FeminismSkepticism

Reasonable Divisions? CFI Vancouver Cancels Women’s Skepticism Group

 

Before I begin, it’s probably important to say that I appear to have caught some kind of horrible dread illness that has turned my bronchial tubes into sandpaper. Undoubtedly, this has something to do with all the toxins I’ve absorbed, an imbalance of chi energy, and the unnatural chemicals in my flu shot a couple weeks ago. As such, I’m writing through a thick haze of NyQuil, fever and my natural scatter-brainedness. The sentences look like little corridors.

Over the last couple weeks, there’s been a bit of a controversy brewing up here in Vancouver. In September, a women’s skepticism discussion group, dubbed Reasonable Women after a similar group based out of Saskatchewan, was established as an initiative of Center for Inquiry Vancouver. It was organized by Natalie Nikolaeva, and partly inspired by recent lectures from Jen McCreight and Ophelia Benson, along with some of the issues that emerged out of the controversy in July, as a safe space for women to discuss skepticism, feminism and the intersections of the two. A couple weeks ago, however, news broke that CFI Vancouver’s Executive Director, Jamie Williams, after a series of meetings with Natalie, chose to cancel Reasonable Women as a CFI Initiative, leaving it in the position of having to either fold or continue as an independent organization.

Naturally, this sparked some controversy.

I probably don’t really need to explain to you wonderful and lovely Skepchick readers that the issue of alleged sexism or androcentrism in the skeptical community and movement, the lack of diversity therein, and concerns that it fails to adequately address the needs and issues of women and other underprivileged groups have been rather touchy subjects over the last several months. Although initial reports described the decision as amicable, and it seems that all parties were acting in good faith and with good intentions, it was clear that there was indeed a fair bit of resentment and hurt on both sides. It re-ignited the very same tensions that the Reasonable Women initiative was originally designed to address, and it certainly raised a number of very uncomfortable, thorny, tangly questions.

Once the issue became public, CFI Vancouver quickly responded with a statement describing the reasons for the decision to end Reasonable Women as a CFI initiative. It was stated that the issues seemed to be that Reasonable Women was moving beyond the originally approved proposal of a women’s social discussion group and into a feminist advocacy and activism organization, that this kind of group fell outside of CFI’s focus, and that there had been an unapproved event (a screening of the documentary film Miss Representation). But… where does one draw the line between discussion and advocacy? What kinds of activism was Reasonable Women engaged in, and how did it differ from other CFI projects? What is within the scope of CFI and what is beyond it? Why was the organization originally approved and then that approval revoked after only two meetings? What changed? And why was Reasonable Women the only CFI initiative to face such a decision, and be regarded as outside their focus?

In order to sort out this whole messy business, I arranged to interview both Natalie Nikolaeva and Jamie Williams about their perspectives on the “split” and to try to work out what was actually going on. While neither can really speak for the entirety of their respective organizations (and I would like to make it clear that their individual perspectives are only individual, and don’t necessarily reflect any official positions), I figured it would be helpful to at least ask some questions beyond the official statements.

It seemed like a central issue was what, exactly, Reasonable Women had been intended to be and how it may have strayed from that. Natalie described the goals and purpose of the group as

“promoting feminism and skepticism, providing a space for women (and those self-identifying as women or sharing our concerns) to discuss topics that directly relate to us and the issues we face in the skeptics movement…Reasonable Women provides an entry point for those who feel uncomfortable or are being silenced in other groups/events. This sentiment was echoed by most women who attended our meetings. Many have also pointed out that some men try to monopolize the conversation, without even realizing that they are doing it or how it makes others, especially women, feel.”

Jamie described the initial proposal as

“a skeptical discussion group, like Cafe Inquiry [a CFI skeptical discussion group], but for women. It was proposed on the basis that some women might not feel comfortable at other CFI Vancouver or other local skeptical events, especially if they were new, either because of the location or a strong male presence. Natalie proposed that this discussion group would help those women become more comfortable with contributing at events like Cafe Inquiry, and it would act as a ‘stepping stone for them into the movement’ and to other CFI Vancouver events.”

So it would seem that the initial ideas meshed up fine. Women can often feel alienated from the skeptical community due to it often being a primarily male community, so it would make sense to provide a discussion group for women skeptics to have both an entry point into the wider skeptical community of Vancouver, as well as a safe space to discuss specifically feminist or women-oriented issues. Seems like something valuable, important, of little or no harm, and not in any way outside the scope of CFI Vancouver’s activities. So if this was the proposed role of the group, as Natalie saw it and Jamie approved it, when and where did things go wrong? What happened?

