I’ve been meaning to parse and publish this for some time. Remember all the way back when Ron Lindsay published and signed that open letter that wasn’t so much a call for civility as a call to STFU? Remember when people got upset? Yeah. Well. According to the letter, we were supposed to call folks before reaming them, so I asked for his phone number on Twitter. I was pretty shocked when he actually gave it to me, but then, he’d just signed the letter saying people should phone each other, so that bit was fresh in everyone’s mind. We couldn’t come up with a good time to talk on the phone, our schedules being what they are, so we eventually conversed via email. By the time all that was done, the furor over the open letter had subsided, and there was always something more pressing to publish, and most days I forgot Ron Lindsay existed.
Obviously, after his extraordinary fuck-ups at WiS2, my memory’s been jogged.
I’ll have Words to Say about the “welcome” speech debacle. And no, I won’t be calling (or emailing) Ron after he failed to live up to his own fucking pledge. But before I get to those Words, here is the conversation surrounding that ridiculous open letter asking us why we can’t just all play nice with each other (which is a question Ron Lindsay should be answering right about now).
This is in response to your April 10 email. I will try to answer your questions as best as I can given my time constraints and also my unwillingness to divulge the contents of private or confidential communications.
Because I am taking the time to answer your questions as best as I can, if you do refer to or reproduce my answers in a blog post, I ask that you reproduce them in full.
Please note that I am speaking only for myself. I do not have the authority to speak for, nor am I speaking for, the leaders of any other organizations.
In response to your questions: First, you need to be aware of the process, at least in broad terms, by which the Open Letter was produced because the wording of your email suggests a misconception of the process.
The Heads group had a meeting in Atlanta on January 26. Heads is a very informal group consisting of the leaders of major secular organizations. It has no constitution, bylaws, written rules of procedure, governing body, etc. It was started several years ago as a way for leaders of these groups to talk about issues of common concern in confidence, in part to foster an atmosphere of cooperation and trust and to help bring about coordinated action where possible.
Prior to this year’s meeting, there was significant discussion on the Heads listserve about diversity issues within the movement and problems relating to online communication. There was also discussion concerning sexism and feminism. I submitted for consideration a proposed statement that leaders of the organizations could sign on to if they wanted. Two other individuals submitted statements for consideration. There was much discussion, including discussion at the actual meeting in January. Secular Woman, through its representatives, was one of the organizations that participated in the discussion.
At the meeting, there was a consensus that the three persons who had submitted proposed statements should confer and draft a statement for consideration. There was also a consensus that the statement should focus on problems with online conduct, with specific mention being made of the despicable comments being directed against some women. The statement would take the form of a pledge by the signatories to do their best to improve the content and tone of online communication, along with some suggestions for everyone, that is, for leaders of organizations as well as everyone else.
There was no consensus at this time to support a statement that was more focused on sexism or feminism, although there was unanimous support for inclusion within the statement of a section that would unambiguously indicate that advocacy of women’s rights was an integral part of the mission of secular organizations.
With this background, let me answer your questions.
Section I, Questions 1-6:
[He didn’t include the questions, so I shall do so here:I. When drafting this open letter, which of the following women/organizations did you reach out to?1. Secular Woman2. Ophelia Benson3. Stephanie Zvan4. Greta Christina5. Rebecca Watson6. Mary Ellen Sikes/American Secular Census]
Prior to the Heads meeting, I publicly solicited input from anyone interested in issues of diversity within the movement and/or the controversy over sexism and feminism. Thus, to the extent that they were interested, all the individuals and organizations you mention had the opportunity to contribute. (As I recall, Stephanie Zvan, Ophelia Benson, Kim Rippere, and Mary Ellen Sikes did submit comments.)
With respect to the Heads discussion, both Mary Ellen Sikes (American Secular Census) and Kim Rippere (Secular Woman) participated. The Heads discussion was limited to members of the Heads group. That’s simply how the group operates.
[Okies. Next section:II. Have you read any of the following posts:5. PZ Myers6. Crommunist ]
With respect to Section II, Questions 1-6, I read all the posts you have cited.
[I guess I should have added a short reading comprehension quiz for each.]
Section III [III. Questions arising from various comments and posts]
Question 1: [How are we to “pick up the phone” or “send a private email” to those who either won’t provide them or won’t answer our calls/emails? Are we supposed to follow this procedure with our harassers?] Your question relates to one paragraph of the Open Letter. This paragraph, as is true with the rest of the Open Letter, presumes people will interpret it using common sense. If talking or writing to someone is pointless, because they have already made their hostility abundantly clear, there is no need to engage in a futile act. I don’t think this needed to be spelled out. (If we had spelled it out, we may have been accused of infantilizing our audience.) The advice to communicate privately at first applies to situations where it’s possible to avoid a needless public battle.
Question 2: [Do you understand why not addressing problematic behavior in public is a problem in and of itself?] I’m not an absolutist in many things, and I’m not an absolutist on this issue either, nor do I suggest that you or anyone else should be. Sometimes private communication is better; sometimes a public statement is better. It depends on the situation and also what you mean by “problematic.” See my answer to Watson #5 below.
