Garry Otton a founder of the Scottish Secular Society calls on the SSS to support freedom of speech and embrace more diversity within its organisation; to concentrate less on public image and challenge elitism, censorship, bullying and homophobia within its ranks.
Secularism, I thought, was a way to tame religious excesses and a natural extension of my commitment to LGBT+ equality. It was why I set up Secular Scotland on Facebook in 2012. This we formalised into the Scottish Secular Society a year later. The greatest challenge for me has been trying to keep Secular Scotland a free voice. The admins have seen a good share of online crazies, trolls, and piss-takers, but, after a fight, Secular Scotland remains a free voice in a burgeoning culture of ‘non-platforming’, social conservatism, censorship and lazy armchair criticism.
Human rights campaigner Peter Tatchell has witnessed this first hand and wrote: “Good people are being forced out of the progressive movement by hair-splitting, holier-than-thou ‘left-wing’ puritans. Their dirty tactics of smears and false accusations are borrowed from the far right, and have a whiff of McCarthyism.”
In the beginning DAR, the notorious Moderator of the Free Church, Rev David A. Robertson, was subject to a fierce debate behind the scenes of the Scottish Secular Society which facilitated Secular Scotland on Facebook on whether or not he should be allowed to post. The argument raged amongst the board for weeks. I was alone in my support for DAR’s right to freedom of speech. Most thought he was a detraction from more important work and they were supported by the new interim Chair, Douglas McLellan who wanted him ‘ignored’, (despite having written a blog about DAR and regularly interacting with him on his page).
There were other issues. I misjudged how liberal secularists could be and found some more conflicted and repressed than some of the worse I had encountered in the gay movement. It started at a talk at Glasgow’s Theosophical Society in June 2015 when I did a talk on The Attack on Human Rights. My talk was on the progress made in LGBT rights through the European Court of Human Rights. It included mention of ‘Operation Spanner’, which came about after police raided an S&M party in Shropshire. A small group were uncomfortable with me describing some of the acts that led to the arrest of the men. The SSS’s Charlie Lynch described it as “a toe curling discussion of the physical mechanics of extreme BDSM sex acts.”
I was later asked to write an article for The Scotsman and chose to write about the French author Eric Jourdan who died in 2015. His gay romance Les Mauvais Anges (Wicked Angels) I thought would be a good starting point to discuss the role of religion in imposing limitations on freedom of speech after his book was banned for 30 years with the help of a Catholic abbot heading the French Book Board. Although I wasn’t displeased with the result of my article I was put through many re-writes tempering its gay content. The displeasure with the subject matter was tangible. Members of the board were Dettolising the SSS to preserve its ‘image’. Far from contributing to secularism, my gay activist roots seemed to be an impediment. Some were more outspoken and criticised me posting news stories from gay news agencies discussing religion on Secular Scotland. One of those was a board member who lives and works in Switzerland, Mark Gordon who pointed out to me: “You would be surprised how conservative some middle-aged Scots are. They don’t want to hear the pink agenda.”
Spencer Filde’s sudden resignation and Douglas McLellan’s adoption as an interim Chair was seen as step towards more credibility, gravitas and authority for the SSS. McLellan had resigned from his position as Chair of Humanist Society Scotland after his hostile remarks about a same-sex wedding attended by the First Minister was exposed in the Sunday Herald.
The SSS website had been down for months. In the new design members of the board suggested Professor Paul Braterman have a link to his blog on the front page. The idea was dropped after I asked for the same. The implication was clear: Science is respectable. Sex is not. When a new website was eventually produced, my article on the gay romance, censorship and the Catholic Church was excluded.
The day before the anniversary of Tom Aikenhead’s hanging in Leith on 8th January, 1697 for blasphemy, the SSS awarded the National Secular Society the Aikenhead award. That evening I got back from the talk feeling very uneasy. The atmosphere had been toxic. I emailed Mark Gordon about the award: “They (the NSS) sounded really grateful. More than I can say for some of the after talk discussions tonight. Douglas is really wanting to sever ties with Secular Scotland and Charlie vehemently so. We have a schism.”
We had a policy of encouraging anyone that looked like wanting to get involved to jump into our private chat on Facebook. Seeing what we were planning behind the scenes really encouraged new activists to get involved and is how some of the board got their taste for secular activism. My mistake was to let a member of the Scottish Socialist Party into our chatroom. Alex Mackie had sent a message asking to get involved on the SSS page and nobody had replied. In fairness, I should have asked first. On Facebook’s private messages for groups you can read back a long way and we all make a few off-the-cup remarks. Douglas suggested: “We should be using Slack (a communication app) for business activities. Let’s move to there and be disciplined about using it.” We were. Fairly quickly. But my card had been marked.
On Alex being involved I asked: “…In the messages he’s sent me he sounds keen to get involved so we can’t ignore him and hope he’ll go away. I’m sure he’s going to be really useful so please let’s extend a hand of welcome.”
Spencer Fildes’s response was bullish: “Ok big hint. ‘Works for Scottish Socialist Party’ Secularism? Remind me? We affiliate to NO party. Ever. We can consult, lobby, liaise, communicate… whatever, but we DO NOT include an active politician in our work. If we do, we are wide open and effectively finished.”
