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May 20 2013

The Hand That Feeds Me?

There was an interesting (in the Minnesotan sense of “interesting”) thread running on the Women in Secularism hashtag briefly during the conference. According to people who weren’t there to hear Ron Lindsay’s opening speech, criticism of that speech was “biting the hand that feeds” us. Fascinating, isn’t it?

The implications for what those tweeters believe are just a wee bit staggering. First of all, the majority of those complaining about Ron’s remarks were paying customers. A conference like this isn’t something an organization like CFI pays for out of the goodness of its heart. It’s a promotional event.

A conference like this (as opposed to Skepticon) is an event that captures the eyes of the press and eyes and wallets of the public. Attendees pay for tickets. They pay for food and drinks and travel to a nice building and a nice conference staffed by professionals with the help of a few volunteers.

Not all of those costs are paid by attendees. Student tickets are subsidized. Outside organizations and sometimes the hosting organization raise money from donors to pay the admission of some people who can’t afford to attend on their own.

That still doesn’t always cover the whole cost of the conference, but the additional money spent by the organization is generally considered advertising. Holding these events raises the profile and increases the prestige of the organization involved. Even then, from what I can see, Women in Secularism comes far, far closer to paying for itself than most conferences of its sort.

The attendees aren’t being fed. They’re buying a service. They are well within their rights to complain about it.

Of course, many of the speakers complained as well. Were we biting the hand that feeds us? Well, given that most of us worked for travel expenses and a dinner at which donors could pay to eat with us, I’ll say no. I’m out of pocket for this conference. I know other speakers honoraria didn’t cover all their expenses. It certainly didn’t cover the time they could have spent earning money by, say, writing.

The large majority of us gave our time and our audiences’ attention to make this conference a success. We actively managed what was an ugly PR situation at the conference with the cooperation of those ticket-buying audience members. We propped up the morale of (very nearly all of) Lindsay’s employees at the conference. We engaged in a mutual business transaction with CFI and were called on at the last moment to take on additional duties we hadn’t agreed to.

We speakers weren’t fed but bitten. If anyone wants to complain about me complaining about that, I’ve got a very nice hand they can talk to. They’ll find it a bit tough to chew on.

Finally, there’s the ugly little metaphor of all of us being hand-fed. We’re nobody’s pets. We’re not incapable of feeding ourselves. Nobody at this conference was passively consuming what was given to them.

Questions were frequent and challenging and made active contributions to the discussion. One of them I even feel I need to revisit in a blog post because what I said on stage could be taken as an excuse when I meant it to be exactly the opposite.

So not only is the metaphor wrong, but it’s pointlessly (and missing-the-pointingly) insulting to people with a legitimate grievance and the standing to complain. Of course, that’s about what I expect from that crowd of “dissenters”, but it’s worth pointing out just one more time.

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  1. 1
    MyaR

    It’s another bit of the “great man” theory of social action (because that’s what all the secular/atheist/skeptic groups are — social action groups). You must defer to the leaders, whether elected, employed, or self-declared. (See Vacula’s order to Amanda Marcotte and Ophelia Benson to “get out” of the movement.)

    Also, some of this chatter seems to be trying to imply that their side has (and deserves) all the money and resources and therefore should control the conversation. I guess only poor people care about anyone else in the world?

  2. 2
    Marcus Ranum

    their side has (and deserves) all the money and resources and therefore should control the conversation

    Their side doesn’t, though. That’s an important point to understand.

    Fairly consistently whenever the A+ collective have been asked to help out someone in need, the response has been gratifying. Money matters, but committment matters more – and committment depends on a sense of rightness. I know idiots like Vacula seem to feel they’re right/entitled but I don’t see how they could hold such absurd views in the long-term, in the face of argument and thought to the contrary. They’ll wear down.

