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Thursday, April 5, 2018

Student claims in-class tirade against trans woman pastor Constitutionally protected

Hey, did you hear? A student at Indiana University of Pennsylvania was kicked out of class for saying there are only two genders! This is just another example of how universities in America are just bastions of social justice warriors trying to brainwash and browbeat everyone into sharing their views! That student's First Amendment right to free speech was violated!

Yep, that's totally what happened. Not at all an account that relies solely on the perspective of the student in question, which was reported by Fox News as the objective story, resulting in harassment and threats being directed at the lecturer who evicted the student, other lecturers in her department, university administrators, and even undergraduate office workers.

There appears to be an irony here in the contradiction of the "safe space, coddling students to protect them from rigorous debate" narrative. But I'm getting ahead of myself.

What actually happened? Well, that's a tougher question to answer than you might expect, because the lecturer in question, Dr. Alison Downie, is bound by FERPA (Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act of 1974) and can't speak directly on the student, Lake Ingle's, behavior that caused him to be evicted from her class.  But she did issue a statement concerning the nature of the class itself, Christianity 481: Self, Sin, and Salvation, and another student from that class, Katherine Bradshaw, who is not bound by FERPA offered her perspective on the matter as well.

Downie's description of the nature and goals of the class is as follows:
Here is part of the course description as it appears in my course syllabus: “Selecting representative diverse thinkers, this course requires students to understand a range of Christian perspectives, while focusing upon the selected three themes [self, sin, and salvation], in order to provide for depth of analysis. Students will gain an understanding of Christian history and tradition as well as an understanding of the many contemporary challenges evident in diverse Christian positions.”  
We discuss Biblical texts and early Christian thinkers as well as the positions of those in major Christian traditions writing about these topics today. We consider these questions: How do Christians understand what it means to be made in the image of God? Is sin best understood as a wrong act of an individual, or a condition inherited from Adam and Eve or systemic and structural forms of injustice? Is salvation about going to heaven after death or about how one lives in the here and now? 
There is not and never has been one answer to any of these questions in Christianity. 
Students are expected to listen to and understand a variety of approaches in order to develop depth of understanding of the complexity of Christianity, beyond one historical period or a particular church or Christian group.
Toward this end, Downie said that for this class she likes to present the views of Christian thinkers by allowing them to speak for themselves, and allow students to consider and discuss them:
When I have the opportunity to teach a small, upper level course such as this, I rarely lecture; instead, I craft various structures in different sessions so that all students, especially those most hesitant, feel welcome and able to have a safe space in which to speak, as we discuss class material. 
I also occasionally use short video clips as a way to have Christians speak for themselves in class, in lieu of guest speakers. In a university setting, students are expected to have the maturity and self-regulation necessary in order to listen to, understand, and respectfully discuss positions which they may find threatening or with which they may disagree.
Students are often surprised to discover the extent of the diversity of experiences and teachings among Christians, and students are expected to pay attention to all views, not only those with which they are already familiar. Furthermore, students are expected to prepare for and attend each class session, so that any particular session is understood in relation to the whole. 
While not a current university lecturer myself, I can say as a former religious studies major, graduate teaching assistant in comparative religion, and adjunct lecturer of my own course, that this course concept and structure sounds absolutely bog standard.

And what's more, it should be clear from Downie's description that her class is intended to foster precisely the sort of critical examination of ideas that has been near-outlawed in universities according to people like Steven Pinker, who would probably be too apoplectic right about now upon seeing the words "safe space" in Downie's description to notice that she's providing a safe space to allow for productive discussion rather than to squelch it.

But wait! She did squelch it! She kicked Lake Ingle out of class for having the temerity to express ideas at odds with the liberal ideas with which she was trying to indoctrinate the class!

Well, let's talk about that.