Prof Paul Braterman went further: “‘Works for’ Scottish Socialist Party. Totally unacceptable… We are trying to change the law, and the political culture; our image matters.” I pointed out that the founding Chair of the National Secular Society was a member of parliament. Prof Paul replied: “I do not see MPs in the National Secular Society as a parallel case, and even so, they wouldn’t have access to planning unless as committee members or in ad hoc consultations. And I doubt if this guy is Charles Bradlaugh.” I thought this an unwarranted attack on Alex of whom I went on to meet. No, he wasn’t the founder of the NSS, but he was a decent person willing to give up some of his time to help secularism. The irony of all this was that in the furious email exchange we were including a certain David Bell who, after turning up for a meeting when we elected the new board, had never been seen again.
I’ve always been very grateful for the support the SSP have given to gay pride marches in the past. Braterman less so, warning: “We have enemies. If they found out that he is privy to our plans … Or indeed if Scottish Socialist Party decides to piggyback on our demos. Not good… He must GO, NOW. I don’t know how to do it; if I did, I would have by now. If he comes back to ask what’s up, we should express our regrets that he was signed up to what was in fact a working chat room, not one for general discussion. Plus general appreciation of his interest, but NO MORE detailed explanation.” In fairness to Paul, his sensitivity on this was based on the pending SSS campaign to remove religious affiliates of which he expected to share embargoed information.
One of annoying things many LGBT+ activists face from Christians is their persistent attempts to link them to paedophilia. This was my first thought after seeing a curious complaint from a Donna Young who had never posted on Secular Scotland before. She had responded to a picture of a boy kissing his pal. She claimed to have found the image “extremely distressing.” A member had used the picture on a post on schools set up for gay kids in the U.S. The picture was no more distressing than an early Pears Soap advertisement, but we take complaints seriously. The article didn’t give the impression it was being used by religious extremists to undermine the promotion of equality. It transpired it had been posted by a student of one of the board members. I didn’t feel it was necessary to delete the post but there was a healthy exchange and two other board members, one working in psychology, was copied in. Donna insisted this was “an unnatural embrace for their age.” She insisted, “it seems the children in this photo have been asked to embrace in an adult manner”. I didn’t see it, and neither did the other board member. For my own part, I didn’t feel the picture properly represented the story, but didn’t feel my job was to censor the post writer and that this discussion belonged on the page. I wrote: “I think the criteria I would set is: would this be ‘distressing’ if it was a boy and girl? I think not. Such images are regularly used to portray ‘kinship’ or ‘cuteness’. There are all sorts of reasons children might kiss and nothing in this picture lends me to suggest anything inappropriate is going on. I’m not keen at all on censorship and any thoughts on its appropriateness should be in the public sphere so it can be adequately debated. People have different levels of sensitivity about this all of which have been considerably heightened after numerous tabloid scandals centred around abuse. I would rather people didn’t seek inappropriateness where there is none. If I have any concerns at all it is that this picture is not the best to represent this story. It appears to imply that kissing is somehow soft or ‘gay’. That is misleading. I will pass your concerns to the other editors for their thoughts and I’m interested to know what you think?” Before then, the post was removed. Megan Crawford advised: “The post was removed because it was found to push the boundaries of appropriateness.”
1895 Pears Soap advert of boy wanting a kiss under the mistletoe
Another board member who no longer lives in Scotland, Caroline Lynch who lives in Holland, had already decided it was porn: “Sexualised content has NO place on SS or SSS, and just as we wouldn’t post porn we shouldn’t be posting or allowing others to post such material.” It was a clear division, some thought it sexualised and some didn’t.
Charlie Lynch took an even more extreme view: “I alerted Spencer and he removed it and thanked the complainant for their vigilance. I was frankly, horrified that (illegal) sexualised content might actually be defended on grounds of ‘opposing censorship’.”
SSS Vice Chair, Robert Canning made light of kissing and posted these “…And if you think THAT’S bad, look at this! She’s old enough to be his mother…!
Board member Megan shone some light on the post about gay schools: “The offensive post on the SS page linked to an article about a segregated LGBT school opening up in the states. The article discussed how the school is opening for LGBT students only, covering grades K-12, which spans the ages 6-19 years old. The article touched upon funding sources for such a school and showed how private schools will open up in the face of perceived need. It wasn’t very long of an article. The picture was of two boys around 5-8 years old in a full hug and kissing. The person who posted it was someone who attended my talk for the Glasgow Skeptics group on 16 Nov… His name is Raja Khalid. Since my talk, he has asked me on a number of occasions to read his drafts before publishing. He is quite shy around people and has a very verbose blog about politics and economics.”
Within a few weeks I was personally challenged over this matter again. DAR posted a picture of a pre-teen with the hand of a minister on his head on my personal timeline. It was part of a collection of pictures from another member of the Wee Frees, a John Caldwell. I asked DAR why he did this but he denied it, telling me to “chill” and that I’d been hacked. What he might not have been aware of was that I receive email notifications of Facebook posts whether or not they are deleted by the contributor. I was informed: “David Andrew Robertson tagged a photo of you. You can choose if you want to add it to your Timeline. 29 February at 11:42”. DAR insisted: “Sorry – I tagged noone in this photo….must be some mistake…nice photo though!”
