CFI Women in Secularism opening remarks controversy


My twitter timeline shows a divide on whether Rebecca Watson (Skepchick) or Ronald Lindsay (President and CEO Center for Inquiry) are in the right regarding his speech. I was not there, but this may give you background to what people are saying. Of course the published responses may lead to a different view if we had been there.

In Washington DC The Center For Inquiry (CFI) has just hosted Women In Secularism 2 which finishes today. My twitter feed suggests great speakers, and panels on topics worth discussing for the $250 ticket cost of attendance. However, the opening remarks by CFI Ronald Lindsey left a bitter after taste at the event that kept some delegates chatting in PZ Myers room till the early hours. PZ explains:

the head of CFI, Ron Lindsay, chose to use the opening talk of the conference to basically chastise the attendees and instruct them in how to behave, and I’ve had more than one person tell me that they were irate that their introduction to an event that they paid a considerable sum of money was to be greeted by a talk that pandered to people who hated the event, and were volubly complaining on the internet throughout the day about it. The impression they had was that the organization was unhappy to be sponsoring this conference.

Rebecca Watson wrote her thoughts about the “shut up and listen” attitude where sometimes it is important to listen to the experience and expertise someone can give you than sound off your own gut feeling. You can read them here – it is a measured critique that does not go into ad hominem about Lindsey’s opening remark talk.

By contrast Ronald Lindsay response does not deal with those issues in feminism, like how transsexuals are treated in the movement, which Watson makes clear together with how feminist activists have been victimised into silence. He instead writes not on those substantive issues but his feelings:

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!”)

The picture he paints of Rebecca is as a North Korean propagandist against white males talking about feminism, perhaps using twitter to get the feminist police onto him. Her article deserved not just more tact, but a recognition of the problems the feminist movement faces. Lindsay links to it in his article but makes no reference in his rebuke of her.


This is the extract from Lindsay’s talk on privilege and shut up and listen:

This brings me to the concept of privilege, a concept much in use these days. Let me emphasize at the outset that I think it’s a concept that has some validity and utility; it’s also a concept that can be misused, misused as a way to try to silence critics. In what way does it have validity? I think there is sufficient evidence to indicate that there are socially embedded advantages that men have over women, in a very general sense. These advantages manifest in various ways, such as the persistent pay gap between men and women. Also, I’m not a believer in a priori arguments, but I will say that given the thousands of years that women were subordinated to men, it would be absolutely amazing if in the space of several decades all the social advantages that men had were promptly and completely eradicated. Legislation can be very effective for securing rights, but changing deeply engrained patterns of behavior can take some time.

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.

Now don’t get me wrong. I think the concept of privilege is useful; in fact it is too useful to have it ossified and turned into a dogma.

By the way, with respect to the “Shut up and listen” meme, I hope it’s clear that it’s the “shut up” part that troubles me, not the “listen” part. Listening is good. People do have different life experiences, and many women have had experiences and perspectives from which men can and should learn. But having had certain experiences does not automatically turn one into an authority to whom others must defer. Listen, listen carefully, but where appropriate, question and engage.

By my reckoning assuming 15 words a line the above is over 600 odd words on the subject of privilege and how it relates to debate within feminism. Rebecca means both those things and not just those 200 words Ronald thinks. To quote Rebecca:

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.

How should a CEO have responded? An article saying he wants to get to know the problems feminists have experienced with transgender issues and how secular organisations can stop the victimisation of women in the public sphere when debating. Then actually you say this but I meant that.

But no, he responded with scorn and anger publicly.

He is going to need a thicker skin in the job, and I am unimpressed with how he has handled himself in print given the serious points Watson raised. Rather than offer a private talk he wrote an enflaming response and now is trying to douse the flames he caused in the first place because of a critique.

UPDATE: 22/5/2013 I fully support the Secular Woman statement

Related Blog: The Critical Thinker Gives No One A Free Ride

Article written by John Sargeant on Homo economicus’ Weblog

Follow @JPSargeant78


Filed under America, atheism, secular

3 responses to “CFI Women in Secularism opening remarks controversy

  1. BigBamboo

    :where sometimes it is important to listen to the experience and expertise someone can give you than sound off your own gut feeling”

    Sure, right. Yeah. OK. RW has experience and expertise. And anyone who thinks she is a narcissistic twit has ‘gut feelings’

    Nice framing of the argument. No bias in the description of the two sides.

    You lose. Try again..

    • How did you read my article as saying Ronald Lindsay has only gut feelings?

      A warped summing up of an article. My point is if I, you, or anyone has just gut feelings and we meet someone with genuine experience and expertise – might be valuable for us to listen.

      It is good practise trying to understand what someone is saying.

      Try reading again.

  2. Pingback: Women in Secularism 2: Breaking News: Even at WiS, we have to defend the purpose of WiS! | Dissent of a Woman

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