According to Ingle, as Fox News writer Caleb Parke dutifully reported, this is what happened:
After showing a 15-minute TED Talk by transgender ex-pastor Paula Stone Williams discussing the “reality” of “mansplaining,” “sexism from men,” and “male privilege,” the professor asked the women in the class to share their thoughts. 
When no women in the class said anything, Ingle spoke up, challenging the professor on biology and the gender wage gap. He told the class that the official view of biologists is that there are only two genders. 
The feminist professor booted him from class and asked him not to come back. She referred him to the public university’s Academic Integrity Board (AIB). Ingle needs to complete the class to graduate at the end of the semester. 
“You are barred from attending this class in accordance with the Classroom Disruption policy,” IUP Provost Timothy Moerland told Ingle in a March 2 letter. “My professor is violating my First Amendment rights because of the fact that my views and ideology is different from hers,” Ingle told Fox News. “So she took it on herself to silence and embarrass me – bully me – for speaking up in class.” 
Downie accused the conservative libertarian student of “disrespectful objection,” “refusal to stop talking out of turn,” “angry outbursts in response to being required to listen to a trans speaker discuss the reality of white male privilege and sexism,” and “disrespectful references to the validity of trans identity and experience.”  . . .
Ingle objected to Downie’s “overall abuse” as a professor “indoctrinating” students because she won’t listen to the other side of a controversial argument. “You can’t say that anecdotal evidence is fact,” Ingle said. “My professor pretty much just tried to shut me up because she was just letting women speak. I brought up the fact that biologists don’t agree that there’s more than two genders and I said the wage gap she’s referring to – 77 cents on the dollar – that even the New York Times debunked that.”
Why did Downie ask the female students in the class to speak first? That's not entirely clear, but I'm assuming it's because she suspected that they might not get a chance to speak otherwise. Even Ingle does not say that only female students were allowed to speak, but that they were specifically asked to speak first after watching the video. And Ingle seems to acknowledge, implicitly, that he spoke out of turn-- unless, that is, he identifies as female.

It's important to point out here that IUP is a public university, and students do have a First Amendment right to speak their views. However, that does not mean that every class period is the equivalent of a simultaneous soapbox for students and lecturers alike, for the duration of the class, for obvious reasons. You can simultaneously retain your First Amendment rights and not be allowed to say anything you want, at any volume, at any time, while class is in session.

Further, it does not sound like a discussion on the gender wage gap, or the specifics thereof, were particularly germane to the conversation. Here's a link to the Paula Stone Williams TED talk-- she makes a passing reference to a woman "working twice as hard for half as much," but that's it.  It's a talk about the differences between how Williams was treated as a man before she transitioned to being a woman. It talks about mansplaining as a thing that Williams experiences now that she's a woman. It talks about the importance of listening to people in other groups in order to recognize how they are treated by members of your own group, and yes, it talks about privilege. And gives ample evidence of it. It's a really good talk, and only fifteen minutes; you should listen to it.

Apparently when Ingle listened to it, there was a voice in his head saying "No, wrong, wrong, no, wrong" throughout, and that voice was so loud that he felt compelled to argue with a woman who wasn't in the room, about statements she didn't make (perhaps the "No" voice was just too loud to hear her), when the video was over.