DAR’s friend John Caldwell contacted me: “If the picture is not removed from that site, I’ll have to report this to Facebook. I find it alarming that you have posted a picture of my children, on a public discussion site, in order to push some kind of agenda that you have in relation to a number of distasteful issues.”
On 21st January, Megan Crawford advised “a strategy board meeting has been set for Thursday, 28 January at 18:30. Douglas will send an agenda over the weekend.” We normally meet on first Thursday’s and as I had other commitments; sent in my apologies. I didn’t receive an agenda.
After already having left Secular Scotland in high dudgeon, Charlie Lynch asked of the group: “I’d like to hear views from the Board on separating the Scottish Secular Society from the Secular Scotland Facebook page. I have long had extreme misgivings about this page and the underlying way in which it is administered. I feel that these groups have a limited life in any case and that Secular Scotland has outlived any usefulness it ever had. To my mind, we have the SSS which is a national secular society dedicated to challenging religious privilege. Its core audience is parents and kids (sic) and it must influence politicians and educationalists. Then there is the SS Facebook page, which is a free for all underpinned by extreme and to my mind, deluded libertarian ideas. Rather than being ‘on message’ it comprises a daily rain of spam and a multiplicity of voices, some of them very undesirable. This policy has led to a series of very damaging and even, frightening episodes. Last week this extended to criminal material. It is regularly filled with content which has limited at best relevance to secularism. This is especially the case with sexual content, which is totally at odds with the core purposes of the SSS as an organisation and taints our public image with sleaze. In addition, it has long been my view that SS is useless for promoting activism or real engagement.”
The Chair, Douglas McLellan waded in with his support: “I agree with Charlie to a very great extent. There is little or no explanation about why each post in Secular Scotland is linked to Secularism or indeed Scotland. The group description states “Secular Scotland is a public discussion group that supports secular activism in Scotland.” but I am not convinced of that. How many stories get posted that are about religions and religious activity outside of Scotland? Even then the line between being anti-religious and secular is very blurred. Personal opinions (which we will probably all agree on) regarding a wide variety of topics get posting but I am not sure what religious people do overseas in places like the US, Australia, the Middle East etc. have to do with Scottish secular activism. Obviously some ideas are relevant but they get lost in the other content. Why are we concerned about the Pope meeting Tim Cook? Why do we worry about the English education system when we have enough battles to fight in Scotland? I don’t want to advocate a closure of Secular Scotland as there is a group of people who are there who are not members of SSS and Board members do post them on a regular basis but I would like to know what purpose do we think it solves/addresses/meets?”
Board member Megan Crawford was less combative in her approach: “I find the Secular Scotland page very helpful. It is how several new members have made their way to the Society. The Society’s style of exposure may or may not change with the launch of the new website, but until that change happens, Facebook followed by Twitter followed by local media are how the Society finds its exposure. And to be candid, I don’t see a personal website trumping the traffic of these social media sites anytime soon. There is no dialogue on the SSS page, and dialogue is something we all have said is beneficial (event vital) to the Society and its goals. The SS page is where the dialogue, at this time, exists. And it is the dialogue that gets people interested and involved. I agree that if a page is about Scottish secularism, then it would seem appropriate that Scottish secular topics would be found there. I do not agree that this should be to extreme exclusion of other topics lacking in Scottishness, secularism, or even tangential issues. Scotland does not exist in a vacuum and secularism finds its power from out-with as much as from within. We learn from others, in short… We can discuss establishing stronger identity differences at a future board meeting. Possibly not this week, since not all of us will be there? I do not, however, think the answer lies in closing the SS page. That, in all respects, strikes me as societal suicide. And to close off, going with identity issues here, if the SS page is not an arm of the Society, then in the end, does the Society even have any true say on what happens with it?”
Worse was to come. I was sent a video of Britain First walking through Luton holding crosses and chastising Muslims. I posted it expecting a discussion to develop expressing outrage. It did. Mostly amongst the SSS board.
Board member Paul Braterman began by commenting on the future of Secular Scotland: “I find Secular Scotland informative, but sometimes embarrassing. We also sometimes waste a lot of energy monitoring and discussing it. But I’d be very sorry to see it go; where else do we come across discussion of, say, the government’s Prevent strategy? I did, however, just delete a post that used material from Britain First, and have posted this: ‘Under NO circumstances should we post, or click on, material from Britain First. Their business plan runs on clickbait’. I would suggest a similar policy for material originating from ISIS, since they know what they’re at when they release it. even though the BBC (to whom I have complained) doesn’t have the sense to see this”.
Paul repeated his warning to me. “We don’t post what Britain First are doing because some might think we condone it”, adding in another email to the group: “FFS, Garry, don’t you READ what people write to you? We don’t post Britain First because they get clickbait money when we do.”
There was no evidence it was clickbait; they were extracts from a BBC documentary.
It was a relative of board member Spencer Filde who had sent me the YouTube video to post. A healthy discussion ensued under it, including a thank you by Peter Mirtitsch for posting it so members could see it and not have to go onto BF’s site to do so. Given the thousands who had already seen this vid anyway, I don’t think its deletion on Secular Scotland was likely to have made much difference to Britain First.
