Interview with Danielle Muscato, Humanist and Social Justice Activist

It isn’t often that you’re able to see something go viral and exclaim, “Hey, I know that person!” This time it happened to be Danielle Muscato, atheist civil rights activist. Ms. Muscato is the woman behind the viral “tweetstorm” in response to Donald Trump’s complaints about a Saturday Night Live skit. Her barrage of excoriating responses has been featured on NBC News, NPR’s Here & Now,  Huffington Post, VH1, Yahoo!,  and Raw Story, among other media.

It wasn’t too long ago that we both worked for the same organization, American Atheists (AA), she as the public relations director and I as a regional director. Though neither of us are still with AA, we both continue working to create social change for those who reject the god hypothesis and for the most vulnerable among us.

Sincere Kirabo: I’ve known you for a while, so for me your Twitter smackdown of Donald Trump wasn’t surprising, given how frequently you call out his behavior. Why do you think criticism of Trump complaining about a parody has resonated with so many people?

Danielle Muscato: I think there are several reasons, but one is the realization among all of us that Trump is really even worse than we thought. There was an expectation, especially among Republicans I think, that once he won, he would settle down a bit and take his role more seriously.

The week after Election Day, he told Lesley Stahl on 60 Minutes that Twitter helped him fight back against what he perceived as unfair news coverage during the campaign. After he’s been elected, he said “I’m going to be very restrained, if I use it at all.” The jaw-dropping irony of his complete inability to follow through with this—just flat out lying to 60 Minutes—was not lost on me. Further, the irony of him whining specifically about SNL making fun of him for his inability to stop being petty on Twitter, I think, spoke to a lot of people about how truly vain and spiteful he is.

As I said in my “tweetstorm,” this is about so much more than tweeting. There are real problems in this country, serious problems. Lives are in the balance, and Trump seems to have utterly no grasp of the responsibility before him. I think whining about this SNL parody was just the last straw for me and for many of the people who read my tweets. I don’t think I said anything that most of us haven’t already been thinking—and in fact, that’s the feedback I’ve gotten most from people: “You took the words right out of my mouth; I’ve been thinking this for weeks and just couldn’t put it into words.”

I think the biggest thing, though, and my central message was about resistance. Trump and Republicans want us to “give him a chance.” I refuse. I absolutely refuse, because Trump and Pence have clearly communicated what they intend to do, and absolutely all of it sounds horrifying. I think that part of why my tweets resonated with people is that I called out this for what it is: an attempt to steer us into complacency while they whittle away our rights. I won’t stand for it, and I think a lot of other people won’t stand for it either.

Kirabo: You began using the hashtag #RESIST and summed up its significance by saying the following:

Is there any added perspective you’d like to share regarding this call for folks to actively oppose inequality and to hold public officials responsible?

Muscato: Yes. #RESIST is about stopping the erosion of our civil liberties and human rights before it happens—not just actively oppose, but proactively oppose. Waiting until bigotry is codified into law is a mistake, potentially a deadly one.

Once bigotry is codified into law, it gains status—it becomes the status quo. Undoing this status quo is difficult not only procedurally but also culturally. We must resist now, loudly, and at every single step. Call your elected officials, write letters to the editor, volunteer, run for local office, donate to groups and activists fighting for our legal rights. We have a lot of work ahead of us, even just to maintain the progress we have made the past eight years, let alone moving forward with greater civil rights for our communities.

Kirabo: You’re someone who advocates for social and political change for misrepresented and marginalized communities. You’re also someone who explicitly identifies as being an atheist and humanist. Do you see a relationship between humanist values and the pursuit of justice for disadvantaged groups?

Muscato: I would say there is more than a relationship. Humanism and social justice activism are inseparable. I do activism because I care about human welfare and meaning and health and happiness. I believe that humans are responsible for our own lives and welfare and that positive change comes about through human action. That’s the definition of humanism. Doing social justice activism is a foundational, integral aspect of being a humanist.

Kirabo: Beyond confronting those in positions of power, what else do you see as being necessary steps in this resistance against injustice?

Muscato: There are two approaches to social justice activism in this sense, and they go hand-in-hand. One is confronting people in positions of power who are trying to take away our rights and also confronting people in positions of power about how they can better fight for our rights, which rights to focus on, strategies for doing that, and so on.

The other approach is to reach out directly and work with the people who are most marginalized, most oppressed, and most at risk. We may not have the government on our side, but we have each other and compassion, and as long as we have both of those things, we can make progress toward helping each other while we continue to fight on a systemic scale.

Activism in politics is necessary and great, but we also must focus time and money and other resources directly helping people who cannot help themselves because our social safety nets are decreasingly able to handle this demand with conservatives in power. Do something every day to fight for our rights and to help someone in need, and the world will get better, even if it’s a slow process.