CFI Accidentally a Controversy

So, I was at a restaurant yesterday for Father’s Day dinner and had a terrible experience. Everyone else at my table was served what they ordered, but the kitchen got my order very badly wrong. I’d ordered a soup and salad, but they brought me a plate of wilted, slimy brown lettuce and a bowl of what appeared to be dirty gray dishwater. I complained heatedly to the waiter, who fetched the manager in short order.

“Excuse me,” I said to him, “but this food you’ve served me is inedible. Can you please fix this mistake and bring me the right order?”

“I’m very sorry to hear about this controversial matter,” said the manager. “This establishment values your feedback and is committed to a quality dining experience for all its customers. We look forward to your continued patronage in the future.” And with that, he turned and walked away.

OK, that didn’t happen, obviously. But I’m sorry to say that the board of directors of the Center for Inquiry has done something just as insultingly evasive.

Last month, I wrote about CFI’s CEO, Ron Lindsay, taking the stage for himself at the Women in Secularism 2 conference to deliver a condescending, mansplaining lecture about what he sees as the flaws in feminism. This spectacularly ill-thought-out tactic drew strong protests, including a letter signed by a majority of the conference speakers and another one signed by attendees.

Today, the CFI board finally addressed the matter formally… with this empty void in the shape of words, which I here reprint in full:

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.

It’s hard to imagine who the people are that CFI thought this deliberately vacuous non-statement would appease. Who caused this controversy? What was it over? Who was in the right? What will CFI be doing in response, either now or in the future? All these questions are left hanging, in an act of evasion that’s insulting in its shamelessness. All they can find it in their hearts to express is a rubbery flab of vague, sourceless “unhappiness” – deliberately leaving it unsaid whether they condemn Lindsay’s remarks at all, or whether they’re only unhappy that other people complained about them. No statement at all would have been better than this utter abdication of responsibility and leadership.

This was a crushing disappointment, and it puts me in a serious dilemma. Many of the people who work for CFI are personal friends of mine, and I know them to be fine activists who care passionately about social justice. The last thing I want is to see them hurt because of the moral cowardice of their leadership. But as much as it pains me, I can’t continue to support an organization that’s being steered by people who can’t be trusted to do the right thing.

Luckily, for every Goofus there’s a Gallant, and American Atheists and its president Dave Silverman are doing it right, taking a forthright stand against the toxic waste of sexism seeping into the atheist community. I’ll be making a donation to them tonight to thank them. And for all the secular organizations that are bystanders in this, take this as a lesson: a stronger alliance with feminism is the future of the movement, and any secular organization that can’t or won’t accept that is going to be left behind.

(P.S.: If you don’t get the joke: No, I didn’t leave a word out of the title. See here.)

Image credit: One Thousand Needles

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About Adam Lee

Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, City of Light, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.

  • Radi4

    Adam, that makes 3 high-profile bloggers and activists (and little ol’ me – just a plain activist, not blogger :)) in the atheist movement – you, Greta Christina, Rebecca Watson – who have withdrawn any support of and association with CFI. I wish them all the best with their MRA cronies – they deserve all they’ll get. I do feel badly for the employees, though.

  • kagerato

    What non-response responses mean when they come from an organization is that they’re stuck in the proverbial “rock and a hard place”. They can throw Lindsay overboard, and thus alienate those who supported him. Or they could support Lindsay, thus alienating everyone who objected to his statements. Either way, they’re guaranteed to lose members.

    Ultimately, they chose the coward’s way out — acknowledge controversy, express disappointment, but take no sides. They’re hoping that preserves the greatest number of their members. It’s totally a practical move with no concern for the moral issues involved.

  • Jim

    Fellow Patheos blogger Chris Hallquist sees it differently. I think he has a point.

  • TheSwelk

    Perhaps the middle way was their intention, but it was quite unsuccessful. When you try to remain neutral between oppressors and oppressed, you have sided with the oppressors. Secularists know that.

  • Ubi Dubium

    I read Chris’s post back when he wrote it, and I think he missed the point. Ron was there on behalf of CFI to open a conference and welcome the participants. Instead he gave a 30-minute sermon on his own personal opinions about how the paying guests and invited speakers in the audience are doing feminism wrong. Wrong time and wrong place for that speech, and very unprofessional of Ron to blindside the CFI DC staff with it. Then he spent the rest of the weekend digging in and lashing out at anyone criticizing what he did. Also unprofessional. He did not do a good job of representing CFI’s interests that weekend. (Better: Ron could have suggested to the organizers that at WIS-3 there be a panel discussion on the topic, including some men. Or blogged about it on his own, instead of in a speech as CEO of CFI. Discussion – good, patronizing lecture – bad.)

    Many of us wrote to the board, looking for some kind of reassuring response from them, that would let us continue to support CFI. And instead we get the above form letter saying absolutely nothing.

    At least one good thing has come out of this for me. I learned a new word: “Bafflegab”.

