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Women in Secularism 4, Safe Spaces September 29, 2016

Posted by Ubi Dubium in Events, Responses.
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There were a lot of great talks at WIS4, and again, I’m not going to rehash the details of any of them, because it’s already been done.  For that, remember to go here:

CFI Live Women in Secularism

But there was one panel that I want to discuss at some further length, and that was the one on safe spaces.  The panelists were Maryam Namazie, Melanie Brewster, Sarah Haider, and Diane Burkholder, moderated by Ashley Miller.  Much of the discussion revolved around an incident involving Maryam, where a university talk she was giving was interrupted by a group of noisy male Muslim hecklers who wanted her silenced.  The panel discussion at WIS4 focused around university safe spaces in particular.

Here’s some video of the incident:

The Muslim hecklers complained that she should not be able to speak about how Islam harms women, because the university was a “safe space” for them.   Surprisingly, the administration and several left-leaning student groups that you would think would support freedom of speech sided with the Muslims.

I learned several things about Maryam from the panel discussion.  First, she is very passionate and devoted to the cause of freeing Muslim women from religious oppression, which I admire.  But I also realized that she is probably a very challenging person to work with. Almost every response she gave to the other panelists was “I disagree completely” and she would then make a passionate argument about the question she wanted to answer.  She constantly reiterated that a university is a place to challenge ideas, not protect them, even when that wasn’t the question she had been asked.

But what most frustrated me about the discussion was that people seemed to be talking past each other on different aspects of the issue, without first defining terms so they could make sure they were actually talking about the same things.  So I’d like to spend a little time on definitions, so that if I’m involved in a discussion about these issues in the future, I can refer people back to this post for clarification.

So, considering university “safe spaces” I think the first thing that needs to be discussed is “What do we mean by safe?”

The most obvious part of “safe” is that people at a university should be entitled to personal safety.  Although it’s not happening in practice as much as it should, the ideal is that students should be safe from physical harm on campus.

The next level of safety would be freedom from personal harassment.  Bullying, stalking, threats, sexual harassment, both in person and online, all are things that should be against university rules.   Again, I think this should be obvious.

But now we get to the real question about safe spaces.  What about safety from upsetting ideas, the kind of safety that the Muslims were demanding at Maryam’s talk?  I think for that discussion we need to include a discussion of what we mean by “space”.

Missing from Maryam’s impassioned statements was the fact that a university is not a single “space”, it’s a lot of different spaces.   I think the university “spaces” to be considered would include at least:

  • Private student spaces, like dorm lounges, cafeterias and quiet study spaces
  • Campus organization members only meetings
  • Open outdoor spaces
  • Classrooms
  • Talks from speakers sponsored by campus organizations
  • Talks from speakers sponsored by the administration
  • Publications, such as the student newspaper

I think it’s quite reasonable that a university could have different regulations about what’s OK in each different sort of “space”.  While it might be acceptable for Brother Jed to shout his nonsense out on the quadrangle, the university would be justified from excluding him from a study lounge.  And to complicate this further, I think it’s reasonable to expect that a university supported by government funding would have different standards than a private university.  I would not expect Liberty or Brigham Young Universities to support the same freedom of dissent that a state school should support.  And Maryam’s encounter was at a British University, which is not under the same freedom of speech expectations that US school would have.

So when we discuss the idea of a “safe space” I don’t think it’s clear that universities are, or are not, “safe spaces”.  At a good university there should be times and places where students are exposed to ideas that they may disagree with or find upsetting.  There should be times and places where students can retreat from such challenges.  And the administration should be responsible for setting the standards for what’s allowed in which sort of space, which is no easy task.  (And at private religious universities, the students and their parents may be paying for complete censorship of challenging ideas!)

And I guess my last frustration with the panel discussion was the narrow focus on academia.  While the standards for free speech on campus are important for college students and professors, and college is an important time in the intellectual development of those who can attend, it’s a small fraction of the scope of the total free speech discussion that needs to be held.

Women in Secularism 4 – summaries September 26, 2016

Posted by Ubi Dubium in Events.
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I’ve just spent a great weekend at Women in Secularism 4, sponsored by CFI.  I took many notes, but I’m not going to try to outline all the points of all the talks there, because it’s already been done!

Paul Fidalgo of The Morning Heresy, liveblogged each speech and panel discussion.  So for good summaries please go here:

CFI Live Women in Secularism

In the coming days I’ll probably put together my thoughts on a few of the themes that were discussed.


