Ron Lindsay made mistakes, but the CFI should still be supported.

I checked back on this post to read the comments and felt they had gotten away from the issue at hand with no hope of ever making a return.  As a result, I’m closing them.

And today is the day I alienate every potential reader of my blog.  I say that mostly in jest, but there’s a small part of me that worries about it.  That fact alone, I think, necessitates the writing.  However, it also moves me to start off with a long list of disclaimers.

I consider myself very close friends with Greta Christina (and note that this is written in the present, not the past tense).  She’s one of my favorite people because she is filled with a fire to make a better world that I doubt I will ever come close to emulating.  Ditto for Stephanie Zvan.  Though my interactions with Rebecca Watson have been far more limited than my interactions with Greta and Stephanie, I still consider Rebecca a friend who is the subject of much of my admiration.  Ditto for Amanda Marcotte.  Short of Ed Brayton (and maybe not even short of Ed Brayton), is there a person with a better mind for politics in all of atheism than Amanda?  I have enjoyed every interaction I’ve ever had with Amanda Marcotte.  She is kind, more humble than she should be, and brilliant.

I also think Al Stefanelli, a slymepitter, is a good guy whose work is driven by compassion and the desire for a better world.  In this way, I don’t think he is very different from Rebecca, Greta, Amanda or myself.  I do not always agree with Al…or Greta, or Rebecca, or Amanda.  But in spite of my disagreements, I like them all.  There are some aspects of all people that I do not respect, but in these people I respect the great majority of what makes them up, and so I can say that I admire them all.

I also consider myself a feminist.  Sure, some feminists have told me I’m not one, and I can’t make them consider me a feminist.  But I consider myself one, which itself should confirm that I don’t consider “feminist” to be a dirty word.  I acknowledge harassment of women in the atheist movement.  It certainly happens and it’s certainly contemptible.  I acknowledge inequalities in society for women, which are certainly contemptible and must be fixed.  Feminism is a valid, noble, and necessary cause.  I want to see it succeed.  It must succeed.

I also think that most of the people who inhabit the slymepit are, well, slime.  I read some of their comments upon my engagement and it was elementary school rage at a social enemy’s happiness all over again.  I have no love for that group.  Chief among them is Justin Vacula who I consider to be one of the most childish, obtuse, and despicable atheists on the planet.  He’s a cruel person and I don’t like him.  I’m not here to defend Justin Vacula or his ilk.

The disclaimer above gets into the crux of why this post is being written.  I’m about to criticize the way the CFI situation is being handled and it’s important to me that I don’t get lumped in with slymepitters for doing so.  Though I empathize with the plight of women and loathe the slymepit, I think it is plain that very often people like me who offer critiques of the way the feminist movement does some things gets people like me branded with the same mark as the slymepitters by an appreciable number of very vocal feminists.  Not all, but certainly an enough to deserve attention.  I’ve had it happen to me (it should be noted that the linked comment is one that survived, many more purely vitriolic comments were deleted), and it’s a frequent and clear enough occurrence that I mostly don’t write about feminism, even though I empathize with the cause.  What’s more, I know I’m not the only prominent atheist who recognizes the woes of women and yet largely avoids the topic due to that same trepidation.

This sucks.  I’m not saying it sucks worse than harassment or any of the issues facing women, so please don’t compare the two.  But it does suck none the less.  It doesn’t force any would-be allies into silence, but it does often move them to silence either because we don’t wish to spend a majority of our time defending our character or because we fear ostracism from the movement we love for saying the wrong thing.  If attempting to talk about feminism causes a person to spend an inordinate amount of time defending their character, rather than their ideas, it’s understandable how people might quickly tire of it and start focusing their efforts elsewhere.  I want feminism to succeed and so I want the movement to have the most allies possible.  This is why I feel the need to point out that a perceived lack of understanding is often met with a rush to condemnation (not by all, but undeniably by a substantial number) rather than patience with people who want to help.

