This letter was emailed today to the Center for Inquiry board in care of board secretary Tom Flynn. I am one of the speakers who signed it.
June 3, 2013
Board of Directors
Center for Inquiry
c/o Secretary Tom Flynn
PO Box 741
Amherst, NY 14226-0741
Delivered via email.
Dear members of the board:
We write to you as speakers at the Women in Secularism conference last weekend to say that Ron Lindsay’s conduct during this conference was unwelcoming, obstructive, and highly unprofessional. From his opening speech to his use of social media during the conference to his use of the CFI blog to attack a speaker during the conference to his interactions with conference-goers to his current silence on several matters, his behavior as CEO of the conference’s sponsoring organization was unique in our experience as speakers. It made our work at the conference more difficult and has increased the level of ongoing harassment that some of us face as women working in the secular movement.
Whatever Lindsay’s intentions for his opening speech, the end result was a confrontation with speakers and audience members. Lindsay drew attention to the fact that he declined to welcome us. A diverse group of feminists was patronizingly informed that feminism is not a monolith. He shared his grudging acceptance of one of the initiatives to have come out of the discussions after last year’s conference. He warned us that the secular movement has limited resources to pursue our interests. He presented us with the task of answering questions during the conference that none of us had been asked to prepare to address until that moment.
After this, Lindsay spent nearly half the opening speech—of the Women in Secularism conference—arguing against straw-feminist dogma in the secular movement, including the patently false notions that feminist women in the secular community don’t want to hear any ideas about feminism from men, and that we are attempting to silence men. He then ended with a plea for us to respect the humanity of men by allowing them to continue to speak, perpetuating the myth that feminists are trying to (or are in any position to) silence men while ignoring the very real silencing behavior that has been turned on many women in this movement. To say this is unacceptable would be an understatement. This is bizarre behavior.
The equivalent opening remarks at CSICon would decline to welcome everyone, announce that there are competing strands of skepticism, shrug that he’d come to see some of a new pro-vaccine group’s points, announce he’d suddenly decided that speakers should justify their use of the skeptical movement’s resources, spend almost half the speech talking about how some unnamed people might misuse logical fallacies, and warn the audience about the consequences to the world should they turn denialist and get themselves elected to public office. Such a speech might not be designed to leave the audience confused and hurt, but it would do so just the same.
This is a disservice and a discourtesy to speakers. A conference opening statement exists to pull an audience together and prepare them to listen to and engage with what they about to hear. Instead, Lindsay handed over an audience that was unsettled and distracted, making the job of every speaker more difficult.
The difficulties were increased off-stage as well. Conversations with attendees and CFI staff primarily revolved not around the talks and shared activism but around that opening statement. The energy and passion for activism that the first Women in Secularism conference inspired was noticeably dimmed in the hallways at the second—or routed into dealing with the insult we had all been dealt.
The situation was made worse by Lindsay’s conspicuous absence during talks on both Saturday and Sunday. It was made worse again by his failure to attend Saturday’s fundraising banquet. It was made far, far worse by his decision to use the time he was not at the banquet to publish a post on the official CFI blog calling one of CFI’s invited speaker’s mild, reasoned response to his concerns about silencing “the most intellectually dishonest piece of writing since the last communique issued by North Korea” and saying that she “inhabits an alternate universe.” By Sunday morning, several of us were actively propping up CFI staff morale.
To be quite clear, every other CFI employee and volunteer—both from CFI U.S. and from CFI Canada—we dealt with during the conference was helpful, friendly, and engaged. They exhibited extreme grace under fire and deserve a very large part of the credit for making this conference the success it was, Melody Hensley in particular. (Out of deference to those who are already dealing with a difficult situation and potential conflicts of interest, we have not given Melody Hensley, Lauren Becker, Debbie Goddard, or Elizabeth Cornwell an opportunity to sign this letter though they spoke at the conference.)
To pile on the insults, when asked to give examples of the “silencing” behavior to which Lindsay devoted so much of his speech, he failed (in addition to failing to demonstrate any actual silencing) to name one single secular woman. At this conference, CFI’s CEO used his opening remarks to pick or continue a fight with a man in the audience and to suggest that we women should comment on this fight from our stage.
Then there is the question of harassment. Someone who has harassed several of the Women in Secularism speakers over the past year was allowed to attend after making known his intentions to confront those speakers in person at the conference. CFI was aware that these speakers had concerns about his attendance and were aware of his intentions because those speakers contacted Lindsay and provided documentation of this harasser’s public statements on the matter.
At the conference itself, Lindsay had no contact with two of those speakers. He did not address the problem of harassment in his remarks, although one of last year’s speakers has since dropped out of the secular movement due to the harassment she received. He did not address the use of the official conference hashtag by other long-time harassers, which was obvious to everyone tweeting and everyone using Twitter to follow the conference. He did, however, shake hands with the harasser and give him an official welcome to the conference, an action that was promptly broadcast by the harasser in attendance.
This is an insult to those harassed, but it has broader effects than mere insult. Lindsay’s behavior on this topic has energized and emboldened these harassers. They are lauding him as a hero for standing up to the victims of harassment. They are crowing to those they harass that the weekend was a victory for them. They are filling official CFI blog comment threads with malicious nonsense that is being allowed to stand. They are copying him on their Twitter harassment, which has increased dramatically over the weekend and since the conference has ended. Some examples:
@jeh704: @GretaChristina @NotungSchwert I loved @RALindsay talk at WIS. please retweet and keep the hater out like Greta.
@mykeru: @SecularWoman You demand an apology from @RALindsay? How about you carpet-baggers apologize to the secular community? @Secularlyyours
@slappyhappystack: @jennifurret @RALindsay oh stfu u silly cunt
Lindsay is aware of all of this. He has not spoken out to stop it. Because of his actions during the conference and his lack of action after the conference, speakers and former speakers at the conference are facing harm. Vendors and people who raised or donated money to send people (including men) who couldn’t afford tickets to Women in Secularism are facing harm. The CEO of CFI used the Women in Secularism conference to his own ends in ways that support those who are working to drive many women out of the secular movement.
As speakers, writers, and thinkers, we support the work CFI does. We promote CFI’s programs to our own wider audiences. We provide our time and our skills to further CFI’s mission.
In return for doing all that for CFI’s Women in Secularism conference, we were insulted by CFI’s CEO and required to do more work to make CFI’s conference a success. As a parting gift, many of us face continuing unpleasant repercussions of the actions he took while we were aiding his organization. This is unacceptable.
At a minimum, Ron Lindsay owes us, his staff and volunteers, and the people who paid to attend his organization’s conference an apology that demonstrates that he understands the harm he has caused and commits to repair the damage. Anything less will make it difficult, if not impossible, for us to continue to support CFI the way we have in the past. While we support CFI’s work, we are not willing to be abused or see others abused to see that work go forward.
[13 speakers from the 2013 Women in Secularism conference]