Helping to divide us, 140 characters at a time

Steven Novella has written the blog post he said he would write, explaining the decision to withdraw Dawkins’s invitation to speak at the NECSS conference in May.

NECSS is run by the New York City Skeptics and the New England Skeptical Society, both non-profit organizations. NECSS has its own executive committee, consisting of members of both organizations. There has been much speculation about who is making the decisions for NECSS – it is this committee. I will just say that there were a range of opinions on this matter within the committee, and we came to the best decisions we could, given that range of opinions. When I refer to “we” in this article, I am not speaking for every individual on the committee, just the majority result.

It wasn’t one person, and it wasn’t unanimous.

Richard Dawkins has been a polarizing figure in the skeptical community for several years.  On the one hand, many people (myself included) greatly respect the work that Dawkins has done. He is a brilliant science communicator. His books have brought many people to rationalism. He is one of the few “rock stars” of our movement.

For what it’s worth, I still agree with that. On the other hand, sadly, I think he’s done a lot to tarnish even his brilliant science communication now; that’s one of the many reasons I wish he would stop. Now that he’s so firmly established himself as a serial outrage-machine on Twitter, it just really is hard to read his books without that getting in the way. Imagine you found out that, oh, Paul Krugman, say, or Daniel Dennett, is actually the mind behind Milo Yiannopoulos. That would change how you saw him and his books.

I also greatly respect and appreciate the fact that he is an outspoken public atheist. This is tremendously important, and serves to legitimize atheism for many. Dawkins has dedicated much of his career and effort to charitable endeavors, to make the world a better place.

I guess, sort of, but less so than the part about brilliant science communication. Now the “outspoken” quality is all tangled up with the “mean bullying” quality, and I have no idea how to disentangle them.

All of this is why it has been very puzzling to many that his social media activity has often not reflected his reputation as a public intellectual. He has famously made tweets or blog comments that have come off as insensitive or worse. I will not dissect each instance here, which is well trammeled territory already.

Interestingly, Dawkins himself recently tweeted:

“I’m really as polite as my books. Twitter brevity forces you straight to the point, which can sound aggressive.”

Interestingly and horrifyingly. Yes, really – I find it horrifying how completely unable he is to see (or admit?) even that he is frequently rude. I speak as a frequently rude person myself. I make some effort not to be, and doubtless should make more, but for sure I do not go around telling people how especially polite I am. It creeps me out that Dawkins keeps insisting he’s actually a nice guy.

For further background, over the last 5-6 years the skeptical movement has been rocked by intermittent controversy over sexism and racism in the movement. This is a complex topic I am not going to tackle or resolve here. Suffice it to say this controversy has caused many in the movement to form various camps, some championing free speech, others social justice. Others have tried to chart a course down the middle, while still others left the movement.

In the mix, unfortunately, there have been truly vile trolls who have made threats of violence and rape, serving mostly to radicalize the entire issue. Trolls and psychopaths are part of the new social media reality, a new reality to which we are all still adapting.

Some of them, of course, are commenting on Novella’s post.

Given all this, they had to figure out whether or not to invite Dawkins. They had reservations, but decided to go for it anyway.

Unfortunately, within a week of opening registration many of us became concerned that this might not be tenable.

Dawkins retweeted a video (called “Feminists Love Islamists”) depicting an Islamist and an angry feminist (who it turns out is a real person and not just a character) and essentially making the claim that these groups share an ideology. Dawkins tweeted:

“Obviously doesn’t apply to the vast majority of feminists, among whom I count myself. But the minority are pernicious.”

He included a link to the video. This, of course, set off another round of controversy over Dawkins’ social media activity and the attitudes they reflect.

That made things awkward for NECSS.

Since we had just opened registration this created an urgency, because we did not want to “bait and switch” our attendees if we would ultimately decide to reverse our decision to have him at the conference. We felt it was important to make a decision quickly.

You can see how that makes sense. Dawkins’s tweeting seems to be getting progressively more obnoxious, ratcheting down almost every day, so what would he be blurting out in March, let alone April?

He addresses some concerns – why invite him in the first place, why not talk to him first, what about free speech.

People have a right to speech, but they don’t have a right to access a private venue for their speech. In fact, whom we invite or uninvite to our conference is the primary mechanism of our free speech. This was ultimately about the character of NECSS and the statement we wish to make (or not make) to our community. Obviously where one sets the threshold for not inviting, or uninviting, a guest is subjective and there is room for reasonable disagreement here.

I think there should be a much higher threshold for disinviting than there is for not inviting in the first place. I suppose this situation should be a warning for other orgs, even if they don’t already have scruples about inviting Dawkins to speak – they don’t know what he’ll be tweeting next month, and disinviting is a much bigger deal than not inviting in the first place, so think carefully about inviting.

Others have questioned whether or not we condemn all satire, with South Park being brought up as a frequent example. We are not against satire, but this video is no South Park. The video in question, in my opinion, was spiteful and childish and was merely hiding behind satire. That is a judgment call, but making that judgment does not condemn satire as a form.

Satire as a genre is a good thing. It doesn’t follow, and it’s not the case, that all satire is good.

Another frequent point is that we are against any criticism of feminism, as if it is a taboo topic. This is also not true. No topic should be taboo, and we favor open and vigorous discussion of all important issues. In fact, pointed criticism is good for the feminist movement – or for any movement. (This does not mean that NECSS is the proper venue for any particular topic.)

The point, rather, is that this video, and the discussion that surrounded it, was not constructive. It was hateful and divisive.

It was one item in the massive catalogue of hateful garbage the antifeminists have been cranking out for the past several years. It had nothing to do with reasoned criticism.

I want to directly address Dawkins’ last statement:

“The science and skepticism community is too small and too important to let disagreements divide us and divert us from our mission of promoting a more critical and scientifically literate world.”

I completely agree. That is, ironically, the exact reason we were so disturbed by that video and Dawkins spreading of it. I do wish Dawkins would recognize (perhaps he does) his special place within our community and the power that position holds. When he retweets a link to a video, even with a caveat, that has a tremendous impact. It lends legitimacy to the video and the ideas expressed in it.

That is why Dawkins is so polarizing. In my opinion, someone in his position, with his eloquence, knowledge, and intellect, with his academic background should be doing everything he can to elevate the level of discussion. He has the ability to address legitimate criticisms of feminism, or atheism or skepticism, if he thinks he has them. He could be a force that is helping unite our very small and critically important rationalist movement.

Instead, I fear, he is helping to divide us, 140 characters at a time, and helping to lower the level of the discussion.

Precisely. I also do wish Dawkins would recognize his special place within our community and the power that position holds. I told him that when we had the conversation that led to the joint statement in July 2014. He definitely does recognize his special place for some purposes, i.e. when it’s pleasant for him, but he seems not to when it comes to recognizing the harm he does to the random people he targets. He’s doing it now, today – he’s still producing hateful tweets about the woman in the video, still insisting that she deserves all the mockery possible. His special place right now seems to be Bully in Chief.

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