Friday, October 30, 2009

More on Sunsara Taylor vs. Ethical Humanist Society of Chicago

I have received the following press release from Joan Hirsch, Sunsara Taylor's assistant. I've changed only minor details of formatting necessary to post the content here and added some links.

Update 31 October 2009: I've received a corrected version of Sunsara's statement, which replaces the earlier statement


"Morality Without Gods" Speech Canceled by Ethical Humanist Society of Chicago
Sunsara Taylor Denounces Dis-invitation as “Un-ethical”


Sunsara Taylor, a writer for Revolution newspaper and self-described “uncompromising atheist,” issued a statement today denouncing as “un-ethical” the decision of the Board of Trustees of the Ethical Humanist Society of Chicago to uphold their dis-invitation to her to give a talk at the Society on Sunday, November 1, at 10:30 a.m. on “Morality Without Gods.” The full text of Taylor’s statement is below.

In early July, the Ethical Humanist Society of Chicago, located in Skokie, extended an invitation to Taylor to speak on “Morality Without Gods” at the Society’s Sunday program on November 1, 2009. Two weeks before the scheduled appearance, some members of the Program Committee led a campaign to rescind the invitation.

In her statement, Taylor says this decision was based on “gross mischaracterizations and distortions of my character and of the content of my intended talk. It was pushed through in contradiction to [EHSC’s] own stated principles and in an atmosphere where fear and anti-communism were being aggressively stoked by some members of the Committee.”

Taylor added, “If the Society continues to proceed in this fashion and does not reverse its decision to dis-invite, it would be more appropriate to rename itself the “Un-Ethical Society for Anti-Humanism.”

Many prominent people are reacting to EHSC's dis-invitation of Taylor with alarm and concern. People who have spoken alongside Taylor in a variety of venues sent statements of support and many who on principle oppose the Society’s decision sent letters to the EHSC urging them to honor their invitation. Those include Chris Hedges, Esther Kaplan, Cindy Sheehan, Laura Flanders and many others.

Author and New York University media and communications professor, Mark Crispin Miller, wrote, “While certain of [Sunsara Taylor’s] arguments may well be controversial, that is no reason whatsoever to decide against allowing her to make them publicly, under your auspices: on the contrary. It is because her arguments are challenging that she should be allowed to go ahead and make them, as originally planned--allowing others there to challenge them in turn, if those others should be so inclined.”

To EHSC, Miller wrote, “your decision…if allowed to stand, will represent yet one more victory for ‘safe’ opinion over full and vigorous debate.”

In the statements appealing to EHSC to not cancel Taylor 's scheduled talk, a number of people spoke to the broader implications as they see them.

Dennis Loo, sociology professor at CalPoly in Ponoma, California, said, “It would set an exceedingly bad example both for your organization and for the broader society. Now more than ever reasoned dialogue and lively exchanges of ideas are called for.”

Paul Eckstein, Assistant Professor of Philosophy and Religion at Bergen Community College , Paramus, NJ, wrote, “I expect better behavior from those one would ordinarily consider either natural allies or at least reasonable persons. This would be amusing if the crisis we are facing today weren't so serious.”

Taylor herself said, “These days, there is all too much self-censorship and acquiescence to the curtailment of unconventional discourse in academic and intellectual life, in political discourse, and on matters of morality and ethics. The decision of the Society must be seen in the context of, and as contributing to, this broader chill and this is why it is unacceptable.”

Sunsara Taylor affirmed in her statement today that she will be leading a workshop on the theme of “The Liberation of Women and the Emancipation of All Humanity” on Saturday, Oct. 31, 2-4:00 p.m. at the Ethical Humanist Society of Chicago, 7574 N. Lincoln Avenue in Skokie, IL.

She also stated she will be "available and prepared to speak to all and any willing to hear the content of her originally scheduled talk, "Morality Without Gods,” on Sunday, November 1st.”

SUNSARA TAYLOR is a revolutionary voice of a new generation. She is a writer for Revolution newspaper and sits on the Advisory Board of World Can't Wait. She was written about in The New York Times, and appeared on The O'Reilly Factor, CNN's Showbiz Tonight, Fox's Hannity & Colmes, Fox & Friends, the Alan Colmes Radio Show. Taylor has traveled to the front lines and the heart of the controversy around abortion—from the funeral of recently murder abortion provider Dr. George Tiller, leading protests in support of abortion outside Obama’s commencement speech at Notre Dame and disrupting Rick Warren’s sermon at Ebenezer Baptist Church. In her 2008-2009 speaking tour, Taylor has spoken and debated at campuses nationally on Away With All Gods! Unchaining the Mind and Radically Changing the World by Bob Avakian, including the Center for the Study of Religion at UCLA, Georgia State University, Columbia College and New York University. On October 2nd, Taylor was a speaker at the Atheist Alliance International 2009 convention in Los Angeles.

Statement from Sunsara Taylor [corrected 31 Oct 2009]
October 29, 2009

To Everyone Concerned About Critical Thought and the State of the World:

Something very wrong is afoot among those one would expect to be among the greatest champions of critical thought and open exchange. On October 19, 2009, the Ethical Humanist Society of Chicago (EHSC) rescinded their long-standing invitation for me to speak to their Society's weekly gathering on November 1, 2009.

