Features, Politics

The Disinviting of Dawkins

In my first year as an undergraduate, I was aware of the fact that we had a neo-Nazi on campus. I never met him, indeed to my knowledge I never saw him, for this was 1992 – years prior to the phenomenon of social media, when a university campus could be an anonymous place.

As I was not heavily involved with the Students’ Union there will no doubt be others that remember the events far more vividly than I do, but the matter appeared to be handled with aplomb.  There was some fraught but brief discussion about the man’s appalling views and some members put forward compelling reasons why he should not be given a platform; there was precedent for no-platforming neo-Nazis (albeit in a political context), and in truth there were few who desired any exposure to such delusional poison.

In the end, however, it was decided that free speech was so central to the Union’s principles that not even this odious member should be denied his request for a time-slot to speak. When the moment arose, everyone was appalled by what he had to say and, as I recall, he quit his degree shortly after.

There is a strong case, I believe, for refusing a platform to the likes of neo-Nazis, and to this day I remain open minded about whether the Union made the right decision back in 1992. But the case illustrates the fact that providing a platform can often be the most effective policy – even when faced with genuine hate-speech.

Sadly, for such a delicate situation to be handled with such maturity and intelligent thought would on many of today’s campuses be unlikely. One does not have to be a fascist hooligan to find oneself denied a platform – far from it. An increasing number of high-profile academics are finding themselves barred from various establishments that are supposedly in the business of thought. Jamie Palmer has addressed the issue in this very magazine, and my first article here was about the attempted no-platforming of Professor Germaine Greer by students at Cardiff.

The latest to join the list of fine academics declared unfit to speak at a supposedly learned venue is Professor Richard Dawkins. The Northeast Conference on Science and Skepticism, a forum that prides itself on being “a celebration of science and critical thinking” and with a declared goal of “fostering a more rational world” has decided that Dawkins’ sharing of a satirical video in a tweet that he later deleted warrants him being disinvited from the NECSS 2016. In a statement, the committee said:

The Northeast Conference on Science & Skepticism has withdrawn its invitation to Richard Dawkins to participate at NECSS 2016. We have taken this action in response to Dr. Dawkins’ approving re-tweet of a highly offensive video. We believe strongly in freedom of speech and freedom to express unpopular, and even offensive, views. However, unnecessarily divisive, counterproductive, and even hateful speech runs contrary to our mission and the environment we wish to foster at NECSS. The sentiments expressed in the video do not represent the values of NECSS or its sponsoring organizations.

There are two important issues here: one is that Dawkins does not promote hate-speech, and to accuse him of such on the basis of one deleted retweet is preposterous hysteria. He does – and I say this as a fan– put his foot in it, occasionally on Twitter. Somehow the constraints of 140 characters combined with the rapid-fire involvement of a varied and sometimes unhinged troop of followers (and haters) does drive him a little crazy. But the man writes prose like an angel. Always moderate and eloquent when given time and space to explain his position. He has said in a statement:

It is possible I could have allayed the committee members’ concerns, or, if not, at least we could have talked through their objections to my tweet. If our community is about anything it is that reasoned discussion is the best way to work through disagreements. … The science and scepticism 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.

The second issue is this: the idea that to offer a platform to a speaker somehow lends legitimacy and implied support to every single one of their individual beliefs and opinions is a fallacy. Indeed, I would go further and call it idiocy – not what one would expect from a group that claims to promote rational thought.

There are those who would argue that disinviting a speaker from one particular event has absolutely nothing to do with free speech – that all groups and societies have the right to select speakers and discussion topics based upon their own philosophies, what is of the most potential interest to their members and what kind of tone they wish to set for their event. This is true. It is nobody’s duty to provide a speaker with a platform and it is nobody’s right to speak upon somebody else’s. Yet the ever-increasing frequency with which a variety of fine academics have been declared as unfit speakers at venues that purport to be in favour of free thought should surely give us pause. As the inimitable Maryam Namazie said this week, “if you no platform everyone you disagree with, there will be no one left to speak”.