  3. 3
    Bruce

    When I attend a conference of, for example, the American Chemical Society, after each talk there are questions which could be construed as criticizing some aspect of the research presented. Nobody calls this criticism inappropriate. Instead, everyone expects and wants this interchange, because it is a mark that the ideas of the presentation are being taken seriously, and that there is an expectation that a bit of follow-up work will help improve it to the point of being ready for publication.
    So if Ron Lindsay wants to take a scientific approach, he should try to read all of the helpful comments on his talk that have been posted in various places. Then, he can go back and integrate all of this well-meant input and modify his talk to address the points raised. Then he can submit it to “Free Inquiry” or any other publication to publish the refined version. If he is successful in the scientific approach, everyone will be able to see that he will have addressed all of the legitimate points raised, and this would improve his reputation in the entire community. That’s how it works in science.
    Of course, lawyers are trained in an adversarial approach, so it may be a bit more of a challenge for him to do what the rest of us would consider “the right thing.”

    The key point here is that Lindsay’s criticisms of others do not appear to have been connected to specific examples, so they were generally NOT useful feedback. In contrast, the comments analyzing his speech are generally referencing specific points, so they are relevant and appropriate for being addressed by him.
    So in a science sense, while Lindsay did not “feed” the speakers with any useful analysis or criticism, the responses Lindsay got were actual “feed” for him to improve his position. It remains to be seen whether he will successfully digest this feed, or whether he will spit out.
    By the way, I have paid to attend several CFI conferences in the past. I will be very eager to pay to attend WiS3, but only if it is being run in the way indicated by everything about WiS2 except for this speech. Ron Lindsay needs to recall that CFI is known to be willing to support its leader for decades, but not if he becomes a detriment to the goals of the organization.

  4. 4
    marcus

    I have to say that I expect the kind of condescending bullshit that Lindsay was spewing from MRAs like Mr Vacuous, but to hear it from the supposedly rational people sponsoring the event was just stunning. Lindsay’s behavior was just shameful and counterproductive, something I would expect from some frustrated fundamentalist.

  5. 5
    qbsmd1

    Accusing someone of “biting the hand that feeds them” is a terrible argument. I assume no one was asked to sign a loyalty oath before being selected as a speaker. No one has linked to anyone specific saying this, but there’s a good chance you’ll catch them being hypocritical if they ever talked about people taking money from the Templeton foundation, or about organizations uninviting speakers after discovering what they intended to talk about or any academic freedom related topic.

  6. 6
    Martha

    Thanks to Paul Fidalgo’s column, Lindsay’s petulant post about Rebeca is no longer the first thing I see when I type “center for inquiry” into Google. That’s a start, I guess. I have no problem with his original speech remaining on the website so that people can judge for themselves, but he really needs to retract his response to Rebecca. And apologize. Anything short of that is highly unprofessional leadership.

    Bruce, as a fellow chemist, I’m not sure scientists are always all that good at welcoming criticism even about their work, though they do have to learn to respond more gracefully– or at least less publicly– than LIndsay has. In my experience, where the proverbial shit hits the fan is when one suggests that they might discriminate against women or minorities unconsciously.

    These tend to be men who pride themselves so highly on their rationality that they simply don’t understand– or won’t admit– that they can be motivated by other factors. I find it amazing to watch in my profession, and I see it even more strongly in certain sectors of the atheist community. As I’ve said here before, if we don’t accept that behaving without bias takes a lot of work, and probably a lot of false starts along the way, we can’t hope to approach that impossible standard– about science or anything else.

    Another part of the problem is that when a given atom behaves in a particular way, we assume that all atoms of the same type do. So scientists generally have to accept data that aren’t consistent with their hypotheses– at least eventually. On the other hand, when social scientists show us that people tend to evaluate men and women or whites and people of color unequally, the response is always that it’s other people who do that, not the scientist in question. As one of my colleagues puts it, “our male colleagues are always shocked at how badly the rest of the guys in the department treat women.”

    Sorry, Stephanie, I got going and couldn’t stop. I hope I’m not derailing the thread!

  7. 7
    hoary puccoon

    I can’t help thinking that if Lindsay had opened a conference for Hispanics in Secularism by talking about the irritation of having to learn a few words in Spanish, or a conference for African Americans in Secularism by complaining about how white athletes are underrepresented in the NBA, he would already have been told to clear out his desk. And all the locks at CFI would be changed.

    I think that any response short of demanding his immediate resignation shows amazing consideration for his welfare. I think he ought to be bending over backward at this point to thank everyone involved, but particularly Rebecca Watson, for their decent and measured response.

