Ron Lindsay opened last week’s Women in Secularism 2 conference with a very inappropriate welcome message. It was a misuse of his position as the head of the organization sponsoring the event to take the opportunity to level serious and controversial charges against the members of the audience in lieu of a welcome. It was especially troubling, from an optics point of view if nothing else, that he chose to do this specifically to feminists, a group defined primarily by the women associated with it. That he broke with traditional form of being a host rather than a critic when the event’s speaker roster was set to be all women and his audience was predominantly women sent a message, whether he intended it or not. It was that women don’t deserve the same basic respect and civility that is routinely afforded to your average conference speakers and participants. A crowd of women can get a stern talking to and skeptical querying about issues they are probably oblivious to in lieu of a welcome.
Like myself, Ron Lindsay has a PhD in philosophy. I was appalled and insulted at how Lawrence Krauss arrogantly, ignorantly, and counter-productively belittled philosophy and encouraged know-nothing attitudes about the subject as I sat in the audience at the American Atheists convention in 2012 (and got a depressing amount of raucous applause for doing so). I would be beside myself were I to be invited to speak or attend a secular conference and be introduced by Lawrence Krauss and have him ambush me with remarks impugning the integrity of philosophy as a discipline and remarking that he hoped I would address them in my pre-prepared talk as he handed me the microphone.
Now pretend this was something far more personal and important to me than just my field of study and teaching and writing, imagine this was my field of study, teaching, writing, and an area of my life in which I suffered daily, systematic, culturally engrained discrimination. I would be very angry too and so I sympathize with the visceral outrage and incredulousness of many of the women attending the conference and reading about it online. Particularly galling was Lindsay’s inability to adequately define privilege before criticizing it or to adequately explain how it works well in helping us analyze injustice against marginalized people before talking about potential abuses of it. As a philosopher, I am bothered by Lindsay’s laziness in understanding concepts before criticizing them and his blindness about feeling like he was in a position to criticize the concept to an audience of feminists without even taking any time to treat it in its strongest and most useful senses. This was, remarkably, an astounding instance of privilege induced blindness itself. It is staggering and upsetting that he managed to do that to open a conference on feminism.
Let me make one final and crucially important criticism of Lindsay’s speech’s timing and content. I deeply share his concerns about authoritarian approaches to spreading ideas. I think they are antithetical to everything the freethought movement claims to stand for and should stand for. I am against silencing and bullying people. I do not think that activists on behalf of marginalized people are immune to criticisms that in specific instances they try to bully or silence people. It is human nature to fall into this tendency. They are humans. They do it sometimes. And there are advocates of social justice who outright refuse to criticize at least certain behaviors that I consider abusive, bullying, and authoritarian.
I have received extensive criticism ranging from passionately civil and deeply insightful (which I appreciate and have learned an immense amount from) to nasty and hateful for deviating from pro-incivility social justice activists on this one simple point. I have had my entire motives treated with suspicion out of a facile assumption that the only reason one would ever argue for marginalized people to be civil is out of a desire to silence them.
And, yes, even after I have actively listened and listened, even going so far as to restate the strongest objections to my position in strong ways in a post in my own words before writing posts defending my views, I have been told by a few that it must be only my privilege that gives me my perspective that all abusive insults are wrong, even when coming from marginalized people. This is very frustrating. I think the onus of the relatively privileged in any discussion with the relatively marginalized is to take the testimony of the experience of the marginalized as crucially important evidence and insight to weigh when the privileged then go and analyze and think for themselves and make arguments for themselves. I think it is important we affirm the right of conscience of those we disagree with, even those more privileged in some way, to sometimes reject what those more marginalized conclude about the causes or remedies or best ethical responses to their marginalization. It is crucial that we who are more privileged scrupulously and continuously try to understand the content of those experiences and how that content makes certain ideas seem really true to those who have had those experiences before, during, and after we disagree with them. But ultimately, we must have a climate in which no one feels like ideas are being forced upon them or that they are being invalidated on account of their gender, sex, sexual orientation, faith status, etc.
So, really, I understand Lindsay’s anxieties. I feel them strongly. But here’s why he has doubly disappointed me given my agreements with him.
