Jun 18 2013

Nobody likes a surprise

Stonewalling is bad management. It’s unprofessional. It’s not what a good boss or CEO does. It’s sometimes what a good military officer or emergency services chief does, when orders have to be obeyed promptly, but apart from emergencies, it’s not the way to supervise.

Another thing that’s bad management is springing things on people. It’s doing things in a high-handed manner when it would have been perfectly possible to do them with consultation and discussion and agreement. I talked about this some yesterday.

The problem here, if I understand it correctly, is that feminism is a big tent, and there are some woo branches of feminism. I don’t think the woo part is a very big fraction of feminism, but that could be because I don’t know enough about feminism as a whole, I know only the kind I like. Well we could have talked about that. We could have had a panel on it. It could have been interesting.

But we didn’t get that. Instead we got Ron springing his talk on everyone, clumsily lecturing us about something he doesn’t know much about, and sounding as if he thought we were going to crap on the furniture.

As many people have patiently (and not so patiently) pointed out, that’s just a very odd way to start a conference. Of course conferences deal with controversy and disagreement; many conferences are about nothing else. But that’s part of the planning; it’s not a bomb dropped as a surprise at the start of the conference. It’s on the schedule, it’s not a gotcha.

It’s very odd. Why was there no discussion beforehand? Why did he keep his talk a secret? How is that a reasonable thing for the boss to do at an organization that bills itself as for and about inquiry? I feel like Doctor Strangelove shouting at the ambassador, “But the whole point of the Doomsday Machine is lost if you keep it a secret; WHY DIDN’T YOU TELL THE WORLD?!”

Why didn’t you tell the world, Ron?! Explain your worries, suggest a panel on the subject, invite people familiar with the issues to discuss them.

Keeping it a secret is a very bizarre, paranoid, anti-inquiry, espionage-like thing to do. Do you think of us as the Soviet Union? Is it that bad? We’re not the Soviet Union. We’re not scary. (Well now we are. But whose fault is that, eh? I kid, I kid.)

It’s autocratic, is what it is, and it’s not good management to be autocratic unless you absolutely have to. I see no reason to think Ron absolutely had to be autocratic about this. The attendees and the speakers aren’t even his employees! He’s not the CEO of us, but he was autocratic to us as well as to the people who work for his organization. That’s hyper-autocratic.

And it didn’t turn out well. That’s why it’s not good management – it doesn’t work well. I’m sure schools of management teach this – don’t coerce people if you can persuade them instead. Don’t pick fights if you don’t have to.

A couple of simple changes, and it all could have gone better. Openness and discussion beforehand, discussion and availability afterwards. No autocracy and no stonewalling. We could all still be friends, and WiS2 would have gotten the discussion of its dazzlingness it deserved.


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  1. 1

    I was in public relations for many years, a few of them directly involved in what is affectionately known as “crisis communications”.

    I can state categorically and with certainty that neither the opening talk by Ron nor the subsequent communications from CFI would pass any sort of muster around my office. In fact, they would have been precisely the opposite of what we would have recommended.

    “Never stonewall” was our constant advice. Because stonewalling only has one effect — delaying by fractions of a second the inevitable complete and total airing of the issue, but this time in front of an angry and skeptical audience.

    Explain your side. Figure out the timeline (this one’s obvious, but it’s not necessarily the case) and stick to that version of events. Don’t retread and revise history. Get it out in the open and make sure you have a specific plan of action for moving forward. Merely saying “let’s move forward” is practically designed to make good journalists and other observers say “what more are they hiding? When’s the other shoe going to drop?”

  2. 2
    Ace of Sevens

    To elaborate: Your assessment of what the issue is involved a lot of reading between the lines and accepting speculation by the peanut gallery as to what he meant. You had to do this because he refuses to make substantive responses to anything anyone has said.

  3. 3

    Ironically, the secret in Strangelove is kept BY the Soviet Union–who would be represented by Lindsay in your cinematic analogy.

  4. 4
    Richard Smith

    Perhaps Ron believes that…

    Women uh… women sense my power and they seek the life essence. I, uh… I do not avoid women, Mandrake… But I… I do deny them my essence.

  5. 5


    Merely saying “let’s move forward” is practically designed to make good journalists and other observers say “what more are they hiding”?

    Indeed. What more are they hiding?

  6. 6

    Yesterday, I ran across a post by Sarah Moon, a liberal Christian feminist who blogs at Patheos. She describes the attitudes of white, male progressive/emergent Christian leaders (like Tony Jones) in terms that fit men like Ron Lindsay just as well:

    So many (and again, not all) privileged people (and, honestly, though I focused on two dudes in this piece this often includes privileged white women as well) who claim to be progressive Christians act like they want a world where everyone has a “seat at the table.”

    But they want it on their terms.

    They tell oppressed groups what they can and cannot say. They tell oppressed groups what words they can use to define their oppressions. They even dictate whether or not the experiences and thoughts of oppressed groups are valid.

    They try to control oppressed groups, colonize their minds.

    Yet they can’t understand what someone would accuse them of racism, sexism, or homophobia. It’d be funny if it were so sad.

    - See more at: http://www.patheos.com/blogs/sarahoverthemoon/2013/05/tony-jones-peter-rollins-christianity-racism-sexism-homophobia/#sthash.gkOMFMYq.dpuf

    Yup… this seems to describe Ron Lindsay to a “T.”