I had been invited to speak on the topic of “Morality Without Gods” back in July and I accepted this invitation in good faith. I arranged to be in Chicago to give this talk because I believe it is of the utmost importance to open up discussion of the questions thrown up by the moral crisis of our times and because I believe I have a valuable contribution to make to this discussion. As testified to by the statements below, this is a view that is shared by many who have heard me speak, shared a platform with me, and who have interviewed me, whether they agree with all of my views or not.

EHSC’s decision to dis-invite me was based on gross mischaracterizations and distortions of my character and of the content of my intended talk. It was pushed through in contradiction to the Society’s own stated principles and in an atmosphere where fear and anti-communism were being aggressively stoked by some members of their Program Committee.

Their decision to dis-invite me is wrong. It is not in keeping with EHSC’s avowed principles, i.e. “We value the importance of living an ethical, responsible, and joyful life. We promote intellectual, philosophical, and artistic freedom, avoiding dogma and rigid creed.” (from “Who We Are-What We Value” mission statement of EHSC). And, this decision contributes very negatively to the current chill on intellectual and political discourse that challenges the status quo in the academy, the media, and beyond.

I have heard many reports of fear-mongering and anti-communist hysteria being whipped up among members in regards to the alleged harm I could bring to EHSC if allowed to speak. None of this was ever addressed to me in an open or aboveboard way. Rather, the Committee has repeatedly implied that there was something in the content of my proposed talk that was either different than what they had invited me to speak on or beyond the pale of reasonable discourse for their Society. However, the theme of my talk is precisely in keeping with the original theme they invited me to speak on (“Morality Without Gods”). [see my submitted description below]

The only time anyone from the EHSC Program Committee cited anything objectionable in my proposed talk, it was complete distortion and defamation. On October 21, 2009, I wrote to the Program Committee, setting the record straight and documenting just some of this. Here is an excerpt of that letter from me:
In any case, I feel it necessary to set the record straight. Kashyap [of the EHS Program Committee] wrote:
On the first point, we are an inclusive humanist group. A talk that dwells on 'Christian fascists' and characterizes the leading moral problems facing the U.S. as depending critically on 'an influx of immigrants from around the world, [and] the entering of women into the workforce in the last generation' is not what we were expecting.
In fact, the description of my presentation clearly says we live in a time of moral crisis because "the stability and way of life of millions of people are being disrupted by the effects of imperialist globalization." I give examples of these huge fast-paced changes and instability in people's lives here and around the world as part of what is giving impetus to a resurgence of reactionary fundamentalist religion as people seek something solid, familiar and absolute in a time of such upheaval and change. Kashyap has pulled a snippet of my talk description out of context to imply that I blame society's moral crisis on immigrants and women joining the work force when my actual meaning was clearly just the opposite, including to counter the scapegoating and backlash that a narrow and hateful brand of Christian fundamentalism engenders against these sections of our population.
Is there any who can read such a gross mischaracterization and inversion of the content of my planned talk and believe this dis-invitation was based on sound principle?

Instead of responding to any of the key matters of fact and principle addressed in my above quoted letter, or offering any honest objection to the actual content of my planned talk, the wrong decision to dis-invite me was then compounded and fortified. On Monday, October 26th, the Society as a whole allowed the Board of Trustees to shamefully reaffirm this decision on the same wrong basis in a hurriedly called meeting.

It matters little whether the broader membership sanctioned this dis-invitation due to blatant anti-communism or “merely” out of the desire to “preserve the unity” of the Society; the effect and the precedent remain the same. All too often these days, great moral wrongs are allowed to sit, and capitulation on matters of principle is excused in the name of “not disrupting unity” or that it is simply “too much work” to go up against the forces arrayed against what is just.

This calls to mind the line from Yeats, “The best lack all conviction, while the worst Are full of passionate intensity.” Those times when it is most difficult to stand up for principle, those times when standing up for principle requires going against the grain and sometimes even sacrifice, are precisely the times when it is most required and can make the greatest difference. These days, there is all too much self-censorship and acquiescence to the curtailment of unconventional discourse in academic and intellectual life, in political discourse, and on matters of morality and ethics. The decision of the Society must be seen in the context of, and as contributing to, this broader chill and this is why it is unacceptable.

In their most recent letter to me, the Board of Trustees of EHSC wrongly invokes all sorts of procedural “rights” of their committee rather than addressing the content of my objections to their decision.

They write, “We do not censor programs, and it is clear to our members that speakers do not necessarily reflect the view of our Society. We do, however, have the right to choose the speakers who speak and the topics of their presentations. We have a Program Committee that conducts a process to determine the speakers and topics for our Sunday.”

However, it was not I who went to the Program Committee and insisted that they allow me to speak; they approached me. After conducting their established process, they invited me and published my name as an upcoming speaker in their October newsletter.

