That Was the Wrong Answer, CFI

So, yesterday I wrote a post about the issue of sexual harassment in the secular community boiling over. I cited a post written by Dr. Karen Stollznow, at Scientific American’s Mind blog, detailing her experiences with an employer which she says badly mishandled her complaint of harassment, and which was later reported to be the Center for Inquiry (CFI).

Then, yesterday afternoon, I discovered that Stollznow’s post was mysteriously gone. Shortly thereafter, Stollznow herself said the following on Twitter:

At first, this looked like a naked attempt at legal censorship. But the picture got more complicated when CFI’s president Ron Lindsay wrote a rebuttal, in which he confirmed that he wrote to Scientific American, but denied that he demanded the removal of Stollznow’s post. Instead, he says he only asked for several corrections to be made. I’ll address those corrections in this post.

First: Lindsay says that Stollznow is mistaken about the timing of when CFI instituted harassment policies. This has no relevance to the validity of the claims being contested here, so I’ll leave it aside.

Second: According to Lindsay, the most inflammatory part of Stollznow’s account – that her harasser was punished only by being “suspended” while he was on vacation anyway – was untrue. He doesn’t tell us what the punishment was (and legally, he may not be able to), only that Stollznow’s account was inaccurate.

I acknowledge that this could be true. However, even if it’s true, it’s hard to see how Stollznow can be blamed, since by her account she wasn’t allowed to see CFI’s final, official report about the harassment she reported, and had to rely on hearsay about what action was taken. But although outsiders may not know exactly how the harasser was punished, if it was indeed Benjamin Radford (as was widely reported and not denied by Lindsay), then one thing we do know is that he wasn’t fired. Now, keep that in mind as you read Lindsay’s response to the third and final claim, which was that CFI has a history of going easy on harassers:

I have been president & CEO from July 2008 forward. During that time, there have been only three complaints involving employees that could be described as involving sexual harassment claims, even under the broadest understanding of sexual harassment. This includes Ms. Stollznow’s claim.

…Out of an abundance of caution I will mention one other incident: a few years ago, an employee hired a male stripper to perform during office hours. We would consider this more gross misconduct as opposed to sexual harassment, but, in any event, this incident lends no support to the false claim that CFI treats “harassers lightly.” The employee was terminated almost immediately.

This was the really jaw-dropping part. Lindsay cites this as though it makes his position better; but actually, it makes it much, much worse. I say this because of what it reveals about what CFI’s leadership sees as the more serious offense: one instance of bringing a stripper into the office during work hours (admittedly a display of poor judgment) was punished by firing, whereas years of aggressive, unwanted, harassing conduct against one employee by another employee – contact which, in Stollznow’s telling, eventually escalated to direct job-related retaliation and even physical assault – was not deemed to merit ending the harasser’s employment.

For the sake of argument, I’ll grant that it was Scientific American’s timidity, and not legal bullying by CFI, that got Karen Stollznow’s post taken down. Even so, I have to extend CFI’s leadership a kind of horrified admiration. At pretty much every step of this controversy, they’ve managed to do just about the worst possible thing for their own standing and reputation. Every one of the staggering wounds they’ve suffered was wholly self-inflicted.

I’ve written about Lindsay’s condescending introduction to the Women in Secularism conference, and the flabby non-statement CFI’s board issued in response to fierce protest. (Lindsay did eventually apologize, to his credit, but the board never has.) Now, even if unwittingly, they’ve managed to convey the impression that when a woman speaks up about harassment, their response is to use legal pressure to silence her; and even their own defense of their conduct lends credence to the claim that they treat sexual harassment lightly. I can only gape at what a PR catastrophe this is.

I said yesterday that I wondered if there was any atheist or secular organization that’s worth supporting. I still do. Even though most other organizations haven’t damaged their reputations this badly, this flurry of news makes me wonder what else is out there that hasn’t been disclosed. It’s frustrating, because I thought that as a community we were making progress – slow, laborious, difficult progress, but progress nonetheless. Now it seems like the mountain we’ve already climbed is only a foothill compared to what lies ahead. But if that was the true scope of the problem, then I’m glad it’s becoming clear. I’d rather admit a difficult truth than labor under a comforting illusion. If we have to rebuild this community from the ground up, so be it; but we have to know the magnitude of the task before work can begin.

