Misconceiving Privilege: Ron Lindsay and the Atheist Movement's Resistance to Intersectionality

I am delighted to welcome Kumar Ramanathan to NPS! His first guest post is a continuation of the ongoing discussion of privilege and marginalization taking place within atheist circles. As a student at Tufts, Kumar has been a vital leader on a variety of activist movements and brings a much needed perspective to this conversation.  -Stephen

At the Women In Secularism 2 conference last week, Center for Inquiry CEO Ron Lindsay opened the weekend’s proceedings with a controversial talk that featured a prolonged discussion on the concept of privilege, which he characterized as sometimes being used to silence men in conversations about feminism. A great deal of controversy erupted, most notably a back-and-forth with Rebecca Watson.

Much has been said about the incivility of Lindsay’s talk, the disrespect it demonstrated to its audience, and the unprofessionalism of his response to Watson. On those subjects, I defer to the more qualified critics linked here, but I’d like to address Lindsay’s misconception of the word privilege, as well as the broader discourse around this term. Often used in social justice activism, the concept of privilege is a primary tool of analysis in the vocabulary of intersectionality, which refers to the overlapping nature of different systems of oppression (race, gender, etc.)

The main issue Lindsay identifies is what he calls the “‘shut up and listen’ meme.” I quote from his original talk for proper context:

… 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 man; you have nothing to contribute to a discussion of how to achieve equality for women. …

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.

Lindsay sees references to privilege as a means of curtailing certain voices and elevating others, serving as a threat to “reasoned argument.” But reasoned argument without good data is next to useless. In discussing identity and oppression, lived experiences are indispensable data that can only come from someone who possesses, or is seen as possessing, a marginalized identity.

Is Lindsay silenced by the assertion that he might not always have the relevant perspective? It’s certainly not his fault that he was born male, but his gender is inextricably part of his identity, as it is with mine. Neither Lindsay, nor I, nor any cisgendered man can claim expertise on the female experience. This is not to say that men have nothing to offer in a discussion about feminism (says the man discussing feminism), but rather that only women can share lived experience about what it means to be a woman.

This doesn’t mean that marginalized folk (of any kind) can’t make stupid or invalid arguments. It’s important that bad arguments are addressed when appropriate, but that does not justify denying or ignoring that you may be privileged—perhaps even directly in the kind of oppression being discussed. Amy Davis Roth of Skepchick addresses this eloquently in “Checking My Privilege and Still Speaking Out.”

“Listening is good,” Lindsay says, but he fails to understand that there is a connection between the (albeit crudely phrased) “shut up” component and listening. Certain voices tend to be privileged in certain conversations, and listening sometimes requires countering this structure through one’s action. How can one truly listen in these discussions if one doesn’t first step back and elevate the voices of the systematically marginalized?

Lindsay suggests that this elevation and negotiation of voices can be a “dogma” used to silence dissent, but recognition that lived experiences are important and ought to be shared by those who have lived them is not dogmatic. The concept of privilege being used here is part of a rational approach; it is an important tool with which to collect and share experiential information, not some kind of “you’ve got privilege!” card used to end any argument about oppression.

In his talk, rather than attempting to address the concept of privilege as it is commonly used in social justice activism or acknowledging his own privileged position and how it might skew his perception, Lindsay chooses to broadly equate the concept privilege with religious doctrine. Worse than this, however, is Lindsay’s response to Rebecca Watson’s tweet concerning his talk:

This is male privilege: Lindsay can afford to speak as if this dialogue occurs in a vacuum where structures of oppression and privilege don’t exist, and his own gender is irrelevant.

Women and people of color are routinely forced to think about their gender and race, as do other marginalized groups about their particular oppression. Stephanie Zvan has a fantastic piece on her Almost Diamonds blog about how this applies in this exact instance. Thinking more broadly, our culture’s basic humor is peppered with insults against women and femininity, women are held to higher standards of appearance at every corner, women face much more harassment on the basis of their gender when they speak out about their experiences. These are troubles Lindsay is lucky enough to not face, and that colors his perception of reality.

So far from being irrelevant, Lindsay’s gender, especially as a speaker on the topic of gender, is crucial, since it reflects the hidden assumptions that he lives with each day. Lindsay, or any other male secularist—myself included—might collect all the data we can about women’s experiences at secular conferences, but we can never live the experience of a woman in such a situation. And that’s fine! We don’t need to be able to perfectly represent those experiences; our role can be to elevate the voices of women who can represent them.

In a sense, I can sympathize with Lindsay’s frustration—I too want to live in a world where our opinions are judged purely on their merits. But simply wishing for such a world does not make it so. Nor does explicitly examining our gender mean we must be judged on it. Rather, actively identifying and exposing the unfair advantages we experience can help us construct that better world, by heightening our collective understanding of how structural oppression works.

As a male-bodied person active within feminist circles in my community, I am continually confronted with questions of how to address my own privileged position. In a group of activists discussing rape culture, my privilege as a male and a non-survivor kicks in when topics become increasingly detailed or uncomfortable: I don’t have to worry about traumatic experiences being triggered, nor do I have to re-live constant thoughts about the dangers of walking outside alone at night or accepting a drink at a party. Because I have the privilege of not facing these emotional triggers, it’s much easier for me to voice my thoughts about them. It’s obvious, then, how this can be a problem, since I am not the primary subject of this discussion. And it is exactly for that reason that I ought to step back and, yes, shut up in such situations.

It is naïve, to say the least, to suppose that “reasoned arguments” might stand completely independent from experience. And yes, that includes experiences of gender, race, and the like. In any discussion about identity and oppression, our experience colors even our ability to speak, let alone the content of our opinion. Rather than ignoring the experience of privilege, we should actively work to expose it and counter it. That is what it means to “check your privilege.”

This is the challenge of an intersectional approach, and atheists, skeptics, and freethinkers are not exempt from that challenge. Simply because we tend to embrace rational argument as a core tenet, in fact perhaps because of it, we do not get to live in an alternate world where lived experiences are ultimately irrelevant and our identity does not affect the weight of our opinions. Rather than wishing away the existence of identity-based oppression, we ought to counter it by recognizing and using the approach of identifying and examining privilege.


Born and raised in various pockets of Asia, Kumar is now a sophomore at Tufts University. He cares about storytelling, politics, and humanism. Growing up with his ears glued to the Skeptics’ Guide to the Universe and Douglas Adams audiobooks, he is now the Public Relations officer for the Tufts Freethought Society, and is involved in feminist, interfaith, and other social justice activism. Within academia, he acts the part of a Philosophy major and Urban Studies minor. Someday, he hopes the world will suffer his presence as a political journalist. Find him on twitter here.
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