Natalie:

“Others might disagree, but this is how I see it: there was never any real, solid connection between CFI Vancouver and Reasonable Women, only a formal one. Me and other people involved received zero support or guidance as to how we should have handled this group or what this group could or could not do in terms of CFI policies. The only real positive aspect of being connected to a large organization like CFI is obviously increased publicity and a bigger member base from which we could get new people to join us. The split, which is not referred to as such by CFI, has happened because CFI decided that our aims and their aims don’t match up…I feel that there is a lot of uncertainty as to what is and will be happening within CFI Vancouver and if our group does not fit in, what does?”

Jamie:

“The initiative that was originally proposed was a women only skeptical discussion group…Within a very short period of time it became apparent that the organizers and some of the attendees desired the group to be a feminist advocacy group which was not the stated purpose for which the initiative was started, and outside the purview of CFI… What the organizers and some people wanted stopped being the simple social discussion group that was started when they began considering autonomy (including discussion of their own website, group policies, any talk of ‘dissociation'[sic] with CFI Vancouver), wanting to diversify events and plan large outreach events…and adopting an agenda or aligning with an ideology of any sort. That direction is outside CFI Canada’s model of operation, outside our focus, and a far cry from the proposal that was made to me that I approved.”

So we start getting the idea that rather than being simply a discussion group for women skeptics, it began to take on the form of a feminist advocacy organization, and that the cross into “activism and advocacy” may have begun to develop around the time that they began pushing for greater autonomy and outreach.

But one can’t help but wonder whether that distinction may have been based solely on it being a feminist organization. Rumours began to surface that the decision may have been handed down from CFI Canada itself, who’s founder, Justin Trottier, has a long and explicit association with the men’s rights movement. This year, he publicly headed up Toronto’s Men’s Issues Awareness Campaign. But Jamie made it clear that the decision was his own,

“It was a local programming decision, made by me in my role as branch Executive Director. The National Executive was not involved in the decision, and it was not a reflection of any branch or national policy. To reiterate, the only reason for this decision was that the direction the organizers and attendees wanted to go in was outside the purview of CFI Canada.”

As for whether feminist concerns are themselves considered outside their area of focus, he responded,

“Discussing feminism and women’s issues is by no means outside of CFI’s purview. Indeed, in the last 12 months CFI Vancouver has hosted lectures by Ophelia Benson, discussing the part religion plays in the suppression of women, and Jen McCreight, discussing the gender gap in the skeptical/atheist movement. We have also touched on these issues in our book club and our Cafe Inquiry discussion group. These issues are topical and important, and their discussion is always welcome. However, an initiative dedicated solely to feminist activism or advocacy is unfortunately not something that CFI Canada has the resources to organize. Neither does CFI Canada run initiatives which perform activism or advocacy independently.”

Of course, we are still stuck with some of the tricky questions about where we draw those lines. Other specialized initiatives run by CFI are still running along fine, and Reasonable Women was the only initiative to get the axe.

Natalie:

“I do not wish to speculate on what motivated CFI to make this decision, but since other programs that don’t necessarily fit within their area of focus have not been cancelled, it gives you food for thought. I hope that there are no elements beyond what [the official statement from CFI] provided, but again the abrupt nature of the ‘split’ might suggest otherwise.”

Other programs that continue to operate as CFI Vancouver initiatives include a Freethinker’s Book Club, Cafe Inquiry, one of Vancouver’s Skeptics in the Pub nights, and ongoing participation in a blood drive. A notable “smoking gun” in suspicions about the nature of CFI’s decision was the “Movember” drive, in which a team of various male volunteers and friends of CFI grow mustaches in support of prostate cancer research. It recently came to light, however, that Movember was never an officially sanctioned CFI project, and has since had their name disassociated from the team.

Perhaps it was not so much Reasonable Women’s nature as a women’s feminist organization that led to it being differentiated from other initiatives and cancelled as a CFI program, but rather simply the movement in the direction of an overt, autonomous activist agenda (regardless of the exact nature of that agenda). But still, other CFI programs could potentially be described as activist… for instance, their battle against an attempt to ban Gay-Straight Alliances in Catholic Schools, and work to address people’s concerns about WiFi and present the scientific evidence. Though these presumably didn’t operate autonomously, as in the direction Reasonable Women was heading (to be a CFI “affiliate” or “sub-group”), and were also likely proposed and approved exactly as what they ended up being.