* * *

On a related note, Michael Shermer has threatened to sue PZ for defamation over a post that accused Shermer of sexual assault. More news on this as it develops.

Image credit: Martin Janner, released under CC BY-SA 3.0 license; via Wikimedia Commons

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  • Mark Forkheim

    “an employee hired a male stripper” and “The employee was terminated almost immediately.” Now I may be guilty of stereotyping here, but I’ll take a guess that the employee that was terminated so quickly was not a guy.

  • asonge

    I actually wonder how much of this is an “if you’re a hammer every problem is a nail” thing. It seems by his own admission that Lindsay thinks that any exercise of his legal rights to protest this piece on behalf of his organization (and its ability to raise funds) is far from sexist. He’s a lawyer, and so this PR and social problem, because it can have *possible* legal consequences and legal remedy (and really, what doesn’t?), is seen as a legal problem that can be solved with a threatening letter demanding action. And really, who listens to anyone’s complaints about this stuff if you’re not actually a lawyer who makes specific kinds of demands?

    Why not just have posted something like that letter on his website alone, without the legal threats, and demanded an Editor’s note be placed before the article to link to it? That would not have been silencing at all.

    One thing I also found odd is that he attacked a judgement (whether CFI has a longstanding problem with handling sexual harassment) as if it were a brute fact, particularly when it took him a couple paragraphs to make the case.

    Also, to note: I think Lindsay maintains that Dr. Stollznow is a freelancing contractor for the CFI (on-again, off-again). I’m sure that has legal consequences in the sexual harassment sphere.

  • GCT

    I had the same idea. I immediately thought that it’s quite possible they were quick to take action against a female employee while letting ongoing problems from male employees go unchecked. That, too, would undercut Lindsay’s claims and make his position worse.

  • rkwatson

    FYI, I know for a fact that the employee in question was a man.

  • GCT

    Thank you for that information.

  • Jason Wexler

    This whole mess only validates my belief that it’s fine to hold to a view or cause but not to join the club.

  • BruceMcGlory

    Nothing screams “I’m COMPLETELY GUILTY” then threatening to sue, rather than, you know, denying anything.

  • John

    I do find it strange that he felt the need to specify that it was a *male* stripper, as if that should have anything to do with the seriousness of the offense.

  • Mark Forkheim

    Yes, thank you for that. I guess I have been reading too much about how religious groups do things.

  • C Tran

    I don’t think there’s any way to remove the implied gender from the word “stripper” so might as well be accurate.

  • silentsanta

    Oh, Center for Inquiry: you have chosen… poorly.

  • Jason Wexler

    Is it my imagination or are these problems/issues happening primarily among people or organizations which self describe first as “skeptical”? If it is not my imagination, could it be the result of skeptics being the only part of “our” community which have organizations and a specific structure making them prone to these problems? i.e. as an individual I am not committing sexual harassment because I am not interacting with women in any sort of official capacity, but as an organization they do interact with women and are therefore open to the possibility of harassment happening? Or is my veiled accusation in my initial question accurate, that there is something about self identified skeptics which makes them more prone to this behavior?

  • Adam Lee

    Yes, I think that’s been noted before. It’s also been pointed out that self-described libertarians seem to cluster along the “skeptical” axis of the movement, rather than the atheist or humanist, and I wonder if there could be a correlation (i.e., that the rich-entitled-white-guy contingent is more likely to be found in both the sexist and libertarian demographics).

    I don’t want to put too much weight on that, though. I feel as though it’s only a matter of time before more names come out, and there’s no telling where the next one will be.