Question 3: [Many women, this woman included, feel that the Open Letter give shelter to our abusers, a bludgeon to silence us with, and treats insults and rhetoric as equal in badness to “slurs, expressions of hatred, and threats.” Can you see why this is a major issue for women and PoCs, and will prevent many of us from endorsing it?] I do not interpret the Open Letter as you do. The Open Letter explicitly condemns blogs and comments that exhibit hatred, including rape threats and insults denigrating women. The Open Letter nowhere equates a rape threat with mere rhetoric, however tendentious.
Question 4: [Holding private conversations about equal rights and problematic behavior such as racism, sexism, or ignoring minority voices has historically done little to solve these issues, while taking the conversations public has proven to be very effective. How do you respond to the concern that privacy will allow problems to fester, fail to be effective, and ends up silencing minority voices?] Again, I think you’re misreading the Open Letter. It is not recommending privacy for all communications, all the time. Sometimes public condemnation is appropriate. Judgment is required.
Question 5: [The focus on internet behavior ignores the fact that many of these problems begin and continue offline. It also focuses on tone and gives the appearance of ignoring substance. What is your response to these concerns? Were you aware of them while drafting this letter? If so, why were they not addressed?] As indicated, the Open Letter was a product of discussion among some twenty (or more) people. It was a compromise among people with different perspectives. The consensus was that we should strive for unity, and the Open Letter was a statement almost all groups could endorse. Another statement would not have achieved the same level of unity. Nothing in the Open letter precludes individual organizations from implementing policies or taking action on issues not addressed in the Open Letter. I am aware that harassment, sexist behavior, and other forms of unacceptable conduct occur offline.
Question 6: [Will there be a follow-up open letter explaining what concrete steps your organizations will be taking to end harassment in the secular community? Do you see why merely expressing support for the idea of equality, rather than committing to concrete actions, fails to impress people who have suffered abuse from or been ignored by those proclaiming their belief in equality? Do you see why the letter’s emphasis on civility rather than addressing specific concerns alienates the people whose equality you claim to care about?] I cannot predict what other organizations might do. I doubt if Heads as a group will do much more in the near future simply because there is a significant problem with coordinating action between annual meetings. CFI addresses the problem of harassment in our current policies. We may adopt further relevant policies. Our policies are continually being reviewed to ensure they address issues of concern to members of our community. Regarding the Open Letter’s emphasis on civility, it should not alienate people if they understand the limits and focus of the Open Letter.
Question 7: [How do you respond to those of us who sincerely regard this letter as an attempt to maintain the status quo and ignore the serious issues of sexism in the secular community? Do you think that asking the abused to speak nicely to their abusers is actually helpful?] Regarding the first part of this question, please refer to my prior responses on the specific focus of the Open Letter. Regarding the second part, the Open Letter does not ask “the abused to speak nicely to their abusers.” There is no sentence resembling this statement anywhere in the Open Letter. This is your characterization, and, respectfully, this is a mischaracterization.
Question 8: [If the letter was advising how secular organizations should respond to harmful religious practices/beliefs/actions, or how to respond to racism in the secular community, would you still support it without reservation?] To repeat myself, the Open Letter’s focus was on online conduct, not the broader issue of sexism, so your examples are not analogous. That said, I favor civility where possible. Civility does not imply inaction in the face of objectionable conduct. It never has. Gandhi and King were civil, but they were far from passive. Similarly, with respect to religion, Harris, Hitchens, Jacoby, Dawkins, and Dennett, as well as many others, have been civil, but they have also been vigorous opponents of the harm caused by religion.
RW Section [The following questions arise from the comment you left on Rebecca Watson’s post. These are questions that subsequent commenters wish see you answer.]:
Question 1: [Instead of addressing specific criticisms of the open letter made by Rebecca Watson, American Secular Census, and Secular Woman, you asked for a “fair reading” of the letter. What, in your view, constitutes a “fair reading”? How have these women been “unfair” in their reading so far?] A fair reading of the Open Letter would examine its contents in the context of the problems it specifically set out to address. Such a fair reading would proceed paragraph by paragraph and state whether the points contained therein are wrong or provide advice that should be rejected. I do not think this type of analysis was done by all critics.
My comment was not specifically directed at any one individual, although obviously I did have Rebecca’s post in mind when I made my comment. One statement by Rebecca I thought was particularly unfair. She suggested that the leaders who endorsed the Open Letter “stop etching tablets” and instead “start actively participating in the massive feminist fight against the Religious Right.” CFI has been advocating on behalf of women’s rights for years. It is an integral part of our mission. We’d love to do more. Give us more funds and we’ll do more. I’d be thrilled to have another staffer who could focus exclusively on advocacy for women’s rights, especially in the area of reproductive rights, which are currently under a coordinated assault.