One thing I strongly regret not getting a chance to delve into was from where the change in Reasonable Women’s direction came. It’s also still unclear why the threat of cancellation from CFI didn’t simply dissuade them from pursuing that direction, or whether or not that risk had ever become publicly known to its members. From an outside perspective, it largely seems like a big chain-reaction of snow-balling misunderstandings. A misunderstanding perhaps on CFI’s part that a skeptical women’s discussion group would have a strong feminist tilt, a misunderstanding on Reasonable Women’s part that the group had been approved as a social initiative rather than an advocacy / outreach initiative, a misunderstanding about the change in direction, a misunderstanding about what that would mean in terms of continued support from CFI, and numerous misunderstandings about the reasoning behind the cancellation.

I asked both parties about what effects this controversy may have on the dialogue in Vancouver about gender and diversity in the skeptical community.

Natalie:

“This particular issue is not a big deal by itself, but presented in a context of denying women/minorities a way to have meaningful discussion and participate in activism related to advancing gender equality within the skeptics’ movement is a big deal. I think that this became a very polarizing issue within CFI Vancouver’s membership base. My prediction would probably be that CFI Vancouver will need to review its policies to accommodate these kind of issues.”

Jamie:

“If anything I suspect it may improve dialogue. If Natalie and the other interested people are successful in starting their independent group (and I hope they are) that will mean there may be a group in Vancouver dedicated to working on these specific issues. I can’t see how that wouldn’t be a source of positive dialogue.”

Perhaps in both senses it can be positive thing? Although it has not by any means been a positive experience for anyone involved, at least it has raised awareness about the need, perhaps, for more transparency and clarity in CFI’s policies about new initiatives and what kinds of directions they’re able to go while being able to remain a part of CFI. Also, like the aforementioned controversy from July, it has gotten people talking about the issue of diversity in the skeptical community. And although Reasonable Women will now have to move forward as an independent organization, they’re still there, still committed to their purpose, and are still working on the effort of bringing women into the skeptical community and exploring the intersections between skepticism and feminism.

Natalie:

“I have a lot of great plans for Reasonable Women. I am hoping to organize a series of open lectures in winter/spring and a possible conference-like event in the summer. Both will deal with skepticism, feminism and the issues of sexism and discrimination in the movement, as well as other related topics. The participation in these is open to men and women who wish to get involved. Our short-term goals include holding monthly meetings and getting more people involved in participation, management and organization of the group.”

This has been a strange (and stressful) thing to delve into. This may well just be the cough medicine talking, but I feel it’s taught me a lot about the assumptions we can make about people’s motives in the absence of clear answers, and about the projections we slot into the gaps in a narrative. When the only reason stated why Reasonable Women had been cancelled as a CFI Initiative was a statement about it being vaguely outside of the area of focus and shifting in the direction of being an autonomous feminist advocacy group, while other similarly specialized programs were continuing unfettered, it was easy for me to draw the conclusion that those distinctions were arbitrary, and only made due to discomfort with feminism or the idea that women’s rights are inherently too “radical” an idea for CFI to be associated with. What a nice easy narrative that would have been. But as always, real life is subtle and infinitely complicated, and is not written with tidy plot arcs. The distinctions were complicated, and difficult to articulate, but not arbitrary. There is a difference between a space for feminist discussion and a group autonomously moving in the direction of specific feminist goals.

In truth, this seems to not be a story about sexism in the skeptical community, but a story about the fallibility of communication. The difficulties that come with volunteer organizations being comprised of many individuals with many individual ideals driving them to volunteer. How those ideals can clash. How goals will be misunderstood. How a proposal will mean one thing to one person and another to someone else. How nobly aiming for a democratic process of determining an organization’s direction can cause it to go down directions that were never intended. How small misunderstandings can be destructive for entire communities.

It may take some time for some of the emotions involved to calm and friendships to heal. But fortunately, nothing irreparable seems to have happened. Reasonable Women will continue to exist and to help bring women into the skeptical community and address their concerns. CFI Vancouver will move forward, perhaps with greater caution and attentiveness paid to issues of diversity and how to handle associated initiatives. All of us Vancouver skeptics have had yet another little jolt to our system to get us to think about our demographics, about how we can be more welcoming to people from underrepresented backgrounds, and about the issue of sexism in our movement that necessitated this group in the first place and contributed to the misunderstandings about its cancellation. And hopefully we’ve also gotten a lesson about clarity and the benefit of the doubt.

Reasonable Women has a Facebook page where any Vancouver-area skeptics interested in joining can learn about upcoming meetings and events. CFI Vancouver can be found at their webpage or contacted at [email protected] CFI Canada can be contacted at [email protected] Those interested in volunteering for CFI Vancouver can fill out a short volunteer application form.

 

Edit, 12:11 pm PDT, November 18th, 2011: Just wanted to clarify that Justin Trottier is no longer national executive director of CFI Canada. This position is now filled by Derek Pert.