Fortunately since fellow student Katherine Bradshaw was part of that class and published her thoughts on what happened, we can hear her perspective on how that went. First, some interesting context:
On Feb. 26, two days before the conflict, the class discussed the Nashville Statement. For those unfamiliar with this document, the Nashville Statement is a statement of faith published in 2017 by the Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood. The document articulates the signatories’ views on sex, gender, gender roles, homosexuality and transgenderism. We spent an entire class period talking about this brief reading and some response tweets sent out by a prominent Jesuit priest. 
Article 10 of the document states, “WE AFFIRM that it is sinful to approve of homosexual immorality or transgenderism and that such approval constitutes an essential departure from Christian faithfulness and witness.” 
Article 5 of the document states that there is a “God-appointed link between biological sex and self-conception as male or female” and that “WE DENY that physical anomalies or psychological conditions nullify the God-appointed link between biological sex and self-conception as male or female.” As the class discussed the document, there were no melting snowflakes. No one raised their voices. 
No one turned red in the face. It was a class period like any other. 
Ingle missed class that day.
Then the next class:
The following class period, Feb. 28, Downie showed a TED talk by Paula Williams, a transgender woman and minister. In the TED talk, the speaker recounted her decision to transition after she had married and built a highly successful career within various Christian organizations. She and her wife got a divorce, and Paula lost all of her jobs. 
To me, it was evident that this video and the Nashville Statement were meant to illustrate the diverse views of transgenderism within Christianity. The course syllabus states that students will be expected to engage with “diverse thinkers” and “understand a range of Christian perspectives.” 
Downie said that the floor would be opened for discussion for women first, and then once the women who wanted to make a comment were finished, the floor would be opened to the whole classroom. 
After a brief pause, Ingle began speaking. As I recall the event, this pause was less than 10 seconds long. The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette’s article on the incident said the pause was 30 seconds long. I cannot accept the assertion that the class was silent for three times as long as I recall. 
In an interview with Henrik Palmgren of Red Ice TV, Ingle summarized his comments during class: “When the video concluded in class, I objected to the professor’s use of anecdotal evidence in a classroom setting as if it was factual evidence. And, of course, it is a topic of much dispute and debate. And I also brought up the fact that not all biologists agree that there are more than two genders, as well as many entities like the Economist, as well as The New York Times, even have put out statements saying that the gender wage gap myth is how it is portrayed to be.” 
At various intervals during Ingle’s comments, Downie attempted to tell him to wait his turn to speak, brought up the fact that he had not been present the previous class period and said that he had created a toxic environment. I recall that Ingle claimed Downie “couldn’t just make up rules,” referring to Downie’s decision to have women speak before men. Downie countered by claiming professors do make up rules when guiding discussion. As Ingle continued to express his views, he raised his voice and became red in the face. One student walked out of the class during Ingle’s comments. Other students engaged with him at Downie’s behest. One student said that Ingle sounded highly privileged and as if he failed to understand the video. Ingle responded that his only privilege is that he is extremely intelligent. 
Another student made the point that privilege often doesn’t have to do so much with intellectual ability, so much as opportunities individuals are given to show off their abilities.
She also says:
I would like to bring attention to Ingle’s claim that he disagreed with the speaker and/or the professor regarding the claim that there are more than two genders. This is the part of the story that Fox, Breitbart, The Washington Examiner and many other news sources chose to use as their headline. At no point in Paula Williams’ TED talk does she even broach the subject. To my memory, the viewpoint which Ingle claims to have rebutted was never introduced by either the professor or the speaker in the TED talk.
Bradshaw's remarks are very well-expressed and should be read in full.  It's clear that she saw this as an important chance to speak up and set the record straight.

Bradshaw does note that she disagrees to some extent with the punishment that Ingle received upon being kicked out of class, which entails not being allowed to return to class until he writes an apology that specifically references each charges of disruptful behavior against him. One of these charges is that he claimed that "a low score on any classwork would be evidence of a professor's personal prejudice," which Ingle steadfastly maintains he didn't say, and Bradshaw didn't hear him say either, so she maintains that he should not have to apologize for it. Seems reasonable.

So, lacking Downie's personal account of what happened in the class but having a description of the course syllabus and accounts from both Ingle and Bradford, I'm going to make a wildly speculative, shot in the dark analysis of this situation:
  1. Lecturer sets up a course to allow students to engage with radically different standpoints across the political and moral spectrum through a lens of Christian thinking, both traditional and modern.
  2. Student misses the class where the views expressed apparently line up very close with his own but are presumably diametrically opposed to the views of at least some other students, and the class proceeds without disruption.
  3. Student attends the next class where the views expressed are diametrically opposed to his own, and throws a tantrum. 
  4. Lecturer gives student the boot pending a change to his behavior: no more tantrums.
  5. Student goes to the right-wing media yelling about his freeze peach.
  6. Media yells "HIS FREEZE PEACH!"
  7. University officials, from the lecturer herself to administrators to students, get harassment and threats.
And then...what happens next? We don't know.