Women in Secularism 4 April 20, 2016

Posted by Ubi Dubium in Events.
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I have not seen much buzz about this event yet, but I got an email about this and want to do my part to make sure word gets around.

CFI has announced that there will be a Women in Secularism 4 conference this fall, September 23-25, in Arlington, VA.  I had been concerned that Melody’s leaving the DC office might mean that this conference would end, so I’m very glad it’s continuing.

I’ve been to all the past versions of this conference, and they’ve all been thought-provoking, spawned important conversations, and let me hear other voices that I otherwise might not have known about.

Speakers for this conference include Julia Sweeney and Rebecca Goldstein.  I’ll plan to be there!

Why we can’t win August 14, 2013

Posted by Ubi Dubium in Rants, Responses.
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I just needed to post this today.

Reposted from Jim C. Hines via Pharyngula

Overdue thanks to Ron Lindsay July 7, 2013

Posted by Ubi Dubium in Rants, Responses.
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(I had meant to post this earlier, but I’ve had some personal travel, a knee injury, and a major Fourth of July concert to deal with, so I hadn’t gotten to it.  Sorry.)

This is a follow-up to my posts on Ron Lindsay’s opening remarks at WIS2 and the CFI Board’s non-response.

Back on June 22, Ron issued an apology:



To Ron Lindsay,

Thank you.  An apology is what I was hoping to see.

I can’t tell from this apology whether you actually understand why we were so upset, but apologizing is hard and I appreciate your being able to do that. With this apology I am now willing to put this behind me, and can (cautiously) participate with CFI on future events and projects.  I hope for amicable relations and good discussions in the future.


To the CFI Board,

I’m still peeved with you.  All I have from you is your original non-answer.  You don’t need to apologize for Ron’s speech, he’s already done that.  But you do need to show some kind of support for Melody, Lauren and Debbie’s hard work, and you need to show real commitment to encouragement of diversity within the secular movement.  This can best be shown by action, rather than writing.  I suggest announcing your sponsorship of WIS3 as soon as possible.  Or something else specifically aimed at making traditionally marginalized groups of people feel important and welcome in the secular community. (And a lack of specific support for the small but extremely vocal minority in our community that’s specifically trying to marginalize people, that would also be helpful in restoring my trust.)  Show us that people matter, even people who are not the traditional core group of well-educated middle-aged middle and upper class white men.  And please don’t claim that “we don’t have the resources.”  The people from the diverse community you need to reach out to, with their large untapped pool of talent and energy, are resources that you need to build this movement for the future.

I’ll work with you for now.  But I’ll also be paying attention to what CFI does in the next year.

Non-answer from CFI Board June 17, 2013

Posted by Ubi Dubium in Events, Rants, Responses.
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The CFI Board has issued a statement:

The mission of the Center for Inquiry is to foster a secular society based on science, reason, freedom of inquiry, and humanist values.

The Center for Inquiry, including its CEO, is dedicated to advancing the status of women and promoting women’s issues, and this was the motivation for its sponsorship of the two Women in Secularism conferences. The CFI Board wishes to express its unhappiness with the controversy surrounding the recent Women in Secularism Conference 2.

CFI believes in respectful debate and dialogue. We appreciate the many insights and varied opinions communicated to us. Going forward, we will endeavor to work with all elements of the secular movement to enhance our common values and strengthen our solidarity as we struggle together for full equality and respect for women around the world.


That’s the entire statement?  That’s IT????

“…unhappiness with the controversy”.  They “…appreciate the insights and varied opinions…”.  “Going forward we will endeavor to…”

No specifics.  Nothing about how they will take action to avoid this happening in the future.  Nothing about how Ron blindsided the CFI staff, and insulted and condescended to a roomful of dedicated secular activists, not to mention spending the rest of the weekend belittling invited conference speakers?  Nothing about how maybe they could institute some guidelines for this sort of thing, or make sure that any speech to be given by someone representing CFI at a CFI-sponsored conference that has more substance to it than “howdy” will be available for review by the conference organizers first?  Notice how the word “apology” was not included there, either.

They’ve  shown us where the board stands on this issue, which is that they don’t stand anywhere.  Maybe something happened internally, but that does nothing to cool the anger of those of us who were sitting in the audience for Ron’s sermon.  I’ve been considering working on developing an education project with our local chapter, and while I know that the local staff would make me feel welcome, and that my efforts matter, my confidence that the national organization would be able to effectively address gender-related issues has just dropped another notch.  I’ll have to think seriously about this before agreeing to work with CFI on any upcoming activities.  If I were a position to make any donations, they would be earmarked for WIS3 only.

