The hot cauldron of public debate

A chat with Richard Dawkins:

His considerable reputation as an evolutionary biologist, atheist and intellectual was forged in the hot cauldron of public debate. With forceful clarity and occasional rattiness, he has for decades gone about slaughtering sacred cows like a bloodthirsty butcher. So if Dawkins is now afraid to speak his mind, I’m not sure where that leaves the rest of us. “I self-censor,” he admits. “More so in recent years.” Why? “It’s not a thing I’ve done throughout my life, I’ve always spoken my mind openly. But we’re now in a time when if you do speak your mind openly, you are at risk of being picked up and condemned.”

Well, we’re in a time where Twitter exists, as Dawkins knows. His speaking his mind openly doesn’t always come across well on Twitter. It can at times border on taunting, like when he kept referring to “clock boy.” (In case you’ve forgotten, a boy from a Muslim family made a clock of sorts for a school project and somebody thought “bomb!!” and things went crazy.) He did some borders-on-taunting of feminist women, starting with “Dear Muslima.” Things got heated. He never really seemed to get the point that his taunts (“speaking his mind openly”) at feminist women would trigger avalanches of abuse aimed at those women, because he’s a Name and has that power.

Dawkins is worried that the illiberalism of the left is helping to fuel right-wing populism, driving continued support to Donald Trump and the like. “Every time a lecturer is cancelled from an American university, that’s another God knows how many votes for Trump,” he says. He finds it particularly bothersome when his “own team” attacks him. “I’m much more hurt by attacks from the left,” he says. “When I get hate mail from my own people, that hurts in a way that getting it from creationists doesn’t.” It must have hit home then when Dawkins had his 1996 Humanist of the Year award withdrawn by the American Humanist Association (AHA) earlier this year.

The AHA bestows this prestigious annual award to an admired humanist: recipients have included Margaret Atwood and Salman Rushdie. It lists them all on its website, but if you scroll down to 1996, Dawkins’s name has been scrubbed. He’s gone. Why? Because of a tweet. Back in April, Dawkins caused offence when he wondered why identifying across racial barriers is so much more difficult than across sexual barriers. He wrote: “In 2015, Rachel Dolezal, a white chapter president of NAACP [The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People], was vilified for identifying as Black. Some men choose to identify as women, and some women choose to identify as men. You will be vilified if you deny that they literally are what they identify as. Discuss.”

Unacceptable. Taunting feminist women, acceptable; questioning gender idenniny, unacceptable.

He recalls reading the historian Jan Morris’s 1974 book Conundrum on transitioning to become a woman. “She felt herself to be a woman trapped in a man’s body,” Dawkins says. “I think that’s a real phenomenon. I have sympathy. But when trans people insist that you say she is a woman, you redefine something. If you define a woman as a human with an XX karyotype, then she’s not a woman. If you define a woman as someone who identifies as a woman, feels they are a woman and has maybe had an operation, then by that definition she is a woman. From a scientific point of view, she’s not a woman. From a personal point of view, she is.”

To put it another way, you can change your gender but you can’t change your sex.

As a matter of “personal politeness” then, he’s happy to use whatever pronouns people ask him to use. “But I don’t like the idea that people can pillory someone like Jordan Peterson for refusing to be compelled to change his language,” he says. In this Dawkins senses something he doesn’t like: a quasi-religious faith that cannot be opposed. Or as he puts it: “Denying reality and it’s a heresy to do anything other than that.”


Updating to add discussions here last April of the AHA rebuke of Dawkins and the [cough] strangeness of drawing the line there and not at clockboy or Dear Muslima.

April 19th

April 20th

GP by Sastra April 20th

April 20th

April 21st

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