He treated us with contempt.
For me, that’s what it boils down to.
I’ve already addressed some of the specific problems with much of the specific content of Ron Lindsay’s opening talk at the Women in Secularism 2 conference, and with the responses he wrote to criticisms of said talk. As have many other bloggers besides me. This isn’t about that. This is about the context. And as bad as the content was, the context is what made it far, far worse.
Here is that context. This was not just some random talk midway through some random conference. This was not just some random series of blog posts written on some random date. This was the opening talk at the Women in Secularism 2 conference.
The opening talk for a conference sets the tone.
And as far as I know, it is unprecedented for the leader of an organization hosting a conference to use the opening talk of that conference to issue a patronizing scold to its attendees and speakers and financial supporters. I’ve certainly never heard of it happening before this. Opening talks welcome attendees and speakers, get people excited about what’s coming, take care of schedule changes and other logistical matters, let people know what else the hosting organization is up to, hustle for donations. They do not lecture the attendees and speakers and financial supporters on everything that they’re doing wrong. They don’t openly decline to welcome the attendees, in the name of supporting “substance not rhetoric.” I have been to a whole lot of conferences in my time as a public speaker… and I have never, ever, ever seen an organization leader open a conference by scolding and insulting the attendees and speakers and financial supporters… in the name of fostering “conversation.”
In this context, the message of this talk was clear. The message was not simply an ill-informed, baffling, patronizing, insulting concoction of straw-feminist rhetoric taken directly from the mouths of hostile anti-feminists (as I’ve discussed in my post on the content of this talk).
The message was clear: This is not your space. You have this space by my whim. I can take it away at my whim. This is not a conference for women in the secular movement to talk with one another, and with men and non-gender-binary people, about issues that concern you. This is not your space. It is mine. And if I want to use this space to scold you, to patronize you, to read you a lecture about how you should and should not speak about feminism and sexism and privilege, I will do so.
The content of Lindsay’s talk was… well, an ill-informed, baffling, patronizing, insulting concoction of straw-feminist rhetoric taken directly from the mouths of hostile anti-feminists. It was pretty damn bad.
The context of the talk was dripping with contempt.
And the talk — with this context — set the tone for the entire rest of the conference. This was a truly magnificent conference, one of the best I’ve been to — and I’ve been to a lot. The speakers and panelists and moderators, and indeed the conference attendees, seem mostly to have cared deeply about making this conference incredible, and they overwhelmingly brought their A-game. Important ideas were raised; difficult topics were explored; calls to specific action were issued; strategies were hashed out and moved forward.
But a huge, disproportionate amount of the conversation — over meals, over drinks, during breaks, in the halls before and after talks, in the rooms after events were over — focused on Lindsay’s talk. A huge, disproportionate amount of the conversation focused on, “What the hell was that?”, and, “Did he really say that?”, and, “What on earth was he thinking?”, and “What are we going to do about that?”
If Ron Lindsay didn’t know that this would happen, then he’s an idiot. And I don’t think he’s an idiot. I think he knew exactly what would happen. I think he knew perfectly well that giving this particular talk — as the opening talk of this particular conference, with these particular speakers and attendees and financial supporters — would be dropping a rhetorical bomb. I think he knew that giving this talk would turn a huge amount of the attention — at the Women in Secularism 2 conference — to Ron Lindsay, and to his opinions about feminism and feminists in the secular movement. And I think he was totally fine with that. I don’t think that was necessarily the point… but I think he knew it would happen, and went ahead anyway.
He was perfectly happy to turn the focus of the Women in Secularism 2 conference onto himself, and his patronizing, ill-informed, straw-feminist opinions of feminists in the secular movement.
