The second Women in Secularism Conference was held in Washington, DC this weekend. The conference is a response to the struggle inside secular groups to reach out and encourage more participation by women. There has been a vocal minority of mostly men who have taken it upon themselves to defend the dominance of males and male-centric attitudes in the various secular groups. This political “debate”, at times, has not been respectful or rational. It seems the President and CEO of the conference sponsor, Center for Inquiry (CFI), Ronald A. Lindsay decided to use his opening remarks to light a match in the vapor enriched environment then complain when he got caught in the firestorm. I would hope he has learned how a community leader should NOT respond to criticism.
That said, I am concerned the concept of privilege may be misapplied in some instances. First, some people think it has dispositive explanatory power in all situations, so, if for example, in a particular situation there are fewer women than men in a given managerial position, and intentional discrimination is ruled out, well, then privilege must be at work. But that’s not true; there may be other explanations. The concept of privilege can do some explanatory work at a general level, but in particular, individualized situations, other factors may be more significant. To bring this point home let’s consider an example of another broad generalization which is unquestionably true, namely that people with college degrees earn more over their lifetime than those who have only high school diplomas. As I said, as a general matter, this is unquestionably true as statistics have shown this to be the case. Nonetheless in any particular case, when comparing two individuals, one with a high school degree and one with a college degree, the generalization may not hold.
But it’s the second misapplication of the concept of privilege that troubles me most. I’m talking about the situation where the concept of privilege is used to try to silence others, as a justification for saying, “shut up and listen.” Shut up, because you’re a man and you cannot possibly know what it’s like to experience x, y, and z, and anything you say is bound to be mistaken in some way, but, of course, you’re too blinded by your privilege even to realize that.
This approach doesn’t work. It certainly doesn’t work for me. It’s the approach that the dogmatist who wants to silence critics has always taken because it beats having to engage someone in a reasoned argument. It’s the approach that’s been taken by many religions. It’s the approach taken by ideologies such as Marxism. You pull your dogma off the shelf, take out the relevant category or classification, fit it snugly over the person you want to categorize, dismiss, and silence and … poof, you’re done. End of discussion. You’re a heretic spreading the lies of Satan, and anything you say is wrong. You’re a member of the bourgeoisie, defending your ownership of the means of production, and everything you say is just a lie to justify your power. You’re a man; you have nothing to contribute to a discussion of how to achieve equality for women.
Ronald Lindsay, President and CEO of CFI, used his remarks at the Women in Secularism conference to complain about the use of male privilege as a sledgehammer to silence men on issues concerning feminism.
This is like the time, when I was in college, while making a few remarks to an ethnically diverse crowd, I used the phrase “You people…”.
Part of the crowd will not notice, part might notice but not be concerned, and part of that crowd will be upset and rightfully so. Because I was not part of the group who would find the phrase “You people..” offensive I didn’t know until that point that I made a mistake. It took the steam out of my remarks and turned my little appearance into a negative. I spent the rest of my time at the event apologizing.
Obviously some women at the Women in Secularism conference were upset with Lindsay’s remarks. Rebecca Watson tweeted her concern in strong terms and that led to some defensive responses from Lindsay. Watson then wrote a blog post to express her feelings about Lindsay’s remarks outside the 140 character limit of twitter:
To summarize, Lindsay spends a good deal of time arguing against the idea that feminism as a movement has no significant internal disagreements, an absurd idea I have never actually heard expressed by any feminists, but I suppose Lindsay and I travel in different circles. Lindsay doesn’t mention who exactly has argued this point so I can’t check to see why on Earth they’d think something so obviously contradictory to reality. It seems impossible to me that a person could be involved in modern day feminism in any way without noticing the lively and occasionally contentious debates among feminists about topics like intersectionality, particularly with regards to the fringe radical feminists who hold openly transphobic beliefs.
Lets be clear: there are, without a doubt, people who misuse the term “privilege” and there are those who use the concept of privilege as their sole point of argumentation.
In his talk, Lindsay didn’t give any examples of men who have been silenced, though he has promised to provide some. In the meanwhile, the audience is forced to examine the only example provided: Lindsay himself, a white male who is CEO of one of the largest skeptic organizations in the world and who delivered the 30-minute introductory lecture at a women’s conference. There doesn’t seem to be much danger of his voice being silenced, though of course I may not be aware of some behind-the-scenes campaign to drive him into obscurity.