In this particular case, it is the withdrawal of a previously-issued invitation without engagement or discussion with the invited speaker that seems particularly crass. Dawkins is a renowned academic but a controversial figure for some – the committee presumably knew this when they invited him, unless they have been living under a rock for the past decade.

Dawkins has made fiery, sometimes outrageous tweets for years, and I simply cannot understand why this particular tweet has upset some members of the committee so much. My suspicion is that its content (which poked fun at both Islamism and radical feminism and drew parallels between the two) was simply too much for the cosy intellectual groupthink that so many people are now prone to.

 

Emma C Williams is a teacher, a freelance writer and author. Follow her on Twitter: @emma_c_williams or visit her website www.emmacwilliams.com

Filed under: Features, Politics

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Emma Williams is a private Latin tutor and a teacher in a large comprehensive school in Woking, Surrey. She is also a freelance writer and author. You can find her on twitter @emma_c_williams.

39 Comments

  1. When I was at University I can remember that there were hundreds, well to be fair, tens of neo-Stalinists on campus; probably still the case. There were no doubt people that thought the Gulag was a good thing. I wonder how “Emma C Williams” would deal with their appalling views.

    • I’m an American right-wing centrist. I’ve met neo-Stalinists. They make for interesting discussions. I’ve never once considered having any of them cast out of any groups we happen to share, because I’m an American.

      Unfortunately, I cannot speak as an American for “Generation Z”. They seem to be a mix of frail snowflakes and hardened intellectual fighters, the latter being vastly outnumbered by the former. I can only explain this via social Darwinianism.

  2. Nena selmes says

    She would deal with it, as she deals with everything. With intelligence, thoughtfulness and grace.

  3. Oh, I get weird crappy stuff on my Facebook timeline occasionally. Some think it’s great to promote guns and such and I don’t like being threatened by them so I’m adamant right back. We can’t convert each other so hopefully idiotic arguments die down. They think they’ve won and I know better so I just wait for them to fade away. I was fortunate enough to hear Dawkins before his “God Delusion” ticked everybody off. It was fun just to hear the biologist on Science Friday, he was fun to listen to. I’ve enjoyed the CD book of the last part of his autobiography and it’s mostly biology and so it’s enjoyable.

  4. It’s amazing that a so called skeptics conference would do that of all people. Skeptics love debating people they disagree with and these reactionary organisers have denied them the chance to dismantle the arguments. I can only conclude that the conference itself isn’t actually run by skeptics at all.

  5. I think you are correct in your suspicion. Islamism’s arguments have a structural similarity to feminist arguments, which is a result of the fact that Islamism is a mixture of Western socialism (via Sayyid Qutb) and Islam,and feminism is like an umpteenth iteration of the kind of analysis of society that was initiated by Marx – i.e. an analysis of society in terms of group membership, with groups being defined, by their closeness to or distance from “power” (arbitrarily defined), as “oppressor” and “oppressed”. It’s a pattern or general form of argument that holds human behaviour to be wholly determined by group membership.

    • thebibosez says

      Actually, feminism predates Marx. Das Kapital was published in 1867. The first feminist conference was in 1848. Marxism is rewarmed feminism.

      • Interesting! I wonder if it had the Marxian type of analysis at that stage though? Was there the rhetoric of power, oppression,etc., that you find in Marx and in Second and Third Wave Feminism, in those early days? My sketchy impression of the history is that the movement was more “single issue” (voting, being able to wear x, etc.) at the time. The first feminist that’s more like a modern feminist that I can think of was the Russian lady who was part of the first Politburo – I think by that stage, IIRC, they were starting to join the feminist struggle to the Marxist narrative.

        I think there was genuine sexism in the past and I’m glad the laws came to more parity (although in some cases now they’re overshooting) as a result of the “antidote” type of feminism of the day. Not all of the Narrative around this is total shit, there’s usually some grain of truth to this type of analysis. The problem is more that it’s prone to turn from a movement for equal treatment before the law, into a movement for equal, and then superior outcomes, as the power-based analysis starts to ossify into a quasi-religion.