What’s more: As far as I know, it is unprecedented for the leader of an organization hosting a conference to write a hostile, mean-spirited, personally vituperous diatribe against one of the conference’s speakers… while that conference is still going on. I’ve certainly never heard of it happening before this. It would have been bad enough for Lindsay to write what he did about Rebecca Watson, and about her very measured response to his talk, under any other circumstances. For him to do this while the conference was still going on — for him to bail on the fundraising dinner and post this piece while that fundraiser was happening — showed an appalling level of contempt: not just for Rebecca Watson, but for everyone at that conference who respects her and came to hear her speak.
And all of this unfolded while one of the primary anti-feminist harassers was sitting there in the audience. All of this unfolded while a person who has been invading and disrupting the Twitter feeds of conferences he thinks are too feminist, a person who has defended the misogynistic online harassment and the use of hate speech against feminist women in the atheist movement, a person who has written for, and done a recent interview with, a misogynist, rape apologist website that’s being monitored by the Southern Poverty Law Center (the organization that monitors hate groups), a person who has said, “I fail to see how refusing to believe in God leads to the ‘logical conclusion’ of abandoning the belief that women exist to serve men,” a person who dealt with a dispute by posting someone’s home address on the Internet, was sitting in the room. The fact that Justin Vacula was attending this conference had many people on edge: nobody knew if he was planning in-person confrontations, or continued online harassment, or what. Many of the people Vacula has personally targeted with harassment were in that room with him. For Lindsay to give that particular opening talk in that loaded environment — and for him to then make a point of going up to Vacula and personally welcoming him to the conference — showed a level of contempt for the speakers and attendees of that conference that is shocking… and that is entirely unacceptable.
I will make this very clear: I don’t think Ron Lindsay consciously intended to treat the attendees and speakers at Women in Secularism 2 with contempt. I just think he didn’t particularly care. And that, in itself, is a serious form of contempt. He treated the very people the conference was being held for as trivial, far less important than him getting to use our platform to spout his opinions. He treated the women at that conference — and the men and non-gender-binary people — as if the patronizing insult he had to know we would take from his talk, and the derailment of one of the few events we have that’s specifically devoted to our concerns, was obviously of less concern than his own personal opinions about our work. He took the space that was set aside for us, and he used it against us. And he did this with no apparent concern for how this might affect us.
He treated us with contempt.
If Ron Lindsay had chosen to simply post this talk on his blog, totally separate from the Women in Secularism 2 conference, I don’t think there would be this level of fury, disappointment, and sheer “What the hell was that?” shock. I think a lot of people would have been angry and upset: but I don’t think the conversation about it would have been eating the Internet.
But that wasn’t the context in which this happened.
And the context in which this did happen was reprehensible.
He treated us with contempt.
And it is absolutely unacceptable.
Ron Lindsay owes every person at that conference, and every feminist in the secularist movement, an apology. And it needs to be a real apology. It cannot be a bullshit, half-assed, “I’m sorry you were upset by my entirely reasonable actions,” “I’m going to spend one sentence apologizing with ten paragraphs on defenses and excuses and counter-accusations” not-pology. It needs to be a real apology. It needs to demonstrate an understanding of what exactly was wrong with his actions, and a promise to not act like this in the future. If he doesn’t, I think it will be very hard for feminists in the secular movement to trust and support CFI again.
The other piece in this two-part series:
A Blatant Misrepresentation — And An Insulting One: The Content of Ron Lindsay’s WiS2 Talk
If you have something to say about Ron Lindsay’s talk at the Women in Secularism 2 conference, and/or about his follow-up posts responding to the controversy… say it to the CFI Board of Directors.
Don’t just say it on Twitter, or on Facebook, or on blog comments, or even on your own blog. Say it to the people who can do something about it. If you’ve already said something on some other forum, please copy and paste it, edit as appropriate, and send it to the CFI Board of Directors.
The CFI Board of Directors can be emailed via the Corporate Secretary, Tom Flynn, at firstname.lastname@example.org. They can also be reached by snail mail, at:
Center for Inquiry Board of Directors
PO Box 741
Amherst, NY 14226-0741