An Open Letter to the Center for Inquiry
Apologies for not having The Orange Couch up today. Scheduling conflicts made it difficult. We will have it up tomorrow.)
Dear Board of Directors of the Center for Inquiry:
I have long followed and supported your fantastic organization and its goal to “foster a secular society based on science, reason, freedom of inquiry, and humanist values”. I especially enjoyed this past weekend’s conference Women In Secularism, and would like to offer full credit and congratulations to your hard-working staff, especially Melody Hensley, for organizing this three-day examination of the question of the role that women and feminism plays in the secular movement. I may be prejudiced, as I was a speaker, but the roster of panelists and speakers was one of the best I’ve ever had the pleasure of listening to for a weekend. I hope very much for a Women in Secularism conference next year.
All that said, I would like to bring up my concerns about the behavior of Ronald Lindsay, the president and CEO of CFI. As head of the organization, it was certainly appropriate of him to offer the opening remarks of the conference. However, instead of acting in his role as a leader—to welcome the participants and offer a quick introduction of the speakers—he used his time to issue a condescending, unnecessary lecture to the women present about their supposedly naughty behavior when dealing with those who oppose the existence of feminism. (To be clear, he exempted himself from this group, and had some useful observations about the ongoing struggle for women’s equality, though it’s clear he is no expert on the matter and probably should have considered that before lecturing actual experts on the history of feminism about its own history.) He was specifically claimed that it was common practice amongst feminist skeptic leaders to brandish the word “privilege” to prevent men from speaking.
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.
Needless to say, preening about how men are “silenced” when asked to shut up and listen to women’s experiences before rendering judgment on the validity of them is offensive enough. Under the circumstances, where he is a speaker and the audience present is required to shut up and listen out of politeness, the arrogance of this complaint was particularly grotesque. We are to shut up and listen to him, but men are entitled at all points in time, it appears, to yap over any woman whose complaints about sexism they find beneath their attention.
On top of it all, his lecture was full of attacks on strawmen. I have seen people use this word “privilege” as a weapon to claim that no one of a certain race/class/gender has a right to an opinion at all, but that strategy tends to be the purview of anonymous blog commenters who have no real power in the world. The thought leaders who have been angling for feminism to be a major concern of the secularist movement do not do this, and when Lindsay caved to demands that he provide examples, he was unable to do so. What he provided were two examples of prominent men who are telling other men to listen to women before they render judgment on women’s opinions. He also included a blog post from Daily Kos, a community website where anyone can start a blog. There’s no indication that this person, whose post was lengthy and poorly argued and probably isn’t even saying what Lindsay thinks at all, is a person who has much power over the conversation anyway. There is no reason to think any of this is silencing so much as a request that someone hear evidence before rendering judgment.
When confronted with his inability to produce examples of the claims he made—not just about privilege, but also his strange claim to know of “feminists” who believe there are no true disagreements amongst feminists—he responded with a bizarre attack on one of the speakers, Rebecca Watson, where he played the “white men are victims” card, ignored the substance of the complaints against him, and, despite his stated concerns about the tone that feminists use when arguing with our detractors, used intemperate, nasty, hostile language towards Watson, even though the post she wrote he was responding to was a model of restraint and had no personal attacks in it. It appears the rules about politeness that he recommends that feminists follow do not apply to himself.
For those who saw my speech, it’s clear that I believe that there’s little value in a secularist movement that, for fear of ugliness from sexists and reactionary atheists, avoids tackling religious patriarchy and settling for smaller, less important fights against theocratic forces over issues like school prayer. But even if you disagree with my point of view (though it’s worth noting that Lindsay himself has said he does not disagree) and would rather leave feminism to the feminists, Lindsay’s behavior this past weekend should still be appalling. As the CEO of CFI, his job is put the best face of the organization forward and offer leadership people can unite behind. (Needless to say, he’s also there to make potential donors more eager to give money.) Instead, he hijacked a conference that was supposed to be about highlighting women’s voices in secularism, and made the conversations mostly about a man’s anger that men are sometimes asked to follow the ordinary rule of human discourse to listen to the evidence before you render a judgment on it.
In doing so, he angered many prominent and important members of the secularist community and I suspect embarrassed his staff, though anti-feminists who have spent years harassing and abusing women for daring to promote a feminist view of secular activism were delighted. (As with Lindsay, I have largely found these anti-feminists’ complaints to be incoherent strawmen. I’ve asked many of them to provide substantive points of disagreement with feminists, and have yet to hear any that reflected reality. It has become clear to me that they simply dislike feminism, but don’t have the courage to explain their real reasons why.) From a purely political point of view, his actions have been a disaster. He outraged the mainstream supporters of his organization in order to placate a few fringe characters. I’ve already seen, for instance, the popular comedian Jamie Kilstein withdraw his support from CFI over this. I myself am considering doing so if Lindsay does not resign, or at least apologize. Outsiders who support the cause—or as I like to call them, potential recruits who are open to joining up with secular organizations they can trust—are beginning to render judgment on this, and they do not like what they’ve seen.
Perhaps because I work so frequently with the leadership in the reproductive rights movement, where daily attacks from bad faith actors and reactionaries is part of the work, I have a high standard for the behavior I expect to see from leadership during stressful or controversial situations. But really, I don’t think so. Lindsay’s complete failure of leadership this past weekend reminded me of nothing more than Nancy Brinker’s poor decision-making at Susan G. Komen for the Cure, whose attempts at placating a fringe group of anti-feminist obsessives by cutting ties with Planned Parenthood resulted in a national scandal, the resignation of their CEO, and a decline in their fund-raising power. The worst part is that none of this had to happen. If Lindsay had simply kept his opening remarks to the topic of supporting the conference and continuing the conversation, instead of deigning to use his time to issue an unsubstantiated and insulting lecture on feminism to a roomful of people who actually know more about the topic than he does, none of this would have happened. To continue supporting CFI, I would like to feel that they are being run by a leader who knows what he’s doing. I do not have that confidence in Ron Lindsay.