Natalie

Natalie Reed now writes at http://www.freethoughtblogs.com/nataliereed

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37 Comments

  1. Perhaps it’s the NyQuil. There are some good points in here, but they get lost in a maze of “She said, then she said, then this happened, then this other thing happened” and so on. I especially liked your first article but it too, and this is coming from a person who read The Sword of Shannara in one sitting, would benefit from some pruning.

  2. From the descriptions, I get the impression that CFIVan expected RW to be a sort of ‘feeder group’–they figured women would come to RW, get used to the general ebb and flow of skeptical discussion and debate, then begin filtering into the larger organization, and attending conventions and so on.

    RW, OTOH, seemed to want to serve as a means of getting a collective voice that could then address feminist issues in CFI and the broader skeptical community.

    To me, the latter goal is probably the more important one (and would help with the former, as well), but CFI may have seen it as essentially funding a group that was critical of the parent organization.

    1. My description of the group is as it was proposed to me by my volunteer, Natalia. A ‘stepping stone for them into the movement’ is a direct quote of her.
      I didn’t start this as feeder group or as an expected source of additional funding, I started it for the benefit of CFI Vancouver’s female members and Vancouver’s skeptical community in general. It was supposed to be an addition to our offering of monthly events – just another discussion group.

  3. Oooph. I hate these kind of organizational things.

    I know your conclusion is that we ought to be wary of easy narratives (CFI doesn’t like feminist initiatives!), but I’m not sure it ought to be entirely discounted either.

    It’s been my experience that the CFI in general, and CFI Canada specifically, has been moving rightwards over the last couple years. Part of this is probably due to Ron Lindsay taking leadership in the States, and the renewal of CFI Canada under Justin.

    Justin’s a good guy, but he’s definitely more connected to the National Post and the MRA movement than to, say, the Globe and Mail and feminist movements. I know CFI Ottawa has a semi-regular bit in the Citizen, which is also a pretty right paper, and in my own experience there’s been an influx of pretty non-privilege-educated, moderately right-wing people in the last while. I know a few people who’ve slowly stopped attending CFI events because they’re finding the discussion increasingly difficult to put up with, especially as regards feminist, queer, class, or racial issues.

    I’m not saying there’s a causal influence here. This is my own experience and observation, and it sure isn’t representative or systematic. But I hope this sort of split doesn’t keep occurring.

        1. “Evidence” might be the wrong word, actually. The interviews. The statements were strong that this was Jamie’s decision, and there was nothing substantial to indicate that it was indeed handed down from Toronto. We can’t assume that explanation is true simply because it fits. There’s nothing solid on which to base a conclusion that this was anything other than what it was stated to be.

  4. As a feminist who has only recently stumbled onto skepticism as a formal thing, this actually makes me question whether “skeptic” is an identity I want to embrace for myself. Feminism is an intellectual tradition with a long history of rational debate and scientific study. If Reasonable Women is advocating for feminism, so what? Feminism is something that should fit very well under the umbrella of skepticism as a whole.

    I guess it shouldn’t be surprising, though, since the sciences are still a very male-gendered space. But it’s disappointing that CFI Vancouver isn’t more sensitive to how this plays into the larger cultural narrative of women in advocacy organizations being silenced any time they stray into areas that aren’t deemed “relevant” by their male peers.

    So on the whole, I’m pretty disappointed. Way to contribute to skepticism being unwelcoming to women, there, CFI Vancouver.

    1. The question of whether feminism should be part of skepticism as a whole is not relevant to the question of whether it should be a cause that CFI Canada adopts. CFI Canada is not ‘skepticism as a whole’ – we are not a generic, catch-all skeptic’s group.
      CFI Canada has a defined focus (religion and ethics; pseudoscience and paranormal claims; medicine and health) that we work on. Asking CFI Canada to take on feminism or environmental care or energy policy is like asking the Canadian Breast Cancer Foundation to take on raising money for pancreatic cancer research. They are related and worthy causes, but they are outside our focus and CFI Canada does not change its purpose based on what the skeptical community at large thinks it should or should not be doing. We cannot be all things to all people.
      CFI Canada’s efforts are currently directed towards combating issues such as the regulation of ‘Natural Health Products’ (including homeopathic preparations) by Health Canada, WiFi fear-mongering, climate change denial, and the incursion of pseudoscience and religion into public policy.

      1. I’m not seeing how allowing Reasonable Women to allow under the banner of CFI Vancouver constitutes asking CFI Vancouver to take on feminism as part of its focus. If CFI Vancouver can have subgroups like a book club and blood drive group without making literacy and blood drives part of its core focus, then what is so threatening about having a subgroup of feminist skeptics be part of the umbrella organization?

