I Get (Other People's) Email

This letter has apparently been being sent all over the map, to organizations and (I think) mailing lists. I’ve had it forwarded to me several times because I’m mentioned in it, sort of. The poor fellow feels, despite this wide distribution, that he is being censored, so I thought he should get published at least once.

I was previously advised that my below response to the “Open Letter”, signed by a number of prominent figures in the freethought community regarding alleged sexual harrassment and the need for decorum among atheists and humanists, was to have appeared in the next edition of a major atheist magazine.

I assume the writer means this letter signed by the heads of several organizations.

The editor, who was in full agreement with the points made in my letter (printed in full below),  has just advised me that the group’s Board of Directors did not want to publish my letter or any other rebuttals to the claims made in the “Open Letter.”

I will do the editor, presumably the editor copied on at least one of these emails, the courtesy of allowing them to speak for themself. This editor is generally not considered someone who needs others to speak for them.

It is clear that the atheist/humanist movement is not immune to censorship and knee-jerk adherence to a feminist PC agenda.

Dennis Middlebrooks
FANNY (fFreethinking Activist Non-Believing New Yorkers)

Any publication that has an editor does not publish everything sent to it. The same is true for any publication that represents a particular organization. You can call that censorship if it makes you feel better. I’ll get to the laughable last half of that sentence in a moment.

Here is the censored letter:

Since 2001, I have attended annual conventions of every major atheist/humanist group in the USA, as well as many meetings of the several groups here in NYC. I guess I am blind to reality, but I have never gotten the impression that the women who attended these events were told they could not think, or were groped, or yelled at, or shut out of posiitions of leadership, as Stephanie Zann asserts.

Well, yes, you probably are blind to reality. First of all, conferences and conventions aren’t the topic of “An Open Letter to the Secular Community“, which you say your letter addresses. That letter addresses online behavior. Secondly, I did not have any hand in writing that open letter, so any claims or assertions I have made were made somewhere other than the letter, making this a non sequitur.

Additionally, characterizing these experiences as assertions that I have made is an insult to all of the women who have shared their experiences either in hopes of making things better or as an explanation of why they do not participate in the events of our movements. Some of these women have only shared their experiences privately, but there are many, many more over the last several years who have told their stories publicly. When you call the recent changes in the movement “knee-jerk”, you’re ignoring the years of pressure women have brought to bear on these topics.

Finally, one of the likely reasons you’re blind to this reality is that neither I nor anyone I know is going to volunteer to tell anyone who uses terms like “feminist PC agenda” in public that we’ve experienced sexist treatment. You’ve already telegraphed the reception any woman is likely to get from you on that topic.

At least until recently, I recall most of the attendees being middle aged or older, well behaved and friendly, with most of the women participating with their husbands or significant others.I never got the impression that any of these women, whether young or old,  were fearful of angry over how they were being treated.

You do understand that no woman is required to attend any of these events, yes? And yet it never occurred to you to wonder where the young or single or outspoken women were?

I do recall women in leadership posiitons for the American Atheists, Atheists Alliance and the Freedom From Religion Foundation, and I recall many women guest speakers and panelists.

I’ve done more than recall these women. I’ve looked at how they are spoken of and written about. I’ve talked to a rather large number of them and listened to more speak about being a woman in the secular movement. We certainly don’t all agree on what needs to happen in the movement, but all of them have faced sexist treatment from other atheists.

As for female guest speakers and panelists, you have feminists to thank for seeing as many as you do. They are the people who noticed that it was possible to go to an event like these and not hear a single woman speak. They said something, they argued that it was important, they stood their ground in the midst of blowback, and the situation changed.

I do not recall any women, whether attendees, leaders, guest speakers or panelists speaking out at the conventions before all of the attendees to denounce this alleged threatening, sexist behavior and identifying the culprits by names.

Do me a little favor. Find out who organized the last conference you attended. Ask that organizer whether they think the stage of their conference is the appropriate place for that behavior. Report back.

Alternately, you could read the harassment policy of any of these organizations and look to see how they want complaints reported. I haven’t seen a single one that suggested the stage was the correct venue.

That would have been the appropriate forum to do so, instead of unleashing wild, unsubtantiated accusations against unidentiifed males, both on the leadership and membership levels, in our pulbications and on the blogosphere, thereby providing grist for the Religious Reich to label the freethought movement as sexist, violent and depraved.