But can I suggest what might happen, and shouldn't? What might happen is that the university decides that while Ingle's punishment is legitimate, it just isn't worth the bother of having a huge incident like this every time a student encounters beliefs that he deems tantrum-worthy, and therefore Downie and other lecturers must modify their courses to omit these controversial ideas.

That is the silencing effect we should be concerned about.

Oh, and Ingle? According to the Fox News article, he says he wants to be a professor himself. I'm sure he'll be great.

Tuesday, April 3, 2018

In which I interview myself about American Atheists Con 2018

Who are you, and what's your history re: religion and stuff?

  • Raised Lutheran (ELCA) in Wichita, Kansas.
  • Became an atheist in 1997/1998 (holy crap, 20+ years ago)
  • Got my BA in religious studies in 2000 (Texas Christian University). MA in religion and culture (University of Manchester, UK) in 2002, and PhD in cognitive science of religion (Aarhus University, Denmark) in 2009.
  • First skepticism/atheism conference: Skepticon 3, 2010 (I had mixed feelings, but as it turned out, I would go on to attend Skepticons 5, 9, and 10).  I've also attended Skeptics of Oz conferences in Wichita. I will be attending the Secular Women Work conference in Minneapolis this August. 

Why did you go to American Atheists Con this year?

  • It was in Oklahoma City, which is only about two and a half hours' drive away.
  • Curiosity. Never been.
  • Some interesting talks to listen to, new perspectives to hear, new ideas to ponder.
  • A chance to meet some people with whom I've only corresponded online thus far, see some old friends again, and make new friends.
  • The president of American Atheists, David Silverman, made a statement following the trainwreck of Mythcon last year that impressed me. He said, in part: 
We can't tolerate intolerance. We can't abide elevating those who spend their time trolling, and harassing, and alienating the very people who we're in this fight to help. We have serious work to do and we need serious conversations about how to do that. I don't have time to waste on people whose only interest seems to be provocation for provocation's sake and not on making the lives of our fellow atheists better. 
 Our convention next year is March 29 to April 1 in Oklahoma City. Like every year, we're going to have new people you've never heard from. We're going to talk about tough subjects. But we're going to do it without making people feel unsafe at our event. We're going to have a great time celebrating our community and the people in it. And we're going to do it while working to help people. 

Can you give me a quick overview of the issues with sexism and sexual harassment in atheism/secularism/skepticism (hereafter referred to simply as "atheism")?


AA Con took place in the aftermath of multiple allegations of sexual harassment coming out against Lawrence Krauss, which you can read about here.  Krauss is a well-known and highly-sought-after speaker at atheist conferences and other speaking engagements, and has continued to be even though rumors of his behavior have been circling for years prior to the Buzzfeed article. The allegations against him are only the most recent in atheism's long history of big name male figures being accused of sexual misconduct often at conferences, which includes one of them suing an entire blog network along with specific people for publishing allegations against him.

In the face of these revelations, individual atheists have had to divest themselves of hero worship and tribalism...or have not done so, and decided to instead just double-down on those things in defense of figure being accused. At the conference level, Mythcon basically picked up the pro-sexual-harasser/misogyny banner and ran with it, which is what prompted Silverman's Facebook comment that I quoted above, and which brings us back full circle.

So atheism is a hotbed of sexual harassment, and you went to AA Con because you thought you'd get harassed at some other atheist con?

No. Atheism probably isn't any more of a hotbed of sexual harassment than any other movement or group, actually.  If sexual harassment is a disease, then people speaking up about it and holding each other accountable is the treatment.  An organization or movement that is led largely by men (as atheism still is) that isn't having a #metoo kind of reckoning probably isn't that way because it has no disease, but because it hasn't been diagnosed yet. 


Okay, then how about you get around to actually describing AA Con?


Righto. Well, the number I heard a few times was 850 attendees, which meant that they had to sell overflow tickets because that many people wouldn't be able to fit into the Century Ballroom at the downtown Sheraton in Oklahoma City when it was time for the keynote conversation between David Silverman and Hugh Laurie.

Hugh Laurie? You mean House?

