Ask Mandisa 4 – Online Spaces, Community, and Decorum

By Scott Douglas Jacobsen

Mandisa Thomas is the Founder of Black Nonbelievers, Inc (Twitter & Facebook). One of the, if not the, largest organization for African-American or black nonbelievers or atheists in America. The organization is intended to give secular fellowship, provide nurturance and support for nonbelievers, encourage a sense of pride in irreligion, and promote charity in the non-religious community. I reached out to begin an educational series with one of the, and again if not the, most prominent African-American woman nonbeliever grassroots activists in the United States. Here, we talk about online spaces, community, and decorum.

Scott Douglas Jacobsen: Happy Monthiversary on the series! [Laughing]
 
Mandisa Thomas: [Laughing].

Jacobsen: In some prior work, we talked about problem characters in community, atheist and otherwise, who cause trouble. It could attitudinal. It could be behavioural. This could be witting or unwitting on their part. 
 
My question: how do we deal with people who have problem attitudes or behaviours in the community? Do we take a zero tolerance policy? Do we take 3 strikes and you’re out policy? And so on.

Thomas: I think that there is a multi-part approach to it. I think there are multiple characteristics and approaches to it when it comes to leaving religion behind. I think it is good to establish boundaries and guidelines from the beginning, so people understand certain behaviours will not be tolerated towards others.
At BN is establish, from the onset, that we are pro-LGBT, pro-community building. We try to stay away from excessive arguing and namecalling and such. If you are anti-social and want to come and argue and debate, that is tolerated very little.
We have established those guidelines from the beginning. We have had to remove people from the online spaces. We have had to allow some people to leave the organization as a result. We try to give them some chances.
We try to talk to those members where there may be an issue. If it continues, by the guidelines of the organization, we will ask someone to manage the process.
 
Jacobsen: In an online space, I heard of an interesting solution. The notion was the removal of anonymity of identity. In other words, if someone says something, they own it. They have their name identified with it.
 
So, we know who this person is, what they stand for, and why they believe it. It may reduce the vitriol and aggression that can come out from the knowledge that people can get off the hook because they are anonymous. Is that a thing? Is it already in place?
Thomas: Yes, I know on facebook. We try to; if someone is standing by those words that they say, we will hold them accountable for it. Accountability is very important in trying to help people overcome learned behaviours and characteristics due to indoctrination.
We try to stay away from trying to drag or indoctrinate people who say something in error, which they may not understand. We try to handle that more internally. It is more of a learnable moment for those individuals.
But there are certain individuals simply because they are atheist and relinquished religion; it doesn’t mean that they care about anything else. If they want to stay in our space, there is an encouragement to review those behaviours.
If it conflicts with the organization, then we ask them to go elsewhere.
 
Jacobsen: You mentioned upbringing. Do some behaviours arise more from a religion foundation when people come from an unhealthy upbringing with a literalist interpretation of a holy text?
 
Thomas: It often stems from a religious upbringing. Also, it is societal. We live in a very patriarchal and sexist, and misogynistic, society. So, a lot of us even though religion is the foundation; it is not the only factor.
Myself growing up, I experienced a lot of adults in my life raising me to be strong and independent as a woman, a female, and a young lady. But I noticed that there are still heavily male-dominated stuff.
There is a tendency to lean on what the men will say. There is a lot of that when people are leaving religion behind. There is a privilege when it comes to being male or even being white and male – white privilege, male privilege.
People may be unaware of it because of upbringing. They may be ignorant of it. We try to challenge people, so they are more aware. That the God concept is not necessarily the only thing they need to let go of.
Jacobsen: There can also be the nuanced areas, the gray areas, here as well. If someone takes on board the idea, which has a lot of validity to it, but they forget the line between assertiveness and aggressiveness, then they post something online.
 
How do you parse that line? Or two people have differing opinions, both valid. One is asserting, “This is what I believe.” The other is aggressing. They are being personal and mean.
 
Mandisa: I have this phrase, “It’s what you say but how you do it.”Someone may have all the correct and factual information. But if their delivery is a turnoff, or it is a hindrance, then no one will hear them.
If I see there is a conflict on my page or within my groups, I try to intervene or advise that a more tactful approach would be better. It does not mean that it always has to be gentle or nice. “Tactful” means objective and considering both parties.
It does not mean that since you’re saying it; that you’re right and they’re wrong. Many atheists suffer from the social disorder or a bad case of Foot In Mouth Disease [Laughing].
Jacobsen: [Laughing].
 
Mandisa: There are often times when you want to refrain from saying it. It comes from gauging people and knowing when to engage people and when not to. We do not always have to bombard people with information all the time.
Empathy is something that more of us can benefit from, knowing why someone believes something. It is putting yourself in their shoes. If someone said this to you, how would you like it? If you would not like it, then be considerate of the other person you’re talking to.
Many people do not think about things until it happens to them. It is being proactive and thinking about how you would perceive someone simply bombarding information on you. There are things going on in our lives that we are not ready to hear in the moment and could, certainly, wait until another time.
It is us having the capability of thinking and reeasoning more, where there is nothing wrong with reasoning how to adjust your approach when necessary.
 
Jacobsen: Thank you for the opportunity and your time, Mandisa. 

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