Actually, the accusations against unnamed speakers were made from the stage. They were made there because until very recently, there has been no channel for official complaints, and no amount of private complaint had changed that situation. It is only after feminists talked about these things openly that policies and procedures have been adopted.

If you would like to have these things handled privately, instead of from the stage as you just suggested (and oh, would that ever catch the attention of the press), the people you should be talking to are the organizations. You should tell them to listen when these issues are first brought up privately and make changes then, so no public advocacy is needed. Otherwise, you’re merely advocating that women (and the men who, yes, do get harassed) suffer in silence for the good of your cause, and you would never suggest that.


I think there is a huge difference between the type of persons who organize and attend freehought conventions and those who are addicted to posting rants on the blogosphere.

Actually, as you’ve singled me out, I should note for the record that I both attend and organize freethought conferences. Tickets are still available for ours if you’d like to come. We do have a harassment policy, though.

There are milions of unstable people out there on the internet, and trolling is rampant. We should not rule out the likelihood that some of this trolling is done by religious wackos out to discredit the secular progressive/freethought movement.

If you’re going to talk about the internet, you should perhaps get a little more familiar with what happens there, or at least the terminology. “Trolling” refers to behavior aimed at disrupting online discussions. It doesn’t imply that the people involved are not sincere, it doesn’t imply that they’re not part of the community, and it certainly doesn’t imply that their behavior is not abusive.

The identities of several of the most persistent harassers are known at this point. There no reason to think they’re “religious wackos”. Some of them, and the people who support them, even attend movement events. You may have met some of them.

And at the risk of sounding un-PC, I believe there are far too many atheist or humanist women out there who are all too ready to regard any and all criticism and disagreements directed at them from men as a form of sexual condescension or harassment.

I’m sure you do. Of course, we’ve already established that you’re woefully out of touch on these matters. So, as a test, is this criticism and disagreement? How about this? This?

I have experienced this first hand myself here in NYC.

Were you talking about the “feminist PC agenda”?

I find the recommendations in this Open Letter to be rather insulting, as it clearly embraces the accusations leveled at the freethought movement by the likes of Stephanie Zann and others, is clearly directed at men, and in effect tells them to change their wicked ways.

As I mentioned before, the Open Letter is about online behavior. Which “wicked ways” addressed in the letter belong to all men? Are you claiming this on behalf of all men: “Insults, slurs, expressions of hatred, and threats undermine our shared values of open and candid discussion because they move us away from an exchange of views supported with reasons” or something else? Be specific.

In other words, we men need to be reined in so the women like Zann can feel more comfortable in our midst.

Actually, I generally feel quite comfortable at these events, myself. I’m middle aged and intimidating. People who harass generally look for someone they figure will be an easier target than I am.

This is collective guilt, pure and simple, and I reject it.

Not at all. This is collective responsibility. If we want our movement to attract more women (or any other underrepresented group), we are the people who have to listen to the answers when we ask why more of them don’t participate. We have to stop denying them because we don’t like them or they make some of us feel guilty, and then we have to do something about them. Otherwise, we have to stop pretending that we want women to participate. That’s our responsibility as leaders in the secular movement.


Dennis Middlebrooks
FANNY (Freethinking Activist Non-Believing New Yorkers)

Does FANNY as an organization stand behind you on this letter? If so, just out of curiosity, what percent of your membership is female?

I Get (Other People's) Email
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28 thoughts on “I Get (Other People's) Email

  1. 1

    Two things come to mind:

    1) Confirmation bias, motherfucker. Heard of it? ‘Cause it’s heard of you.

    2) Some Irish friends and I were recently chuckling over the divergence in the meaning of the word “fanny” in America vs. Ireland, where the word is a vulval euphemism. Considering the topic under discussion, the name of his organization tickles my irony bone.

  2. 3

    I can understand why editors wouldn’t publish Dennis’s letter since it’s all over the place. He complains about the Open Letter’s effect on conferences and conventions when those aren’t mentioned in the Open Letter at all. He grouses about PC feminism in general and some woman named “Stephanie Zann” in particular. His attitude is “I haven’t seen a problem so one doesn’t exist.” Unless his letter was sent to American Atheist magazine or a similar publication then his complaints would not be relevant to a general audience.

