On the Effectiveness of Protests

Inclusive Scouting Award as displayed on uniform with other knotsMiles Townes raises a bunch of excellent points in his recent essay on The Politics of Eagle Scout Protests. It’s a long piece, and totally worth reading all the way through. But I can’t resist posting a few quotes (plus commentary) to give you a taste of what’s there:

In the [twelve] years since Dale, there have been a number of attempts to get the Boy Scouts to end their discrimination. None have succeeded. The most recent of these, brought to my attention by a Facebook friend, are Eagle Scouts Returning Our Badges and Eagle Scouts for Equality. Both organizations advocate that tolerance-minded Eagle Scouts return their awards to National headquarters. This is noble, and I respect the decisions of those Scouts to return their awards, but is unlikely to be effective.

The problem these folks face — lets call them Eaglitarians to distinguish them from the few truly homophobe Eagle Scouts and the vast majority who probably aren’t sure what to do about this issue — is that the Boy Scouts of America (BSA) wants them gone. As strategies go, it is roughly equivalent to trying to hijack an airliner by threatening to kill yourself: the decision-makers in that situation are glad to see you exit. This is an ideal type of ineffective protest.

I think this is spot-on.  When asked about the Eagle Scouts returning their badges, the BSA’s most common response is to point out they award 50,000 Eagles a year, but don’t keep track of the number of badges that come back, which is far lower.  As far as the BSA is concerned, the vast majority of their members agree with them, and they often say so.  That’s a hard statement to refute when almost everyone within the program stays silent about the membership policies for one reason or another.  Anecdotally, I know a lot of people still active in the BSA who disagree with the policies, but who are still involved because they feel (as many do) that the good offered by scouting still outweighs the bad — especially so long as the paid professionals of the BSA stay out of the local operations of packs and troops, where the real work is done, anyway.  But silence, for whatever reason, is interpreted by the BSA as agreement, and that’s what they tell the press and the courts.

A better approach starts with the Inclusive Scouting Award.  As more of those patches start quietly showing up on uniforms across the country, the false consensus that everyone in the BSA agrees with the national policies will start to crumble.  As more supporters of equality find each other, they can work on creating entire units that publicly take a stand against discrimination.  This is potentially dangerous, however, because in the past the BSA has stepped in and revoked the charters of units that defied national policy.  But at some point, probably very soon, the BSA will not be able to afford kicking out entire units all over the country.

So another useful strategy for Eaglitarians is to decide what they are fighting for: gay rights, or a Scouting program that is relevant to all of society. The latter includes the former. Eaglitarians should be looking for allies in women’s rights and religious freedom organizations, and working to ensure Scouting is inclusive to all people.

This is also spot-on.  The anti-gay policy has received a lot of attention lately, but much of the coverage doesn’t even mention the BSA’s parallel policy barring atheists, agnostics, and other non-religious people from its ranks.  Scouting cripples its ability to develop good citizens in our democracy by insisting on a framework that is completely at odds with the First Amendment and Article VI of the U.S. Constitution (among others).

A high ranking BSA executive once told me that the justification for the gay ban was that the majority of major religions considered homosexuality immoral. (I’m probably paraphrasing just a bit, because I didn’t have the foresight to write down the exact quote.)  Essentially, the BSA’s policy was a theological one, based on a majority vote of its membership.  The BSA’s position on the non-religious has the same basis.  The policies are related at the root, so it only makes sense to work on them all together.

As a private organization in our democracy, any group is entitled to take theological positions this way, of course. But that doesn’t make it wise, or ethical, or an effective way to teach citizenship in country where that same behavior would be a no-brainer violation of the First Amendment.  How can you help young people develop the skills necessary to thrive in our democracy within an organization that is behaving much more like a theocracy?

American society is increasingly open to gay people, women, and non-theists. In order to continue being relevant to that society, the Boy Scouts of America has to stop discriminating against these people. For Eagle Scouts who wish to bring about that change, the best way to do so is by organizing and leading non-discriminant troops, to change the BSA from the bottom. This will be slow, hard work, and sometimes messy, but it is really the only effective protest against the Boy Scouts’ policies.

This is already happening in some areas, but not nearly enough to start bringing pressure to bear on the BSA’s national policies.  If it’s just a few units here and there, they can usually shut them down pretty quietly.  But if there are many of them, or if United Way agencies and other sources of funding are paying attention, it becomes much more difficult.

Unfortunately, this really takes some commitment on the part of the adult leaders running a unit.  They have to risk having the entire unit shut down by the BSA for operating in a non-discriminatory manner.  This is not an easy thing for most scouting parents to have to live with — the constant risk that their child may be denied the benefits of scouting.  Then again, this is the risk that LGBT and non-religious youth face all the time, and often on their own.  As more people recognize the parallel, I hope we’ll see a lot more inclusive units.  And we’re here to help in any way we can to make that happen.

Returning the chartering organization question, let me offer a less fraught example. I spent many summers in my teens at Boy Scout camps across the southeast. Dinners at these camps were always accompanied by iced tea — that is, sweet tea, which I can’ stand. . . .

The Mormon scouts, however, always had apple juice. Their chartering organization — the LDS church — prohibited them from drinking caffeine, so they didn’t get the tea. I was actually jealous — I would have preferred apple juice to tea. But my troop was chartered to a Lutheran church, so my choice was tea or water. . . .

In this example, the BSA make an allowance for moral distinctions between chartering organizations. They neither let the LDS church banish caffeine from Scouting, nor force LDS Scouts to drink sweet tea. This is how things ought to work. The strength of Boy Scouts is really the troops, not the BSA. It’s the troops that do all the hard work, especially the adult leaders, and it’s the troops that do the most recruiting of new Scouts. This is one reason sending your Eagle back to the BSA headquarters is a bad idea: they didn’t give you that award, as much as your troop did. When I considered sending mine back, I decided that it would be an insult to the hard work of the adults who led my troop, who helped me get to that award. Returning it to Dallas didn’t make sense — it was never their award in the first place.

Word.  The BSA already leaves a lot of decisions up to the local units and their chartering organizations.  So why the line in the sand on religious belief and sexual orientation?  How hard would it be, really, to let the parents and chartering organization of a local unit decide for themselves who their leaders should be and who their unit should welcome?

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