How Conferences Kill Critical Thought

August 12th, 2013 | Posted by:

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In the last few days, voices upon voices have emerged raising accusations that some leaders in the atheist movement are perpetrators of sexual violence.  These assaults aren’t the product of just a few “bad apples,” and the fact that they have gone unheard of and unprosecuted until now isn’t a simple accident. That sexual violence runs rampant and unnoticed is a systemic problem, sanctioned by the structure of this movement itself. That structure: the (ironic) worship of our heroes.

I’ve been to several conventions put on by atheist and skeptic organizations over the four or so years that I’ve been a part of the political movement. As my views and understanding have drastically changed in those four years, so has my experience at these cons—I think it’s fair to say that I have grown consistently more cynical about my con-going experience.

Our movement, centered around critical thinking and challenging dogmatic authority, is grossly quick to defer to the interests and ideas of the powerful and subvert minority voices.  It seems that if a speaker has enough blogging clout, all it takes to get an applause break is to include a meme in their powerpoint and reiterate how atheists are smart, religion is dumb, and We are the future. Largely absent are discussions on issues such as how our movement should engage in social justice or even partner with other religious minorities. An underrepresentation of diversity views in these secular spaces have made me feel a bit ostracized in conference settings.

This problem is embedded in the structure of conferences, reflected in the mantra that certain speakers have more draw, therefore those speakers deserve that draw.  Atheist conventions in general (probably based on how conventions of any sort are typically run) relegate speakers either to one large space or one of several smaller spaces, putting the more powerful voices in the larger space to accommodate what they assume will be a bigger audience. But whether or not those sorts of speakers would draw that big a crowd, they’re still implicitly given the privilege of the big platform, which itself sends the message “my ideas are important, you want to see me.” Some people will go anyway, whether they know the speaker or not, whether they want to hear what they have to say or not, because in the end, they won’t want to miss the Important Ideas coming from the Big Important person.

Conference speakers, standing on a podium looking down at an applauding audience, are in an environment that social psychology holds clearly to be anything but conducive to critical thought. And when particular movement leaders occupy a sort of A-list elite, the ideas they speak into a microphone are more likely to go unchallenged by the riff-raff beneath them. This divide—between those who are ostensibly the “best” at atheistic critical thinking and those who are lesser—is as much a threat to intellectual integrity as is having the same sort of divide in a religious community.

I recently attended Secular Student Alliance conference in Columbus. Though this was a student conference where students were meant to share ideas with one another, headlining talks from prominent (nonstudent) bloggers and organization employees were largely double-booked with student talks. At one, the Atheist Community of Austin’s Matt Dillahunty admitted that he had nothing to offer on organizing debates (his talk was billed as a how-to-organize-debates-as-a-student-group), but instead shared what amounted to a BuzzFeed list of the common arguments against God’s existence. This talk essentially functioned as an opportunity for a popular blogger to perform in front of the student community, at the expense of members of that community sharing more tangible and practical ideas about actual problems facing student activists.

Later in the night Amanda Marcotte spoke on how atheism should align itself with feminism (a very fair and true point) to fight the religious right. As legitimate a topic as that is, the talk was even more out of place than Dillahunty’s, insofar as it barely touched on students at all. Again, a popular blogger performed. Thankfully, there were several questions in the audience that did address student concerns. “Should men be careful about stepping on women’s toes in feminism?” one student asked. Marcotte shrugged it off, saying yeah, we should be careful, but more than anything we should all fight religious misogyny. Applause.

Both of these speakers ignored student concerns, particularly concerns that are immensely relevant to, for example, a movement where men seem to be caring more and more about women’s issues, yet do so in a way that does step on women’s toes (earlier that day, I noticed one male student consistently interrupting and centering himself at the “Safe Space for Women” lunch discussion table). These speakers clearly weren’t asked, “Please address student concerns primarily in your talk, considering you are non-students entering a space that should be student-focused.” Quite the opposite: the nature of the conference legitimized these nonstudent voices and allowed them to speak without challenge. Students, some of whom paid for travel and housing so that they could attend and speak at the conference, who do the gritty work of organizing and came to share that knowledge with their peers, were relegated beneath the microphones of bloggers who already have immense platforms that they write from everyday.

