You can love Richard Dawkins or you can hate him, but you can’t say he’s anything but a gentleman and a scholar. His response to being disinvited as a featured speaker by NECSS (short for Northeast Conference on Science & Skepticism, and pronounced ”Nexus”, which I have to grudgingly admit is sort of clever) is characteristically calm, cogent and gracious.
The disinvitation, of course, took place after Dawkins retweeted a satirical video about an Islamist and a feminist who decide they have a lot in common – they both have go-to villains that they blame for everything, for example, his being the Jewish media and hers being the patriarchy. It’s not rapier wit by any means, but in most respects it seems like a fair-enough shot at some of the parallels in outlook between the most cringeworthy elements in the two groups in question. It may have originally been intended as a less fair shot at all Islamists and all feminists, but Dawkins was quite clear about specifying that he only thought it applied to a “pernicious” minority of feminists. (He didn’t include a similar qualifier with respect to Islamists, but no one seems to be complaining.)
When Dawkins learned that the cartoon feminist in the video was a caricature of a real person, “who had been threatened on earlier occasions because of YouTube videos in which she appeared to her disadvantage”, he did the decent thing and deleted his retweet [update: the deletion apparently followed some additional discussion on Twitter – see comments]. Having explained all this in his statement, he adds:
I wish the NECSS every success at their conference. 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.
See? Gentleman and scholar to the core.
I suppose Steven Novella, who is a member of the NECSS executive committee as well as a neurologist, a blogger and the president of the New England Skeptical Society, is a gentleman and a scholar too. To his credit, he has offered a polite explanation of the decision to disinvite Dawkins, noting that there is “room for reasonable disagreement” about when an invitation should be withdrawn. Lord, is there ever.
Novella’s explanation of why he (and presumably at least some other members of the executive committee) found Dawkins’ retweet problematic is revealing:
The point, rather, is that this video, and the discussion that surrounded it, was not constructive. It was hateful and divisive. Further (as Dawkins later acknowledged) the video targeted a woman who is allegedly already the target of threats and harassment.
The “further” strongly implies Novella would consider the video “hateful and divisive” even if it didn’t feature crude drawings of actual people, which seems absurd. Pointed criticism is not hatred, and almost any statement about feminism could be construed as divisive considering the strong feelings in various camps the subject seems to engender these days.
More interesting, though, is Novella’s statement about the actual reasoning process that led to the disinvitation:
The concern for some of us at NECSS was that by hosting Dawkins as a featured speaker we were making a statement we did not intend to make, a statement that could be interpreted as being unwelcoming and even hostile to many attendees.
Sure, and the latest Sudoku puzzle in the local newspaper “could be interpreted” as a message from Baphomet if one were prepared to try hard enough. The only statement a conference makes by hosting a person as a featured speaker is “this person has something worthwhile to say to our attendees”. There’s no reasonable implication that the conference is endorsing all of the speaker’s views, or implicitly stamping the speaker’s forehead with a rune signifying moral approval.
Last but hardly least, Novella has this to say:
There have been many other points expressed that I do not think are fair. The issue here, for example, is not free speech. Dawkins is completely free to express himself and he has a massive audience and plenty of outlets. Far be it for our humble conference to have any effect on his free speech. That is simply framing the issue in the wrong way.
Obviously, though, Dawkins is not free to express himself without being dropped as a featured speaker at NECSS if he happens to say the wrong thing – and NECSS attendees lose out as a result. Novella seems to lack any real appreciation of freedom of speech as a public good, as something worth cultivating and promoting under any given roof. Dawkins may not suffer when he’s disinvited from NECSS, but conference-goers who would have liked to hear what Dawkins had to say sure do. Even people who detest Dawkins and his damn Twitter feed might find that some remark of his made them think and opened the door to fresh insights. Yes, they could become acquainted with his views on many topics by reading his books, or by going online. But the immediacy of actually being in the room with a substantive and engaging speaker, and the possibility of interacting with that speaker in person, shouldn’t be lightly dismissed. The NECSS executive committee have denied their attendees the opportunity to have that kind of experience with Richard Dawkins, over prissy objections to a silly video, and it’s nothing short of pathetic.