There was a meeting to discuss the website which had already been down for months. It would be the first meeting I’ve not attended in almost four years of secularism in Glasgow. I’d given my apologies. Nonetheless, Charlie Lynch made it clear he wanted to discuss the ‘future’ of Secular Scotland’s Facebook group. I had already mooted separating it from the SSS or even taking a break as admin. Even though I was elected the society’s secretary, I was from then only given instructions and orders on what other board members wanted and no longer party to their discussions.
Normally diplomatic and giving way to freedom of speech, Caroline Lynch became yet another voice advocating more censorship and tighter controls: “The question then is what to do with the (Secular Scotland) group? I think disowning it is throwing out the baby with the bathwater. It needs to be much more stringently and coherently managed, and personal agendas need to go. This society and its components are not the mouthpiece or promotional tool of any of the members or board. I would set some strict rules for those who post on the page, and enforce them… we shouldn’t be so shy IMO to use the tools we have like banning if someone is posting materials or comments we deem to be harmful or contrary to our mission.” But Secular Scotland was always composed of many voices. There was always a banning process in place, seven days in the first instance.
Far from being a ‘personal agenda’, my gay rights background had informed my secularism and I had never been shy of defending the voices of LGBTI people who had been harmed by religion on Secular Scotland.
I wrote to the board: “Secular Scotland has always been an active, vibrant, free voice of the secular community. My thoughts are that we should first wait and see if Douglas and Charlie’s vision of what secularism is turns out to be more successful. The editorial decisions presented on the SSS Page which connects to Twitter, involve all the levels of control they would like to see imposed on Secular Scotland. I have concerns about how dry and empty it has become, but I remain open-minded.
We have always made joint decisions about Secular Scotland, I’ve not, as some have implied, proclaimed myself its owner. I’ve simply contributed actively. But if the majority want a new more separate identity I could work on that and produce a new header.
I’m well used to insults being poured on Secular Scotland. It’s many things to many people and you can’t please everybody all of the time. The fact Secular Scotland gets criticised is a huge complement to our endeavours. It is a social media platform so cannot appeal exclusively to ‘parents and children’ as Charlie would wish. Secular Scotland paints secularism with a very broad brush indeed, not just in support of the LGBT+ struggle against religion, but by helping to see secularism in an international context. It is not just The Telegraph or The Guardian: It is also the Daily Record and The Sun. From insightful academic contributions to what a Catholic girl did on Big Brother. It puts religion in a context we understand today. (I certainly didn’t want the board to tell what secularism was and what it should be, adding): I’m taking the pulse of its contributors every day to tell me where secularism is going.
I think we need to defend freedom of speech with more vigour. Some of the things I’m seeing and hearing worry me. I thought as secularists we defended such freedoms. Now I’m not so sure.”
Charlie was having none of it. Jumping on individual posts he didn’t like, he wanted all secularists to conform to a clean image he certainly didn’t follow himself. “The page is also regularly full of irrelevant, sleazy and sexualised material eg. ‘get on your knees and suck god’s cock’. Apart from being hugely damaging to our image, this has nothing to do with secularism.” Well no, it isn’t. But I didn’t post the comment, I read it in the context of an expression of anger under a story of abuse in a Catholic institution and respected the member’s right to exercise their freedom of speech in a way they felt compelled to. These seemed to me extraordinary comments coming from Charlie Lynch, a Glasgow University student entrusted with documenting statements of individuals involving their personal sexual habits!
On 25th January I offered to throw in the towel: “So we ban DAR. We don’t discuss him. We eliminate what some deem ‘sleaze’. We don’t enter into discussions on sexuality with any real vigour, passion or honesty. We don’t post what Britain First are doing because some might think we condone it. We ban the wee fannies and arseholes who post shite. And we edit with such caution that we censor ourselves. It is the constraints to freedom I personally fear will choke me and I wouldn’t be much good at it. MSPs long to connect with the ordinary people who elect them into their ivory tower at Holyrood and I think we do that very well. I don’t buy into the criticisms of what we post since they are all adequately debated on our page. Yes, they will be used against us. That’s what people who have a grudge do.
We’ve banned memes and more atheists than Christians over Secular Scotland’s history so we haven’t done too bad. I support the majority in what they decide to do but I cannot lead on it. Perhaps you think from a current SSS point of view that Secular Scotland has had its day? At least for now.
Perhaps I could take a rest and we have a different editorial team?”
I found McLellan’s reply to me somewhat patronising: “I guess you are feeling a little bit under attack at the moment and I am sorry for that. It is clear that we have different views on a number of things and I don’t want you to feel bad for that. You are a passionate secularist and do approach it from your unique perspective. I am concerned though that as we look at how to (for lack of an alternative word) “professionalise” the work, image and activities of the society that you will feel constrained. Your passion and energy as an activist is valuable to any campaigning organisation.
I only every wonder about DAR as he seeks to get a response from us and is delighted in getting one. If we can ignore him then he will not see any value in targeting us or indeed you. If we want an organisation that positions itself against DAR as its reason for being, then we can do that but we will miss opportunities to address other secular issues.”