        I’d say that parity was reached somewhere towards the end of the 80s/beginning of the 90s, and the overshoot, the transition from good old fashioned feminism into something more properly called “femfascism” started to obtain roundabout then (although there were roots and shoots of it before then and sometimes quite strange ones, like Valerie Solanas or Andrea Dworkin).

        I lived through those years (born 1959) and that’s my sense of it anyway. I remember casual sexism from men directed at women, and it was cheap, ugly and sometimes threatening and scary (similar to Islam today, though not nearly as bad at that time, since feminism had already done some work). It’s when feminism started to get that unquestioned, religious vibe to it, instead of being something women had to argue for – when it presented its ideas in a way that people could feel free to accept or reject, rather than feeling they had to virtue signal agreement (even if they didn’t actually agree).

      • At this stage, what I would like to see is some of the other speakers having the nads to boycott the meeting. That would really set the cat among the pigeons.

  6. “We believe strongly in freedom of speech and freedom to express unpopular, and even offensive, views.”

    This is immediately contradicted by the remainder of the statement, especially:

    “The sentiments expressed in the video do not represent the values of NECSS or its sponsoring organizations.”

    If one may not re-tweet a video which does not represent the values of NECSS or its sponsoring organizations without being de-platformed, then NECSS does NOT believe any portion of its preceding statement. Views which NECSS finds “unpopular, and even offensive” suffice to bring out the earplugs. Those who claim to prize rationality, in particular, demonstrate a far more repugnant bent in suppressing all discussion or debate regarding that which they find offensive or, ahem, “unpopular” to begin with.

    I have seen the video in question. It’s a social polemic, parodying two extremes in a musical demonstration of “horseshoe theory”, and exists within the context of the twin debates on modern feminism and Islamic radicalism.

    What NECSS is saying, here, is nothing less than “there is no debate to be had, nor tolerated, nor those who find interest of any kind in it, either”.

    So much for Skepticism.

    • Nicely done. They “mildly” believe in freedom of speech. Likewise, they have subordinated the search for truth to “social justice”; the only question remaining is “how far?”, so ask them what (amount of) microaggressions they tolerate without banning a speaker.

  7. At this point, what is the purpose of such articles? Is it to persuade those who are mistaken, to reassure those who aren’t, or to gain those who are uncommitted? I don’t see any substantial effect along any of these three lines. How often are such coy articles to be repeated until an effect is to be expected?

    This is done the wrong way around. It’s useless to target this opposition with soft words. (Have you managed to shake their foundation, to suspend any of their premises?). The question to be addressed is not what they should do, it’s what others – those actually in favor of free speech – should do. They shouldn’t pander to and legitimize the inquisition. Based on that, it was wrong to delete the tweet. If anything, he should have added more of its kind.

  8. deegeejay says

    Watching liberals eat their own is like watching the Sunni and Shia destroy each other over who is the true fundamentalist.

  9. Brett Powers says

    Crap. As you say, Dawkins has repeatedly made an ass of himself on Twitter. He refuses to learn. The inviting agency had every reason to disinvite an idiot who persists in flagrantly obnoxious public speech, then backs and fills with prevaricating rationalizations.

  10. Voicing ideals is easy . . . NCSS showed us the difficulties of upholding them.

    They also showed up how even “rational” people get lost in tangles of logic convoluted by emotions.

    Where is the win-win? Could they have used the incident to the advantage of the community? Did anyone win?

  11. >Watching liberals eat their own is like watching the Sunni and Shia destroy each other over who is >the true fundamentalist.

    I agree with the general drift of what deegeejay is saying. The attacks on free speech from the “left” or “liberals” go at least to the writings of Herbert Marcuse, a German who taught at the University of California at San Diego in the 1960s. He insisted that free speech should be denied to anyone advocating what he deemed racist views and cuts to governmental services. His followers today expand the argument to say that free speech makes certain demographic groups “uncomfortable”, which leads to their withdrawal from public discussion. Thus, to make “the narrative truly inclusive”, we need to restrict the participation of certain people, so more vulnerable can take part. Therefore, restricting speech *expands* free speech. Q.E.D.

