I was at Women in Secularism 3 this last weekend, a fantastic and nearly flawless conference put on by the Center for Inquiry. I greatly enjoyed every part of it (including Ron Lindsay’s opening speech). I intend to write a longer report later, but first: On a Sunday panel, there was a question from an audience member about how to start up a conference of their own, and one of the panelists’ suggestions was to look for people who’ll come speak for free. This drew some dissent from people following the conference hashtag, so I want to say more about it.
I believe there are compelling reasons to pay your speakers. After all, if you’re inviting someone to speak, it’s because you hope and believe their presence will contribute to making your event a success. What’s more, you’re asking them to work on your behalf, asking them to donate their time, their money, and their effort – all valuable commodities. (I worked for several months on the speech that I gave at the SSA conference in 2012.) The principle of “you get what you pay for” applies in movement atheism just like everywhere else, and if we want dedicated professionals working to advance the goals we hold in common, we have to compensate them accordingly.
On the other hand, it’s certainly not the case that atheist organizations are sitting on huge pots of money which they’re greedily hoarding. Most of them are already fundraising as hard as they can, and barely keeping their heads above water even so. I know there are atheist groups that sometimes struggle to make payroll for even their own modest staff and day-to-day activism. And putting on a conference is an expensive proposition: renting the space, paying for insurance, paying for promotion, paying for speakers’ travel and lodging. Some groups use their conferences explicitly for fundraising, but it’s far from unusual for major secular conferences to end up in the red. If paying speakers were a requirement, it’s likely that most of them wouldn’t happen at all.
This all mirrors a debate in larger society, where asking people to work for free has become a third rail, with good reason. There’s more and more pushback over the expectation that people will engage in unpaid labor, asking no reward other than “exposure” – presumably, exposure to more people who will also ask them to work for free in exchange for even greater exposure. (I follow a Twitter account, For Exposure, that curates the hilarious/horrifying posts by people who want artists and other creatives to work for them for free. There’s also the dark joke: “Artist Dies of Exposure“.)I have to confess that I could be charged with hypocrisy, because I don’t charge an honorarium for the speaking I do. I do it for the love of it, because I enjoy it, because I want to help the atheist community grow and succeed, and because it would feel selfish to turn down an invitation just because it’s coming from a student group that can’t afford to pay me. But am I contributing to an environment where it’s considered normal and acceptable to not pay speakers? An honest answer would have to be: yes, to some degree.
Besides, I know I’m speaking from a position of privilege: I don’t make my living off speaker fees. I have a good day job, and I can afford to speak for free, while many others can’t. And if we don’t pay for speakers, then we’re limiting ourselves to the kind of speakers for whom that isn’t a problem. We’ll be reinforcing an implicit class filter, favoring speakers who are mostly white, mostly male, mostly well-off; the kind of people who are already overrepresented in movement atheism – while other viewpoints, of people from less privileged backgrounds, likely won’t be heard as much.
But, as I said, the choice usually isn’t between having conventions with paid speakers and having conventions with unpaid speakers; the choice, in most cases, is between having conventions with unpaid speakers and having no conventions at all. And I think conventions are valuable: for networking, for motivating people to engage in activism, for spreading good ideas, for relaxation and fellowship for those who live in religious communities.
I don’t have a good solution for this. The best thing I can say, though I know it’s not very helpful, that if the atheist movement had more money, then we wouldn’t have to make hard choices like this. I think paying speakers is a worthy goal, and conference organizers should work toward making it happen. In the meantime, the rest of us should recognize that it often won’t be realistically possible, but that having successful conferences will help the atheist movement grow, flourish and attract more members, which will ameliorate this problem in the long run. And if you’re already part of this movement, if you want to see it succeed, and if you have the ability to be a donor – then do it! Open your wallet and put your values into action. Whether it succeeds or fails is up to us and the choices we make.