Update on the Ethical Humanist Society of Chicago/Sunsara Taylor debacle

The other day, I blogged about the controversy that broke out at a weekend meeting of the Ethical Humanist Society of Chicago, revolving around Sunsara Taylor, who’d originally been invited to give a lecture there but, for whatever reason, was disinvited. And somehow a brief speech she gave at their Sunday meeting expressing her unhappiness about being uninvited led to a cameraman being forcibly arrested by police.

Since writing the previous blog about this incident, I actually received a lengthy response comment from someone calling themselves Evan Kane, who says he’s a member of the EHSC, who gave their side of the story. It was a cut-and-paste response that was posted in the comments section of numerous other blog articles discussing this incident. This was soon followed by three more cut-and-paste response comments from Sunsara hereself; her Volunteer Tour Coordinator in Chicago, Sue B; and Attorney Martha Conrad, who claims to have witnessed the events too. Sue B. and Martha Conrad, who are both associated with Sunsara, are backing up her position.

Well I wasn’t going to blog about this again but because of the comments left in that last blog, and because two other bloggers who’d written about this incident and then received similar (if not identical) comment responses from all four of the aforementioned parties also wrote great responses, I figured that it made my job really easy.

First, there was Hermant Mehta, who very briefly quoted from the three comments on Sunsara’s side on his Friendly Atheist blog and simply concluded with:

I’m not sure if there’s any resolution to be had between Sunsara and EHSC. But at least both sides have had a chance to explain themselves in a public setting.

Then there’s PZ Myers, someone far more known for being invited to give talks, who went a different way.  PZ came out very strongly in support of Sunsara. Now while I’m not going to necessarily just say I agree 100% with PZ (though I’m also not necessarily saying I don’t either), I think PZ makes a lot of great points.

1. Sunsara’s communist philosophy is so far from being hidden. On the two occasions I’ve seen her at panel discussions addressing the very same topic she was invited to discuss in Chicago, I don’t think she went five minutes without citing Bob Avakian’s book, “Away With All Gods! Unchaining the Mind and Radically Changing the World” and its communist philosophy. If this was something the EHSC didn’t know about ahead of time and she just sort of sprung it on them, which didn’t relate at all to the topic, then I’d understand the EHSC’s position more. But it’s pretty much the thing she’s known for the most. So if they invited her without knowing this was going to come up, then they exercised complete incompetance when vetting her as a speaker. In which case, it’s their fault.

2. While I have no experience of what it’s like to be personally invited to give a public talk (though I plan on probably registering to give a talk at next month’s NYC Skepticamp), PZ Myers has a great deal of experience in that area. And he says that if he was told to water down his talk to leave out anything that audience members might find objectionable, that this would be an unacceptable condition. So according to someone who knows the lecture circuit etiquette  far better than me, it’s inappropriate for the hosts to micromanage the speakers’ talks:

Just the fact that they invite her and then tell her to revise her talk to remove stuff some people might find objectionable is a telling mark against the society. It’s insane to invite Taylor and then ask her to not talk about the communist position; if they got Al Gore to give a talk, would they suggest that he avoid that scary global warming topic, and perhaps not bring up Democratic politics? Please don’t jump on a high horse and sniffily proclaim that you are following your democratic principles, either. The society was not bringing in Sunsara Taylor to decide how the society budget should be spent, or to lay down a plan for the group’s volunteer efforts for the year. She was brought in to explain one person’s position on moral issues, which she agreed to do, and which she summarized for them in a written description. Accurately, near as I can tell; Taylor does not shy away from expressing herself. Apparently, the society wanted a talking parrot who would say only what they already find agreeable…that is, agreeable to a democratic majority. Minority views are not to be spoken aloud, I guess.

That is bullshit. That makes for a lame speaking series; if inoffensive pablum that reinforces what they already believe is all they want, then they should just go to church.

I’m inclined to largely agree.

3. PZ points out that there seems to be conflicting accounts coming from people on the side of the EHSC as well as a vagueness when describing the most relevant details of the incident such as about the provocation for the cameraman’s arrest. And though, again, I don’t agree with Sunsara’s communist views, it’s hardly off-topic. One thing that all sides can agree on is that she was asked to talk about “Morality without gods.” And even though that was the very same topic and title of the TWO panel discussions she’d done in NYC some time ago (and presumably has addressed this exact topic elsewhere already), I think the EHSC was for some reason expecting her to just give the pat answer they wanted to hear, that religion holds the monopoly on blame for society’s ills. But it seems as though once she expanded her criticism to include other factors that she considers also contibute to society ill but which the EHSC disagrees with, they called it “off-topic.” But whether you agree with her or not (and I don’t), that doesn’t make it off-topic.

Ultimately, again, I wasn’t there and I don’t have all the facts. And I don’t necessarily think Sunsara was entirely blameless. I’m not naive. In my previous post I called Sunsara Taylor a bit of a rabble-rouser. I certainly think she’s a contrarian and a passionate revolutionary who thrives on controversy and it wouldn’t necessarily surprise me if at some point after she was disinvited, she and others saw this as an opportunity to get a lot of attention and orchestrated at least a small portion of what went down.

And maybe it’s because I interact with so many wacko conspiracy theorists but I’ve come up with an even wilder possible explanation. Since news of this incident broke, both parties seem to have been behaving identically. First came Evan Kane’s lengthy treatise defending the EHSC, which was posted in the comments section of every blog discussing the matter that I’d come across. Then Sunsara, Sue B., and Martha’s lengthy comment responses followed about two days later all at once on everyone’s comments sections as if they were all sent by the same person instead of each person individually going around pasting the same response in every blog about this story. So my really, really out there theory that almost certainly isn’t true is that this is all one big manufactured controversy to get publicity.

But unfortunately, I have a feeling that the truth is far less interesting.

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