Ethical Humanist Society of Chicago: You’re doing it wrong

The Ethical Humanist Society of Chicago revoked a speaking invitation to Sunsara Taylor, which led to much drama. I’ve already posted Taylor’s version of events; now the society has sent me theirs, so here it is. It just confirms to me that they don’t know what they’re doing.

We don’t know if you know all of what has happened since your letter of support for Ms. Taylor but we wanted to give you the history of all that has transpired.  All of the signees of this letter contributed their shared experience to this account.

Our Sunday speakers are chosen by a committee of nine people.  In July, at one of the committee member’s nominations, Ms. Taylor was provisionally invited to speak on a topic of “Morality Without Gods” on November 1.  The official confirmation letter was withheld until the committee was provided with a written description of her talk.

The writen description was finally received on October 13.  Some of the committee felt that the description provided was far outside the topic that was originally proposed. Ms. Taylor was contacted about adjusting her talk to fit what the committee originally thought they were getting. She understandably refused to adjust her talk.   The committee decided by a vote of 7 to 2 to cancel Ms. Taylor as a speaker and the cancellation, with apologies, was emailed on October 19.

We are democratically run organization and the vote isn’t always unanimous; some members were disappointed.  A petition was started to let the invitation stand of which only about 20% of the members supported.  In the end we stuck with our democratic principles.

From October 19 onward Ms. Taylor and her people demanded she be given the November 1 platform.  Attempt after attempt was made to find a solution that, although not ideal for either side, was palatable for both.  The society bent over backwards to appease Ms. Taylor. She was given an October 31 workshop that was well attended and a member of the society offered her home for Ms. Taylor’s self proclaimed “speech in exile” on November 1.  Notice of the “exile” speech was even made through the Society’s list serve. The only thing we would not agree to was having her speak at the society on November 1. All we asked is that she not disrupt the Sunday platform. She did not budge an inch; there was no effort at compromise from her or her people.

One plain clothes police officer from the Skokie police department was at the society the morning of November 1 because some members felt threatened by the fact that Ms. Taylor would not commit to not disrupting the Sunday program.  We had no idea what a Sunsara Taylor inspired protest would entail so the decision was made to err on the side of member safety.

When Ms. Taylor, her cameraman and 20 plus followers showed up on Sunday they were asked not to enter the building, they ignored this request but no action was taken by the society and they entered private property.

After entering the building and our auditorium, Ms. Taylor started to give her speech and her camera man started taping.  They were asked to stop and let us continue our event in our building repeatedly.  They refused and it is then that we asked the single plain clothes officer for support.

When the cameraman acted aggressively toward the police officer he called for backup on his radio.  Uniformed officers responded to that call.  This man continued to resist police attempts to get him out of the building.  It finally took five police officers using mace to subdue him.  One police officer was injured.

What you do with this information is of course entirely up to you, but we thought you should be aware.

No, this story doesn’t wash. That society seems to be really clueless.

First of all, when you invite someone to speak, that doesn’t mean you get to micromanage their talk. Sunsara Taylor is well-known and does not hide her perspective; you know when you invite her to speak, that you will be getting the views of a revolutionary communist, just as you know if you invite me to give a talk that I will be representing the blaspheming godless biologist side of the story. Just the fact that they invite her and then tell her to revise her talk to remove stuff some people might find objectionable is a telling mark against the society. It’s insane to invite Taylor and then ask her to not talk about the communist position; if they got Al Gore to give a talk, would they suggest that he avoid that scary global warming topic, and perhaps not bring up Democratic politics?

Please don’t jump on a high horse and sniffily proclaim that you are following your democratic principles, either. The society was not bringing in Sunsara Taylor to decide how the society budget should be spent, or to lay down a plan for the group’s volunteer efforts for the year. She was brought in to explain one person’s position on moral issues, which she agreed to do, and which she summarized for them in a written description. Accurately, near as I can tell; Taylor does not shy away from expressing herself. Apparently, the society wanted a talking parrot who would say only what they already find agreeable…that is, agreeable to a democratic majority. Minority views are not to be spoken aloud, I guess.

That is bullshit. That makes for a lame speaking series; if inoffensive pablum that reinforces what they already believe is all they want, then they should just go to church. I expect humanist/atheist/agnostic/skeptical societies to constantly challenge and provoke their membership, and have events that encourage people to think. I’ve been to a few meetings of the Minnesota Atheists, for instance, where the speaker was, in my opinion, nuts — and the leadership of the group knew they were inviting someone who would be controversial in our community. That’s good. I’m confident that our local organizations would invite Taylor to speak freely, without preconditions and without gagging her on certain topics. I can also guarantee that they wouldn’t have a majority in agreement with her every word, either, and the arguments would be bracing and informative.

And finally, I simply don’t believe their account of events in which the cameraman was arrested. Alarm bells go off when the best they can do in their formal explanation is to claim that he “acted aggressively”. What does that mean? He told a police officer “no”, he swung a fist, he pulled a knife? I expect a little more precision when someone makes a charge that serious.

We also have two other eyewitness acounts of the event that are seriously at odds with what the society claims. One is from a lawyer who attended the affair.

After approximately two minutes, the police came into the auditorium and Ms. Taylor stated, “I’m going to be leaving now.” At that time the videographer appeared to be recording Ms. Taylor’s statement with a cell phone. I then saw a uniformed police officer and a man in a baseball hat grab the videographer by each arm. I didn’t hear either give any instruction or warning. They proceeded to roughly pull on his arms as they took him out of the room.

Another is from a tour coordinator for Taylor.

I was there and I can attest that Sunsara was never asked to leave the premises, never asked to stop speaking and that Sunsara (contrary to the claims of the EHSC) did not disrupt the Sunday program. Sunsara concluded her brief statement and left to give her talk off-site BEFORE the Sunday replacement program had even begun.

It was during this brief statement that a plain clothes officer and a uniformed officer, without warning or justification, grabbed the videographer by each arm and pulled him out of the room. I, like most people present, thought the police were coming for Sunsara. Instead they went for the one documenting her statement, at the direction of the EHSC’s president.

While both seem to be from people associated with Taylor, rather than entirely independent observers, this is doubly suspicious. The society makes vague claims about the provocation for the arrest, and they go for the cameraman first, rather than the speaker they claim to find disruptive. It’s very fishy.

Even without the observations contradicting their claims, though, I’m unimpressed with the EHSC entirely from their own excuses. They sound like an organization busily suppressing new ideas and ideas they dislike — which is the opposite of what a humanist society should be doing.