I’m not saying that we should accept all allies.  I agree that dividing the atheist movement by expressing our contempt for bad people is a good thing.  But sometimes people believed to be wrong/uninformed by feminists are treated as though they’re contemptuous of feminism rather than just ill-informed of it.  This results in fewer potential allies of the type we should want.  Even worse, I think a lot of time it doesn’t just create silence in would-be activists (like myself), but it also causes them to go running in the opposite direction out of resentment.  This is quite a different thing than dividing the atheist movement by ostracizing the cruel among us.

So, with all the disclaimers out of the way, here’s where I agree with Ron.

That said, I am concerned the concept of privilege may be misapplied in some instances. First, some people think it has dispositive explanatory power in all situations, so, if for example, in a particular situation there are fewer women than men in a given managerial position, and intentional discrimination is ruled out, well, then privilege must be at work. But that’s not true; there may be other explanations. The concept of privilege can do some explanatory work at a general level, but in particular, individualized situations, other factors may be more significant. To bring this point home let’s consider an example of another broad generalization which is unquestionably true, namely that people with college degrees earn more over their lifetime than those who have only high school diplomas. As I said, as a general matter, this is unquestionably true as statistics have shown this to be the case. Nonetheless in any particular case, when comparing two individuals, one with a high school degree and one with a college degree, the generalization may not hold.

But it’s the second misapplication of the concept of privilege that troubles me most. 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.

I also agree with Rebecca Watson about it when she says:

Lets be clear: there are, without a doubt, people who misuse the term “privilege” and there are those who use the concept of privilege as their sole point of argumentation.

So even if you doubt my assessment that this type of thing happens, surely we can trust Rebecca on this issue.  Amanda Marcotte is also aware that this happens:

I have seen people use this word “privilege” as a weapon to claim that no one of a certain race/class/gender has a right to an opinion at all, but that strategy tends to be the purview of anonymous blog commenters who have no real power in the world.

While it may not be the handful of leading feminists doing this, it cannot be denied that in comment threads this happens repeatedly.  And the thing is, the thought leaders of feminism are not the only faces of the movement.  All the feminists who are not writers or speakers may very well have more to do with the image of feminism than its most prominent faces.  And many of those people are often quick to throw out “privilege” as the entirety of their argument.  Ron is correct to be worried about this and Rebecca is correct to affirm it.  For anybody worried about keeping our allies, this is very worrisome.

There are also places where I think Ron was wrong.  I think Rebecca was even-handed in her criticism and that Ron was not even-handed in his retort.  I don’t think his retort was entirely unfair, but it certainly betrayed the civility that Lindsay so frequently advocates.  He was certainly guilty there, even though he did apologize later for that.  I also side with Greta on much of the context argument.  I think Dan Fincke summed up how I felt very nicely:

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. 

So believe me when I say that there are definitely valid concerns at play here for feminism that they are justified in being upset about.  I am absolutely not saying otherwise.

However, I think people are acting on that anger disproportionately in ways that have become commonplace within the feminist movement.  A good example is Matt Dillahunty’s experience with the Atheism+ forums.

Thankfully Matt wasn’t dissuaded by an all-too-common experience on a forum that deals primarily with feminism, but not everybody has skin as thick as Matt’s.

An example of a place where I think there was a bit too much quickness to see an attack where a mistake may have been the best explanation in the CFI maelstrom comes from Greta’s post.  (Yet another disclaimer: I love Greta, I respect Greta, and I think she’s right about most things – my disagreement does not decrease my affection or my respect for Greta.  As we like to say to each other, “let me be straight with you”.  It is one of the most difficult things in life to critique a friend, but Greta and I both know it’s a demonstration of respect, not of disdain.  Sadly, we’re both public figures, so our disagreements sometimes take place in public.)

I will make this very clear: I don’t think Ron Lindsay consciously intended to treat the attendees and speakers at Women in Secularism 2 with contempt. I just think he didn’t particularly care. And that, in itself, is a serious form of contempt.

