Women in Secularism 2 is underway this weekend, with dozens of badass female leaders scheduled to take the stage. Things got off to an interesting start yesterday with the opening lecture, given by Ron Lindsay, the CEO of the Center for Inquiry. You can read the text of his talk in full here.
To summarize, Lindsay spends a good deal of time arguing against the idea that feminism as a movement has no significant internal disagreements, an absurd idea I have never actually heard expressed by any feminists, but I suppose Lindsay and I travel in different circles. Lindsay doesn’t mention who exactly has argued this point so I can’t check to see why on Earth they’d think something so obviously contradictory to reality. It seems impossible to me that a person could be involved in modern day feminism in any way without noticing the lively and occasionally contentious debates among feminists about topics like intersectionality, particularly with regards to the fringe radical feminists who hold openly transphobic beliefs.
Lindsay then moves on to what seems to be the crux of his talk: he has a serious problem with feminists who use the word “privilege” as a way to silence men – to tell men to “shut up and listen.”
But it’s the second misapplication of the concept of privilege that troubles me most. I’m talking about the situation where the concept of privilege is used to try to silence others, as a justification for saying, “shut up and listen.” Shut up, because you’re a man and you cannot possibly know what it’s like to experience x, y, and z, and anything you say is bound to be mistaken in some way, but, of course, you’re too blinded by your privilege even to realize that.
Lets be clear: there are, without a doubt, people who misuse the term “privilege” and there are those who use the concept of privilege as their sole point of argumentation. To give an example, recently Rhys Morgan criticized the transphobic RadFem conference on Twitter, and in return he got some ridiculous angry responses accusing him of being a male oppressor/rapist. When Amanda Marcotte and I supported Rhys, we were all called “pimp apologists:”
I wonder what #radfem2013 think of the words “frape” and “twape”, cause it’s clear they don’t give a shit about the meaning of the word rape
— Rhys Morgan (@rhysmorgan) April 20, 2013
So there’s an example of feminists vehemently disagreeing with one another and an example of a feminist misusing privilege as a way to stop a discussion. And yet, it is absolutely not an example of anyone – Rhys, Amanda, or me – being silenced. That feminist did not start an entire blog dedicated to calling Rhys slurs. She did not open a forum for people to post Photoshopped pictures of Rhys in pornographic poses. She did not repeatedly threaten to kill or rape him. She did not organize a mob of people to do the same. Rhys was not hounded every day via Twitter, Facebook, email, and comments on his blog. He wasn’t disinvited from conferences where he was expected to speak. He didn’t quit his online activities in attempt to stem the flow of hatred coming at him. He didn’t consult the police when that didn’t work.
That transphobic radical feminist did not silence him, me, or Amanda – though to be very clear, I’m certain there have been transphobic feminists who have silenced transgender people, a group that is already marginalized and abused by society as a whole.
In his talk, Lindsay didn’t give any examples of men who have been silenced, though he has promised to provide some. In the meanwhile, the audience is forced to examine the only example provided: Lindsay himself, a white male who is CEO of one of the largest skeptic organizations in the world and who delivered the 30-minute introductory lecture at a women’s conference. There doesn’t seem to be much danger of his voice being silenced, though of course I may not be aware of some behind-the-scenes campaign to drive him into obscurity.
Meanwhile, nowhere in Lindsay’s speech did he mention feminists like Jen McCreight, who has been so bullied and harassed that she did in fact quit attending conferences and she quit blogging and being active on social media in the hopes the anti-feminists would finally leave her alone. They didn’t. That is silencing. Nowhere did Lindsay mention that every day I and other feminists get slurs, rape jokes, and death threats from fellow skeptics and secularists. That is an attempt at silencing, though it is an attempt that will not work until the day one person follows through on the threat.
When faced with my criticism of his tone deafness, Lindsay didn’t hesitate to include me in the list of feminists trying to shut him up. He seems to be confused, assuming any discussion about how race, gender, and other attributes influence our outlook and our biases is a call for people of privilege to have no say. This is quite obviously absurd – I myself am incredibly privileged as a white, straight, cisgendered, able-bodied, middle class educated American, but do I demand that I and anyone like me never engage in discussions of race, sexual orientation, gender identity, disability, or class? Of course not – I merely hope that we engage in these conversations with compassion and understanding, ultimately encouraging the people directly affected by those issues to have a voice and an audience. Instead of blogging on behalf of LGBTQ people, I set up Queereka and gave it to LGBTQ people to run. Instead of blogging on behalf of people with disabilities, I asked people with disabilities to tell their own stories. And at no point do I ever tell these people that the real problem is in the way they fight for their rights.
It’s a shame that with so many wonderful, inspiring women on stage at this event, the gut feeling I’ll be taking home is yet more disappointment and disillusionment in the leadership of the organized secular/skeptic movement.