If nothing else, this whole thing shows how desperately the WIS conferences are needed.  I’d hate for them to have to be held by a different sponsoring organization, but I wonder if that’s what needs to happen.  I’ll be watching for the reaction of the other attendees, this should be interesting.

Letter to CFI Board of Directors June 5, 2013

Posted by Ubi Dubium in Events, Rants, Responses.
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(I’ve finally written to the CFI Board regarding Ron Lindsay’s behavior at WIS2, and thought I should also post the text of my letter here:)

To:  The CFI Board of Directors

Re: Ron Lindsay, and his unwelcoming speech

I know that you have received many letters regarding Ron Lindsay’s conduct at the Women in Secularism 2 conference, so I will keep this brief.

In his role as CEO of CFI, Ron’s responsibility to the organization was to open the conference with welcoming remarks focusing on support for the mission of CFI, perhaps summing up the previous conference or introducing and welcoming the speakers for the current conference, and generally getting the weekend off to a positive and enthusiastic start.  Instead, Ron delivered an “unwelcoming” sermon that focused on the personal opinions of Ron Lindsay.  None of his actions that weekend did anything to boost my opinion of CFI, or encourage me to be a financial supporter, or become more active with the organization. 

The attendees at the conference included not only currently influential secular activists and CFI donors, but also future secular activists and potential CFI donors as well, and Ron managed to alienate almost everyone in the room, both with his speech, and with his defenses of it over the rest of the weekend.  Ron’s behavior was unprofessional, and reflected badly on the conference organizers as well as reflecting badly on CFI in general. 

I give great credit to Melody Hensley, Lauren Becker, and all the CFI staff and volunteers who made the rest of the conference such a success.  The presentations and panel discussions at each WIS have been a focus and inspiration for further discussions, understanding and action, and these important conferences need to continue.  I will look forward to seeing the Board’s response to the actions of Mr. Lindsay, and hope that CFI will continue to be able to bring “science, reason, freedom of inquiry, and humanist values” to an increasingly diverse audience.


On Heroes and Disappointment May 28, 2013

Posted by Ubi Dubium in Events, Rants, Responses.
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It’s been a rough couple of weeks.  At WIS2, I listened with jaw-dropping disbelief as Ron Lindsay used his welcome speech to deliver a patronizing sermon to the conference participants about tone.  Much has been said about this topic (links can be found here, if you have not heard about this incident), and I’ll just say that Ron was unprofessional in the timing of that speech, and doubly unprofessional in his responses to criticism of it.  When he was confronted with the fact that his remarks were inappropriate for the time and place he gave them,  he doubled down and increased the problem, instead of apologizing.

And I recently found out (through channels that I will not specify) that a beloved community leader from my town has been arrested for molesting a 9-year-old child. I have been expecting it to be in the news, and the first mentions of it just hit the newspapers about an hour before I wrote this. This was someone I had known, not really as a friend, but perhaps as a “dear acquaintance”.  Someone whose work and enthusiasm I respected, that I would have said that I looked up to, at least until a week ago.  Crap.

I’d really like there to be people in the world that I could really consider role models.  People that I can look up to, that I can aspire to be like.  It’s not that I’d expect them to be perfect, but that their faults would not be deal-breakers.  For instance, I used to love watching The Frugal Gourmet on TV – his creativity and energy were great, and I tried lots of new foods because of him.  OK, so he didn’t like desserts, but I could forgive that.  He was wonderful, until the child-molestation charges came up.  Crap.

Or, another example, I’ve learned an enormous amount from reading books on biology by Richard Dawkins.  The God Delusion is good, but it’s not even close to The Selfish Gene for influencing the way I think about the world.  I was close to being a Dawkins fangirl, until a couple of “dear Muslima” comments at Pharyngula a couple of years ago took care of that.  I was really hoping at the time that maybe it was a troll using Dawkins’s name, trying to make him look bad.  It wasn’t.  Crap.

Robert Bakker is religious.  ThunderfOOt turned out to be a mysogynist.  Bill Maher is an anti-vaxxer.  There so many people I wish I could admire for the good work they do, but there are some things I just can’t get past.

Of course, the fact that I want something to be true has no bearing on whether it is actually true.  But this kind of thing really makes it hard to me to feel confident that I can look up to anybody as an example.  I’ve got a sour taste in my brain about humanity right now and I think I need for somebody I currently dislike to really exceed my expectations of them, to make me feel better.  (Like maybe Ken Ham could deconvert, or something.)  I’m not holding my breath.