This is the kind of thing that makes me worry.  Far too often when reading threads on feminism I see mistakes taken as malice.  I don’t see how one reaches the conclusion that Ron didn’t care if he treated the attendees of a conference his organization went to great lengths to put on with contempt, and not that he is simply not sold on the idea that he treated them with contempt.  The response may be that it came off that way and that intent is not magic, which is fine, but that doesn’t defend the premise that Ron didn’t care.  I know intent is not magic, but it’s also not irrelevant.

Up to this point, if you could pick one person in the atheist movement who you can count on to usually be a diplomat (without also sacrificing his spine or his honesty), it’s Ron Lindsay.  He’s not the type to just not care about this kind of thing.  Quite to the contrary, I suspect Ron was thinking “What better place to bring up my concerns with feminism’s PR issues than with a lot of them here?”  Yes, he mishandled it, and I wish he could acknowledge that.  But isn’t this a more likely and forgivable explanation than a guy with Lindsay’s history not caring about showing contempt for a group of people for whom he has often fought?

He treated the very people the conference was being held for as trivial, far less important than him getting to use our platform to spout his opinions. He treated the women at that conference — and the men and non-gender-binary people — as if the patronizing insult he had to know we would take from his talk, and the derailment of one of the few events we have that’s specifically devoted to our concerns, was obviously of less concern than his own personal opinions about our work. He took the space that was set aside for us, and he used it against us. And he did this with no apparent concern for how this might affect us.

He treated us with contempt.

After reading Ron’s talk, it seems to me that he realizes the inequalities women face and wants to end them.  In this, I don’t think it can be argued that he is not on the side of women.  When he brought up his concerns (concern for a problem that even Rebecca Watson has admitted exists), to my eye, they read as concerns that were brought up because he felt they were hindering the advancement of feminism and, therefore, needed to be addressed.  When the “space set aside for us” is discussed, I suspect Ron considered himself part of “us” – so long as “us” means people who want things to improve for women.  And he tried.  You may think he botched it, but to turn a botched effort for a shared cause into contempt, I think, is very unfair.

You can say intent is not magic, but intent is the difference between a Justin Vacula and a man like Ron Lindsay who at least affirms the plight of women and has asserted, by word and by action in the past, that he wishes to aid women in emancipating themselves from that plight.  That distinction matters.  It’s what separates a certain enemy from a potential and willing ally against that enemy in the future.

And yes, the CFI statement was PR fluff.  To me it essentially said “Look, we support the same cause, but we think you guys are going overboard and we’re done with the issue.”  If that’s what they meant, I wish they would’ve at least elaborated on it.   I didn’t like it at all.  But this is being translated as the CFI not representing and pursuing equality, not that their CEO with a history of working towards equality failed to get it right on this one occasion.  Who can deny that the CFI, under Ron Lindsay’s directorship, has worked ferociously in the interest of equality and safety for women?  I mean, aren’t the WiS conferences proof of that in themselves?  PZ was right when he said that despite his disappointment with the Lindsay that the CFI is a great organization that fills a very important niche.

I understand the personal strength and sacrifice required to take a stand on principle (due to our close friendship, Greta’s aware that I know this more than most).  I know Lauren Lane, the lead organizer for Skepticon, lost tremendous amounts of sleep over whether or not to take a similar stand with Skepticon.  Those decisions are tough, and I back Lauren’s calls on Skepticon 100%.  She has proven herself to be the best decision-maker for the job, and even though I disagree on our assessment of CFI, I still admire Lauren and appreciate the difficulty of such decisions.  And in the case of Greta, I very much appreciate what she’s willing to do to get her point across, and I know it’s not easy.  I don’t want to diminish the courage of people like Greta.  This is the stuff real heroes are made of.