  • J-D

    Sexual harassment among secularists, or among sceptics, or among atheists, or among humanists (or all of the above) is the same problem regardless of whether it’s more common there than elsewhere, or less common there than elsewhere, or exactly as common there as elsewhere. When somebody complains of being a victim of sexual harassment, or being a victim of anything else for that matter, ‘We need to establish the relative frequency of incidents like that’ is not part of the proper immediate response.

  • Jason Wexler

    I agree, but part of being a good skeptic or rationalist or whatever we call it, is making evidence based decisions. Blanket condemnations of accused upon their being accused isn’t appropriate either. “Establishing the relative frequency…” may not be the first thing we should do which in my opinion is probably going to be comfort the alleged victim, but establishing a pattern of behavior is a good and important step in the process of eliminating an undesirable occurrence. I am not a member of these organizations and as far as I recall I don’t personally know any of the accusers, so providing comfort to the accusers/alleged victims is at best an awkward attempt at self promotion for me at this juncture. If there is a pattern of behavior discovering it sooner rather than later is beneficial for everyone, and since the accusers have had time to deal with their personal responses, enough so that they felt it was time to make public statements, it is probably acceptable to start establishing patterns of behavior.

  • J-D

    Discussing possible ways of reducing the frequency of sexual harassment, and possible ways of making things better for the victims of it, is an appropriate response to any story of sexual harassment, regardless of how frequent it is. Discussion of relative frequency may sometimes be appropriate at the stage of evaluating specific proposals, but at the initial stage it’s always going to be wrong to say ‘This doesn’t happen often enough for it to be worth doing anything about it.’ If it happens even once the possibility that there’s something to be done about it must at least be considered.

  • Paul Loebe

    And denying anything without threats to sue makes them appear any less guilty? Everyone involved in this entire mess with organizations and individuals in this whole sexual scandal that atheism is going through are merely falling back upon their own presupposed biases.

    No one is taking any claim on a case by case basis.

  • J_Enigma32

    They use “skeptical” in the same sense that Right-wing Christians use “pro-family”.

    I suspect a lot of it has to do with the sense of entitlement these men (and other men) have, and I’m almost certain that sense of entitlement comes from Libertarianism, especially in the atheist/non-believer quarters. In fact, almost all of the Libertarians that I know were or are authoritarian personalities, and authoritarian personalities will have a history of victim blaming and victimizing bullying behavior behind them (that may not make sense at first, but remember their idol, Ron Paul, has dealings with Gary North. Then you remember Gary North is the son-in-law of the late, great, R.J. Rushdoony, and all of the hyperreligious monstrous horseshit that he spit out. Then you learn about this concept passed between the three of them called “theocratic libertarianism”…)

    It’s always darkest right before dawn. The problem isn’t that there won’t be a dawn – there will be. The problem is in knowing when it’s as dark as it’s going to get.

  • Malby

    Duh. Wouldn’t they predictably have been more upset about a guy hiring a guy stripper?

  • GCT

    Yes, how dare those women use their biases and the ongoing stream of harassment to point out that what is happening is wrong. At least you’ve found a way to feel superior to both sides.

  • Ryan Jean

    I’m pretty sure that what Paul was trying to say is that many would naturally assume more guilt out of someone who denied but did not defend than out of someone who denied only, but then others turn around and say the act of defense is an attempt to deflect the charge through legal intimidation. In other words, there is no action with regards to the use and application of a legal defense that would not be criticized as somehow implying guilt, but for that very reason neither action actually gives us any additional information from which to aid in judging guilt.

    In other words, if you want CFI to be innocent, you naturally assume that CFI invoking legal remedies is a just and proper defense tactic, but if you want CFI to be guilty, you equally naturally assume that those legal remedies are a thinly-veiled attempt to silence opposition. Both sides reaffirm their biases (meant bluntly as a factor everyone deals with, rather than as a criticism), but the use of a legal defense gets us no closer to knowing the truth of the matter.