Yup. The keynote conversation turned out to be Hugh Laurie doing a bit of stand-up and then being basically interviewed by David Silverman about his atheism. It was enjoyable and actually reminded me of why it took me so long to get involved in movement atheism. Laurie's British, as you know, and he described the culture shock in going from England to America in terms of rampant religiosity. He noted that Tony Blair is a Catholic, and described how that was actually a liability in getting elected in the UK as a "god botherer." "God botherer" is a pretty common, benign term of ribbing in the UK for a devout Christian of any sort, perhaps a devout religious person of any sort.  

It is not, I would note, Hugh Laurie's personal insult of choice for Christians, something misunderstood by a preacher who apparently attended AA Con and wrote this charming review of the experience. Which you should read, because it's kind of amazing. I'll wait.

Okay, I'm back. Wow. So, how did Hugh Laurie remind you why you didn't get involved in movement atheism forever?


He said that there's not really anything like American Atheists in the UK-- not just because it's the UK, but because religion isn't nearly as pervasive in politics and social life, meaning that it's not such a big deal to not participate in it, meaning that movement atheism isn't really a "thing." If nobody's trying to pass laws requiring you to follow their religious rules and generally applying social pressure to be religious, then getting all gung-ho about not being religious can seem kind of pointless.  When I was studying religion in grad school in the UK and then in Denmark, practically everyone around me was some form of non-religious, but the idea of joining an atheist movement seemed ridiculous and rather...petulant.

I absorbed this view so thoroughly that when I got back to the States, I brought it with me.  If you read the post I wrote after attending Skepticon for the first time in 2010, shortly after moving back to the US, you'll see that my main objection was that it was just too.....atheisty.  I saw Skepticon as a big party for atheists, which it was in part, but I missed that if you live in the United States, particularly in a place like the South or the Midwest (like Missouri or Oklahoma), a big party for atheists that happens once a year might be the only time you actually feel comfortable being an atheist. That's important.

And Skepticon isn't, and AA Con isn't, just a party for atheists. The focus on church and state issues, which now includes social justice issues, that comes with both conferences carries the premise that atheists should be engaged in areas where an injustice is being committed and in which religion plays a role. That encompasses myriad issues-- LGBTQIA rights, Black Lives Matter and institutional racism generally, reproductive rights, sexual harassment and misogyny, immigration issues, sex workers' rights, the drug war, and so on.  

If people on the side of injustice, whatever it is, are claiming that God's on their side, then there's a natural place for atheists to fight for justice. In David Silverman's talk entitled How the Mighty Get Back Up, he outlined how American Atheists would back initiatives in these areas, none of which are specifically about atheism, if the people involved in them self-identify as atheists. That's a big deal. The community charity event that took place at the end of the conference on Sunday afternoon, packing up 30,000 meals for the hungry in Oklahoma City, is a big deal.

Says who?


Well, says Brian Fields of Pennsylvania Nonbelievers (American Atheists affiliate), with whom I spent quite a bit of time talking. Brian's one of the people I've known on Facebook for quite a while, and seemed like an excellent person, and proved to be equally so in person. He was excited about the meal-packing event because it was a chance to do activism/charity work at the conference, instead of just talking about it.

Who else did you meet? 

Lots of people. Russell Glasser (The Atheist Experience), Thomas Smith (Opening Arguments, Serious Inquiries Only, Philosophers in Space....he has other podcasts, but those are the ones I listen to), Bridgett "Bria" Crutchfield, Victor Harris (emcee for the conference), Jamie (Talk Heathen, a new call-in TV show out of Austin), Aron Ra, Andrew Hall (Laughing in Disbelief blog on Patheos).....

I got to see Mandisa Lateefah Thomas (founder/director of Black Nonbelievers) again, and she gave a killer talk on Saturday called Who Says Community is Dead? reminding everyone how incredibly important community is, and how standards for appropriate behavior within that community are not only permissible but critical to avoid pushing out good people by holding onto the trolls. I got to meet a bunch of people from Wichita Oasis for *cough* the first time, and promised to attend a meetup soon. Josiah Mannion was on duty taking photos for the conference most of the time, but it was nice to see him again. Other people too, whose names are not occurring to me right now-- apologies.