That being said, I don’t think it’s the right reaction in this case.  The CFI clearly wants to help.  Ron Lindsay clearly wants to help.  If his understanding of how to help is flawed in places (and it is), I don’t think the way to make him understand that is through political pressure.  Perhaps Ron will never understand how he bungled it on this occasion, but one failure should not invalidate a lifetime of work in the interest of women.  Political pressure works sometimes, but here I think it will just empower pride, which will drive us further away from each other when we should be united.

I think pride has become a major problem on both sides of this issue.  I really do think our pride is getting the better of us and is forcing us into an us vs. them mentality (I don’t mind us vs. cruel people mentality, but I do mind a mentality which often demonizes those who don’t agree with us in full).  I’d wager there are some people in the slymepit who were once fence-sitters – people who wanted to help, but who were treated with such contempt that they turned a 180 and ran in the opposite direction.  Their resentment then led them to hate hate the people in a cause to which they might otherwise have been sympathetic – they became the enemies they were accused of being.  Some will say “good riddance, we don’t want them”, but I don’t agree.  It’s the people like Vacula who appear dangerously devoid of empathy who we do not want.  But the people who ran away from feminism, not out of a lack of concern, but because of rebuked attempts to understand or suggestions for improvement that resulted in accusations of “mansplaining” or other exhibits of condescension where patience to help the person develop would’ve been the wiser option…I think it’s a pity and a detriment that we lost them.

So, now that I’ve driven away every friend, fan, and reader I’ve ever had, here’s the summation of my post.  Fight our enemies with vigor, but don’t let the vigor convince us that we have more enemies than we do, lest we create more enemies for ourselves and a dearth of allies with which to fight them.  To the slymepitters, calm the fuck down.  Stop poking and prodding for the sake of antagonizing people you disagree with.  You know you do it, and it just makes you assholes.  Also, ditch Vacula.  Don’t let personal grudges become more important to you than social injustice.  That’s not the way to become “brave heroes” (the most redundant pairing of words since “tasty delicious”).

To the feminist movement, I know you’ve endured a ton, but please try to exhibit more patience in the interest of a stronger movement so that those who come after you don’t have to endure as much.  Much of your anger is justified, and I have no desire to take it away from you (Greta Christina is very right about what anger means to social movements).  But Greta is also correct when she says anger can be a double edged sword.  It can empower us or destroy us when our anger becomes unfocused.  I’m not asking for more patience for injustice.  I’d never ask for that.  But do try to be more patient with the people who, like me, want things to get better for women – who acknowledge that things need to get better for women – but who might disagree with you about tactics from time to time.  Not all feminists are guilty of this, and I’m not saying they are.  But enough are guilty that it does create silence and alienate potential allies, even the ones as accustomed to pissing people off as I.  A lot of people who mean really well and are trying very hard to be different feel under constant threat of angry rebuke.  They feel alienated, unappreciated, and mischaracterized.  This may not be the intention, but it has had that effect – and intent, as I’ve been told, is not magic.

You all know that I’m not a fan of occupying the middle ground for its own sake.  As I’ve always said, if someone is arguing that 2+2=4 and another is arguing that 2+2=6, the answer does not necessarily lie in the middle.  But in this particular case, I really do think that this is getting out of control and that everybody needs to calm down and start taking steps toward one another.  And when I say “calm down”, I’m not asking anybody to accept marginalization or inequality.  Nor am I asking anybody to shut up.  All I’m asking for, all I’m pleading for, is enough patience to not hamstring a very important cause by being so swift to declare enemies.  This has two very unfortunate side effects.  The first is that in the minds of your detractors (and, more importantly, in the minds of many fence-sitters) it makes it look like you’re creating enemies due to a lack of real ones, which I know is not the case.  All the more reason to not give that impression.  The second is that it drives away potential allies of the variety you should want.

