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 On October 19, 2009, the Ethical Humanist Society of Chicago (EHSC) rescinded their long-standing invitation for me to speak to their Society's weekly gathering on November 1, 2009.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."1 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."