Such a challenge would have been nice when some voices offered up particularly violent sentiments couched in friendly language (the most insidious kind of violence).  In the last talk on the first night of the conference, Todd Stiefel discussed the many virtues of Thomas Jefferson. Stiefel is not a historian; he really has no claim to a particularly insightful understanding of Jefferson’s philosophy. And so, we see the systemic problem out front. When slavery or racism or sexual violence are presented as parts of religious doctrine, we rightly hold them to be absolutely revolting. But Stiefel was on a platform, in a big room, with a big audience, and a big seal of approval by the conference where he was speaking, so he was entirely shielded from being held accountable for the fact that we’re propping up a figure who owned and raped slaves, with no mention of it whatsoever. Stiefel spoke on his honorable value system, and how he is a marker for our movement, and we are expected to temporarily ignore a particularly morally indefensible dimension of his character. No consideration was given to the experience of victims of sexual violence or racial violence in the audience, who could well have taken issue with the fact that we were revering a racist sexual assailant. Worshipping Jefferson in this way, subverting his moral failures to uphold some virtuous image of his good ideas, would without hesitation be denounced by the atheist community were it done in a religious context. Yet in a nonreligious conference room, it was given a standing ovation.

Furthermore, Stiefel offered up a quote that got several enthusiastic tweets during his Q&A: “If your identity is wrapped in fiction, it doesn’t deserve to be respected.” How nice. And how easily that could be interpreted as “Islam isn’t real, so if you are a Muslim, you don’t deserve respect,” particularly in our incredibly Islamophobic society (and see Richard Dawkins for more on the atheist movement’s Islamophobia problem). How easily that quote could be read to justify disrespect for an identity that experiences an immeasurable amount of violence in our society today. And how easily Stiefel was able to say it publicly, because there was no accountability for his statements whatsoever.

As we hear more and more of the heartbreaking stories about those who have been victims of sexual violence in our community, as we wonder how movement leaders could get away with something so horrible, it just becomes clearer and clearer: our movement loves its heroes. We love our big names. We love our popular bloggers, skeptical authors, and organization presidents. Unaccountability, intransparency, and corruption have split the atheist movement on class lines. Even if we say that we should always “question authority”, we still give them the privileges they don’t deserve. We still reserve the best for those with titles, for those with clout, for those with money.

For some reason, it’s okay for conferences to open a door for sexual violence, to make the word “student” synonymous with “secondary,” or to allow for someone on a platform to tell a crowd to disrespect minorities and to erase the moral revulsions of historical figures. This stems from a system where power isn’t challenged, largely out of a fear that the powerful will strike against us. Yet we easily forget that they already have, and will continue to until they’re checked.

EDIT: The registration fee at this year’s SSA con was waived for all speakers, and about 70% of student speakers, according to the SSA, received financial aid to cover travel/housing costs.

walker

Walker Bristol is a nontheist Quaker living in Somerville, Massachusetts. A rising senior at Tufts University reading religion and philosophy, he covers social activism and class inequality in the Tufts Daily and has organized in movements promoting religious diversity, sexual assault awareness and prevention, and worker’s rights. Formerly, he was the Communications Coordinator at Foundation Beyond Belief and  the president of the Tufts Freethought Society. He tweets at @WalkerBristol

 

15 Responses to “How Conferences Kill Critical Thought”

  1. VladChituc Says:

    [SHOTS FIRED]

  2. BuddhistHumanist Says:

    I’d like to add that, inherently, the “Militant Atheist” that Richard Dawkins calls us to be is a dissident voice. Many people who identify as atheists are the most out-spoken among us, the most confrontational, and often the most intelligent (especially the ones who know they’re smart). Put a high number of people like that together and you likely won’t get a lot of agreement.

    I enjoyed your article.

  3. Ross the Boss Says:

    Maybe I don’t remember the content of the talk you describe as “Worshipping Jefferson”, but I really didn’t get that sense. Can you go into a little detail about what he said that was objectionable or what he could have said or not said to make it better?

    Your points about Matt and Amanda are good ones that I hadn’t considered. It’s easy to miss your blindness to the error of those you greatly respect. As a person one year out of college, perhaps I wasn’t as attentive to the primary focus of the conference as others or you were.

    I appreciate this post, but I’m curious what the solution is. Some kind of direction to an answer belongs in there. There’s the “be student-focused” idea, which is good. But I’m getting the sense that you’d like more than speakers. More of what the table subject conversations were about? I did enjoy those.

  4. Dhoelscher Says:

    “This problem is embedded in the structure of conferences, reflected in the mantra that certain speakers have more draw, therefore those speakers deserve that draw … they’re still implicitly given the privilege of the big platform, which itself sends the message ‘my ideas are important, you want to see me.’ … Conference speakers, standing on a podium looking down at an applauding audience, are in an environment that social psychology holds
    clearly to be anything but conducive to critical thought. And when
    particular movement leaders occupy a sort of A-list elite, the ideas
    they speak into a microphone are more likely to go unchallenged by the
    riff-raff beneath them. This divide—between those who are ostensibly the
    ‘best’ at atheistic critical thinking and those who are lesser—is as
    much a threat to intellectual integrity as is having the same sort of
    divide in a religious community.”