To take a botched attempt at helping mold feminism for the better and the ensuing disagreement to charge Ron Lindsay with contempt for women, I think, is too far-reaching.  And then to play the game of nuclear politics by asking people to pull support from the CFI, as if all the pro-women efforts in the group’s history vanished the moment Lindsay fumbled his attempt at trying to help, sets a precedent that I do not think is healthy.  I’m not opposed to boycotting groups that do not share our interests, but I simply am not sold that the CFI is such a group (or that Ron Lindsay is such a person).  And if, like me, you believe the CFI holds a unique and important niche and shares our interests, wouldn’t it be better to work from within organizations like the CFI to reform them rather than blow them up and splinter them?  I mean, boycott Chik-Fil-A…but the CFI?

And yes, the slymepitters will likely link to parts of this post to bolster their efforts to antagonize.  Welcome to tribal mindsets.  It doesn’t matter that I expressed utter loathing for most of them, I’ll have critiqued their enemies and they’ll laugh like hyenas as if my suggestions for improvement for a cause I support means victory for them.  They did the same with Ron Lindsay, even after Lindsay affirmed the necessity of feminism.  The fact that MRAs and slymepitters touch themselves anytime someone suggests that the feminist movement might do better with a little more patience should not convince anybody that people like myself are friends to the slymepit.  We’re not.  I’m not, and I’d wager Ron Lindsay is not.  But the presence of Vacula at the WiS conference does not mean that Ron should not have raised the issues he did.  And Ron’s welcoming of Vacula was almost certainly Ron being his usual inclusive, diplomatic self, not a treaty by handshake with one of the most despicable people in atheism.

I don’t think it’s a dedication to social issues that is creating more and more dysfunction in our movement.  Instead, I think it’s often our inability to discern the difference between a willingness to police our own and a willingness to metaphorically shoot first and ask questions later with a nuclear arsenal and no concern for splash damage.  I love that atheists police our own – think of how much better off the Catholic Church would be if they could manage this!  But we can go about it in unproductive ways, and I think this occurs more frequently in discussions of feminism than anywhere else.

It is not my intent to condescend women or feminists.  Surely nobody thinks that ideas for improvement, even if you don’t agree with them, are condescending.  I’m looking at women who I view as equal parts of a movement I love and treating them with the same forthrightness I treat any other atheist.  I want you to win, and pointing out how I think you’re stopping yourselves from winning is something I do for no other reason than because I care.  For some, hopefully not many, that will not be enough and they will label me an enemy of the cause.  If that makes me an enemy, so be it.  Though it is indeed an odd kind of enemy who cares about you.

So there you go, me doing what I’ve always done and ragging on everybody.  I’ve criticized both halves of a balkanized issue.  If nothing else, perhaps we can all find some common ground by raging at me.  I kid, of course.  Fuck, look at me trying to make peace and writing 4,600 word blog posts.  I’m becoming a strange synthesis of James Croft and Dan Finke…

Last thing.  I intend to read every comment (probably tomorrow though).  I’ll listen.  I may not respond, and I may not write another post about feminism as long as I live (that will depend on what happens with this one, I guess).  But I do promise to read.

This post was written with a tremendous amount of hope.  I’d love to see that hope borne out in the aftermath.  There are more good people in this movement than cynics like me often think and, sadly, I think that pessimism is present in greater supply in the discussion on feminism.  The problem is that we often prematurely relegate good people to another tribe.  Sometimes justifiably, but not always.  Nowhere close to always, in fact.   When good people are at each other’s throats for pride or passion, I think we all lose out.

Ron Lindsay and Rebecca Watson and Greta Christina are all good people who want almost the exact same thing with regards to women’s equality.  It’s unfortunate that they can have swords drawn at each other while the true enemies of equality watch on.  Is this really the fight we want?

About JT Eberhard

When not defending the planet from inevitable apocalypse at the rotting hands of the undead, JT is a writer and public speaker about atheism, gay rights, and more. He spent two and a half years with the Secular Student Alliance as their first high school organizer. During that time he built the SSA’s high school program and oversaw the development of groups nationwide. JT is also the co-founder of the popular Skepticon conference and served as the events lead organizer during its first three years.