        Considering that skepticism and feminism should, theoretically at least, be two schools of thought that are compatible, it seems reasonable to allow for the membership of a group like Reasonable Women under the larger CFI Vancouver banner for those people who do want to gather with people who identify as skeptics AND feminists. None of that is incompatible with CFI Vancouver’s core focus, and none of that is asking CFI Vancouver to dilute its efforts.

        Furthermore, the way in which this was handled is incredible unwelcoming to potential non-male members of the skeptic community. By saying that Reasonable Women could no longer be a part of CFI Vancouver because they had transitioned into actively advocating for feminism, you’re essentially saying that feminists can only be part of the skeptic movement as long as they keep their mouths shut about feminism. That might not be your intention, but that’s certainly how it reads to outsiders.

        1. CFI Canada does not have ‘sub-groups’, and we do not allow anyone to operate under our banner. Our CFI Freethinkers Book Club is a CFI Vancouver initiative and is in no way independent or autonomous, just like our lectures and Cafe Inquiry discussion group. Reasonable Women (as it was tentatively titled) was identical when I started it – just another event that CFI Vancouver puts on. Reasonable Women was never a discrete entity that was somehow affiliated, or “part of CFI”, and “split” is a poor word that has been used to describe a program cancellation.

  5. Outside of whether this is a case of overt and intentional sexism or not, it makes me wonder at skeptical organizations in general, and where they will and won’t risk offending people. I’ve read plenty about how some groups go to great lengths to avoid offending religious people, almost at the expense of atheist skeptics. I’ve also been reading the same sort of thing about feminist and racial issues being treated as “outside of the skeptical umbrella.”

    I’m not sure what good a skeptical organization is, if it doesn’t involve itself in issues that actually matter. Mocking UFO and Bigfoot believers must make some people feel good enough about their skepticism, and maybe going after medical woo claims is the furthest they are willing to go. If they want to solely be a club of upper-middle class white male academics, then I guess more power to them. If they want to exist outside of that bubble, they’ll have to readjust their priorities.

  6. A point of clarification that I think’s important: Justin Trottier took a leave as CFI Canada’s national director back in September and was later replaced by Derek Pert. This all happened before this kerfuffle, so Justin can’t be personally blamed for any of this (as easy as it would be to).

    I think a big part of the frustration and emotion seen, at least by the volunteers, is in part due to the sometimes opaque nature of CFI’s organizational structure, which is more corporate and top-down than grassroots. It’s effective and spreading out quickly and getting things done, but can be difficult to work within as a volunteer if your vision of skepticism differs from the mission statement.

    But I agree with your conclusions that it seems to mostly be a communication failure.

  7. Yes, it was mostly a communications failure, but how it was handled by CFI Van and the way I was treated is unacceptable. The only reason I proposed something like a website is simply because nothing useful existed within CFI – again, this was a proposal, not something we decided on. I am not sure how a discussion group which planned a number of DISCUSSIONS for the next little while and beyond is at all different from the “group” (or whatever J. Williams prefers to call it) I proposed and was approved to organize. Was calling attention to sexism “activism”? Also, we never had a “series of meetings”, but a quick email and a telephone conversation where I was basically told that CFI would no longer support RW. Instead of trying to work out a mutually benefiting solution or giving me a chance to understand what it was that CFI Van was not happy with and perhaps changing it, J. Williams simply told me that RW was no longer a part of CFI. Regardless, RW is not going away anytime soon and this whole situation gives us a lot more to talk about in the future.

  8. Thanks for a really good article Natalie – I look forward to non-NyQuil-influenced pieces.

    I think you did a great job of highlighting the miscommunications and misunderstandings that were part of this venture from the beginning. Hopefully everyone will come away with an awareness of the importance of being clear about one’s goals and objectives.

  9. Natalie, I think you provided a very careful analysis. One angle which might have also been worth injecting is the “Charitable Organization” status of CFI. Under Canadian tax law, charities must stay tightly focused on their mandates or risk losing that coveted status. I’ve previously been on the Board of another charitable organization, and *oh* the tedious discussions we’d have about “Initiative X” and whether it met the mandate.

    Natalie N is wonderfully energetic, creative and active. Jamie W is wonderfully even-handed, clear-headed and focused on the CFI mission as he has been empowered to interpret it. Perhaps this day was unavoidable, and perhaps, once the pain subsides, creative synergies will be realized. Natalie mentions the loss of access to the CFI marketing reach, but, for instance, while CFI may not be able to get whole-hog behind RW, maybe crucial and pragmatic things like announcements and occasional partnerships can still occur.

