Women in Secularism, Affirmative Action, and "Lowering the Bar"

So there’s this conference. Maybe you’ve heard of it. It’s the Women in Secularism conference hosted by the Center for Inquiry (CFI); the second one happened in May of this year in Washington, DC.

There’s been some controversy surrounding the conference, most notably with the opening talk given by CFI’s CEO Ron Lindsay. It’s an important elephant in the room, and I don’t want to ignore it — but it’s not what I want to get into here. (If for no other reason, events are still unfolding, and I don’t know where they’ll be by the time this piece comes out.)

Instead, I want to talk about the value of a secularist conference dedicated to women. Or to African-Americans. Or to blue-collar and working-class people. (I haven’t seen one of those last ones, and I’d sure like to!) Or to other marginalized groups. I want to talk about the value of going out of our way, when inviting speakers to a conference or group, to make sure that a good number of them are women, and people of color, and working-class/blue collar, and LGBT, and so on. And this isn’t just about speakers at conferences and local events. I’m talking about going out of our way to get marginalized people in positions of leadership in groups and organizations. I’m talking about going out of our way to include marginalized people when we talk about our history and the great leaders and thinkers from our past. I’m talking about going out of our way to get marginalized people to just show up at our local groups, and to stick around in our local groups … so some of them can rise up to become our next speakers, leaders, organizers, and thinkers.

And I want to talk about one of the most common complaints that we hear when special efforts are made to promote diversity—namely, that doing this is “lowering the bar,” that it will “dilute the talent pool.” That, if we go out of our way to diversify the speakers we listen to and the leaders we follow and the heroes from our past that we lionize, the quality will just naturally go down.

Yeah. See, here’s the thing.


humanist cover july-august 2013
Thus begins my latest Fierce Humanism column for The Humanist magazine, Women in Secularism, Affirmative Action, and “Lowering the Bar.” To find out what exactly I think of the idea that making special efforts towards inclusivity and diversity will “lower the bar” or “dilute the talent pool,” read the rest of the piece. Enjoy!

Women in Secularism, Affirmative Action, and "Lowering the Bar"
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5 thoughts on “Women in Secularism, Affirmative Action, and "Lowering the Bar"

  1. 1

    Which brings me back to the notion that opened this essay: the complaint that making an effort to get more women in our movement is “lowering the bar.” What on earth makes people think that the smartest, funniest, most insightful, most engaging, most talented speakers around will always be white, middle-class, college-educated men?

    Prominent people are prominent? Then circular logic perpetuates this?

  2. 2

    I think it’s just that if they actually said “We are big fish in a small pool and cannot handle the competition if we let most of the human race have a go”, it would be too obvious.

  3. 3

    The reasons for widening skepticism that you talked about make perfect sense. I feel like there is also a strategic reason to widen the outreach. Skepticism is limited when its a while male middle-class thing. It is strategically better for skepticism when it can speak to parts of society that aren’t white, aren’t male, and aren’t middle-class.

  4. Pen

    I liked the article. I sometimes wonder if one of the issues behind the ‘lowering the bar’ isn’t that it’s ‘raising the bar’ more than some parts of the audience can immediately cope with. Suddenly finding themselves introduced to the views of people of other genders, races and classes exposes them to a pretty steep and sudden learning curve. All the more reason to do it of course.

  5. 5

    I noticed that Damion Reinhardt was up to his usual tactics, even going so far as suggesting inviting anti feminist harassers such as Sarah Mayhew to speak at more conferences.

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