Question 2: [Not one person criticizing the letter has demanded that it “solve all the world’s problems.” They have pointed out how its call for online civility fails to address the serious problem of sexism in the secular movement, which is the source of much of the incivility. How do you address those specific criticisms?] I think everyone who belongs to Heads recognizes that sexism isn’t confined to the Internet. There were differences of opinion on how best to address sexism. Consequently, at this time there was no consensus on the wording of a statement that would address sexism apart from this one paragraph:
The principle that women and men should have equal rights flows from our core values as a movement. Historically, there has been a close connection between traditional religion and suppression of women, with dogma and superstition providing the rationale for depriving women of fundamental rights. In promoting science and secularism, we are at the same time seeking to secure the dignity of all individuals. We seek not only civil equality for everyone, regardless of sex, but an end to discriminatory social structures and conventions – again often the legacy of our religious heritage—that limit opportunities for both women and men.
Question 3: [You take issue with Rebecca’s characterization of the letter as delivered from “on a mountaintop,” but several people offering criticism have explained why the letter gives the impression of a top-down approach. They note that it contains “you statements” – prescribing the conduct you expect from others – and does not contain concrete actions you will take to address these issues, other than a problematic boilerplate pronouncement against insults etc. and moderating comments. How do you respond to these specific criticisms? Do these criticisms help you understand why the letter presented itself as a series of “thou shalts” rather than “we wills”?] I still take issue with the characterization of the Open Letter as being issued from a “mountaintop.” I admire the craft that went into this rhetorical flourish, but am disheartened by its unwarranted suggestion that those who put the letter together view themselves as religious leaders issuing dogmatic pronouncements. There is no justification for this. I presume the members of the secular movement want their leaders to talk about issues and where possible commit to taking unified action. If one is disappointed that they did not address all the issues that one thinks should have been addressed, then, fine, state that. But there is no basis for attributing to them a Moses-like mindset.
You are mistaken, as are others, in implying that the Open Letter has lots of “you” statements. The “you” statements are confined principally to the one paragraph that has drawn so much attention (that is, the paragraph suggesting private communications as a possible alternative to public communications.) The “we” statements in the Open Letter far outnumber the “you” statements. Perhaps the signatories can be accused of inconsistency in pronoun use, but bad grammar does not equate to a top-down approach.
Question 4: [Many of us have no desire to “heal the rifts” between us and our abusers. Would you insist that battered women “heal the rifts” with their batterers? Should we reach out to appease those who write for hate groups like A Voice for Men?] Please reference prior answers. This set of questions, as with others, attributes to the Open Letter advice that is not contained therein.
Question 5: [Did you pick up the phone and speak to Rebecca before writing your comment? If not, why did you neglect to follow the procedure laid out in the open letter that you signed?] No I did not speak to Rebecca before writing my comment and I do not accept your suggestion that my failure to speak to her somehow indicates I was neglecting advice set forth in the Open Letter.
These questions seem inspired, again, by that one paragraph in the Open Letter which recommends that private communications be considered as an alternative to a public communication. However, to infer that one must always talk or write to someone before posting a comment on a blog is to misinterpret the intent of the Open Letter. The intent of that one paragraph of the Open Letter was to suggest private communications as an alternative — where feasible — to starting a public battle. Sometimes this may not be feasible, in part because battle lines are already drawn. Other times, private communication may not be necessary because one’s comment is of the type not likely to be considered incendiary. I think my comment was reasonable, not inflammatory.
But the fact of the matter is I did write privately to Rebecca, Stephanie Zvan and Kim Rippere after my comment. I had some concerns which I did not raise in my public comment. These were discussed. There was still disagreement at the end, but I made a deliberate decision not to go public with my remaining concerns because I thought it might create an unnecessary battle, yielding divisiveness instead of respectful disagreement. Private communications are not always better, but they are sometimes better.I hope this answers your questions.Regards,Ron
So I got this email, and read it a few times, and while I was grateful he’d taken the time to answer lil ol me, I was still left with a few odd flavors on my tongue:
1. It might have just been me, but I felt like I’d just been lectured to by a condescending jackass.
2. He never did understand that the questions I was asking were synthesized from the questions and concerns of dozens of people in the comment sections of several posts, regardless of the fact I reminded him of that several times. This did not boost my faith in his reading comprehension skillz.
3. He’s relying on “fair reading” and “misconception” to protect his ass. It sure as shit didn’t work for me.
But, y’know, whatevs. I was willing to give him the bennies of the doubts, and chalk it up to him being in a rush and all that, and figured that he probably wasn’t such a bad sort at heart. But then came WiS2, and there are no more bennies of the doubts. Not when the man’s so busy with a backhoe digging his way to the opposite side of the Earth that he can’t hear the united chorus of people who are extremely put out by his extraordinary bullshit. You are all welcome to read the above exchange in light of subsequent events and form your own conclusions. And should you wish to see the entire email chain, I will publish it.
And Ron? If you’re reading this and bristling at my tone, I invite you to pause and consider how your own tone might be improved, and how in the future you might manage to avoid pissing off nearly every woman (and a good chunk of the decent men) in our movement. I wish you every success with your contemplative endeavors.