  10. Funny that it is “RW”…

    … Anyway, this is pretty much what one should expect. The “skeptics community” in the form of CFI and similar groups is trying very hard to be non political and still address issues of reason, objective and critical thinking, and science. It has not yet discovered, amazingly, the fact that acts of reason, objectivity, criticism, and science are all inherently political.

    And that’s the nice way of putting it. The somewhat less nice and more honest way of putting it is that your basic CFI-type community tends to be socially immature self absorbed fairly sexist with a small but strong and thinly veiled misogynist component, and the idea of a large group of thinking women getting together to be thoughtful about stuff is just too much to handle.

    I’m lucky because I’m a scientist. I can call myself a scientist and get my “I’m a certified geek” yaya’s. Those who are not actual scientists often wish to find a self identifying label that demonstrates their personal interest in and commitment to science, rational thinking, etc. Terms like “atheist” or “humanist” do it for some but for the more science oriented it isn’t enough. I think “Skeptic” has served that role for many. But more and more people that I know who once called themselves “skeptic” for this reason are no longer doing so or are seriously questioning changing that identification.

    The Skeptics Movement is, at the same time, increasingly being taken over by women. I hope this accelerates and that it goes through a phase of being run mainly by thoughtful progressive women. I’d much rather have the pimply faced elevator boys leave because they don’t want to be identified with a mainly female-run group than to have people who are in fact feminists and progressives (and also skeptics) leave because they are tired of the Middle School bullshit.

  11. The somewhat less nice and more honest way of putting it is that your basic CFI-type community tends to be socially immature self absorbed fairly sexist with a small but strong and thinly veiled misogynist component, and the idea of a large group of thinking women getting together to be thoughtful about stuff is just too much to handle.

    Greg, I can’t believe how insulting your mischaracterization is. I am a proud member of CFI Vancouver, and your description, while I’m sure incredibly convenient for you, is a nasty broad-brush that completely fails to paint an accurate picture of CFI-V’s demographics. You owe all of us an apology.

    If you had bothered to ask before writing this execrable fart of a tirade, you would have known that RW had BROAD and vocal support from members of CFI, male and female alike, and the misogynist voices were shouted down by all of us. Considering that you know me at least web-personally, I’m baffled by your unthinking and offensive attack on organized skeptics, particularly without knowing anything about the group you’re bashing.

  12. Well I think you did a good job despite the Nyquil. Sometimes, a complex issue like this benefits from a longer article. You could have come on here with a sledge hammer “OH can you BELIEVE what they DID?” one sided view….that would not have come to the conclusion that like many issues… communication is the key. There are really very few really BAD guys in the world. What there often is is bad communication. I’m so glad you took the TIME to interview people on BOTH sides….rather than doing the easy article of “oh well this is HORRIBLE isn’t it? Let’s all send mean emails and twitters…”

    Thank you for taking the time. This is a still developing story, more information will come out. Sounds like Vancouver has a great new group. In my opinion they will get more done and have more freedom by being their own organization. In the end, perhaps freedom will make them even bigger and stronger and more of a force.

  13. Question: If the CFI does not have a problem with sexism, why is it that their list of “speakers” has such a bad ratio of males to females? (ca 5:1 ratio)

    (I refer to this: http://www.centerforinquiry.net/speakers/about)

    I would be very happy to be finally convinced that the emergence of a group of women formed out of discomfort within the organization in a post elevatorgate atmosphere then shut down/excluded because it didn’t work structurally is entirely unrelated to there being a problem. But I would have thought that under the circumstances structural limitations of the organization would have been adapted.

    But it may be, and there is evidence for it, that not having a lot of women’s voices suits the CFI. That is enigmatic given the women tho DO have strong voices there. And it speaks to the heterogeneity in the organization and in the movement, heterogeneity I may indeed have brushed over in my highly offensive comments.

    But somehow I don’t feel all that compelled to accept being told to shut up about sexism in the skeptics movement.

    Perhaps CFI is without sin in this regard. I’m willing to go along with that at present and apologize to all the people who are in CFI… surely, you are all utterly non-biased with respect to gender or sex or any other aspect of diversity or difference. You don’t need to change anything. And do keep up the good work in making sure that your reputation remains unexamined, er, I mean, untarnished.

    And I promise I will never be un nice again. From now on, when it comes to the CFI, only nice talk.

    Purrrrrrrrr

    1. Greg: You’re deliberately strawmanning for your own convenience.

      Centerforinquiry.net is the website for CFI Transnational. CFI Canada is a legally independent organization, and while a questionable history exists in the organization (Natalie mention’s former national director Justin Trottier’s connections with the men’s rights movement), I don’t feel that this is at all as issue in the CFI Vancouver movement. And I say this as someone who has sharply criticized, both internally and on the web, CFI Canada over a number of issues. I even broke off most of my volunteering with them over separate issues.