I hadn’t ever considered the sole purpose of the SSS was to go against DAR. It was in fact our Vice-chair Robert Canning who had been masterfully composing the majority of letters to undermine DAR in the media. Canning put it well in that we had to respond to him otherwise DAR would just continue picking holes in everything we did. In another email I got a choice from McLellan: “OK. How do you want to approach this? Just leave it quiet and have a transfer to another editor or two? Or an announcement with thanks and statements that you will be still posting, including your own website content etc?”
I responded: “I’d make a statement that I was being silenced and that Secular Scotland would now start looking like the SSS Facebook page I guess. Before any of this I think we should have an open debate on Secular Scotland on what you want and let its membership decide. Whatever happens to Secular Scotland should be made public as these are members who can vote to change the SSS direction if they want to.”
McLellan responded: “Well you weren’t being silenced. We were having a debate about where the content might go in future. You offered to resign. I asked you if you were sure and you said yes.”
I responded: “No, I said I don’t mind taking a break from editing Secular Scotland but I can’t be prevented from contributing and I don’t think there is anything I’ve said, done or written about that I should be remotely ashamed about. However, this compromising of freedom of speech in pursuit of ‘image’ is disgraceful. Some want closure, others want horrendous levels of censorship and others want it cast adrift and out of sight. I don’t think we can be sure of the outcome of any of these.”
McLellan wrote: “Well you can step back from editing as offered and you can put a post up about your feelings on the matter. We are looking at, as the emails have shown today, a desire to manage our image in a way that you may very well find disgraceful.”
I asked: “So are you ordering me off Secular Scotland?”
McLellan replied: “You said you didn’t mind taking a break and you have also said that the potential direction of travel is disgraceful. Do you want to stay on, given what people have said today?” He added: “So how quickly do you think we will get to this point again? We probably need to set out what we all think Secular Scotland is for and why and what role ‘freedom of speech’ plays in that. I put freedom of speech in quotation marks there because I think there is a not a difference of opinion of what freedom of speech means but of the role of the society and office bearers and associate communication channels in freedom of speech. I will never, ever say that our communications channels get to say what they want, when they want because of freedom of speech. We have to have elements of self-censorship as what we say, how we say it and where we say it does create an image. So what image do we want. None of us are Charles Bradlaugh so we do not bring a level of credibility to secularism in Scotland so we have to build that credibility. It is a credibility that needs to affect change and that means, perhaps annoyingly, decision makers, MSPs, civil servants, teachers and non-secularist parents etc. If one of our primary communication channels is unsuited to all of that what purpose does it really serve secularism, beyond personal ideas?”
Spencer Fildes was clear on where he wanted to go: “I think ALL board members should leave SS with the Facebook SS group being decoupled from the ‘official’ organisation. This would benefit us enormously to the public eye. It would leave our would-be detractors with nothing to conflate us with.
We must look professional if we demand a place at the table of influence, right now I think we’re a long way off.
This isn’t about censorship it’s about standards, facing the realities of the world. What do we want to be? Do we want to grow? Are we really neutral? Can we be taken seriously?
Unless we tidy ourselves up then the society isn’t going any further than a small interest group. We’ll have no influence going forward as we have few allies. The only ones we really have are Humanists and other UK secular organisations but instead of building mutual alliances they read nothing but cheap shots on SS.
We must evolve. Change and pull away from where we’re at. Like Caroline Lynch says – image is everything, it truly is. We MUST move in a different direction.
Paul is about to submit a serious proposition to challenge age old religious privilege, he’s worked damn hard on this project. It would be unforgivable if the behaviour of SS threatened the outcome of his endeavours.
Let’s stop giving our opposition damaging material. We’re beginning to offer it at an alarming rate. Especially with the recent avalanche of sex related posts.”
I responded to Fildes: “I’m not aware of an avalanche of sex-related posts Spencer, unless you mean the gay news agency items connected to religion? This particular one (the gay school) wasn’t posted by me. Robert (Vice-Chair) also looked at it and thought it a storm in a teacup.
How we can be so sure that the new SSS Page will be a model of respectability I don’t know. Any active social media page will be shaped in the diverse and riotous shape of its creators. If it’s not active, it won’t be read.”
Paul Braterman added: “Interesting point, Spencer, about dirty tricks. We’ve all heard the meme ‘If gay sex, paedophilia will be next’. ‘with the Facebook SS group being decoupled from the ‘official’ organisation’; I fear that might be worst of all worlds. We would have no influence, but would still be blamed for its contents. So I prefer to leave it in existence and prune ruthlessly along the lines I suggested in my draft pinned post.”
When I learnt of some of things that were being said about me in private emails I was quite taken aback.
Charlie Lynch focused on having me expelled from the society, posting to the SSS team: “Just thought I’d elaborate and expand on a few issues.
Firstly, there is the issue of why and how Garry decided to defend this offensive image on grounds of ‘opposing all censorship’. To my mind this extreme libertarian stance is a recipe for disaster – it does not differentiate between right and wrong. The treatment of the complainant was also wrong, and gave the impression that the sexualisation of childhood is in some way okay. Needless to say none of this was done with consultation of other board members. [Two board members were consulted]. ‘Opposing all censorship’ presumably includes self-censorship – and is thus a commitment to publish anything regardless of its legality or capacity to damage secularism. There have also been issues of permitting the posting of racist and fascist material – Britain First springs to mind, but also the neo Nazi rants of posters such as [deleted named Secular Scotland member].
