Watson’s World and Two Models of Communication

May 18, 2013

Rebecca Watson inhabits an alternate universe.  At least that is the most charitable explanation I can provide for her recent smear.  Watson has posted comments on my opening talk at Women in Secularism 2.  It may be the most intellectually dishonest piece of writing since the last communique issued by North Korea.

Her distortions begin with her second paragraph, when she states that “Lindsay spends a good deal of time arguing against the idea that feminism as a movement has no significant internal disagreements.”  I expended about 200 words out of a 2,420 word text posing the question about whether there are significant divisions within feminism.  In other words, I spent 90% of the time talking about other topics.  The next time Watson asks me for a “good deal” of my drink, I will leave her an ice cube.

Second, she says she has never heard anyone take the position that there are currently no significant divisions within feminism, which I assume is fairly translated as no divisions worth debating.  Yet Watson is aware that just a short time ago, the organization Secular Woman rejected the Open Letter that was endorsed by most leaders of secular organizations, in part because it implied that there was a legitimate ongoing debate about the meaning of feminism.  The Secular Woman response to the Open Letter states, in pertinent part:

“It is confusing, therefore, that this same letter suggests that a significant problem with online communication is centered on the ‘debate’ about the ‘appropriate way to interpret feminism.’ At Secular Woman, the principle that ‘feminism is a movement to end sexism, sexist exploitation, and oppression’ (Hooks, 2000, p. viii) is taken as a given, and not a topic for debate.”

Next, Watson claims the “crux" of my talk was the problem I have with feminists using the concept of privilege as a justification for telling men to “shut up and listen.”  This claim is false.  No reasonable person could possibly describe the crux of my talk as dealing with this issue.  Instead, the crux of my talk dealt with the millennia-long history of the subordination of women and how CFI was committed to working toward a society in which women would have “complete social and civil equality and equal economic and political opportunity.”

But in her defense, perhaps Watson was too busy tweeting about how “strange” it was to have a “white man” open the conference to pay attention to what I was actually saying.  (I’m just glad Watson didn’t notify security: “white man loose on stage, white man loose on stage!”)

But let’s leave Watson’s distortions behind and move to the central issue presented by her criticism, and that is what model of communication we should adopt when we are conversing with someone who has had different life experiences, e.g., a conversation between a woman and a man.  As I stated quite clearly in my talk, we should listen respectfully and attentively to someone with different life experiences, especially if that person is from a group that historically has had its voice suppressed.  However, although we should listen attentively, we should not fail to engage and, where appropriate, question. This is exactly what I said:

“By the way, with respect to the ‘Shut up and listen’ meme, I hope it’s clear that it’s the ‘shut up’ part that troubles me, not the ‘listen’ part. Listening is good. People do have different life experiences, and many women have had experiences and perspectives from which men can and should learn.  But having had certain experiences does not automatically turn one into an authority to whom others must defer. Listen, listen carefully, but where appropriate, question and engage.”

By contrast, the position against which I was arguing, as articulated by PZ Myers, is as follows:

“When a member of a marginalized group tells a member of a privileged group that their efforts, no matter how well-meaning, are wrong, there is one reasonable response: Shut up and listen. You might learn something.

There is also a terrible response: arguing back. It always makes it worse.

It’s not that they are infallible and we are totally stupid. It’s that THEY are the experts and the subject of the discussion.”

Myers-Watson assume you should never question, you should never argue back, because the person from the marginalized group must have the expertise.

I do not share that assumption, and I doubt its wisdom.  Indeed, I think it is a horribly misguided, logically infirm understanding of communication.   This model of communication asks us to put our critical thinking on hold merely because the person speaking comes from a marginalized group.

No extended argument or analysis of this issue is needed, and I do not think the choice could be starker.  Either you believe reason and evidence should ultimately guide our discussions, or you think they should be held hostage to identity politics.