      This isn’t to say CFI can’t or shouldn’t do more, we all should, but characterizing CFI Vancouver as mysoginist is intellectually lazy and wrong. Back your claims up with evidence or stop calling yourself a scientist.

    2. Hi Greg! Since I’m one of the people who reaches out to new potential speakers for the CFI Transnational speakers bureau, I thought I’d take a look at the breakdown too.

      Of the primary 14 speakers, 4 are female, and one is a person of color. (That’s me!)

      On the full list of 120 (http://www.centerforinquiry.net/speakers/all), there are 26 women. It’s better than it was when we started, that’s for sure. We started with people who already write for the magazines and speak at our conference, but now we’re we’re reaching out to more new people like Amanda Marcotte, Lindsay Beyerstein, and Tina Dupuy.

      (Someone remind Rebecca to send in the bio information we requested months ago so that we can add her to the list!)

  14. Greg, you’re deliberately being obtuse. It’s been pointed out that CFI Canada is not CFI Transnational. It’s not too hard to figure out who we’ve had as speakers, or to discover that at CFI-Vancouver all the key volunteer roles are filled by women, most of the programming is run by women, and that we have a good gender balance in our membership, at our programs and in our volunteer core. There IS room for improvement which is why RW was started and embraced by the members.

    And yes, the FORMER National director is not someone I have or had a lot of respect for. Fortunately, he’s gone, and he was NEVER allowed to use CFI as a platform for his equalism nonsense. I dare anyone to find somewhere that bullcrap was institutionalized.

    We have, within CFI Canada, female executive directors, female board members, including the chair, and have had advisors such as Dr Henry Morganthaler – a champion of women’s reproductive rights.

    But no, it’s easier to do minimal work and blast CFI Vancouver as being some sexist, misogynistic group because ONE woman-led programming initiative was cancelled after a trial run.

    1. skepcdnchick, and I say also to you, I’m sorry for thinking that several tings named CFI are related, and that the overall problems we see (blindingly) with sexism and related problems in the sketpical movement overall have not affected the Vancouver CFI.

      I promise I will henceforth avoid criticizing CFI anything. Obviously a terrible mistake to do so.

      1. CFI Vancouver isn’t perfect, no organization should ever be off limits for criticism, and no one is telling anyone to “shut about sexism in skepticism” but yes, your initial mischaracterization is WAY off-base. ALL the senior volunteer positions in CFI Vancouver are filled by women, and 47% of the core volunteers are women. Although it’s understandable to recognize that various CFI branches are connected, jumping to the conclusions you have, and totally discounting the degree of local autonomy, is not a very rational way to approach this. As I thought I made clear in the article, and in subsequent comments, there is nothing substantial with which to tie this decision to Justin Trottier, his history of MRA activism, or the national branch.

  15. I am a Director of CFI Canada and wanted to give you all some facts about CFI Canada and its fiduciary responsibilities as a registered charity. I have no dog in this fight except to say that I have never seen any signs of misogyny at any CFI event. I consider myself a feminist and if anyone sees me contradicting that stand has my permission to slap me upside the head and tell me so.

    I also agree that this issue comes down to communications, so… I would like to communicate to you all the following

    Here is what the Letters Patent say about CFI Canada:

    …the objects of the Corporation are as follows:
    To educate and provide training to the public in the application of sceptical, secular, rational, and humanistic enquiry through conferences, symposia, lectures, published works and the maintenance of a library. In addition, the Corporation is to carry on its operations without pecuniary gain to its members, and any profits or other accretions to the corporation are to be used in promoting its objects.

    Here is more under our Notice of Registration as a Charity:
    Political Activities
    An organization cannot be registered as a charity if it is established for a political purpose. ?“Political?” within the charitable sector has a distinct legal meaning that often differs substantially from its popular meaning and includes attempting to bring about or oppose changes in the law or government policy. The Act permits a registered charity to engage in limited political activities that are non-partisan and advance its strictly charitable purposes.
    The nature of the work in which the Charity is involved suggests that it may potentially engage in some form of political activity. Please consult the Canada Revenue Agency policy statement CPS-022, Political Activities, to ensure compliance with the requirements of the Act at http://www.cra.gc.ca/tx/chrts/plcy/cps/cps-022-eng.html

    I hope this answers more questions than it raises.

    Pat

  16. Ohpelia, Pat, that’s all great, glad to hear it.

    Please note that my original comment was (quite clearly) about the larger skeptical community, though referencing CFI as part of it as per the current conversation about those silly women suggesting a separate group “… on the basis that some women might not feel comfortable at other CFI Vancouver or other local skeptical events.” CFI Vancouver is pretty much sexism-free organization as well it should be! Good for them. Any criticism or suggestion of criticism of anyone in the CFI should be met with Great Skepticism!