I have also had conversations with Garry in which he has given the distinct impression that he does not separate right from wrong when sex is involved. On Tommy Sheridan: “Oh, what’s he done?!” A reading of any two pages of that book about him, Downfall, is like a window into the Borgia papacy).
Secondly, having previously trusted and respected Garry as a friend and colleague it has been a long and painful process for me to come to terms with the fact that I can’t ignore that he is obsessed with promoting underage sex, and hijacking secularism for this purpose. A recent incident of this was during the Q&A for the TIE talk, where we were about to learn about “12 year olds watching porn”. Apart from being indecent and highly embarrassing, what does this have to do with secularism? [Charlie invited Time for Inclusive Education to speak to the SSS, a gay couple talked about discussing the subject of sex in schools, and I was referring to figures compiled by YouGov, research in America and a study by child behavioural expert Tanya Byron that found four in five teenagers regularly look up pornographic photographs or film on their computers or mobile phones. The average age of a child first exposed to pornography is now just 11. I assumed most would agree that at least some enlightened and informed discussion of sex in schools was better than leaving it to kids to find out about it for themselves].
Charlie continued: “Then there was the extraordinary speech at last year’s human rights talk. From a discussion of LBGT issues and the human rights act we managed to descend by way of ‘Operation Spanner’ into a toe curling discussion of the physical mechanics of extreme BDSM sex acts. But most disturbingly, Garry actually stated that a 14-year-old was involved in the BDSM sex ring, and batted it aside as something of no consequence. I was forced to consider for the first time that he does not consider the sexual abuse of minors to be a crime.
This performance was in public and in front of a representative of the NSS.
Then there was the publication of the article; ‘the Wicked Boys and the Priest’. The original draft of this which we all saw contained musings on the appropriateness of the age of consent, and sought to make light of the issue. (I campaigned vigorously for an equal age of consent of 16). There are wider issues here too – what does this niche and sexualised content do for the image of the SSS? What do speculations about representations of sexuality in 1950s comics have to do with secularism either?”
Well… Rather a lot really considering it was a Catholic Church leader that banned Tarzan comics in France.
I responded to these comments being shared amongst the group. “Operation Spanner was an integral part of my talk on the history of gay liberation. If I was ‘batting aside’ mention of a 14-year-old’s participation in BDSM, why then did I bother mentioning it? I said it was part of the criminal proceedings that was brought against the participants.
Yes I do consider the abuse of minors to be a crime, I think it outrageous you should suggest otherwise. Check out my posts on Secular Scotland on church-wide abuse. Given your confessions to me over a bottle of wine about your own sexual preferences, Charlie, I think you’re being a tad hypocritical.” Charlie appreciation of younger men was no secret.
SSS Chair, Douglas McLellan posted to the group: “We all have other things to be concentrating on at the moment. The role of Secular Scotland and SSS relationship to/with it can be looked at via a discussion paper that all parties can contribute to.”
But that wasn’t to be. It came in the shape of a post about religion and poppers from the associate editor of The Spectator who drew condemnation from Stonewall for a column telling gay men that using poppers to make sex more pleasurable was “God’s way of telling you that what you’re about to do is unnatural and perverse”.
McLellan stormed: “Seriously. Rod Liddle is an offensive arse. I get that. But what does his insulting throwaway comment on poppers and lube have to do with secularism and Scotland? If we are to remain focused we shouldn’t be distracted by stuff like that. I have deleted it but if you think that is heavy handed censorship then let me know and we will bring the entire association of SSS and secular Scotland to a Board vote.”
It was Paul Braterman, leading the charge against breaches of confidentiality, who copied me in on a private email conversation from which I had been excluded.
“I had not realised that Garry had not been included in this discussion. While I do not have ownership of what others have said, I would like him to see my own contributions (below). This matter has been allowed to escalate beyond all reason. I repeat that if it is allowed to escalate further, into an expulsion matter, I will have to consider my position.”
Douglas McLellan now turned his scorn on a post made by a regular poster, John Hunt shared from leading secularist Maryam Namazie’s page: “I am not sure what posting naked protesters in France, protesting about the Italian government covering up nude statues during a state visit from Iranians, has to do with secularism in Scotland. But that is what’s on the Secular Scotland page now. I haven’t deleted it since for some it will probably be as relevant as poppers and anal lube to secularism in Scotland and to delete it will result in another post decrying apparent censorship.”
Again, I hadn’t posted it, but it was used to attack me. Caroline Lynch wrote: “How can we be regarded as a serious secular organisation when we cannot even manage to set and enforce a few simple editorial standards within a team who are supposed to be working together? Many people, myself included, have spent many, many hours, working unpaid, because we believe in secularism and want to make real, substantial changes to our country that will benefit everyone. That effort is being undefined by one rogue who insists that his right to post whatever the hell he wants, no matter how damaging, on the group is more important than the work and time we have all put in. This insistence on the right to sabotage ourselves is akin to the right to bear arms in America, no matter how many times we shoot ourselves in the foot. Free speech does not come free from responsibility on how you use it. As you might be able to tell, I am furious.”