The problem is that there is a long history of calls for civility being used as a silencing tactic. Certain forms of civility that try to apply a false neutrality cut specifically against the marginalized for various reasons I have been taught about by my critics (to whom I am genuinely grateful) over the past year. I understand that when marginalized people are used to countless personal experiences and a long history of political experience with civility being used as a silencing tactic that they reflexively mistrust the concept and relatively privileged people like me who invoke it.
This is why when my co-writers and I wrote the civility pledge I published and signed in February, I tried to lay down guidelines of civility that tried to rehabilitate civility and develop mechanisms for criticizing those who would abuse it to silence others. I devoted several points to talking about a number of ways in which we must train ourselves not to be guilty of microaggression and not to allow our prejudices to create false neutralities or to ignore marginalized voices. We all need civility. I think my critics are wrong that it can ethically be discarded in most cases that they argue it can. But we also need a better concept of civility.
Now, Ron Lindsay was an egregious violator of civility principles by being such a disrespectful host and then poisoning the well against Rebecca Watson in his post replying to her counter post to his talk and to his first blog defense of it. And this is especially upsetting given that only this past spring he signed a civility pledge meant to set a standard for others in the community to follow. This pledge gave a ton of instruction to people engaged in emotionally upsetting fights, including to people who were on the receiving end of awful interpersonal abuse. I believe in the ideals of that pledge. I believe that even though it demanded people do difficult things that they are vital things that must be done if the movement is to have healthy debates about serious philosophical differences in the future.
And Ron Lindsay showed that he could not stick to the pledge the first time that he felt like someone made an uncharitable reading of his words in a very heated, public dispute after he signed it. The first time! He is asking women, specifically Rebecca Watson, to be bigger than a torrent of abuse that includes rape threats, death threats, sexually degrading photoshops, a website devoted to monitoring their every misstep, etc. And he cannot handle civil criticism from that same woman that was not a fraction as abusive to him as what she has had to endure. And he showed this thin skin while being the host of a conference where she was a speaker and it was his obligation to respect the position that that role put him in as a host. This was an abuse of his position and an embarrassment. We proponents of civility must be far more above reproach than that or we will give evidence that civility is a hopeless deal and that the marginalized would be suckers to sign on to and be held to it. We must model much more personal restraint than that.
Finally I share Lindsay’s worries that people not feel like they have to accept ideas being foist on them without being able to personally question them first. That strikes me as authoritarian as it does him. And I am quite happy that Amanda Marcotte has repudiated blog commenters that misuse the concept of privilege as a silencing tactic in her open letter to CFI. I hope that bloggers will call out such behavior and that they will generally disown bullying verbal abuse and other authoritarian attitudes and tactics that are antithetical to freethought. Rebecca Watson has also helpfully acknowledged that sometimes the occasional feminist gets carried away and tries to silence men for speaking about feminist issues as men. Feminists are not perfect any more than anyone else is. There are many people in this movement who mistrust feminism and take bullying tactics by feminists as proof that feminism actually is about female supremicism rather than equality. I feel for feminists who are outraged when all the good that feminism does is dismissed and mischaracterized in such a way.
By highlighting his anxieties with the worst instances of feminist activism as though they were the most central and pressing concerns related to feminists Lindsay inadvertently sent this message: When I think about feminism the first thing that comes to mind is how feminists act counter to rational ideals. Given feminism’s vital accomplishments, feminism’s hugely important substantive goals, and the long history of women being misogynistically mistrusted as inherently irrational, Lindsay could not have sent a worse signal.
He should apologize. And we should have the substantive debates about the meaning of feminism and how to prioritize privileging the marginalized perspective without sacrificing everyone’s right to a free and skeptical conscience without being incivil and thin-skinned about it. And on the subject of incivility and thinness of skin, it is especially we straight, white, cisgendered, neurotypical, non-disabled men who should be the ones taking planks out of our own eyes during such discussions before taking specks out of the eyes of the marginalized.
For those interested in exploring and/or challenging my ideas on civility, I have written about them at great length. Many links on many topics can be found here.