I read Lindsay’s published remarks and while Watson does have a point, I thought she was using male privilege not to silence Lindsay but to make a point that the atmosphere is so toxic that other men might be less likely to get involved in a discussion about women’s issues. I agree with Lindsay’s remarks to a point but what he describes is the same thing that is happening to women who complain about the unfair dominance of men in the secular movement. The vocal minority of men who dislike being criticized by “uppity” women are trying to make the atmosphere so toxic that it is hoped that women will stop complaining – to be silent. And that was Watson’s point of complaint about Lindsay’s remarks.
Women pointing out the injustice of male dominance isn’t the problem – the injustice of maintaining male dominance through bias, bigotry, harassment, and cyber stalking is the problem.
How do we know that Lindsay remarks were wrong? Because one doesn’t demand open debate on subjects one agrees with.
So Rebecca Watson disagreed with what Ronald Lindsay said. Disagreements happen and usually one doesn’t really take these things personally. However Lindsay was ticked off and had to write a response to Watson. Instead of taking the high road and letting it go, as a leader should do, he had to act like a “man” and make the dispute personal:
But in her defense, perhaps Watson was too busy tweeting about how “strange” it was to have a “white man” open the conference to pay attention to what I was actually saying. (I’m just glad Watson didn’t notify security: “white man loose on stage, white man loose on stage!”)
But let’s leave Watson’s distortions behind and move to the central issue presented by her criticism, and that is what model of communication we should adopt when we are conversing with someone who has had different life experiences, e.g., a conversation between a woman and a man. As I stated quite clearly in my talk, we should listen respectively and attentively to someone with different life experiences, especially if that person is from a group that historically has had its voice suppressed. However, although we should listen attentively, we should not fail to engage and, where appropriate, question.
Myers-Watson assume you should never question, you should never argue back, because the person from the marginalized group must have the expertise.
Yes the leader of a major secular group lashes out because he doesn’t like how someone disagreed with him. I was shocked at how unprofessional Lindsay’s response was.
I was a leader of a local secular group and I kept in my mind that when I was acting in my official capacity, I represent the whole group. I know I didn’t share the exact same views as all the members of my group but in public I had to speak and act within the stated mission and values of the group. My personal views were secondary. That’s Leadership 101. I wasn’t being silenced I was being diplomatic.
Lindsay’s first mistake was having a “Rand Paul at Howard University” moment at the conference. His next mistake was responding to honest criticism like a scolded child throwing a temper tantrum. One has to stop talking to listen and not try to make everything about yourself.
As far as I’m concerned Ronald Lindsay embarrassed himself and CFI and he needs to apologize – but I know he won’t.
The Center of Inquiry Board of Directors met over the weekend and the controversy over Ron Lindsay’s remarks at the Women in Secularism Conference was discussed. CFI released a statement today that pretty much failed to mention what the controversy was and who really was responsible:
The mission of the Center for Inquiry is to foster a secular society based on science, reason, freedom of inquiry, and humanist values.
The Center for Inquiry, including its CEO, is dedicated to advancing the status of women and promoting women’s issues, and this was the motivation for its sponsorship of the two Women in Secularism conferences. The CFI Board wishes to express its unhappiness with the controversy surrounding the recent Women in Secularism Conference 2.
CFI believes in respectful debate and dialogue. We appreciate the many insights and varied opinions communicated to us. Going forward, we will endeavor to work with all elements of the secular movement to enhance our common values and strengthen our solidarity as we struggle together for full equality and respect for women around the world.
They were unhappy with the controversy? The statement doesn’t offer an apology which is odd since the consensus is Lindsay hijacked the conference to promote his own idea on the issue of women in secularism. Of course the Board could have taken some kind of private action but refusing to be more open about it in fact makes the WISC incident worse by seeming to dismiss it and the PR disaster after it. It sounds like the Board is blaming the controversy on the controversy rather on who started it.
The vague response is already causing some people to end their support of CFI. If CFI doesn’t change in the future then I will also have to revaluate my support for the group. In the short term this is going to get messy.
Ronald Lindsay finally offered up an apology for his involvement in the fire storm:
I am sorry that I caused offense with my talk. I am also sorry I made some people feel unwelcome as a result of my talk. From the letters sent to me and the board, I have a better understanding of the objections to the talk.
I am also sorry that my talk and my actions subjected my colleagues and the organization to which I am devoted to criticism.
I’m glad he give a real apology and not one of those “sorry you were offended” apologies many people use so they don’t need to take responsibility for their actions.
It is a good start and I hope I see more positive behavior from Lindsay and CFI in the future.