  3. 4

    Taslima Nasrin is apparently one of the honorary members of Fanny; Middlebrooks apparently helped her some in 2008/2009. Maybe ask her about Middlebrooks?

  4. 6

    Curious mob this, FANNY:

    Founder-Directors (1998)

    Dennis Middlebrooks, Warren Allen Smith


    Janet Asimov, Robert Delford Brown, Tatyana Mamonova, Dennis Middlebrooks,
    Taslima Nasrin, Warren Allen Smith, Eric Walther


    Purpose: FANNY acts as liaison to humanistic groups that cater to the interests of fellow agnostics, atheists,
    secularists, humanists, philosophic naturalists, and freethinkers

    I highly doubt that his fellow chairpeople are in the boat with Dennis “DJ” Middlebrooks here, but who knows. If we have learned anything in the last few years, it’s that free thinkers are not necessarily good thinkers. Or spell people’s names right, for that matter.

  5. 7

    @ 1 Crommunist

    Yeah. I’m not Irish, but my country has similar slang, and I remember when I first heard an American woman refer to carrying things in her fanny pack it raised my eyebrows considerably.

  6. 11

    Ok, Dennis, if women are always reacting negatively to your mansplaining, then maybe you’re the problem. I know getting off of your privilege horse and actually listening is much harder than jousting strawmen, but you need to grow the fuck up.

  7. 12

    Shorter Dennis Middlebrooks (in his capacity as host of “Find the Fallacy!”):

    “I have a number of anecdotes which I would like to relate that significantly bolster my opinion, in my opinion.”

  8. 13

    Here is the censored letter

    Which you’ve shared with every secular organization, some big names within freethought, perhaps some mailing lists, and now had quoted on a popular blog.

    I don’t think Middlebrooks knows what “censor” means…

  9. 15

    Huh, despite the ridiculous name, FANNY, and Middlebrooks current swallowing of strawfeminism and weird issue with Stephanie while not being able to spell her name… The organisation at least has done some good stuff in the past, seems rather inactive now though.

    Shame having been on pro-feminist marches and working to help Taslima he’d end up spewing anti-feminist rubbish. Makes you wonder where it comes from, he does have a strong Asimov link so I wonder if it came from the involvement in this.

  10. 16

    Oolon @ 14

    Yeah that occurred to me right after I posted it.

    Stephanie, you can delete my comment @ 10 if you feel it;’s inappropriate.

  11. 17

    This is collective guilt, pure and simple, and I reject it.

    Possible translation — I feel guilty when I read your letter, so you should shut up.

    Huh, whoops, other possible translation — just because some men (that I’ve never seen) do this, doesn’t mean I would do it. Therefore, there is no reason for me to read your letter, much less reply to it????? (As it doesn’t address me.)

  12. 18

    @15 oolon: his CV in the movement looks like something out of the 1940s, with most of his activism being letters to the editor (at least as presented in that link). His writing isn’t very compelling either; reads like a precocious sixth grader.

  13. 19

    I wish the anti-feminists would get their message straight. If they don’t speak out from the stage, it’s “locker room banter” that’s just there to drum up blog hits and provide “grist for the Religious Reich;” if they speak out from the stage, it’s “naming and shaming” and they should have “pick[ed] up the phone” first, and they’re not going through proper reporting channels. Of course, so much of this shitstorm started when one woman gave a speech that touched on these topics from the stage, and I don’t see Middlebrooks lauding Rebecca Watson for that, or Pamela Gay for that matter (who, it seems, wasn’t invited back to TAM; strange, that).

    I know double-standards are the secondary weapons of anti-feminists (after false equivalence), but it’d just be nice if they could get together and figure out exactly what they want. I mean, if they don’t want women to speak out from the stage, and they don’t want them to do so privately, and they don’t want them to speak out on blogs and videos, then it looks like they just don’t want women talking…

    Nevermind, I figured it out. Carry on.

  14. 20

    At least until recently, I recall most of the attendees being middle aged or older, well behaved and friendly, with most of the women participating with their husbands or significant others.

    So, the only women participating were those who could rely on the protection of a male partner and this doesn’t even strike him as odd?

