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May 24 2013

From an optics point of view

Dan Fincke did a great post a couple of days ago about WiS and the bizarre inappropriateness of the opening remarks.

It was especially troubling, from an optics point of view if nothing else, that he chose to do this specifically to feminists, a group defined primarily by the women associated with it. That he broke with traditional form of being a host rather than a critic when the event’s speaker roster was set to be all women and his audience was predominantly women sent a message, whether he intended it or not. It was that women don’t deserve the same basic respect and civility that is routinely afforded to your average conference speakers and participants. A crowd of women can get a stern talking to and skeptical querying about issues they are probably oblivious to in lieu of a welcome.

Yes. That is indeed a big, big, big part of the problem.

I’ve talked to quite a few people about this since getting back from DC, some of them people who go to a lot of conferences (unrelated to secularism or feminism). Nobody could think of a single instance of anything remotely like the reception we got. The normal thing is to welcome participants and say a little about the conference. The normal thing is not to decline to welcome participants (because participants were welcomed the year before) and then scold them. That’s not normal procedure. We’re not being weird or petty in saying that. It’s not normal; it’s special treatment.

Well why do we get special treatment? What’s different about us?

Oh right.

No, really. As Dan says, that sends a message, whether it’s intended to or not. A conference of women has to be lectured by a man before starting, so that they don’t make a mess of everything.

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.

That bothered me too, and it seemed uncharacteristic. It was so thin – so inadequate – so vulgar, even. It was a Fox News version of feminism. For cryin out loud, that’s the best you can do? Just a parody version to poke at? And you’re implying that we plan to talk nonsense like that? That is insulting.

Ron Lindsay was an egregious violator of civility principles by being such a disrespectful host and then poisoning the well against Rebecca Watson in his post replying to her counter post to his talk and to his first blog defense of it. And this is especially upsetting given that only this past spring he signed a civility pledge meant to set a standard for others in the community to follow. This pledge gave a ton of instruction to people engaged in emotionally upsetting fights, including to people who were on the receiving end of awful interpersonal abuse. I believe in the ideals of that pledge. I believe that even though it demanded people do difficult things that they are vital things that must be done if the movement is to have healthy debates about serious philosophical differences in the future.

And Ron Lindsay showed that he could not stick to the pledge the first time that he felt like someone made an uncharitable reading of his words in a very heated, public dispute after he signed it. The first time! He is asking women, specifically Rebecca Watson, to be bigger than a torrent of abuse that includes rape threats, death threats, sexually degrading photoshops, a website devoted to monitoring their every misstep, etc. And he cannot handle civil criticism from that same woman  that was not a fraction as abusive to him as what she has had to endure. And he showed this thin skin while being the host of a conference where she was a speaker and it was his obligation to respect the position that that role put him in as a host. This was an abuse of his position and an embarrassment.

So much so that he’s now withdrawn the most insulting thing he wrote in that post – but only that, and no more. The only slightly less insulting things are left unwithdrawn.

By highlighting his anxieties with the worst instances of feminist activism as though they were the most central and pressing concerns related to feminists Lindsay inadvertently sent this message: When I think about feminism the first thing that comes to mind is how feminists act counter to rational ideals. Given feminism’s vital accomplishments, feminism’s hugely important substantive goals, and the long history of women being misogynistically mistrusted as inherently irrational, Lindsay could not have sent a worse signal.

It was a good way to incite an even bigger torrent of abuse against us though. I don’t think he intended that, but he sure as hell didn’t give it enough consideration to cause him to re-think.

20 comments

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  1. 1
    catof many faces

    The comments over there are pretty terrible… kinda sad.

  2. 2
    aleph squared

    I’m not always a huge fan of the Civility Pledge (by which I mean I’m not really a fan), but Dan Fincke is probably the only civility-proponent I’ve met who I think genuinely means well and does well (most of the time) in discussions with or about marginalized people.

  3. 3
    Ace of Sevens

    Out of context, he was complaining about people who talk about privilege without rigidly defining what he was talking about, so of course everyone who talks about privilege will think he’s talking about them and get defensive. In context, since he was opening a conference, people are going to understand his remarks as being about the conference, so of course they took him as questioning the legitimacy of the whole ordeal. And that’s leaving aside how uncalled for his hostility to Rebecca was later.

  4. 4
    carlie

    Yes, I will say that for him – as much as I think he kind of bangs his head against the wall with his civility discussions, he keeps trying rather than doing the “if you’re going to be so mean I’m taking my ball and going home” flounce.

  5. 5
    picklefactory

    I know a lot of folks had a problem with the whole civility pledge thing, but I think Dan really nailed it, and his engagement on the whole twitter thing was nice to see as well. If you think the comments suck, come and wade in if you’ve the time and energy. If there’s one thing Patheos has plenty of, it’s Catholic bigots that come out of the woodwork.

  6. 6
    athyco

    I’ve been commenting on the “A Few Examples” post–the middle of the original WiS2 trilogy. The ‘pitters abandoned it for the next post: not only was it harder work to defend Ron Lindsay’s examples and present another that came from A+/FTB/Skepchick and WiS2 speakers/attendees/supporters, the next post had the words Rebecca Watson in the title!

    I’m going to keep a discussion going with whoever pops in there, though, because I expect that the cfi board–if they’re not interested in doing a great deal of reading on this situation–will at least read what’s on their own site. The “optics” should be pretty clear there, too.