Further, the fact that it is the bureaucratic “right” of the Board of Trustees to reach the decision to dis-invite me does not make that decision morally right, any more than the “right” of California voters to ban gay marriage through made that decision morally or ethically defensible.

All suggestions on the part of EHSC Board or Program Committee, as made in their October 28th letter to me, that I would somehow endanger the “safe, peaceful, engaging” atmosphere of their Sunday program is merely further character slander. This behavior from any organization is shameful, but coming from a group that avows itself to be rooted in ethics and humanism it is disgraceful.

If the Society continues to proceed in this fashion and does not reverse its decision to dis-invite, it would be more appropriate to rename itself the “Un-Ethical Society for Anti-Humanism.”

In their October 28 letter, the Board of Trustees apologized for “any acrimony between the Ethical Humanist Society and [myself] that has transpired recently.”

However, the conflict that has arisen between EHSC and myself was never about feelings of “acrimony” but of profound matters of principle and ethics. I protest and condemn in the strongest terms their decision not out of feelings of personal acrimony or a sense of pride, but out of a firm commitment to matters of ethics and principle. Indeed, I do not believe I would be worthy of any platform to speak on matters of ethics or morality if I did not strongly object and condemn and call out such shameful behavior on the part of any organization.

I intend to fulfill my commitment to all who want to hear me speak. I will lead a workshop on the theme of “The Liberation of Women and the Emancipation of All Humanity” on Saturday, Oct. 31, 2-4:00 p.m. at the Ethical Humanist Society of Chicago, 7574 N. Lincoln Avenue in Skokie. Further, I will be available and prepared to speak to all and any willing to hear the content of my originally scheduled talk, “Morality Without Gods,” on Sunday, November 1st.

I believe this is the only ethical thing to do.

Sunsara Taylor

ORIGINAL DESCRIPTION OF SUNSARA TAYLOR'S TALK TO EHS OF CHICAGO
“MORALITY WITHOUT GODS”

We live in a time of moral crises. These crises are NOT, as the Christian fascists like to constantly insist, because of “abortionists, the ACLU, homosexuals, and science instructors who teach evolution.” These crises exist because the stability and way of life of millions of people are being disrupted by the effects of imperialist globalization. Around the world: massive global migrations, the rise of a transnational sex slave trade consuming millions of young women and girls, the wars and widespread use of torture by the U.S., and the increased disparity between the obscenely wealthy and the billions who have been cast into desperation, poverty and disease with no hope of a decent life. Here in the U.S.: the loss of millions of stable middle class jobs, an influx of immigrants from around the world, the entering of women into the work force in the last generation, and the development of a violent and bigoted movement with Christian fundamentalism woven into its core.

Why have these changes led to a resurgence of reactionary fundamentalist religion here and all over the world?

How do we counter that with a secular morality of our own?

Sunsara has traveled the country and reported on the rise of Christian fascism. She has also written and spoken about the ways that U.S. imperialist wars and aggression and reactionary Islamic fundamentalism have reinforced each other, even while opposing each other. In this work she has drawn on the framework and themes developed by Bob Avakian, the Chairman of the Revolutionary Communist Party, including in his pathbreaking book, Away with All Gods! Unchaining the Mind and Radically Changing the World. In this talk, Taylor will bring alive many of the themes spoken to by Avakian in Away With All Gods to answer these questions and to explore communist morality as a real and viable alternative: a morality rooted in, and serving as a guide to get to, a world without men oppressing women, without a handful accumulating vast wealth at the expense of the many, without white people lording it over people of color, without one country trying to run the whole globe, and a world where critical thought and the scientific pursuit of the truth, as well as artistic and intellectual ferment and the flourishing of individuality, are fostered.

Many prominent atheists, humanists and scholars have written in Sunsara Taylor's support, including:
  • Professor Mark Crispin Miller
  • Author Chris Hedges
  • Hemant Mehta, the Friendly Atheist
  • Bob Bossie, SCJ
  • Professor Massimo Pigliucci
  • Esther Kaplan, The Nation Institute
  • Professor Peter Phillips
  • Author Jeff Sharlet
  • George Francis Kane
  • Laura Flanders
  • Professor Dennis Loo, Ph.D.
  • Norm R. Allen Jr.
  • Cindy Sheehan
  • Pastor Darren Stephens, "Pastor Dave" of the Best Church of God
  • Theology professor Taigen Dan Leighton
  • Feminist Laura X
The text of their statements can be found on Sunsara's blog [link corrected].

1 comment:

  1. However, the conflict that has arisen between EHSC and myself was never about feelings of “acrimony” but of profound matters of principle and ethics.

    This is why the notion of "offense" needs to be (mostly) banished from public discourse. It provides covers for all sorts of sleazy behaviour by turning it into a case of "I'm sowwy I hurt yo' po' widdle feewings".

    This Chicago snafu sounds like a conflict between the Leftist and Libertarian wings of the secular humanist movement. OK, we've got an internal disagreement: and the proper "freethinking" thing to do is to have that argument openly, not suppress one side. (And yes, that means that Mike Shermer and Tom Flynn should also get their say, on appropriate occasions).

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