So, here’s the question for today: How should we respond when people we admire make serious missteps?
Just so there’s no confusion, I want to say right up front that Richard Dawkins fully deserves his reputation as a great scientist and a communicator of science. One of my favorite book memories was the happy summer day I spent in Central Park a few years ago reading The Ancestor’s Tale in a sun-shot grove. And I hardly need to mention his fiery and effective advocacy for atheism, which has done so much to legitimize atheism, make it visible and mainstream, and help many closeted nonbelievers realize they’re not alone. I’ve defended him in the past against ridiculous, invented controversies and barrel-scraping attacks. But with all that being said, I’ve lost a lot of my respect and admiration for him lately, and here’s why.
It started with Dawkins’ infamous “Dear Muslima” comment in 2011, which basically said that because women in Islamic countries suffer worse mistreatment, women in America and Europe have no right to object to boorish behavior or unwanted sexual attention. (Couldn’t we use that same reasoning to argue that since Christians in America and Europe aren’t stoning infidels in the town square, we shouldn’t waste our time complaining about schools that teach creationism?)
I was greatly annoyed by this, but at the time, I dismissed it as an unfortunate, isolated incident. Perhaps Dawkins had spoken without thinking, made an off-the-cuff remark without being fully informed about the context. But a few months later, he wrote this sneering remark about the Skepchicks’ Hug Me, I’m Vaccinated campaign, strongly implying that people who show affection to strangers are being hypocritical if they advocate anti-sexual harassment policies – as if consenting to physical contact under one set of circumstances requires consenting to it under all circumstances. (As I wrote at the time, he clearly didn’t read the post he was mocking. There was a rule: one hug per vaccination.)
Next, right after the launch of the Atheism Plus movement, Dawkins posted a vague remark about unnamed websites “deliberately wind[ing] up false controversy” and suggested using ad-blockers to deprive them of revenue. He declined to provide any context for this tweet, but it’s hard to see what else it could be in response to.
But worst of all, just a few days ago, was this remark he retweeted. It implies – no, not implies, asserts – that feminists assume all men are misogynists (a detestable lie), and that women who receive sexist abuse bring it on themselves by doing so. There’s no reasonable way to read Dawkins’ retweet as anything but an endorsement of this sentiment. (I’m aware the original author was a woman, which just goes to show, as I’ve said in the past, that the rift in the atheist community isn’t between men and women; it’s between people who want every atheist to feel welcome and safe among us, and people who don’t care about doing that.)
With this accumulation of evidence, I’ve reluctantly come to realize that, whatever his strengths as an advocate for science or atheism, Richard Dawkins is no more enlightened than the general population when it comes to social justice and feminism. His opinions on these topics are uninformed and untrustworthy. It’s not that he’s completely blind to mistreatment of women; it seems to be something more along the lines of, “Because we now have laws against explicit discrimination by sex in the Western world, feminism is no longer needed there. It’s only in developing countries that women are still mistreated, and anyone who says differently is just whining.” (He certainly wouldn’t be the first person to think this.) I’d be tempted to ascribe this to his highly privileged position as a well-off, well-educated white man who’s never had to experience life from a minority perspective, except that there’s no reason older white men can’t understand social justice. Just look at PZ Myers, who’s been a bulldog on this issue.
Now more than ever, I’m glad that the atheist movement has no formal organized structure or official leadership: it makes it easier to accept that people we consider intellectual giants can have persistent blind spots. Ironically, it’s Dawkins himself who’s made powerful arguments about the virtue of consciousness-raising. Just as with Thomas Jefferson, who wrote brilliantly about natural rights and human liberty while owning slaves in his own home, we here have a perfect example that all human beings are fallible, and no one’s word should be treated as gospel or accepted without skepticism.
Where do we go from here? I honestly don’t know. I don’t think Richard Dawkins should be blacklisted or any such thing. I do know that I’m probably less likely to buy his books or to watch his speeches than I was before, and I’m certainly less likely to recommend them to people who aren’t familiar with atheism. I’d like to see him enlightened, but I think it serves little purpose to attack him. Our time would be more constructively served by finding and promoting people who are better suited to be the public face of the atheist movement.