Rebecca Watson inhabits an alternate universe.
That’s how Ron Lindsay, CEO of Center for Inquiry, who is attending his organization’s own Women in Secularism conference, opened a blog post last night. That blog post is noteworthy mostly for missing the point and much of the text of the post it’s responding to. However, that is obvious enough that it’s already been pointed out in the comments and probably will be repeatedly noted in other blog posts across the ‘net. I don’t care much for pointing out the obvious, but there is one thing about this post I would like to address.
I agree with Ron Lindsay about this statement. Rebecca does live in an alternate universe. So do I.
You see, she and I live in a universe in which, if the organizations were hosting conferences where 300 people had paid money for the experience we had advertised, we would never, ever be allowed to get away with opening that conference with a speech like this one. If we were given (or took) that responsibility and used that to, as I put it yesterday on a panel, say, “Your work and your concerns are good, they’re important, but for the love of humanity, don’t take it too far“, we would never be allowed to step on another stage.
In the universe where we live, if Rebecca or I had used an opportunity like that to lecture a demographic about a statement made by people who aren’t even in that demographic, only one of whom was even in the audience, everybody would step up to talk about how off topic we were. If a few people did step up to tell us how wonderful this hijacking was, we would have to be very politically aware of who those people were and what kind of baggage they carried with them. We wouldn’t be able to be comfortable with mere affirmation because every endorsement we receive colors our reputations. We are always under pressure to–in that very Victorian phrase–keep our sphere of influence pure.
In our universe, we certainly wouldn’t be able to pull out such weak examples of a phenomenon we considered important enough to devote prominent words to. If we used the example of someone talking about tactics for learning as an example of “silencing”, we’d be laughed out of the room. If we used an example that was telling us shutting up and listening isn’t easy but is worthwhile as an example of a demand, people would stop listening to us. Even when we disagree with someone’s premise, we come up with better examples of it than that (and maintain plenty of examples of the effective sort of silencing). We have to, because in our universe, our credibility is always on the line.
In this universe, we don’t get to write a letter talking about reaching out privately, then tweet something like this the day before a conference starts without having reached out to any of the speakers ahead of time:
We don’t just get to stand up at the last minute and expect to direct the content of a conference because we’ve expressed a preference. We actually do talk to speakers personally, privately, with lead time if there’s something we’d like to hear, but we know they have their own agendas and trust them to have interesting, worthwhile things to say. We expect, because we’ve been taught to expect, that the people on that stage have something to teach us and that we won’t know ahead of time what part of their talks will be valuable. We know that they frequently know better than we do what we need to hear–because that’s how they end up on stage.
In our universe, this is not a surprise:
Our gender is always considered relevant to what we have to say. We always know that, day in and day out. When we speak up, we always carry the weight of other women on our back. Being white, I personally don’t live in a universe in which my race is always treated as relevant, but I know from listening to others that they do.
In the universe where Rebecca and I live, we know that the response to us saying something people disagree with is immediate. We know that criticism will address the perceived subtext of our words as though we had said or written it outright. We know we’ll be on the hook for everyone’s ideas about the social appropriateness of what we have to say, all at the same time, no matter how contradictory those words are. We know we’ll pay a price for failing to “keep the peace”.
In this universe, we are aware that we are considered perpetual outsiders. We know that even when we lend financial and organizational support, any constructive criticism we present, however politely we present it, will be construed as an attack. We always have to plan for that eventuality when choosing to speak.
In Lindsay’s universe, he can decide to skip out on a dinner attendees have paid extra to attend, a dinner that is a fundraiser for the organization whose fiscal health he is ultimately responsible for, in order to write and post something that would piss off the vast majority of those potential donors. He can ignore that his absence will be obvious, that talk at that fundraising dinner will inevitably touch on that absence and the reasons for it. He can ignore that he has already spent significant time at a conference antagonizing those attendees and potential donors and pursue the indulgence of his own pique.
In my universe, I would be fired for doing that. That behavior would be called grossly unprofessional even by those who sympathized with how I felt. It would be called a temper tantrum. I would be told to grow up, to stop letting criticism get to me, to stop being so emtional. In fact, in my universe, I’m told all that for far, far less.
In our universe, if Rebecca collected her Skepchick team together for an event, then gave that team a surprise like Lindsay’s speech obviously was to the CFI employees at Women in Secularsim, she would be called unfit for leadership. If I used Minnesota Atheist events to make personal points without discussing strategy with the other people responsible for making those events a success, I wouldn’t stay on the board very long at all. If either of us put our teammates in the terribly uncomfortable position Lindsay put all of the CFI staff in at this conference, we’d be called unstable, irresonsible narcissists out for self-aggrandizement. Again, in our universe, we face that “criticism” for far, far less.
In Lindsay’s universe, he can take a quote from Secular Woman that doesn’t say what he says it says and try to use it as a wedge against someone whose goals overlap with those of Secular Woman. He can do that just a few short weeks after having a public disagreement with the leadership of Secular Woman and having been–privately–dissuaded from making that disagreement blow up further in public by the very people he’s using that quote against now. He doesn’t worry about that action being seen as petty revenge over that disagreement.
In my universe, I always have to be aware of working relationships. I have to aware that I am not identified with the work of my organization or my movement no matter how much of it I do personally, so I will not be protected by those considerations by others’ investment in the success of that work. I know, Rebecca knows, the leadership of Secular Woman know that I am only protected to the extent that I invest in and maintain the health of those relationships. We know that, on our own, we are vulnerable.
So, yeah, Rebecca Watson does live in an alternate universe. So do I. It’s called, “being female”. And I am completely stunned that this would be treated as news, particularly at the Women in Secularism conference. We spent last year’s conference–which Lindsay attended–describing the landscape of this universe. We’ve talked for years about how our universe is different than that of a white male CEO. In the year since the first Women in Secularism conference, we’ve significantly stepped up how often we talk about that topic.
Lindsay, however, has managed, despite those experiences, to find it a surprise that this alternate universe exists and that he knows people who inhabit it. Somehow he has managed not to hear what we’ve been saying over and over and over. Something he’s been doing–or not doing–has kept him from picking up this information that, as the speaker opening this conference, is crucial.
I could speculate about what that is, but Lindsay used his position to tell me that this is unwelcome. Instead, I’ll close this by offering him a word of advice.
Ron, you can come up with any strategy you like for learning about this universe in which I live and operate. You’re a smart man, you can figure something out. Just do it quickly. The people who were wiling to occasionally shut up and listen are getting way ahead of you on this, and that’s not going to work. You can’t lead something–or someone–you don’t understand. You need to be on top of this. Now.