    This post also has an eerily familiar ring to it: http://www.patheos.com/blogs/sarahoverthemoon/2013/06/when-my-abuser-is-welcome-at-the-table-i-am-not/

  7. 7

    About a year and a half ago, I had a run of rather serious HR incidents with the NED of CFI-Canada. I wrote a letter explaining what had happened to the Board and got a personal response from the Chair – before he’d brought my letter to the rest of the Board – saying that it was absolutely terrible, that he couldn’t believe what had happened, and that he would be dealing with the issue right away.

    Then total radio silence.

    The issue continued to happen so, when a new Board was elected, I wrote to them about the issue as well. I didn’t hear back and finally withdrew my involvement as a volunteer with the national organization.

    About a year went by and – in a different context – I had run in with the Communications Director. Again, I wrote to the Board. Again, I never received a response (though, I suppose to their credit, he was faux-fired a few days later).

    Given the total lack of response to my attempts to do things through “proper channels,” I started talking more openly about what’s been happening – to other volunteers, mostly, but also sometimes on Facebook or blog comments. Usually, within a few hours, I’m contacted by the Board and asked to use “proper channels” if I have a complaint. Yeah, bloody convenient.

    But I always assumed that this was just an issue in Canada, caused by the history of the CFI here. I assumed that the CFI in the US was “not like that” and would have acted with at least some professionalism to similar issues. Yet here we are.

    It makes me wonder if these sorts of issues aren’t far more systemic than I would have thought possible and – if so – what do we do about it? Cutting off from CFI is one solution, but it’s far from perfect. We need groups that can put on conferences, network, and advocate for secularism. I think that we need to figure out WHY this is happening, and how we can create groups where this doesn’t happen (or, at least, where the risks of this happening is minimized).

  8. 8

    Ironically, the secret in Strangelove is kept BY the Soviet Union–who would be represented by Lindsay in your cinematic analogy.

    In Soviet Russia, secrets keep you!

    Sorry, couldn’t resist.

  9. 9

    Elly – that second patheos post you linked to is just heartbreaking.

  10. 10

    Carlie – indeed yes. But the “EVERYONE is welcome” progressive Christian attitude she describes reminded me of Greta’s “translation” of CFI’s statement:

    “We are going to work with all elements of the secular movement.” “Enhance our common values and strengthen our solidarity.”

    …Translation: “We are willing to work with all elements of the secular movement — including the ones who have been targeting a persistent campaign of hatred, harassment, abuse, and threats of violence, rape, and death towards feminist women in this movement…We expect the feminists in this movement to make peace and play nice with the people who have been harassing, abusing, and threatening them — as well with the people who have been ignoring, denying, deflecting, and trivializing this issue. And we expect the feminists in this movement to stop making us uncomfortable with their demands that we take a stand on this.”

  11. 11
    SC (Salty Current), OM

    Yup… this seems to describe Ron Lindsay to a “T.”

    Yes. And it points to the core problem, which isn’t the content of these statements, but the practice(s) of making them (not that the content isn’t a problem, but bear with me), as I argued here beginning a long time ago. Ron Lindsay isn’t entitled* to lecture women feminists about feminism. Richard Dawkins isn’t entitled to lecture women feminists about our priorities. PZ and Chris …never mind. People need to understand this, and if they don’t the importance of the content is limited. Not unimportant at all, but limited. Shutting up and listening really is key.

    *at that conference or anywhere else

  12. 12
    Robert B.


    Judging by your post, public relations experts are well aware of the principles of not sounding like an obfuscatory corporate jackass. (Gee, whoda thunk it?)

    Given that should-have-been-predictable fact, why do large organizations suck so bad at talking? Is there a shortage of PR experts? (That would boggle me.) Do people just not listen to you for their own stupid reasons? (More what I’d expect.) Is PR in a constant fight with Legal stemming from two very different set of priorities regarding what should be said and not said?

  13. 13
    WMDKitty -- Survivor

    Perhaps it’s time for us to “Stonewall” them right back?


  14. 14
    Setár, Elvenkitty

    Robert B #12:

    Given that should-have-been-predictable fact, why do large organizations suck so bad at talking? Is there a shortage of PR experts? (That would boggle me.) Do people just not listen to you for their own stupid reasons? (More what I’d expect.) Is PR in a constant fight with Legal stemming from two very different set of priorities regarding what should be said and not said?

    None of the above — the original intent of PR, which I don’t see going anywhere any time soon, was for the, ahem…“manufacture of consent”:

    The guru of the PR industry, Edward Bernays — incidentally, not a reactionary, but a Wilson-Roosevelt-Kennedy liberal — the maiden handbook of the PR industry which he wrote back in the 1920s was called Propaganda. And in it he described, correctly, the goal of the industry. He said our goal is to insure that the “intelligent minority” — and of course anyone who writes about these things is part of that intelligent minority by definition, by stipulation, so we, the intelligent minority, are the only people capable of running things, and there’s that great population out there, the “unwashed masses,” who, if they’re left alone will just get into trouble: so we have to, as he put it, “engineer their consent,” figure out ways to insure they consent to our rule and domination. And that’s the goal of the PR industry.

    Intelligent minority == CFI, JREF, Lindsay, Shermer, and all the other oppression-denying rightist libertarian types.

    Unwashed masses == bloggers and everyone who sent letters to the board.

    Picture perfect…except, they totally missed the target audience.

  15. 15
    Setár, Elvenkitty

    Oh, fuck. Bold emphasis is mine. Italics are just a correction from the poorly-formatted AlterNet article.

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