    It’s about time somebody voiced these sorts of concerns about the conference circuit, which has long struck me as, in various ways, an elitist, off-puttingly cliquish, and somewhat anti-intellectual (roving) environment, where a good many of the regular speakers are insufferably full of themselves.

    A year ago or more, in a reply to a commenter on one of his blogs, Richard Carrier identified himself as a “leader” in the atheist movement. I immediately thought that the last thing atheists need is a group of leaders.

  5. Kumar Ramanathan Says:

    The table subject conversations were easily my favourite part of the SSA conference. Extrapolating from that idea, I think the biggest missed opportunity of the conference was to learn from the successes and failures of other groups. Depending on our histories, locations, and other particular circumstances, we all have vastly different experiences as student communities. Perhaps having more of those group conversations, student-led workshops, or more Q&A-based talks from different student leaders could have helped revert the conference’s focus to community-building. It would also help tear down the echo chamber a bit, I think, by getting people to talk about their actual experiences rather than talking points that most folks are already familiar with.

  6. Mando44646 Says:

    Walker, I just want to touch on the “students, some of whom paid the SSA so that they could attend and speak at the conference” bit. No students who spoke at the conference paid a registration fee, including yourself. Student speakers did have to cover their lodging (which they could have applied for a travel/housing grant to cover like other student attendees) and they were asked to cover their catered lunch on Saturday (as were the non-student speakers). Conference registration was entirely free for ALL speakers at both conference locations. If you heard otherwise, please let me know. We are always looking for feedback and ways to improve the conference. And I promise we will take your concerns into account when planning in the future :)

    -Nick Stancato

  7. getz Says:

    : “If your identity is wrapped in fiction, it doesn’t deserve to be respected.” How nice. And how easily that could be interpreted as “Islam isn’t real, so if you are a Muslim, you don’t deserve respect”

    It could, but since that’s not what they said, it’s not really a meaningful criticism of their comment. If you can give it some context from their speech it would be, of course, although that might be irrelevant to people working with an isolated quote. A more direct interpretation would be that a fictional identity is the same as no identity. ie: if I identify as a bear-killer, and have killed no bears, I’m not actually a bear killer, and no one need respect my aptitude for bear killing. If someone claims to be the follower of a magic being, and there is no such being to follow, then they’re not actually followers. You can redefine their identity(people who believe they’re following a magic being),but that’s already showing a patronizing lack of respect for their claim.

    If the superstitions aren’t respected, then the superstitious will need to be respected based on some other more sensible criteria. Feel free to create one if you haven’t already.

  8. Walker Bristol Says:

    Hey Nick– thanks for writing. When I mentioned it in the piece, yes, I was referring to travel/housing fees for student speakers that weren’t covered by SSA. I believe I did hear differently however regarding whether speakers were guaranteed exemption from the registration cost, although the folks I’m thinking of might have been talking about the CFI con (like you said, I didn’t pay a reg fee and SSA picked up my other expenses). Just for clarity, the registration fee was waived for all speakers, student or not, at the SSA conference?

  9. rg57 Says:

    I am not an attendee nor a student.

    I do agree that some of choices for conference speakers and topics seem to be inappropriate. And I do agree that “standing on a podium [...is ...] anything but conducive to critical thought”. (Although I prefer that format myself, because I get to hear someone’s point of view, and then I do my thinking later, by myself, where it’s quiet.)

    A few points on which I disagree:

    “atheism should align itself with feminism” is a hard claim to justify. Feminism is both a prejudice and a dogma, which you can glean from the name alone (but feel free to examine the ideas and culture more, as it only gets worse from there). While atheism doesn’t require skepticism, atheists like to claim that they are skeptics, and feminism is an explicitly non-skeptical set of ideas and processes. Now, if men truly believe in feminism, I still say that they should not be silenced or minimized just because they have a penis, as you suggest they should be. If they are “good at” feminism, than that should be all that matters. The most useful discussions tend to be about ideas, and not their source’s genitals.