  15. 22

    Wow! Go to Dennis Middlebrooks page on Philosopedia (linked above) you get this nugget of wisdom:

    “The Tuskegee experiment did not involve the government infecting anyone. To learn the long-term effects of the disease, the feds withheld treatment from a group of black men who had previously contracted syphilis. There was no assurance that these men would have had access to treatment had there been no Tuskegee experiment. Using these men as guinea pigs was disgraceful. Yet it is a far cry from deliberately infecting them, as is commonly believe now. ”

    Basically, the black men infected themselves with syphillis, so the government did not infect them….

    In the strictess sense, “True”. But once the government enrolled them in a study instead of curing, or innoculating, the government did “infect them”, or more aptly, “continued the infection”.

    Why would anyone argue about the initial point of contraction, and not how the government used them as guinea pigs. It is an arguement from semantics. The government did not cure the men in the “Tuskegee Study”, so the government damn well infected them by withholding treatment.

  16. 23

    Why would anyone argue about the initial point of contraction, and not how the government used them as guinea pigs.

    Technically correct may be the best kind of correct for bureaucrats, but it’s the only kind of correct for TrueSkeptics™.

    Dennis must have really gotten in touch with his non-Vulcan side to be able to call the government’s behaviour ‘disgraceful’, though we cannot rule out the possibility that he was undergoing Pon Farr at the time of writing.

  17. 24

    Privilege blindness is a hard thing because, you know, it’s blindness. Cruelly, it can be exacerbated by perfectly innocent egalitarian intentions: being “genderblind” can actually cause you to miss examples of (usually unintentional) misogyny.

    I’ve been at the same job for 15 years now. The company has been widely recognized for its efforts towards diversity, and the last two CEOs have been women. I worked there for a good decade before I started to notice the subtle ways in which women were excluded from conversations, marginalized, etc. Once I started seeing it, it was really freaky — it was like finally seeing the gorilla walking across the frame in the famous inattentional blindness experiment. It takes a certain measure of humility to start to see it, as well as a certain amount of trust — unfortunately something that often as skeptics we tend. You kind of have to just take people’s word for it that there is something there to see, and then start looking for it, before it starts to become clear. And that’s not something a lot of us are used to doing.

  18. 26

    It will be interesting to see how reprinting his letter, with rational commentary ripping it to shreds, will somehow be a violation of his “free speech”.

  19. 27

    AtheistAnon, I think the middle aged goes with the “well-behaved and friendly” part. You know, because it’s only the younger women who are sexual and thus subject to harassment, at least to a certain segment of the male population who thinks it’s all about being sexy by their narrow definition. Once we hit middle age we pass beyond being sexy and settle down to being well-behaved, and because we’re not being harassed, we’re friendly. Or so that thinking would go.

    Personally, having advanced from middle aged to Medicare, I’m inclined to be even less well-behaved, way more selectively friendly, and the one grown-up who counts tells me I’m more sexy than ever. He must be right because not all the harassment has stopped.

  20. 28

    I am delighted to see that my e-mail, which I had sent to a limited number of people I know in the freethought movement, has seen such wide distribution, eventualy working its way down the food chain to this website.

    My letter was selected for publication in Secular Nation Magazine by Tom Melchiorre, the now former editor, since he was in agreement with the points raised. The Board of Atheists International overruled him and told him that not only would no letters along the lines of what I wrote be printed, he himself was not to editorialize on the topic give his contrarian views . Tom was subsequently removed from the Board of Athieists International and his position as editor of Secular World for his refusal to toe the party line. Some may call this censorship; not, apparenlty, contributors to this blog

    My precocious sixth grade writing style has resulted in articles published in the IHEU News, Freethought Today, Secular Nation, and Pique (the newsletter of the Secular Humanist Society of New York). Also, to date, I have had about 250 published letters to various publications, including The Humanist, Free Inquiry, Skeptical Inquirer, American Atheist Magazine, the N.Y. Times, Freethought Today, The Skeptic, The Atlantic, and many regional newspapers. I must have has a great sixth grade teacher at P.S. 58 in Brooklyn.

    As for FANNY, Warren Allen Smith, that esteemed nonagenarian gay and freethought activist, selected the name back in the 1990’s. I personally like it, and I do not care how funny some Irish may find it.

    I have had a lot more to say about this PC miasma infecting the atheist, humanist and skeptic movements than was contained in that letter, and I intend to have a lot more to say in the future.

    Dennis Middlebrooks

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