    How this amounts to leftists fighting themselves is that the moderate left simply ignores the segment of the movement supporting totalitarian controls. When the radical left engages in buffoonery, the moderate left insists that such people aren’t influential or numerous, they are more a creation of the right wing’s straw men.

    To claim that the right wing – neo-Nazi, neo-conservative, whatever – is responsible for restrictions on free speech in academic contexts is ridiculous. Yes, some critics of Israel run into resistance from time to time, but there is no shortage of that government’s conduct in any public forum.

    Academia is entirely run by moderate leftists, with certain sections (ie. gender studies) dominated by radical leftists. This arrangement is made easier by the radical right’s reluctance to be educated. Because the presence of the radical right in educational settings will always be miniscule, moderate leftists can handle the occasional experience of a bull in the academic china shop, but they are in way over their heads in dealing with any other kind of radical: the leftist who wants to restrict speech, and above all, the Islamist, be he advocating jihad, or attacking a European female.

  12. it was a very funny video. you should check it out if you are not afraid of being offended. Well done Mr. Dawkins.

  13. I believe there are very few instances where a person should be denied a platform. For example, I’d ban people who outright advocate violence to further their views, or people whose views aren’t pertinent to the topic under discussion (e.g. a lecture on string theory delivered to a kennel club).

    These days, the behavior of institutes of higher learning and their student bodies when they encounter distasteful viewpoints is appalling. Maybe NECSS should start providing “safe spaces” for it’s more fragile members.

    As far as Dawkins goes, Mrs. Garrison summed his philosophy pretty well in the send-up he got from South Park: “Logic and reason aren’t enough: You also have to be a dick to everyone who doesn’t think like you.”. But that still isn’t sufficient reason to deny him a platform.

  14. “…too much for the cosy intellectual groupthink that so many people are NOW prone to.” Yes indeed, NOW being the operative word. I wonder if this episode would have stirred the same reaction just two years ago, prior to the phenomenon of “trigger warnings” and “safe spaces” hitting the stage. It seems like a slight hick up in the zeitgeist. Hopefully it is just a temporary mind set.

  15. Jan Vones says

    Had this article been written in plain English, I’d’ve read it. But it wasn’t; so I didn’t.

  16. “There is a strong case, I believe, for refusing a platform to the likes of neo-Nazis”

    says Emma Williams. But the story of the disinviting of Dawkins (and Greer, Namazie, O’Neill…) completely undermines that case. When student unions introduced “no platform for fascists”, their critics said “this will lead to ‘no platform for anyone the p.c. left disapproves of'”. This is exactly what has happened. Some people never learn.

  17. Pingback: Deplatformed Dawkins defended | Uncommon Descent

  18. The event Dawkins was dis-invited from was not a public forum but a private event. It also was not a college symposium of divergent views. It was a gathering of like minded people. The organizers didn’t invite religious people, snake-oil sellers, or anti-vaxxers to speak so do we complain about them being “deplatformed”?

    • The Short Version says

      Let me answer your question with another question: do you consider real estate brokers not being invited to speak at film festivals as having been “deplatformed”?

      I’m sure any anti-vaxxers who wanted to speak, on the other hand, would be welcomed with open arms. Lions love a free meal. But by de-platforming Dawkins – a scientist who has made his career out of his atheism, skepticism, and critical thinking – from their “Science and Skepticism” conference, they’re saying he’s the “wrong kind” of scientist and skeptic… not that the conference doesn’t apply to him.

      Your comment is such an obvious and clumsy attempt at a false equivocation that I can only assume you did it intentionally and thought it was a good idea… or are ridiculously dense.

  19. The Short Version says

    By no-platforming Dawkins, the NECSS didn’t undercut Dawkins’ credibility. They undercut their own.

