scared old white men and their scared white male following that what they tweet, what they write, is looked upon with utter contempt from bright, intelligent individuals who might have, at one point, thought about joining the atheist/skeptic movement, but who cannot get past the sexism, racism, bigotry, and hate? You are exactly the patriarchal individuals you claim to denounce when they belong to a church. You are blind to the faults of those you know (and you wonder why the Catholic church hid the pedophile priests from the public. Look what you’re doing with Shermer. Same thing), hateful to those who don’t agree with you, and just as childish and immature when called on it as the gamer trolls are when their beloved video games are critiqued.

The leadership of the atheist/skeptic movement is a lot like the gamer trolls; they are men frightened of losing influence in a rapidly changing world that is not necessarily changing to benefit them. They see their loss of privilege as a horrendous personal attack and refuse to listen to anyone who might point out that having diverse viewpoints could help the movement define goals and beliefs, and help define future action.

There’s no way I want to be part of another organization that treats their membership like sheeple–do as I say or get slaughtered.

4 responses to “Institutional Betrayal: My Workplace and the Atheist/Skepetic Movement

  1. Interesting perspective. I have only heard of the some of the discussion about the skeptic movement recently, although I don’t have much of a perspective on it because I haven’t followed it close enough. I did recently write a (mostly positive) review on some of Dawkins’ new books on my site though. I check out his Twitter from time to time. Do you think he is posting things that are controversial or is there just so many people following him that there is some negative response to everything?

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    • Dawkins had been putting his foot in his mouth for a long time (his Dear Muslima comment on Pharyngula did not begin it, but it did make people sit up and take more notice of what he says). I don’t think he’s ginning up controversy. I think he means what he says. It’s that people are more willing to call out the crap he Tweets now, and he doesn’t like that much.

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      • He’s being followed by a much larger audience now, and seems to be writing about a lot more social issues more, compared to earlier when he was mostly writing about science topics alone. So I see some of what you mean.

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