I’ve been something of a fan of Richard Dawkins ever since I picked up a copy of his book The Selfish Gene when I was a graduate student. I think he’s a good writer, an incisive and creative scientific thinker, a consummate gentleman and scholar, and of course a highly effective proponent of atheism. Much of his effectiveness comes from his willingness to simply be clear, to say in plain but fairly measured English that scientific evidence contradicts the Judaeo-Christian creation myth at every turn, that the ontological argument is ludicrous, that Yahweh comes across in the Old Testament as a pretty nasty character. This kind of bluntness is now relatively common among the godless, but Dawkins was arguably the Prime Mover who did more than anyone else to make it quasi-respectable.
It’s not surprising, then, that Dawkins would be equally forthright when it comes to touchy issues outside the domain of religion. I’m not on Twitter, and (inshallah) never will be, but Dawkins’ feed is reportedly a reliable if intermittent geyser of provocation. A great wailing and gnashing of teeth was heard when he spoke of “mild” forms of rape and paedophilia, for example, and again when he suggested that it would be “immoral” to bring a baby afflicted with Down’s syndrome “into the world”.
I would have thought that someone like Dawkins, in the later stages of a brilliant career and presumably (although I don’t really know) in perfectly good shape financially, would be prepared to scoff at the disproportionate hostility whipped up by his comments. One of the wearisome certainties of public life is that a substantial number of people will be noisily, crassly and unreasonably opposed to X, at least if X is anything more debatable than 2 + 2 > 3. Twitter probably aggravates this tendency. It’s not a promising venue for temperate conversations about complex subjects, as my esteemed co-blogger Joe likes to point out. I don’t entirely buy Marshall McLuhan’s famous dictum that “the medium is the message”, but surely 140-character blurbs encourage conflict in that they lend themselves more readily to bluster, bawling and naked assertion than to nuanced discussion of any given topic. Dawkins must understand all this. So can’t he simply grin sardonically at the raging twittermobs and their fellow travellers in other media, and just keep broadcasting his thoughts?
The answer, somewhat to my surprise, is that he apparently can’t.
“I don’t take back anything that I’ve said,” Dawkins said from a shady spot in the leafy backyard of one of his Bay Area supporters. “I would not say it again, however, because I am now accustomed to being misunderstood and so I will … ”
He trailed off momentarily, gazing at his hands resting on a patio table.
“I feel muzzled, and a lot of other people do as well,” he continued. “There is a climate of bullying, a climate of intransigent thought police which is highly influential in the sense that it suppresses people like me.”
I’ve never personally faced a barrage of criticism like the ones Dawkins has been subjected to over his tweets. I’m sure it’s uncomfortable, even distressing, if one isn’t either inured to that sort of thing or just naturally thick-skinned and/or combative. The fact that much of the criticism is coming from atheistic humanists, Dawkins’ own tribe, must be an aggravating factor. Perhaps Dawkins is even wondering whether some “misunderstood” remark on his part might lead to the kind of shameful ostracism that James Watson was subjected to when he dared to suggest that intelligence might not be equally distributed across all human racial groups – surely a hypothesis to be tested, rather than a heresy to be quashed. Dawkins, to his immense credit, objected at the time to the way Watson was being treated.
The bright side, however, is that the intransigent thought police actually have no badges. Watson hasn’t been thrown in jail, lynched, burned at the stake, or even reduced to penury (unless the definition of penury is having to sell one’s Nobel Prize in order to be able to afford paintings by some bloke called David Hockney). It’s ridiculous that so many influential people and organizations have been treating him as persona non grata, but ultimately the intransigent thought police – insufferable and irritating as they can be – haven’t been able to really hurt him. Equally, I doubt they could hurt Dawkins.
Those of us that aren’t eminent semi-retired scientists may have slightly more to fear, but even so my feeling is that if Dawkins feels muzzled we all ought to show solidarity by being a little more vocal with our controversial thoughts than feels strictly comfortable – and surely the only people who don’t have a few controversial thoughts are inveterate conformists. Standing up to the intransigent thought police is an entirely worthwhile activity, given that we all benefit when ideas are judged and debated on their merits rather than on the basis of how many huffy Tweeters find them objectionable.
I’ll do my best to be a little more vocal on Canadian Atheist from now on, but for the moment I think I’ll just say that the contents of Dawkins’ Twitter feed sound pretty reasonable to me. Of course some kinds of rape and paedophilia, like some kinds of literally anything unpleasant, are mild compared to others. I wouldn’t be as categorical as Dawkins was about the moral desirability of aborting foetuses afflicted with Down’s syndrome, but I can certainly see his point. It’s difficult enough to build a fulfilling and meaningful life without being burdened with something as debilitating as an extra 21st chromosome, and there’s something inescapably callous and self-indulgent about knowingly thrusting an innocent foetus that does carry such a burden into the Sturm und Drang of life outside the womb. So there, thought police.