  17. “Whenever I find myself growing grim about the mouth; whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul, whenever I find myself involuntarily pausing before coffin warehouses, and bringing up the rear of every funeral I meet; and especially whenever my hypos get such an upper hand of me, that it requires a strong moral principle to prevent me from deliberately stepping into the street and methodically knocking people’s hats off — then, I account it high time to get to sea again as soon as I can. This is my substitute for pistol and ball.”

    There have been a lot of people arguing about stupid stuff lately, jumping to conclusions without evidence, getting annoyed with each other when they are both saying the same thing, and so on. It’s November, people! There’s no daylight, it’s cold, damp and miserable most of the time. Go outside for a while in the day time, blow off work and call in sick and then spend the day in the park or in the woods or messing around in boats.

    Blame the weather or the season (even if I don’t actually have any evidence that’s the cause, but come on, Vancouver in November?)

    It seems to me that Jamie was probably acting completely within his rights and responsibilities as head of CFI Vancouver, but handled it badly. “Cancel” is the verb used by Jamie and both Natalies. That sounds like a bureaucratic or dictatorial edict rather than a decision arrived at after mutual discussions of the goals and activities of CFIVan and RW. I think what they should have done, after discussing whether RW does or does not fit in with what CFIVan sees as its mission and eliminating other options, such as continue with RW for a while and see how it develops, adjust CFIVan’s or RW’s objectives or strategies so they are a better fit, invent a new category of subgroups withing CFIVan, where RW could function (as an affiliated group or something), then they should have launched it as a new organization, and help it set up its own web site, mailing list, online calendar, or whatever other services CFIVan had been providing to RW. Also, they should continue listing it as a local skeptical organization of interest to CFIVan members, cross-listed RW events, possibly cooperated on various joint projects, etc. In other words, a friendly and supportive re-inventing of RW rather than an authoritarian cancellation of it.

    But missing from this discussion has been any mention of what CFIVan was providing to RW in the first place. A web site? Meeting space? Publicity for events? Funding? Helping with events (such as finding a meeting place or arranging speakers?) “Sponsorship”, if that means anything beyond the previous list and putting a “CFI Vancouver” logo on RW’s stuff?

    Also unclear are the exact reasons why Jamie found RW’s activities incompatible with CFIVan. For example, CFIVan’s mission statement says CFIVan does X, Y and Z, but some of RW’s activities don’t fit any of those categories, or RW sponsored an event that was something CFIVan explicitly doesn’t do (like endorsing a political candidate), which RW wants to continue doing. Do we have any specifics of any of this stuff?

    Lastly, I want to wish RW success in continuing as an independent organization, if that’s what they choose to do.

    1. The initial relationship was that Reasonable Women was a CFI initiative, as a women’s skeptical discussion group. CFI was providing publicity, members, marketing, that kind of thing.

      As I understand it, the point at which Jamie began to feel RW was falling outside of CFI Vancouver’s mandate was when certain members of RW began pushing in the direction of being an autonomous feminist activist organization that would operate as a CFI “affiliate” or “sub-group”. Falling outside the mandate was in no way related to the feminist subject matter or agenda, but instead the combination of autonomy and direct activist / advocacy work. It was also taking on a form very different from the initially approved proposal.

      Where, exactly, the lines between “discussion” and “activism”/”advocacy” fall, and where and when they were breached, is still somewhat unclear, but it seems largely related to the point at which RW began aligning itself with specific ideologies and goals rather than being focused on discussion of specific issues. Once it began becoming something more directly political in nature, it seems CFI Vancouver couldn’t allow it to continue operating with the same degree of autonomy that would be permitted to a simple social discussion group, and had never permitted “affiliates” or “sub-groups” in the first place.

      This is why the term “cancellation” gets used, and is more accurate than “split”. RW was not at any point an affiliate organization of CFI Vancouver, it was a program that CFI was running. That program was cancelled, but the group continues to operate independently.

      I do agree that CFI could have done a much better job of making those policies transparent and the risk of cancellation more clear to RW so that this situation could have been avoided, or RW would at least have had the opportunity to decide whether or remain a social initiative under CFI or become an independent advocacy group. But that’s precisely what I mean about this being about failures of communication and not sinister, sexist intent.

  18. There’s a quite simple solution to most of these troubles: A 50% quota for female skeptics on panels and a healthy dosage of feminism within skepticism.

    The only obstacle is that too many male sketpics have been in contact with MRA philosophy.

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