  • Paul Loebe

    I don’t know. Maybe I’m wrong for being a skeptic when it comes to claims from both sides. Maybe I’d like to be a detective rather than succumb to mob rule. Maybe…

    Maybe scientific inquiry isn’t good enough here. Maybe it only applies to every subject but sexual assault. Maybe…

  • GCT

    And, I replied that the women involved are being accused of having biases. This is all too familiar, and maybe not intended, but it sure sounds a hell of a lot like the common refrain that these women are looking for a way to be offended.

  • Adam Lee

    Paul, your participation in this thread is not helping. If you want to discuss anything I brought up here, I’ll be happy to do it over e-mail.

  • ElRay

    I noticed that comments on Lindsay’s blog post have been shut-off. At least he didn’t delete anything unfavorable.

  • Paul Loebe

    Very well. We can discuss it later via email. I want to clarify I was t talking about the bias of the people involved in actual incidents, I was referring to us, the outside observers.

  • GCT

    This is another instance where a catchy word needs to be in the lexicon. Paul isn’t JAQing off, nor factbating. Paul is doing the, “I’m a skeptic and now I’m offended because you’re trying to make this one area off limits to inquiry – what other areas can’t we talk about, huh? HUH?” when the reality of the situation is that this tactic is most often used to silence and shame women.

  • Azkyroth

    It’s more specific than “handwaving” but perhaps that would be a suitable base.

  • Azkyroth

    He’s also implying that pattern recognition based on lived experiences both general and specific, and widely available statistics and documentation, is a “bias” on a par with, for instance, the intended response to “I ask you, is THIS the face of a murderer?”

    Which is both intellectually and regular dishonest.

  • J_JamesM

    I would have to agree with you there. This conduct- and perhaps more importantly, the appallingly enabling response to the conduct- is inexcusable, embarrassing, scary, and contemptible.

    But I still respect the people who want to put their effort into building institutions like these. That’s a good, honest sentiment, but clearly if these institutions are going to become such cesspits of secrecy and abuse, perhaps it would be better to just stop participating.

  • J_JamesM

    I don’t quite think such a comparison is warranted, yet. That kind of broad generalization opens the door to scapegoating, and can easily get lost in the weeds the moment a liberal atheist gets caught in an abuse scandal.

  • J_Enigma32

    You know, that’s exactly what Adam said too, and I missed it. My reading comprehension has failed me.

    You’re right. I still think a lot of the *verbal* abuse, rape threats, and denialism (re: reddit), comes from those quarters and for that reason, though.

  • Ryan Jean

    In response to GCT and Azkyroth at the same time, having seen some of Paul’s follow-up comments, I would say that it does appear I somewhat misread his first one.

    I do believe personally that what I originally wrote of my *interpretation* of his first comment — that the mere fact of an entity lawyering up or not tells you essentially nothing useful about the underlying merits of claims, but that both supporters and detractors pull it out as evidence for their position — is correct. I cannot further assume, however, that to be a proper interpretation of his first comment, and I’m a little confused after his follow-up and some of the other comments here what he actually *was* trying to say. (I understand what he claims to be saying, but it’s not really clear that’s what he is achieving.)

    With that, I think it best I simply bow out. You two and Adam have dealt with his comments directly, and I doubt there is anything useful for me to add.

  • GCT

    That sounds really nice and all, but it’s not what you said. If it’s what you meant to say, then I would simply ask for clarification. What you said implied that there are 3 sides to everything, wrong, wrong, and your side, with the 2 wrong sides being CFI and women who report harassment.

    I also object to your claim that we must take everything on a case by case basis, for the simple reason that it allows things to slip through the cracks. We don’t live in a vacuum.

    Now, if you are indeed simply saying that we shouldn’t rush to judgement, I would like to know a few things. Who shouldn’t rush to judgement? Judgement on what? Should we or should we not accept these claims of harassment? If not, why not? Should we hold these claims as different from other claims made by victims of crimes? Etc. You’ve opened a whole can of worms and done so by using some inflammatory language.

