An Open Letter to Ron Lindsay

So Women In Secularism 2 is happening this weekend (live blogging from Miri, Kate and Jason) and unfortunately I was not able to attend. But I’ve been following online, and in an odd twist, CFI President Ron Lindsay decided to open a conference about the under-representation of women in the Atheist Movement by talking about how we need to pay more attention to what men have to say. Rebecca Watson and PZ Meyers have both posted about why this was a problem. So far Lindsay’s main defense seems to be “but that wasn’t what most of my talk was about“.

Dear Ron,

As a general rule, I like to believe that people have the best of intentions, so I do think that you sincerely don’t understand what the problem here was. I’d like to try and explain the reaction to this (admittedly short) part of your speech in terms of a different sort of privilege that I think you will have an easier time understanding.

I suspect that you would agree with me that atheists lack privilege in our Christian-soaked culture. So let’s imagine the following scenario: An atheist conference (pick your favorite), specifically created to bring together a lot of similar-minded people and discuss the usual issues invites as its opening speaker a Christian. Now I’m not talking about a hate-spewing WBC preacher or anything like that; I’m thinking someone with whom we might share goals like separation of church and state, marriage equality, or a woman’s right to bodily autonomy. There are many atheists and Christians alike whose views on these issues line up, just as there are many men who take the feminist position on issues.

So it may seem odd to open an atheist conference with a Christian speaker, but it’s not completely out there.

But then let’s say that speaker devotes a section of their talk to the persecution that atheists face, and begins that section with “Now let me tell you something about persecution…” followed by the usual tone-deaf ravings about how the government is targeting believers. You know the drill. And I’m sure you know why what that speaker is saying is bullshit. I’m also sure you can imagine the kind of uproar you would get from attendees, who paid a not-inconsiderable amount of money to be there. All of this, despite the best intentions of the speaker.

This is essentially what you have done. You have gone before a conference dedicated to giving a voice to women in the movement and told them that they need to spend more time listening to what men have to say. As though it’s possible to live in our society without knowing what men generally have to say. As though it’s possible to live in our society without knowing what Christians generally think.

Now, the meme you’ve described does actually happen. I won’t deny that there are men who are told to “shut up and listen”. But this is good. It asks them to be silent long enough to hear what minority voices (more than one!) have to say. And after that, they’re welcome to bring up any concerns that they have but they need to shut up long enough to let someone bring their voice to the table.

Unless, of course, they just keep bringing up the same point over and over again, never actually responding to what the minority has to say. In which case, they just need to shut up for good.

You were asked for examples of people being told to shut up and listen and the ones that you gave were of what I’ve described above: people being told to shut up long enough for a minority voice to have a chance to speak. I’d like to provide my own examples of people being told to shut up:

  • Ophelia Benson’s Page o’ Nonstop Monitoring and Harassment in which she records all the bullying she receives to try and silence her voice
  • Skepchick’s Page o’ Hate where Rebecca Watson posts a tiny sample of the hate she gets, trying to silence her for speaking up (ironically) about harassment
  • Jen McCreight was bullied out of the atheist movement and had to quit blogging about atheist topics because of the level of harassment that she (and her family) received. It got so bad that people were trying to trigger her depression and telling her to commit suicide.
  • Natalie Reed also abandoned the atheist movement after Thunderf00t started threatening her when he got kicked off of FTB for being a bigot.

These stories are not unique, and when you trivialize them by comparing them (indirectly) to men who have been asked to allow a more diverse range of voices in the atheist movement; you are doing a disservice to the victims of actual harassment and bullying.

I hope you will come to realize that.

Sincerely,

A guy with privilege.

PS: When people who paid to attend your event are unhappy; you should probably listen to them and address their problem instead of telling them why they’re wrong. They are, after all, your paying customers. Try to make them happy.

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Comments

  • A Hermit  On May 19, 2013 at 9:14 pm

    Well said.

  • DavidInwood  On May 20, 2013 at 9:40 am

    This was a very good post.

    I hope the rest of the conference went well.

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