Why Are You Talking?

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Back in 2013, the second Women in Secularism conference was put on by the Center for Inquiry. It was an amazing conference, with strong panels and talks by Rebecca Goldstein, Maryam Namazie, Amanda Marcotte, and Soraya Chemaly. Yet this isn’t why the conference is remembered.

Photo of line-art graffitti in blue on a brick wall painted white. Image is a woman wearing headphones with her hair splayed out behind her and her finger to her lips. Text below reads, "Shhh..."
“Silence at the end of the tunnel, IV” by Newtown Graffitti, CC BY 2.0

It’s remembered most for the opening remarks given by Ron Lindsay, in which he bristled at being told to “Shut up and listen.” He considered it an abuse of the concept of privilege to be told to shut up, even for the purposes of listening. He was appalled to be told he didn’t know what he was talking about.

He quoted a feminist in that speech who was both not part of the secular movement and not representative of the positions movement feminists had been trying to get movement leaders like him to engage with for several years. He only came to understand why his speech was so damaging when he held a listening session with CFI staff some time later. Then he apologized.

Lindsay would have saved himself and his organization quite a bit of trouble had he shut up and listened instead of fighting against the concept. Sadly, if the rest of the movement learned anything from his experience, they appear to have forgotten it before the allegations against Lawrence Krauss finally hit the news.

We saw this when the first public reaction of a whole lot of people who worked with Krauss was to condemn BuzzFeed. While BuzzFeed Entertainment publishes a bunch of tweets, listicles, and Facebook quizzes, work published at BuzzFeed News has been nominated for a Pulitzer and other journalism prizes. It’s hired Pulitzer winners and done significant investigative work. At BuzzFeed’s science desk, Azeen Gorayshi, one of the authors on the article about Krauss, has all but pioneered reporting on harassment in academia and has been recognized by her peers for the work.

Now, I’m not saying I expect everyone to know this about BuzzFeed or Gorayshi. I don’t. I know it because I follow the topic closely.

I do, however, expect that people who want to be accurate in their statements about Krauss would research this before they spoke. I expect them to do the work to get this right or, failing that, to shut up.

We saw Sam Harris volunteer to speak about the importance of not confusing assault with an “inept attempt at flirting“. Even aside from being condescending by suggesting anyone doesn’t know the difference, Harris is wrong here. The one “compliment” mentioned in the article is Krauss telling a teenaged student at a school event that he liked her short clothing after ogling her. It isn’t reported to blur any lines but to demonstrate Krauss’s inappropriate behavior at multiple levels, because sexual predators don’t actually begin by leaping on their victims. They test the response to crossing boundaries, as Krauss did. And reporting that he did so does absolutely nothing to cast any doubt on any of the other allegations. That Harris would suggest it would is frankly bizarre.

Harris didn’t have to demonstrate that he’s opining on sexual victimization without having any idea how it works. He could have made a simple announcement in Phoenix that he, Krauss, and Dillahunty had made a decision Krauss wouldn’t appear that night because he needed time to address the article then kept quiet.

We saw the failure to learn from “Shut up and listen” again when Matt Dillahunty said that the increase in reporting of assault and harassment from #metoo would lead to an increase in false reports. That’s not true, or at least, it’s not predicted based on what we know about false rape reports. Such reports aren’t a statistical certainty. They aren’t based in misunderstandings, they happen for reasons that have nothing to do with wanting attention, and the attention one receives for reporting harassment or assault is generally a disincentive. Given that, an increase in attention to reports of harassment and assault isn’t going to motivate more people to report falsely.

This isn’t something Dillahunty had to say. No one asked him to. If he’d kept his mouth shut instead of speculating, he wouldn’t have made an assertion that functionally props up the idea that women just lie some percent of the time for no good reason. But he chose to speak.

