Shaun and I just got home from Women in Secularism 2, and it was a fantastic conference. Most of the internet buzz about this is already about Ron Lindsay’s opening remarks and the ensuing kerfuffle. I have a couple of thoughts on that, and I’m going to put them down right here and then move on, because I don’t want the amazingness of the conference as a whole to be overshadowed by those 15 minutes.
Basically I agree with everything Amanda Marcotte writes here. To me, his opening speech was ill-advised, tone deaf, and inappropriate for the context. His subsequent response to a criticism of his speech did not make things better. Both the speech and the responses are impolitic and inappropriate, and I suspect that when he’s cooled down a little he will be ashamed of himself. (Whether this shame results in critical self-examination or in increased defensiveness remains to be seen.) The only point I want to make that hasn’t been covered elsewhere is this: I could have told him exactly how his words would be received by his audience. I imagine many, many other people could as well, probably including many people who work for him. I could have predicted the response and the fallout with pretty good accuracy. And I assume that the fallout here is NOT what he would have wanted or intended, regardless of how right he thinks he is (if he knew ahead of time what the result would be, and went ahead with it, then we have a much bigger problem). This indicates to me that Ron Lindsay has not yet done enough listening. He still has a lot to learn about the perspective and concerns of many, many women in his movement, if he thought that that speech would be anything but a disaster.
Lauren Becker, who did a fantastic job keeping speakers and questions on track, had a job no one could envy: she delivered the closing address, on a day when warring blogs had been flying about Lindsay’s comments. Pretty much everybody I talked to agreed that the conference was one of the best we’d ever been to, and yet there was this undercurrent of anger that we were having to have this same conversation again, even here. Becker’s job was to close up the conference in a way that incorporated the positivity and sent us back into the world inspired and energized, and if she was going to touch on the conflict around Lindsay at all it would have to be very delicately done. Lindsay is her boss, and a majority (based on crowd response to various comments) of the audience was angry with him. That’s a no-win situation there, and if I’d been in her place I’d have probably spoken as if the controversy didn’t exist.
Becker proved why she’s in her place instead of me, because she did touch on the controversy, obliquely, delicately, and fairly; she said something important and yet something which (I think) nobody, whatever side they were on, could reasonably disagree with. She talked about how easy it is to misunderstand each other when we come from different backgrounds (using a personal story illustrating how even a word like “Think” can be misconstrued.) She talked about how we, as skeptics, value being able to admit when we are wrong. She talked about the importance of criticizing ideas rather than attacking people. Most importantly, she talked about giving each other space to change our minds: when we are in conflict with someone, we need to believe that they can and might change their mind, and we need to leave space in the conversation for that to happen. (Also, of course, we need to be continually reassessing our own position to make sure it’s not our mind that needs to change.) She could have been speaking to people on both sides of the issue… she probably was. But she wasn’t speaking to both sides in a way that demanded compromise or assumed a middle position was best… she was speaking to both sides in a way that reminded us of our shared value of self-criticism, reminded us that we’ve all been drastically wrong before and been able to change our minds, and that we should all be hoping that people we’re in conflict with do the same, rather than writing them off as lifelong enemies.