Groups that advocate for causes are a natural outgrowth of the human condition. We built the pyramids, eradicated smallpox, and reached the Moon by working together for a common purpose. This works well for people who can stay on topic, but the human attention span being what it is, all too often, groups get pulled off down rabbit trails, losing focus and thereby dissipating their force and driving away potential supporters.
Two examples of this are the National Rifle Association and the American Humanist Association. I have belonged to both organizations, but let my memberships lapse for the same reason. In both cases, while I agree with the core mission, I see the distractions that they get caught up in as harming their goals.
The NRA identifies themselves as “a major political force and as America’s foremost defender of Second Amendment rights,” along with being “the premier firearms education organization in the world.” Supporters of gun control often say that the real function of the group is to sell more guns and thereby increase the profits of manufacturers, and while I don’t see a contradiction here, I do have my own criticism to make.
How much of the hatred for the NRA is due to the group’s identification with Republicans? The two major political parties in America are schizophrenic coalitions of interests that lack a coherent unifying philosophy, but elicit passions for a side akin to fans of sports teams. Whatever is a plank in the opposite party’s platform must be opposed categorically, not because the idea is bad or unproved but because it is held by an enemy. While Republicans have made themselves nominally the party of gun rights, that’s no cause for the NRA to climb into bed with no reservations. Maintaining distance reminds politicians that they have to do continual good to earn support. And tying the ability of Americans to own and carry firearms to right-wing causes such as opposition to abortion and marriage equality, to renewable energy, or to universal healthcare turns off armed liberals like me.
The American Humanist Association makes the same error in the opposite direction. Here, the case isn’t quite as clear, since the Humanist Manifesto — in all three editions, 1933, 1973, and 2003 — advocate the use of science to solve human problems and to understand the universe. And the AHA supports the separation of religion and state, something opposed by the social conservatives in the Republican Party. But while I have reasons to doubt the sincerity of many who identify themselves as libertarians, the ideological roots of that political orientation lie in classical liberalism, an expression of the humanist thinking that emerged during the Renaissance. While I disagree with many of the policies — perhaps better described as anti-policies — that libertarians propose, I have to acknowledge that for honest advocates, the motive is a respect for human freedom, which is a core value of humanism. And just as with the NRA, the AHA creates a dilution of their brand by becoming too tangled with every cause of the left wing.
Groups can cooperate with each other. Feminism, for example, is one aspect of humanism generally, and the AHA would have reason to work with other groups to grow support for laws like the Violence Against Women Act. And both the AHA and NRA will have occasions for lobbying politicians — but importantly, politicians both on the left and the right. Gun rights and the value of human existence shouldn’t be exclusive to one or the other major party, And both groups are throwing out half the country before the fight for votes even begins.
What is worse, though, is the potential for declaring victory after moving the goalposts around till they’re in line with the ball. With a dissipated focus, many results can be called a win. And the only value of that is to the fundraising efforts of the organization.
Specific focus gives a better chance at success and also broaden the appeal to the general public. If an advocacy group wants real success, getting back on topic is the way to work.
For more of my writing, including Each One, Teach One, on the subject of gun rights and American politics with my co-author, Ranjit Singh, go here.