So apparently there’s a huge kerfluffle over Ron Lindsay’s opening remarks at CFI’s Women in Secularism 2 conference. At first I avoided reading anything about it out of a desire to not waste time on drama; then I decided read the text of Lindsay’s speech, on the grounds that, Lindsay is head of CFI so this is kind of important.
My reaction to reading Lindsay’s speech was that everything he said was utterly banal, and none of it ought to be controversial–though I winced when I read Lindsay’s comments on the “shut up and listen” meme, because I knew they would be controversial, even though they shouldn’t be. I’ll explain my reasons for deciding to blog about this momentarily, but first, Lindsay’s remarks on “shut up and listen” (emphasis mine):
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…
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.
I am, frankly, utterly astonished than anyone in the atheist movement that I know could think it’s a good idea to tell people to “shut up.” The atheist movement, after all, is largely a reaction against atheists being told to shut up. The reason Chris Mooney is so hated is because he was perceived as telling people to shut up. Greta Christina has used “shut up, that’s why” as a label for an entire category of anti-atheist arguments.
Lest anyone think Lindsay was misrepresenting the “shut up and listen” meme, here’s former Freethought Blogger Paul Fidalgo using it. Fidalgo’s post tells “white males” that when accused of bigotry, they should shut up and not argue back, even if the accusation is wrong. I remember Fidalgo acting utterly baffled on Twitter as to why this post provoked a negative reaction, I’m similarly baffled at his bafflement. And of course, blog commenters (including, but not limited to, commenters on Pharyngula) are often much worse about these things.
To anyone who thinks they have a good defence of the “shut up and listen” meme, I have one key point: no matter how good your intentions are, don’t you at least see how the first time you say it, it’s going to sound bad? That even if you do have a sensible point, it’s going to take some work to convince people of that? That therefore, when someone objects to being told to shut up, it’s not grounds for a letter writing campaign against them or any such similar nonsense?
The other thing I’ll say is that I don’t think you should never tell someone to shut up. Hell, I’ll straight up tell people to go fuck themselves under the right circumstances. But when I do that, I don’t expect them not to object. I expect it to be the end of any productive conversation, which is why I reserve “go fuck yourself” for people who’ve made clear that they don’t have the slightest interest in a productive conversation. So I’m not against telling people to shut up… just against getting upset when they have the utterly predictable reaction.
But I wasn’t going to bother writing about any of this until I saw Richard Carrier calling for people to write anti-Lindsay letters to CFI, in particular when I saw Carrier’s rationale, in particular… let me start by quoting Lindsay again (with emphasis added, again):
What is the relationship between feminism and secularism? What sort of priority should secular groups give to advocacy for women’s rights? As many of you may recall, shortly after the first Women in Secularism conference, there was a call by some individuals to launch the Atheism+ movement, that is, atheism plus activism on social justice issues. This was not necessarily a bad suggestion, other than the fact that humanist groups like CFI or the AHA think that’s what they’re doing already, that is, they’re combining atheism with activism on selected social justice issues. Because CFI was already involved in social justice issues, including women’s rights issues, I was frankly lukewarm toward the Atheism+ proposal. Also, based on the rhetoric of some of its proponents, and I underscore some not all, it seemed to me to have the potential to be divisive. In fact, according to at least one proponent it was intended to be divisive. Upon further reflection, I’ve become more sanguine about the proposal. To begin, although nomenclature is not irrelevant, it’s not supremely important; at the end of the day, you cannot force someone to call themselves a humanist, so if people prefer to call themselves an Atheist-plusser, or whatever the term is, that’s fine. Moreover, it’s not intrinsically divisive to have another group or organization within the secular movement, provided the group collaborates on key matters with other secular organizations. Goodness knows, we have plenty of groups as it is and we still have found a way to collaborate on many issues.
The main point here is incredibly bland: “I was lukewarm at first, but then I decided it wasn’t really important and if people want to use that label that’s fine.” As for the part I’ve bolded, it needs to be emphasized that Lindsay said “some not all,” and furthermore if you followed the roll-out of atheism plus it’s obvious that “some” means first and foremost “Richard Carrier.” Carrier’s remarks on the occasion included such gems announcing that anyone who made fun of the label was “our enemies” and furthermore “our enemies are so retarded.”
Carrier later apologized for some of his rhetoric, but is worrying about divisiveness upon seeing such rhetoric a sensible response? Of course. So you can question the wisdom of Lindsay alluding to this dirty laundry, but it’s hard to argue he was wrong.
Then he says “based on the rhetoric of some of its proponents, and I underscore some not all, it seemed to me to have the potential to be divisive,” yet he gives no examples. If he had, he would know that the only rhetoric he has objected to was directed at vile sexists and misogynists joking publicly about anally raping a teenager, sending rape threats to prominent feminist bloggers, and engaging in campaigns of disgusting and relentless harassment (and occasionally at trolls and people openly attacking humanist values). He then confuses those quite legitimate voices of outrage with all defenses of Atheism+ whatever (“I’m not sure about this Atheism+ movement, you’re being too mean to rape apologists and sexual harassers for my taste”…huh?), which is a mistake (or lie) that many haters of Atheism+ make.
This is what is shockingly disingenuous about Carrier’s criticism of Lindsay. It’s false that the rhetoric was only directed at vile sexists and misogynists; in Carrier’s case, it was directed at anyone anyone who made fun of the new label he was championing.
There’s obviously more facets to this kerfluffle that I could address, but now I’m going to send some e-mails to CFI people and then go back to things I actually enjoy doing.
Correction: This post originally referred to Paul Fidalgo as a Freethought Blogger rather than a former Freethought Blogger. His personal blog is currently here.