    “we are expected to temporarily ignore a particularly morally indefensible dimension of [Jefferson's] character.” That’s true. Yet, you say it yourself … “temporarily”. It’s worth remembering that the man is long dead, and so are all his slaves. There’s no problem focusing temporarily on the good parts of a person’s history, relevant to US law, history, and to our particular identity. Of course he may now be inferior to us, but it’s because we’ve had the advantage of learning something about justice in the last few hundred years. Would you have been who you are today, two centuries ago? If atheists do not claim important US deist and secular founders, there will not be adequate push-back to the false claim that “the US is a Christian theocracy, because it was founded as a Christian theocracy” (we’re not dealing with people who argue using logic and facts… but symbols). Christians have no problem compartmentalizing US founders’ slavery and rape, and some even go so far as to rewrite history claiming that Washington freed the slaves. Atheists (generally) don’t rewrite history like that. But we do need to focus light on where it is most useful in the current debate, which relates to the religious or secular nature of the founding of the US, not how many slaves each of them owned or raped. If we don’t get to speak well of any atheist unless they’re perfect, we’re going to be waiting a long time. There are some other people who have been waiting a few thousand years for their perfect person too… On the other hand, if we’re going to list every historical person’s faults, it’s going to sound like a pharmaceutical ad. What’s the point?

    “(and see Richard Dawkins for more on the atheist movement’s Islamophobia problem)” No, Dawkins is no islamophobe. Rather, it’s our society’s failure to understand when it has actually got something sort of right on occasion, and that not all ideas (e.g. sex segregation, genital cutting), and certainly not all people (e.g. Ahmadinejad), are equally respectable. No, I do not respect those who harm their children. To fail to respond, just to uphold some dogmatic politeness, is absurd.

    “we hear more and more of the heartbreaking stories”. I’m just not sure that we do. The first story I heard was of a paranoid over-reaction in an elevator, followed by an insulting lecture to all men. The way certain groups promoted this as rape culture necessarily means I must question their judgment on these things. Of late, a once-popular blogger has been making baseless accusations against other male atheists, and has had to seek legal counsel as a result. There doesn’t seem to be any evidence (prior to today… I haven’t looked yet) that any person has made these claims to anyone with authority to actually do anything worthwhile about it. Instead, these men are just smeared in online gossip. There’s definitely a problem here, and it may be the one you’ve identified. Or it may not. We simply cannot know until it’s investigated.

    “We still reserve the best for those with titles”. Well, it entirely depends on the title. If it’s Doctor of Dental Surgery, that’s not going to win much respect on topics related to atheism. But yeah, I’m going to listen more intently to a Doctor of Science, who has published work relating to time, when it comes to discussions on the nature of time. We can’t all do the research. Our society recognizes knowledgeable and intelligent people by awarding these titles to them, based on relevant hurdles that had to be jumped. It’s not perfect, but it’s what we have. I’m not entirely sure what you mean by “rising senior at Tufts University reading religion and philosophy”, but presumably you’re working toward a degree. Even if you aren’t, you’re using Tufts’ good name to promote yourself. You’ll need to admit that even as you criticize titles, you’re using similar authority to promote yourself as well.

  10. Mando44646 Says:

    Yes, all speakers had their registration fees waived (student or not). Student speakers were eligible to apply for Leadership Travel Aid from us in order to help cover travel/lodging costs, just like all student attendees – which I’d say about 70%-ish did. No student speaker ‘paid us’ to speak at the conference, if they paid anything it was to Ohio State (or UNLV in the West)

  11. Walker Bristol Says:

    Oh, I see, my mistake, I guess I thought SSA had already worked out a deal with OSU for housing so some of our housing fees were going to SSA. I’ll correct that now!

  12. Mando44646 Says:

    nope, all the dorm costs went directly from us to OSU (since they instituted a policy that those in the dorms cannot pay directly).

    Thanks!

    FYI for those reading this, I more than welcome feedback on the conference. Please email me Nick(AT)secularstudents(DOT)org if you’d like to offer opinions, feedback, suggest changes, etc

  13. katiehippie Says:

    I’m really confused on how ‘worshiping” Amanda Marcotte equals ‘opening the door for sexual violence.’

  14. Walker Bristol Says:

    It doesn’t. The larger problem of giving a select slate of people elite positions in the movement shields them from criticism, and gives them power over others that can be used to take sexual advantage over others and get away with it. The way people have jumped to defend leaders like Radford and Shermer in the wake of recent accusations, and the way that these stories have gone untold until now, I think illustrates this perfectly.

    Every topic “relates’ to students. At a student conference, I’d like to see talks about how feminism and religion concern students *particularly*, not just generally, since we can get that anywhere on the internet.

  15. quickshot Says:

    People are ignoring you, Walker. Not because you are wrong, but because they don’t like what they hear.

    Perfect, poignant, and powerful. DONT STOP

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