Actually quite a mild person

Steven Shapin reviews the second installment of Richard Dawkins’s memoirs in the Guardian.

I get a sense that he’s not wholly admiring.

The enemies Dawkins has made are, in the main, the enemies he anticipated. As an atheist, he is a vigorous critic of the creationists, their religious fellow-travellers, the postmodernists, relativists and assorted “enemies of reason”. And as a participant in the scientific cage-fighting that is modern evolutionary theory, Dawkins has one of the sharpest tongues in modern culture.

Yes, but also as a participant in various other kinds of cage-fighting, especially the kind conducted via Twitter. In that avocation he’s made some enemies he didn’t anticipate, such as fellow atheists, scientists, humanists and the like who think he should stop bringing out the heavy artillery for every minor exchange. I also doubt that he anticipated having quite so many feminist women who think he’s a mean bully.

As has been said of the traditional English gentleman, Dawkins has never been unintentionally rude; and his snarling is unremitting. Writing in the Observer some years ago, Robin McKie described him as “the Dirty Harry of science”, and a Spectator review defined what it means to be “Dawkinised”: “Not just to be dressed down or duffed up, it is to be squelched, pulverised, annihilated, rendered into suitably primordial paste.”

Which, after awhile, loses its charm.

Commentators disagree about whether there is a mismatch between the public rage and what Dawkins is like when he is not, so to speak, “miked up”. But he tells us a bit about himself here and elsewhere, and what he sees when he looks in the mirror is the face of a man who is considerate, pleasant and even tolerant: “I’ve never been the sort of firebrand that I’ve been made out to be. I’m actually quite a mild person.”

Pause to laugh. Pause to laugh some more. That’s truly funny. He does seem to believe it, but he’s just wrong. A guy who is constantly calling people idiots is not actually quite a mild person.

Maybe he’s confused by his own voice. His voice seems mild…but the content does not. Maybe he thinks that if you’re not screaming and purple in the face, then you’re actually quite a mild person – but if he does, he’s very naïve.  Verbal aggression in a mild voice is nothing new.

He thinks of himself as driven not by fulminating hostility to religion – that’s actually incidental, he insists – but by enchantment with scientific rationality and the beauty of knowledge. He wants us all to share in the certainty that scientific reason offers. Why would anyone choose religious hocus-pocus over that? Of course, spades ought to be called spades, and opponents of evolution must be either “ignorant, stupid, insane or wicked”. But there has never been anything personal in his opposition to religion or to scientific error. It’s no crime to be stupid; you’re just in need of Dawkinsian correction: read the books; see the light.

That might have worked if he had never discovered Twitter. But he did discover Twitter, and on Twitter his rudeness is very personal, and it’s there for all the world to see.

It’s to Dawkins’s credit here that he gives a little space to a fellow science populariser, the American physicist Neil deGrasse Tyson, making an impromptu suggestion that Dawkins might be more effective in selling his scientific wares if he did some market research. “You are professor of the public understanding of science,” Tyson said, “not professor of delivering truth to the public, and these are two different exercises. Persuasion isn’t always ‘Here’s the facts, you are either an idiot or you’re not.’ It’s ‘Here’s the facts, and here is a sensitivity to your state of mind.’ And I worry that your methods, and how articulately barbed you can be, end up simply being ineffective.” Dawkins reports that he “gratefully accepted the rebuke”, but there’s no evidence here that he recognised its wisdom.

And there’s a great deal of evidence elsewhere that he did not recognize its wisdom at all.

6 Responses to “Actually quite a mild person”