(Oh, also I was giving out freeze peaches. Everybody listed above got one. If you don't have one, you should totally buy one. No pressure or anything though.)

What was your favorite talk?


That's difficult to answer as there were many very good ones, so I'll name three that stood out:
  • Gavin Grimm gave an amazing talk on how his Christian upbringing impacted his process of coming out as a trans man called Losing Religion and Finding Myself
  • Brooke Binkowski, managing editor at Snopes, talked about the need for skepticism in journalism and everyday life in a talk called, appropriately, Be Skeptical About Everything, Including Skepticism.
  • Andre Salais, a political analyst, described his work on campaigning for atheist candidates for office in Arizona in a talk called Atheist Candidates Project: Meeting America's Demand for Non-Religious Representation

Were there any talks that made you cringe?


Yes.

I looked ahead in the program on Friday, and saw that on Saturday morning there would be a talk called Islamophobe delivered by Mohammed Alkhadra. Note: The title was what caught my attention; I'd never heard of Alkhandra before. I enjoyed myself at the comedy show the night before (Leighann Lord, Andy Wood, and Victor Harris), but made sure not to have too much fun so that I'd be equipped to listen to Alkhadra the next morning.

Alkhadra was born in the US but lived in Jordan most of his life, and founded the Jordanian Atheist Community when he deconverted. According to his profile on the American Atheists web site, "after giving a speech in the United Kingdom about Islam, Mohammed faced arrest and even death at the hands of the government and Islamic extremists, prompting him to move to the United States."  I am guessing this is that speech:


The talk he gave at AA Con was kind of an extended version of this speech, and the audience gave him a standing ovation at the end. I didn't blame them. He described the horrors of criminalizing apostasy and blasphemy eloquently and passionately, and left no doubt concerning the value of free exchange of information (he credits learning about evolution from Richard Dawkins via Youtube for his deconversion).

So what made me cringe about his talk? Well, his conclusion was basically that if speaking out against the barbarism of an Islamic theocratic government is Islamophobia, then dammit he's an Islamophobe and we all should be as well. 

But he said this in Oklahoma, where voters approved a ballot measure to amend the state constitution to ban Sharia law from state courts in 2010.  He said this while three white men from a Kansas militia are on trial for plotting to bomb a building housing Somali Muslim refugees and a mosque. He said this in a country whose president campaigned on, and then tried to make good on, a promise to ban Muslims from entering the country altogether.

I don't actually care if "Islamophobia" is the term of choice for hatred of and discrimination against Muslims. But we need to have some term for it, because it isn't collapsible into racism, although bigotry is messy (hence intersectionality) and the two frequently bleed into each other.

To be as clear as possible, I feel like I need to return to bullet points:

  • Hatred of and discrimination against Muslims needs to be distinguished from criticism-- however vehement-- of Islam. The former is bigotry (whatever you call it); the latter is not. 
  • Discrimination against Muslims is and should be illegal, but bigotry against Muslims, while reprehensible, should not. You don't need to concede that hatred of Muslims for being Muslims should be illegal in order to call it bigotry. 
  • The necessity of keeping even bigoted speech legal, even when it's bigoted speech against a minority in one country, is underscored by the need to speak out against abuses committed by that minority when it is a majority elsewhere. Supporting Ahed Tamimi does not make one anti-Semitic. Supporting ex-Muslim organizations, especially in Muslim-dominated countries, does not make one an Islamophobe. 
  • Real Islamophobia-- real hatred of and a desire to discriminate against Muslims-- belongs to the alt-right in America. American atheists should not flirt with the alt-right, much less shack up with it, by catering to its anti-Muslim sentiments. 

I understand why the audience at AA Con gave Alkhandra a standing ovation. I hope that whoever reads this can understand why I was conflicted throughout his talk.

Well.....okay then. Any other thoughts?


I'm really glad I went. So much to chew on, so much to be inspired by, such friendly and excellent people. Thanks, AA Con.