Mark Gordon wrote: “Focussed correctly he can / could be a real asset.” Caroline replied: “I agree Mark. I tried for two years to do that. Spencer tried for a year, Douglas has tried. Gary (sic) refuses to accept even simple guidelines. He will not temper his posts even to protect the work he has been a part of. There have been countless conversations about this over the years. We could have secured funding and alliances if we didn’t have him being a loose cannon. But we do, and his pride is such that he won’t take a step back to help the SSS, won’t temper his posts, and airs the dirty laundry in public. What else can we do?”
I shared my surprise at the private comments that had been leaked: “I have read some of them and have been both hurt and appalled. As a first step I will be extracting myself from Secular Scotland but still hope to do my bit to promote secularism, the promotion of human rights and defending the principles of freedom of speech, especially out with the establishment and academic groups.”
I continued: “We have editorial guidelines and I’ve kept to them. We have in the past acted on complaints that centre on personal abuse.
I feel I am being targeted about posts that are, on the whole, from others. On the one occasion a post by someone brought a complaint I let Robert and Gail know my response. The other posts deleted were done so without proper justification. If you are becoming more distant from the very ordinary people who post here and who may not have taken the same journey of discovery as you, I can’t help that. We’ve no right to silence them. I prefer to educate. The freedoms I tried to maintain on Secular Scotland are crumbling under the strain of internal squabbling. It is a great shame that I’ll be moving away from Secular Scotland under that cloud.
Megan Crawford added: “I must start by saying I am quite saddened by the state of affairs that have unfolded these past couple of weeks. As I stated before (and Paul in an earlier email) if this is a matter of expelling a member of this group, then I do not feel my place is best served remaining with the SSS. I am not a fan of issuing ultimatums, but I do not see supporting an organisation that throws away such important members.
It is obvious that at the moment there are both personality clashes, as well as fundamental disagreements over the function of the society. This is not earth shattering news. We are not the first organisation to have such troubles. In fact, the sign of an organically expanding effort is the presence of contentious corners. I agree with Malcolm, these are things that should be sorted in person, through conversation and negotiation. Saying that, I must include that I will not talk about another member of our board, or the vital/detrimental efforts of that member in absence, whether that be Garry, Spencer, Paul, or anyone else.
Since Garry will not be able to attend tomorrow’s meeting, let me offer my thoughts here, for now.
I agree that, given the future desires of the SSS, the Facebook SS page should be segregated from the SSS identity. There are several organisations, particularly political ones, that function under multiple *faces*. That is, they have their publicly recognised, active face that interacts with the masses and interest groups. This face is consistent and holds to the letter of the organisation’s ethos/constitution/etc. Then there are the *other faces*. These allow the members to branch out in unofficial ways without damaging the organisation. This is how I see the function, success, and importance of the SS group.
Counter to previous suggestions that the SSS take responsibility for the SS page, or end it, or heavily regulate it in some manner, I offer an alternative idea. I do not believe the SSS should take responsibility for the SS page. I think if the SSS feels it’s vital to separate from the SS group, then it needs to fully separate from it. However, I do not think this requires the individual members to abandon it. The SSS members are no more required to abandon their SS interest in the name of the *betterment of the society* than they are required to abandon their memberships in political parties or extremist groups for the same reason. Secularism is not a homogenous effort. I also do not think heavy regulation will be successful. As was stated in an earlier email, “Secularism” is not an easily identifiable argument to make in the media all the time. There will always be tangential issues that bear weight on the larger fight towards secularism. As well, international issues that bear weight on Scotland’s future. These concepts do not exist in a vacuum. And not to forget, this is a public group, there will always be the risk of extremist, unacceptable posts.
The SS page is too important for creating, continuing, and influencing the dialogue within the community. This is why I suggest keeping it (and anything like it), but giving it a new identity. One issue is because “Secular Scotland” is almost identical to “Scottish Secular Society”. Another issue is because SS posts vary widely around (and sometimes off of) secularism. So perhaps it would be best to replace the “Secular” part in the SS with some other title. Something that better reflects the wide variety of topics within the group. Something that makes it clearer what will and won’t be discussed. As well, a disclaimer pinned at the top, even if it’s “Say whatever you please here,” is always a good idea.”
The next incident to heap the sort of shame disturbing the Scottish Secular Society’s board came from neither me or someone posting on Secular Scotland. Leading Christian mouthpiece, DAR pounced on a “leading member of Secular Scotland”, Prof Paul Braterman, for posting in the comments section of a newspaper on incest.
Paul responded: “I’m the person quoted. IMO, the only argument against brother-sister incest between consenting adults is the eugenic one, which I’m not competent to evaluate.
DAR describes me as “one of the leading figures of Secular Scotland”. Which I suppose I am, if by Secular Scotland he means Scottish Secular Society, whatever our connection/disconnection with the Secular Scotland page. I am not going to self-censor to deny him his fun. What course does Spencer suggest?”
I posted to the group: “Lol. Another loose cannon? It’s barely a day after I’m out on MY ear! How about we grow a spine and defend ourselves from DAR’s petulance and constant whining of victimhood?”