  8. 8
    Improbable Joe, bearer of the Official SpokesGuitar

    Isn’t exactly backwards? Aren’t the speakers and audience the hand that’s feeding CFI and Ron Lindsay? Who made money off this?

  9. 9
    R Johnston

    Lindsay’s behavior was just shameful and counterproductive, something I would expect from some frustrated fundamentalist.

    Lindsey is a politically active secular Republican. He is, in other words, a frustrated fundamentalist.

    It is not possible for one to be a secular Republican without being a frustrated fundamentalist on some other dimension.

  10. 10
    Tom Foss

    Improbable Joe, you just don’t get it. Ron Lindsay is a Leader(TM) with a real bona fide leadership position at the head of an Important Skeptical Organization(C) that does more than just smelly blogging and dumb stuff like that. As such, anything he says is to be treated like received wisdom, lapped happily from his palms and accepted without question. Especially if those questions were to come from people who weren’t Leaders(TM) because those people should know better than to talk back to their superiors.

    Also, if Lindsay were criticized by an even more prominent Leader(TM), then that’s terrible too because how dare they use their platform and influence to attack and bully and silence him? Unless the other Leader(TM) is a man, because reasons.

  11. 11
    Improbable Joe, bearer of the Official SpokesGuitar

    Tom…

    … I swear I would laugh if I could. Unfortunately, I’ve been flooded on Twitter by someone who seems to agree with both of us on every single point either of us could make. He is also infuriated beyond all comprehension that people who he sees as “Very Important Leader Thinkers” can be taken down a notch by us regular non-VILT types. Oh my Satan, how dare we ever accuse someone with high community rank and extreme social privilege of any wrongdoing or negative attitudes/behavior? We simply shouldn’t and can’t, because we don’t have a book deal! We’re not CEO of anything, and therefore we cannot ever be worthy of even considering the flaws of our social betters. let alone pointing them out.

    And that’s part of the issue that isn’t spelled out enough. Yes it is sexism, yes it is racism, but is it also class-based dismissal. Rebecca Watson doesn’t belong to the “right” group, so anything she says is nonsense by definition. And when other people say what she’s saying? Ignore them, and focus on that “chick” who ONLY has a 4-year humanities degree.

  12. 12
    D. C. Sessions

    Finally, there’s the ugly little metaphor of all of us being hand-fed. We’re nobody’s pets.

    No, you’re supposed to be somebody’s Mu>babies. You know: immature, emotional, irrational, and totally self-centered. No restraint at all and thus prone to dealing with frustration by biting, even when being fed (because you’re not capable of feeding yourselves.)

    You know — women.

    Being a pet would be a step up in the hierarchy.

  13. 13
    navigator

    If this is his idea of feeding us, I just barfed.

  14. 14
    Setár, Elvenkitty

    …a politically active secular Republican…

    So why, again, do we think the Right is in any way shape or form decent?

  15. 15
    Giliell, professional cynic -Ilk-

    It’s almost funny when the True Thing™ Ron Lindsay said was that men were being silenced and the response to a discussion thereoff is shut up
    Apart from the biting and feeding and generally stupid metaphor thingy: The only thing R. Lindsay achieved with his speech is that he possibly ruined any chances for WiS 3. Congratulations if that was his goal.
    For the last months I’ve seen people, speakers, volunteers, CFI employees working their asses off to make that thing a success. People raised money, donated, did promotion and so on, and so on.
    Does he think that people will do that again if chances are that such a thing happens again?

  16. 16
    ischemgeek

    … I somehow think that even if the conference attendees shouldered all the cost of the conference, they’d still call it biting the hand that feeds because women should be grateful that a man is willing to even put on a show of listening to them (asking him to actually listen? Don’t be unreasonable!).

  17. 17
    StevoR : Free West Papua, free Tibet, let the Chagossians return!

    @6. Martha :

    I have no problem with his (Ron Lindsay’s – ed.) original speech remaining on the website so that people can judge for themselves, but he really needs to retract his response to Rebecca. And apologize. Anything short of that is highly unprofessional leadership.

    Seconded by me – spot on.

    @7. hoary puccoon :

    I can’t help thinking that if Lindsay had opened a conference for Hispanics in Secularism by talking about the irritation of having to learn a few words in Spanish, or a conference for African Americans in Secularism by complaining about how white athletes are underrepresented in the NBA, he would already have been told to clear out his desk. And all the locks at CFI would be changed.