  • Agni Ashwin

    Perhaps CFI will dedicate an episode of “Point of Inquiry” ( ) on this issue.

  • UWIR

    “Last month, I wrote about CFI’s CEO, Ron Lindsay, taking the stage for himself at the [is this also an internet meme]

    to deliver a condescending, mansplaining lecture about what he sees as the flaws in feminism.”

    1. If you’re going to link to an article that you wrote, then you should put the link with the word “wrote”. When you make the link “lecture”, people expect the link to go to the lecture, not your article about the lecture. This is just basic common sense. Why do so many bloggers refuse to exercise basic netiquette?

    2. The word “masplaining” means “condescension from a man”. Therefore, your sentence is:

    a) redundant for using both “condescending” and “mansplaining”

    b) sexist for endorsing the idea that it’s okay to use words that have no purpose but to express hostility specifically towards men and dismiss what they have to say

    c) unsupported, as you give no basis for characterizing it “condescending” (see 1)

    3. In the article that you linked to, you used the term “ad hominem” incorrectly (and your accusation is rather hypocritical, as the term “mansplaining is and ad hominem attack).

  • onamission5

    Five bloggers that I know of, Stephanie Zvan and Dana Hunter, too.

  • SubMor

    That is not what mansplaining means, and using it is not an “attack” of any sort. In the future, perhaps you should seek primary sources when you wish to understand concepts with which you are unfamiliar.

    Failing that, even wikipedia would have sufficed:

  • J-D

    If you express unhappiness with a controversy, but don’t give any further explanation, then you create the impression that you’re unhappy that there should be a controversy, or, in other words, that you think controversy as such is a bad thing.

    And that’s wrong. Controversy isn’t always a bad thing. Sometimes it’s a good thing. Sometimes controversy is exactly what there should be.

  • Radi4

    Heh yeah. And I’m sure Ron will invite his bosom buddy Justin to the show. To give HIS (presumably “silenced”) side of the story. Suuuure.

  • Radi4

    Oh, I hadn’t read their blog posts when I wrote this comment. But now that I have – GOOD FOR THEM (Stephanie and Dana, that is). Thank you onamission5 :-)

  • UWIR

    1. You fail to identify what material difference between what I said it means and what you think it means you think exists.

    2. “Mansplaining” is not an attack of any sort? Seriously? So it’s a completely neutral term that is not intended to convey any sort of criticism or disapproval?

    3. “Primary sources”? What, is there an official Academy of Feminist Terms?

    4. If we’re being pedantic, wikipedia and wiktionary are not the same thing.

    5. Your tone is rather condescending, which is a bit ironic/hypocritical.

  • SubMor

    Let’s talk about that last one because it leads so delightfully into the rest. Yes, I am writing condescendingly. This is because my time would be better spent educating the children of the world, researching cancer cures, negotiating world peace, or accidentally burning toast, yet here I find myself, confronted with your pomposity, a shining example of the Dunning-Kruger effect.

    If you were interested in being pedantic, you should have begun by first looking up a definition of the word you sought to attack. It’s a bit late to be pretending to play that game when you already lost it in your initial move.

    That you believe seeking primary sources is an element unique to feminism is amusing yet terribly, horribly wrong. It is actually a core tenet in the principle of skepticism. When you endeavor to critique a thing, it is proper to begin by establishing that that critique does not cover a straw man. This is because attacking a position your interlocutor does not hold is an inherently dishonest waste of time. In this case, the definition you railed against was, in fact, exactly such a misrepresentation.

    You believe I have failed to identify what difference exists between your straw man and the term’s definition as indicated by the wiki. This tells me that you can’t be bothered to click a link, as an exact definition was provided for you there. Since clicking links appears to be so difficult for you, I will make it significantly easier for you to follow this time around. The definition on that page reads, “To explain (something) condescendingly (to a female listener), especially to explain something the listener already knows, presuming that she has an inferior understanding of it because she is a woman.”

    If you require assistance breaking down the component parts of that definition, I will oblige, but since you seem such a fan of pedantry, I trust you’d prefer to give it a go on your own first. I’m sure you won’t embarrass yourself in the attempt.

    Now, at long last, we arrive at the question of what constitutes an attack. If a given behavior has an agreed upon label, it is not an attack to point out when a behavior fits the label. For example, you accused me of writing with a condescending tone. Since I am in fact doing just that, you are clearly not attacking me by pointing out that my argument so closely aligns with that concept. This was truly an astute observation on your part, and it was perhaps the most worthwhile thing you’ve said so far. Similarly, when a man explains something condescendingly to a woman, assuming her ignorant of a thing that most reasonable observers would predict that she already knows, he is mansplaining, and it is not an attack to recognize the appropriateness of this identification.

    I hope this clears things up for you. Please do not hesitate to let me know if you require more specific examples to illustrate any of these points.

    PS: I am not feeling particularly inclined to address your inaccurate use of the word “hypocritical,” but I suggest you also re-familiarize yourself with its dictionary entry as well.

  • Azkyroth