A Meme for Activism - Open and Free!
By Marvin Long, Jr.
Mr. Long, an American from Austin, Texas, first learned about the Brights movement in 2003.
After spending a couple of years hanging around the Brights movement forums, I feel the need to address some common misunderstandings about the structure and purpose of the Brights movement.
If you're accustomed to thinking of activism strictly in terms of membership organizations like American Atheists or the British Humanists Association, then the Brights movement may have some counterintuitive features that need explaining.
The Brights movement?
It is not an organization.
The Brights movement is a social action constituency distinguished by people who fit the definition of the noun "bright." For "social action," think political activism, not philosophical debate. For "constituency, think: that hitherto voiceless group, too large and diverse to fit in any one traditional organization of non-godfearing people who, if they appeared as a strong line item in every political poll, might have swung some very close elections.
When thinking of the Brights movement one should regard it as being analogous to phrases like "peace movement" or "conservative movement" or "labor movement." Each kind of movement may have leaders, and those leaders may run organizations or parties, but they do not lead the whole movement in an authoritative way. Just as neither Margaret Thatcher nor George W. Bush leads or speaks for all conservatives (no matter what they may have told us), the directors of The Brights' Net (who coined the term "bright" and its definition) do not and cannot claim to speak for all who are engaged in the movement (Brights). They recognize the distinction between leading a membership organization and being leaders within a movement by scrupulously refusing to do so.
To illustrate this point, consider that an activist membership organization typically has a board of directors, a legislative committee, or some other elected or appointed body that decides an advocacy agenda and which empowers its leadership to speak on behalf of all members by promoting legislation, endorsing politicians, by purchasing advertising, and so on. The Brights movement, by contrast, doesn't have such committees and organs for the same reason that conservatives and liberals don't have a single body empowered to speak for all conservatives or all liberals. At the "movement" level, it's simply not structured that way.
The Brights' Net?
(as contrasted with the movement)
It is a non-profit educational organization.
It's crucial to understand that the Brights' Net does not govern the Brights movement. Rather, it is a bootstrapping device for launching the Brights movement and encouraging it to self-organize. By analogy, one could say the Brights' Net is like the ignition and electrical systems in a car: it doesn't steer the car or make it go, but it provides an initial spark and helps the various bits of machinery work together.
In more practical terms, the Brights’ Net’s mission is strictly limited to supporting the Brights movement by providing the central website; by providing a hub of communication for Brights Local Constituencies; by maintaining the Brights Registry; by providing the forums (for discussion and action); and so on. It does not exercise operational authority over the Brights movement, except for defining the noun "bright" and providing principles and guidelines on how to use it to advance the broad aims of the overall endeavor.
Who speaks for Brights?
One consequence of this structure is that the Brights' Net cannot speak for the Brights movement on any specific issue. If you peruse the archive of Brights' Bulletins, you'll see instances where press releases have been issued by The Brights' Net saying "such and such number of registered Brights make the following statement." In these cases, the co-directors of The Brights' Net have polled the registered Brights to come up with a quantity of supporters for the idea at hand, precisely because they do not presume to speak ex cathedra for all Brights.
This is why you probably won’t see The Brights’ Net unilaterally endorsing another organization in the name of the Brights movement as a whole—such endorsement would have to be qualified somehow: “X number of Brights endorse Y." Just as it would make no sense to say "all American liberals endorse the Democratic Party" (many prefer the Green Party, for instance), it would make no sense for The Brights' Net to declare that the Brights movement endorses this or that organization.
And as far as Brights themselves speaking out on issues, taking positions and voicing their opinions? They do so as Brights — that is, not on behalf of other Brights, or for the movement as a whole, but as individuals who have a naturalistic worldview.
A Tool for Brights
Most people seem to understand the first half of the Bright meme: that rationalists, freethinkers, atheists, agnostics, humanists, and other nonreligious folk must come out and be seen as presenting a united front to promote the naturalistic worldview in society and to resist the forces of theocracy and unreason that threaten modern civilization.
But the second, often overlooked, half of the meme is this: a participant in the Brights movement should see The Brights' Net as a tool, not an authority. Like any good tool it comes with some instructions, but it doesn't tell the user what to build. But how do Brights build anything without a centralized hierarchy?
Well, I think one of the ideas here is that nobody really knows quite how best to spread a meme (except maybe cigarette and liquor manufacturers), and nobody—especially independent thinkers—wants such a thing shoved at them. But the directors of The Brights' Net have some ideas about how it should be done, to make sure that the same old tactics don't just get repeated under a new name. So they've laid out definitions and principles and explanations and even communications guidelines. These are the "instructions" that come with the tool, the bright meme.
The gist of the meme for those of us who already call ourselves atheists, agnostics, humanists, skeptics, freethinkers, and "the nonreligious" is this: if you agree to the definition of the noun "bright" and to the principles outlined on The Brights' Net, and if you self-identify as a Bright by registering into the constituency of Brights, and especially if you model the Brights movement principles in your activism, then you're entitled to use the services, resources and symbols of The Brights' Net to promote your activist ideas, to brainstorm actions, to form local organizations, and to recruit help.
For example, the Brights' Net will inform Brights in your area if you form a BLC (Brights Local Constituency). If satisfied that your plan meets the requirements, it will promote your idea or call for volunteers in the monthly bulletin and you can always use the forums to solicit ideas and help. This arrangement holds for leaders of existing organizations, too. For instance, the Secular Coalition for America’s alliance with the Brights movement has enabled it to use the Brights' Network to alert newly registering Brights to SCA’s existence as a political action organization that is soliciting and garnering funds and now operating the first-ever Washington lobby devoted to the interests of secularist brights, headed by lobbyist Lori Lipman Brown. The more Brights registered, the more powerful a tool The Brights' Net will become.
But the difference between the Brights movement and a traditional membership organization is that any registered Bright can cook up a scheme for activism and launch it by means of the Brights’ Network. You don't have to be elected to an office within an organization; you don't have to solicit a request for approval; you are not submitting to any form of government. In this respect the Brights' Net is like a piece of open-source software: you can do anything you like with it as long as you follow the minimalist rules of its "license."
Thus, The Brights' Net has this quality: it stands out like a manifesto, calling like-minded people to join a movement where we all look at an old problem (how to promote secularism, egalitarianism, and the naturalistic worldview) in fresh and constructive ways and to work to discover new ways to solve it.
The Brights' Net doesn't tell the Brights movement how to organize. It's counting on the power of the meme to lift awareness, focus attention, and inspire new ways of acting, which in turn can serve as models both for new Brights and also for those atheists, agnostics, humanists, and skeptics who just can't bring themselves to self-identify as "Brights" because they object to the name. In this respect, too, the Brights movement is like the open source movement. It doesn't exist as an organization in competition with other organizations; rather, it exists as a social structure for encouraging, developing, and redistributing to the entire community the best new ideas we can find for realizing long-term interests.
And, even if the name itself fails — if in the long run too many people just won't take to employing "bright" as a noun—the meme is still there to help us find new ways to organize, educate, and cooperate at the broadest level possible, so that we cannot be disregarded anymore.