  20. I notice that Michael Mann is speaking, now there is a true sceptic.

  21. It is an unfortunate side effect of the current state of “Militant Liberalism” that any thought, speech, or action deemed to be in conflict with that worldview is considered so dangerous that it needs to be silenced under any circumstances. The reality is that their fear is that if cracks appear in their cherished views, a catastrophic cascade will follow, one which they will do anything to prevent.

  22. The Left is starting to devour their own off-spring! I wonder why this author wasn’t concerned when they were systematically de-platforming conservatives? This has been going on for decades. Apparently, it only matters if people like Germaine Greer and Richard Dawkins are affected.

  23. Pingback: Outside in - Involvements with reality » Blog Archive » Chaos Patch (#100)

  24. Jan Vones says

    What useless dreck. What did Dawkins ~say~? Is it so horrific you can’t even characterize it? This was a total waste of time, I’m off to watch Dawkins in his South Park cameo, much more enlightening.

  25. I don’t know whether Dr. Dawkins should have been invited to the referenced conference, but I agree with the writer, he certainly shouldn’t have been uninvited. I do have trouble with some of the characterizations of Dawkins in this post.

    “Dawkins does not promote hate-speech.” This is clearly not true. He has made a career, I guess it’s more of a hobby, of ridiculing people for their religious beliefs. Maybe you have a different definition of “hate speech” than I do.

    “…the man writes prose like an angel. Always moderate and eloquent when given time and space to explain his position.” I personally have never found Dawkins’ anti-religious work well written. They are generally sarcastic, sensationalistic, and poorly argued. I gave a copy of “The God Delusion” to my daughter as an example of a poorly written polemic. To call him “moderate” is laughable. He is rabidly anti-religion and doesn’t show respect for people who disagree with him.

    Worst of all, the video link on his tweet is not funny. Really lame.

  26. Oliver Cromwell says

    “The latest to join the list of fine academics declared unfit to speak at a supposedly learned venue is Professor Richard Dawkins. The Northeast Conference on Science and Skepticism, a forum that prides itself on being “a celebration of science and critical thinking” and with a declared goal of “fostering a more rational world” has decided that Dawkins’ sharing of a satirical video in a tweet that he later deleted warrants him being disinvited from the NECSS 2016.”

    It is 100% justified. Deleting the tweet is an admission of guilt.

    I don’t think he was guilty of anything, but he clearly thought he was. So do you, given you place such importance on the deletion of the tweet. If He *really* thought what posting the tweet implied, you imply, it would be perfectly justified to disinvite him, but clearly he didn’t, because he *deleted* it. If he believed in it, would he have done that? Huh?

    Dawkins’, and freedom’s, enemies here are neither stupid nor blind. They know Dawkins deleted the tweet out of fear of them, not because he actually believes he made a mistake in agreeing with it. Made a mistake getting caught maybe.

    If the Northeast Conference on Science and Skepticism were a real heretics’ convention they should disinvite Dawkins because he is not a real heretic, he is a spineless weasel. If, as seems rather more likely, the Northeast Conference on Science and Skepticism is a closed discussion circle for Junior Auxiliary Thought Police, Dawkins has shown he isn’t sufficiently self-deluded, or sufficiently good at faking it, to fit in a group that permits only Party-approved opinions.

  27. a lefty amongst you says

    It would be more acceptable if they stated that their uninviting was due to the video being so annoying and un-funny, not the ideological stance itself. I don’t need my brain to be “safe” from different ideas, but my ears to be safe from such terrible sounding stuff.

  28. trannyfattyacid says

    “As the inimitable Maryam Namazie said this week, “if you no platform everyone you disagree with, there will be no one left to speak”.”

    That’s a bit rich. Ms Namazie has a block list on twitter as long as your arm, and openly declares any number of groups and individuals who she will not speak to.

    Quite how she has become some kind of paragon of free speech is frankly bizarre.

  29. The video that Dawkins RT’d was spot on, completely on the money. He should not have deleted it. He only did so based on false info. I think that he realizes now that deleting it was a mistake. Dawkins is great and this whole episode is yet more proof that there are those who are really messed up regarding what they think (not Dawkins, those who deplatformed him).

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