    Now that the “apology” post was presented without comments available in the first place, and the comments have been shut down for the Rebecca post (that second action making me feel fractionally better about the first), I don’t expect the ‘pitters to backtrack to it.

  7. 7
    smhll

    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.

    It’s just kind of amazing that many SAWCASM seem to think that ‘privilege’ is a paranormal thing — because they’ve never observed the effect of not-privilege in their personal lives. “What? Huh? What are you talking about? I can’t see it…” [mock paraphrase]

    I appreciate that Fincke really gets it and it willing to take the time to write about it specifically and at length. (Heck, I’m ready to bake him cookies just for not being vague. I applaud him for being very clear and specific in the piece you quoted. I’m sick and tired of vague complaints and moaning. I prefer commenters who can be specific. I don’t think we are ever going to understand each other without clarity and a very long discussion. Dog spare me from any more really long discussions that have a hole in the middle where all the specifics boiled away.)

    Men who have less privilege (gay and trans men, men of color, disabled men and some men who grew up with no class privilege like Scalzi) seem to do much better at grasping what it’s like to be condescended to and ‘splained to by someone who just has no fucking practical idea of what they are talking about.

    For everyone who “gets it”, whether you took the long path or the short path, thank you! And to all the bloggers who stand up and make explanations, thank you again.

  8. 8
    Ichthyic

    I found it instructive to compare the things Ron is criticizing “feminism” for now, with the things he DEFENDED about atheism to Paul Kurtz just 4 years ago.

    seriously, go back and read those exchanges, and then boggle at how Ron could come to his current position…

    http://www.centerforinquiry.net/blogs/entry/are_there_any_mccarthyites_at_the_center_for_inquiry/

    Lindsay’s response is in the comments. Also try reading the rests of Kurz’ screeds during this period…. anything there look familiar?

  9. 9
    Ichthyic

    Lindsay’s conclusion to Kurz:

    …the solution is simple. He can stop engaging in ruthless guerilla war against the organization of which he remains a director.

    irony?

  10. 10
    hyperdeath

    aleph squared:

    I’m not always a huge fan of the Civility Pledge (by which I mean I’m not really a fan), but Dan Fincke is probably the only civility-proponent I’ve met who I think genuinely means well and does well (most of the time) in discussions with or about marginalized people.

    That’s pretty much my opinion. He’s a civility fetishist, but he’s completely honest. Unlike Stangroom et al., he doesn’t use “civility” as a cover for making vicious passive-aggressive attacks, while smugly claiming the moral high ground.

  11. 11
    carlie

    Yes, what hyperdeath said.

  12. 12
    Lou Doench

    The usual suspects are populating the comments, feeding the same tired storyline to yet another credulous audience. Pitchguest appears to have the last word so far in the comments. I’d respond, but I promised Dan I would stop calling people (obscene gerund deleted) at his blog.

  13. 13
    smhll

    I’m not always a huge fan of the Civility Pledge (by which I mean I’m not really a fan), but Dan Fincke is probably the only civility-proponent I’ve met who I think genuinely means well and does well (most of the time) in discussions with or about marginalized people.

    In the beginning, I don’t think Fincke was able to anticipate the way that people acting in bad faith could use his civility pledge as both a shield and a club. (Where as most of us made a solid prediction based on patterns of misbehavior that we have seen.) And I was and am very concerned that such ‘bad actors’ could fly under the radar if their insults were at a pitch that a person who had privilege might be unable to hear. Or if the blog owner was busy and couldn’t spend lots of time engaging with the comments.

  14. 14
    Kelseigh

    As long as we’re talking optics, I’m pretty disturbed at the continued silence of the CFI board. The longer they leave this without any statement at all, even something like “we’re discussing this to determine what to do”, the more it looks like implied assent to Lindsay’s actions. It certainly doesn’t inspire confidence in the organization or its BoD.

  15. 15
    Kevin

    @14: Agreed. It’s going to take a lot for me to give CFI any support of any kind — money, time, whatever — until the board comes out with a clear public statement.

    If it’s censure (not censor) of Ron, then OK. I’ll reconsider. If it’s not or if it’s continued silence, then my wallet remains firmly shut.

  16. 16
    Ophelia Benson

    I think the board did issue a “we’re discussing it” statement, didn’t they? Have I lost track? (It wouldn’t be the first time.)

  17. 17
    WithinThisMind

    I accidentally got my sarcasm switch set to ‘on’.

  18. 18
    Improbable Joe, bearer of the Official SpokesGuitar

    I’m sorry, but I think Lindsay came spoiling for a fight and knew exactly who would be on his side once the fight broke out.

  19. 19
    karmacat

    So Ron Lindsay is quite histrionic in his choice of words, such as “McCarthyism”, “North Korea”. He needs to go out and catch his “wandering uterus” (hysteria). ; )

  20. 20
    Sili

    seriously, go back and read those exchanges, and then boggle at how Ron could come to his current position…

    Why boggle? The common thread is power and how to make it accrue to Dr Dr Lindsay.

    Kurtz wanted to take power away from the Dr Dr, so of course he had to be hounded out. Likewise the feminists are trying to grab power from the honest Dr Dr, so now they need to be culled.

  1. 21
    Women in Secularism 2: Breaking News: Even at WiS, we have to defend the purpose of WiS! | Dissent of a Woman

    [...] Ophelia Benson: From an optics point of view [...]

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