    ^ That. Yep. I definitely agree.

    @8.Improbable Joe, bearer of the Official SpokesGuitar :

    Isn’t exactly backwards? Aren’t the speakers and audience the hand that’s feeding CFI and Ron Lindsay? Who made money off this?

    And we have a hat trick of spot on 100% right comments.
    Also you’ve beaten me to it – that was my first thought here as well.

    Ron’s speech at WiS was the metaphorical “biting the feeding hand” that put him up there opening WiS in the first place. I don’t get why the blazes he thought he could get away with a speech like that there of all places.

  18. 18
    D. C. Sessions

    I don’t get why the blazes he thought he could get away with a speech like that there of all places.

    Seriously?

    I can answer it in two words. Four syllables. If I want to be really precise I can prefix a four-syllable modifier.

    Still haven’t got it? The first letters are U M P.

  19. 19
    Helix

    The lack of an apology/clarification days after the incident and blog speaks volumes. There is more money behind anti-feminism in the secular movement than there is behind the forces who want change. It’s as simple as that. It will take either an entirely new funding stream, or an expose’ or scandal of major proportions, to reverse the status quo.

  20. 20
    sawells

    Maybe they meant “biting the hand that’s slapping you in the face.”

  21. 21
    athyco

    Helix, #19:

    There is more money behind anti-feminism in the secular movement than there is behind the forces who want change.

    Is there? And what’s the evidence that the funding is slacking due to anti-harassment policies and/or feminist speakers at cons?

    It was about this time last year that the call was going out for conferences to put conduct policies in place. Enough of them did so that we should be able to draw some conclusions. What were their attendance numbers in relation to the numbers the year before? It may be the cynic in me that believes there would have been a plethora of tweets and blog posts crowing over any significant decreases. Nonprofits are required to keep their books public. Seem to me there would have been another plethora of tweets and blog posts if funding had a corresponding decrease.

    TAM X last year, as we know, had a drop in attendance. I’m pretty sure that it was a statement from DJ in the Washington Post that I saw putting it at 1200, a drop from the previous year’s 1650. (No one has updated the TAM wiki page with an official 2012 attendance.) That had to put a dent in the fundraiser events at TAM itself–workshop passes, the doughnut and bacon party, tickets for the SGU event, etc.

    On the JREF forum, there’s a TAM XI Roll Call. The chart at this time shows 31 JREF attendees. The thread for the TAM X Roll Call ended up with 62 attendees on July 11–the first day of TAM. Going back a couple of pages to compare last year’s chart with today’s date, I found that the charted number for May 17, 2012 was 41.

    Amy Roth arranged fundraising for 22 women to attend TAM in 2012. Per her April 27 blog post, Sara Mayhew has 6 for her Rising Star (ages 18-30) fundraiser. Jason Thibeault of Lousy Canuck had his fundraising goal for WiS2 met in less than 24 hours. Justin Vacula announced that his goal was met after two weeks.

    I’m not seeing the evidence that there’s more money behind the anti-feminists.

  22. 22
    StevoR : Free West Papua, free Tibet, let the Chagossians return!

    @21. D. C. Sessions

    I don’t get why the blazes he thought he could get away with a speech like that there of all places.

    Seriously? I can answer it in two words. Four syllables. If I want to be really precise I can prefix a four-syllable modifier. Still haven’t got it? The first letters are U M P.

    Sorry, perhaps I’m feeling dense or uninformed but I’m still not with you I’m afraid.

    UMP = Ultra / Uber Male priviiledge at a guess? But that’s three words unless we’re hyphenating isn’t it?

    Please could you spell it out in full for me?

  23. 23
    Stephanie Zvan

    Unexamined.

  24. 24
    Greg Laden

    I think the implication was even more sinister. Dance with the one who brung ya. Actually, more sinister than that. There are certain conditions under which ladies get paid. It would be wise, apparently, for said ladies to know who’s paying them.

  1. 25
    Women in Secularism 2: Breaking News: Even at WiS, we have to defend the purpose of WiS! | Dissent of a Woman

    [...] Stephanie Svan: The Hand That Feeds Me [...]

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