At the same time, we have, for example, Jerry Coyne making essentially the opposite claim. He finds it more likely that the people he heard from after the Krauss article were published were somehow more credible than those in the article. And their witnesses. And the organizations that found against Krauss and restricted his access, despite Coyne listing employers as the appropriate people to determine Krauss’s fate. He seems to be arguing that people who don’t come forward publicly are less likely to be lying about being harassed or assaulted. This, of course, is no more founded in fact than its converse.

Coyne didn’t have to volunteer this information. He had the option to simply say that he believed Krauss had done some or all of what he was accused of. He decided instead to do so in a way that casts doubt on those who come forward on their own to report harassment or assault.

Seth Andrews also chose to speak up instead of stay quiet. He’s claimed on more than one occasion that people who are unimpressed by the responses to the Krauss allegations within the secular movement are alleging some kind of conspiracy. This is almost as odd as Harris’s suggestion that attention to grooming behaviors invalidates claims of assault rather than supporting them. While the BuzzFeed article did talk about a general dissatisfaction some people have with the secular movement, it also laid specific behaviors within the movement, such as the Center for Inquiry continuing to invite Krauss to events, that people have objected to. None of these require a conspiracy. In fact, it’s improbable that CFI would conspire with other organizations to compete for conference-goer dollars. No one expects that podcasters consult with each other about hosting a credibly accused rapist. We simply object.

Andrews didn’t have to offer up a theory of why people are unhappy with the movement. He had plenty of people to ask. The original conspiracy tweet was a response to someone (Eiynah) willing to detail problems within the movement. She’s since repeated the offer, with no response. He simply continues to chalk people’s objections up to irrational thinking.

These are all unforced errors. People didn’t ask these men to speak on harassment and assault generally. They–we–simply wanted to know that the Krauss allegations weren’t going to be swept under the rug or, worse, going to be the occasion of another round of calling women in the secular movement some version of “hysterical” for daring to object. How these men with considerable influence responded would go a long way toward setting the tone on that. We wanted a clear signal.

Instead we got a lot of words on assault and harassment from people who didn’t know that much about it. In some cases, that may have been meant well, as a sign of how seriously this should be treated. In others, it may have been ass-covering or distraction. Ultimately, I don’t care that much.

What I do care about is making a movement where behavior like Krauss’s isn’t tolerated, where it isn’t excused, where it isn’t minimized. I want the people with influence to, if not work toward that goal, at least stay out of the way. That didn’t happen here because these guys felt compelled for whatever reason to say more than they needed to and to speak beyond the limits of their education. The clear messages we asked for were obscured.

None of that would have happened if they’d shut up and listened. We have women in the movement with expertise on these topics. I’m one of them, but there are plenty of others if I’m unacceptable for some reason. These men could have said, “You know, aside from knowing they’re wrong, I don’t really know that much about how harassment and assault work because I haven’t studied them. I’m going to defer to these women on the subject. How about you ask them instead of me?”

Instead, they spoke and spread misinformation. As people with expertise, and as people who bear the consequences of people continuing to get things wrong, we had to speak up. That put us in conflict with the men getting things wrong.

We didn’t ask for this conflict. We asked several years ago for the men of the movement to shut up and listen to the women on this. Instead, we’ve been treated as though power—institutional resources, platforms, audiences–entitles these men to be wrong publicly without criticism. It doesn’t. That’s both unacceptable on its own and contradicts the principles of this movement.

Text graphic: "You could just say nothing. #elonslaw #twibnation"
Seriously, you could.

So when will the men of this movement learn to shut up and listen to the people who have less power but more expertise in relevant areas? It didn’t happen after Women in Secularism 2. It didn’t happen after it was demonstrated we weren’t being hysterical over Shermer. It didn’t happen after it was demonstrated we knew what we were talking about with Krauss.

What does it take? When do they stop talking over us when they don’t know what they’re talking about? When do they start amplifying those of us who do know instead?

It isn’t the principle that’s the problem. Is it an emotional reaction to the wording? Because I’m willing to change that if needed.

Whatever it takes. I just want to know when.

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Why Are You Talking?
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