After announcing I would be leaving on Secular Scotland I drew some support. Andy McMillan posted on Secular Scotland: “I think it is very shitty that Garry Otton, is being forced out of his own page, there seems to be a misconception that this page is the official page of SSS, and the fact that the page founder is being forced off by certain members of that group to be pretty fucking crap. (I should point out that this is my opinion and not that of any society that I may now or at any future time be a member of). Just thought I would add that in case someone had a problem with me excising free speech.”
On the 27 January at 12:17pm I received notification that I had been removed as an admin on the Scottish Secular Society Facebook page I had set up.
Mark Gordon posted to me: “I think the best thing is that SS and SSS separate. You get your freedom and SSS gets to tow its own conservative line”.
Vice-chair and SSS’s top writer, Robert Canning promptly resigned from the SSS on 28th January posting only: “I have decided to leave the group with immediate effect, so the position of vice-chair is now available.”
DAR could barely conceal his delight in a Solas post. The address for the SSS changed from the one kindly provided by another gay activist and publisher of ScotsGay, John Hein to the Annie Besant Lodge at the Glasgow Theosophical Society.
Interim Chair Douglas McLellan wrote to me on 31st January 2016:
“Dear Gary (sic)
At the Board Meeting on Thursday 28 January it was decided to write to you to let you know that we are finding it very difficult to continue to work with you in your role as a Board Member and Secretary of the Scottish Secular Society.
Your recent decision to air a disagreement over content on the Secular Scotland Facebook Page was against the interests of the Scottish Secular Society. As a Board Member you had a number of avenues open to you to discuss your opinions on moderation of the Facebook page. You were even invited to raise the matter at a Board Meeting but instead you chose a very public course of action where you acted to promote yourself and your views over any future policy decided by the Board as a whole. This was disappointing and disrespectful to your colleagues.
This is not the first time that your behaviour has been challenging to your colleagues. As you will no doubt remember, both Caroline and Spencer have had cause to discuss with how important it is to be seen as a credible organisation when seeking to effect change.” (This was based on a wild and unsubstantiated claim by Caroline Lynch with whom I had worked together without any problem for over three years. No such accusations against me had ever been minuted). “That credibility is damaged when you act in ways that are not in the interests of the society. There is no doubt that you are committed to secularism but it is clear that working as part of a greater whole, where individual perspectives have to defer to the aspirations of the wider group, is very challenging for you and that is, in turn, challenging for your colleagues.
The Board have discussed a few options, including the use of powers granted in the constitution, on how to address this issue. However, it was agreed that we should first write to you as a united group and ask that you step down from your role on the Board and from your role as Secretary of the Scottish Secular Society. This would then free you to manage the Secular Scotland group as you see fit and continue as a member of the society which you helped form. We hope that you recognise that this is not a step we wanted to take but one we all feel is now absolutely necessary. We would be grateful if you could let us know your decision as soon as you can.
Yours sincerely, Douglas
Douglas McLellan, Chair, For and on behalf of the Board, Scottish Secular Society
The Scottish Secular Society, Annie Besant Lodge, Glasgow Theosophical Society Building, 17 Queens Crescent, St. George’s Cross, Glasgow.”
My reply on the 2 February 2016 read:
“Go public….?!! You’re lucky I didn’t go to the police with the exchange of emails labelling me “obsessed with promoting underage sex, and hijacking secularism for this purpose”.
I gave you plenty of notice that I couldn’t attend any meeting on 28 January, Douglas. Why did you ignore the advice from other board members that I should be present? As a board member you had a number of avenues open to you to discuss your opinions on moderation of the Facebook page but before that took place you have been deleting posts on both Secular Scotland and SSS Page without consulting anyone. You can’t run any magazine with half a dozen editors!
If it is not a witch-hunt, who are the grand ‘we’ that are finding it so difficult to work with me? Let them vote to get me off the board so I know who they are. The imposition of your socially conservative model of secularism that would impose such dramatic limitations on freedom of speech of others undermines the core principles of secularism. That, and the fact your actions have resulted in our talented vice-chair and best spokesperson walking out leads me to think that I should be asking you to leave.
If you want to Secular Scotland to operate at a distance from the SSS, fine, but have the decency to consult its members, editors and users first.
Douglas McLellan responded:
In response your email sent yesterday the Board has asked me to respond.
- The decision to send you that letter was a decision of the Board. It was discussed on Thursday 28 Jan. Present at that meeting were myself, Laureen Gilmour, Spencer Fildes, Paul Braterman, Megan Grime, Malcolm McQueen, Charlie Lynch and Mark Gordon (by Skype). All agreed that the letter should be sent to you. Following the meeting Caroline Lynch and Marianne Costello also agreed to the content of the letter. Please then understand that the letter was agreed by the Board due to the unfortunate situation of being unable to work with you as a Board member, and that we, as a group, should ask for your resignation.
- The Board has agreed that there should complete editorial independence for Secular Scotland, of which you are, in any case the owner. We request that we be removed as administrators of that page as well as the removal of all images relating to us and to Scottish Secular Society.
Yours sincerely, Douglas
Douglas McLellan, Chair, For and on behalf of the Board, Scottish Secular Society”
The Scottish Secular Society now charges £10 for membership.
Secular Scotland is still free and accessible on Facebook.