  • Michael Neville

    Ron Lindsay has made his contempt for feminism and feminists quite
    obvious. His “welcoming” speech at WiS2 was a textbook example of what a
    welcoming speech for a women’s convention should not be. His tantrum
    over Rebecca Watson’s politely phrased criticism on the speech was what
    one would expect from a spoiled brat, not a mature, educated person
    (plus he didn’t refuted any of her main points). He did give a grudging

    apology much later in which he claimed to understand what people’s
    objections to the speech were, but he didn’t actually show any

    Now we have his comments about Dr. Stollznow’s
    AciAm blog post. He nitpicks, he brags about firing someone for the
    male stripper incident, and he complains that CFI may be hurt by donations being cut off. He says there were only three sexual harassment cases at CFI under his leadership. That’s quite likely true but one wonders if that’s because CFI has a corporate attitude of not being welcoming to sexual harassment complaints. Considering Lindsay’s response to Stollznow’s blog, an argument could be made for that.

    Finally, consider that Ben Radford is still working for CFI and Karen Stollznow is not.

  • ufo42

    There’s always the good old Freedom From Religion Foundation ( Dan and Annie Laurie seem to have a pretty good handle on these issues. Never heard a hint of a problem at their conventions. :)

  • Azkyroth

    Unless, of course, the judgment call in question is “I, the next person who comes in to condesplain along these lines, have a uniquely privileged and superior insight into the appropriate level and timing of reaction to credible allegations of sexual harassment and assault, and am thus not only entitled to tell everyone else what does and does not constitute a ‘rash judgment call without all the facts,’ especially those closer to the situation, with experience dealing with this kind of thing, and even those with a substantive stake in the outcome, but am obligated to do so, even after being asked to back the fuck off with it, because no one could possibly make an informed decision about this on her…err, THEIR…own, without the benefit of my wisdom.”

  • Adam Lee

    OK, that’s enough, thanks. I’ve spoken to Paul over e-mail and we’ve come to an agreement.

  • Azkyroth

    Okay, I edited out the specific reference, but this general behavior is prevalent enough I think leaving that dissection in place may be productive.

  • Becca

    I know the last comment on this article was a while ago, but I wanted to chime in. As a woman who has been the victim of Sexual Assault and Sexual Harassment what I am about ready to say might shock some of you.

    The initial action CFI took was not wrong.

    Suspending someone while an investigation is going on is not wrong. As a matter of fact, it could be construed as a bit harsh. Why do you ask? Because imagine if you got wrongly accused and were suddenly fired. As sad as this might be, my battle to get my life straighten out was so much harder than it needed to be because of false allegations. At one point the person who assaulted me started leveling false allegations against me. What did you want my company to do fire us both???? In my situation, I was ok with an investigation being had because I knew I was telling the truth, and I had evidence that was irrefutable.

    Both men and women make false claims. I know shocking, but guess what it does happen. People do it out of malice. It makes people with actual problems have to fight harder, and that is the sad truth. You know why Lindsey said he fired the employee who hired a stripper immediately? Because I guarantee in that situation it was clear that an individual who did wrong. It is easy to assign blame when you have a “smoking gun” worth of evidence. Which is what I believe Lindsey was saying. He was trying to show that when it was a clear cut case of person X did something. Swift action would be taken.

    Also for all those people out there saying sexual harassment should never ever happen need a reality check. That is like saying robbery should never ever happen. Because guess what show me an organization with out Sexual Harassment, and I will show you an organization that has been living in the dark. Crap happens. It is how you deal with the things that happen that matter. As a culture we can try to research ways to minimize crime, but when, when not if, we fail we need to learn and improve.

    Do I think Lindsey did everything correctly? No. Am I excusing all of his actions. Definitely not. Do i hope the man will try to learn from his mistakes. Yes. Do I think he will learn? Who knows.

    My battle with Sexual Harassment was painful, and it is still not over. All I know is that if Dr. Karen Stollznow’s allegations are true, that she gets closure on this matter. Her voice is a strong voice, and if what she said is true, maybe she can become an even stronger voice for women ever where. If they are not true than she is making it harder for women like me to get the problems dealt with. I honestly believe she is telling the truth. Women with courage to speak up are needed in our world.