The Suppression of Richard Dawkins

Following up on our little contretemps in September, Richard Dawkins has granted an interview to Kimberly Winston of Religion News Service about the remarks that have made him infamous to pro-social-justice atheists. And although he seems a bit chastened, he insists he has no regrets:

“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.”

Let’s just put these remarks in context. Dawkins complains that he’s been silenced. He makes this complaint to a reporter who sought him out for an interview while he was on a tour to promote his new book. He still has his account on Twitter, where he has over 1 million followers, as well as his (reportedly) $130 million personal fortune and a foundation named after him. The list of people in human history who are less silenced than Richard Dawkins would be a short one.

It’s true that Dawkins has made some unwise remarks that have provoked a backlash, and no doubt his ego feels a bit bruised. But he deliberately confuses criticism with suppression. This is a tactic borrowed from Christian fundamentalists! They, too, fantasize about persecution and claim that any hostile or less-than-welcoming reception for their ideas is morally equivalent to censoring them with the force of law.

Dawkins claims that he’s “accustomed to being misunderstood”, but then goes on to confirm that he hasn’t been misunderstood! His remarks about pedophilia, about Down syndrome, about feminism, about Islam all expressed sentiments that he truly believes (“I don’t take back anything I’ve said”). He doesn’t try to offer any clarification or explain how his true position differs from the ideas that have been attributed to him. When he says “I was misunderstood”, what he apparently means is “I said something that people didn’t like”. A correspondent on Twitter had the perfect explanation of this:

Dawkins, however, disagrees. He is, he said, not a misogynist, as some critics have called him, but “a passionate feminist.” The greatest threats to women, in his view, are Islamism and jihadism — and his concern over that sometimes leads him to speak off-the-cuff.

“I concentrate my attention on that menace and I confess I occasionally get a little impatient with American women who complain of being inappropriately touched by the water cooler or invited for coffee or something which I think is, by comparison, relatively trivial,” he said.

No matter how often he calls himself a feminist, Dawkins hasn’t learned what the word means. He proves that with his trivializing dismissal of women who complain about being “inappropriately touched by the water cooler” – most of us call that “workplace sexual harassment”, and it was one of the major issues that the modern feminist movement organized around. It shows immense condescension for Dawkins to presume that he and he alone has the right to tell women what they should really care about. (As we all know, Dawkins himself only ever complains about serious, pressing injustices.)

This is just what I was getting at with my sarcastic remark about Dawkins crowning himself The Most Rational Man Alive. He’s claimed for himself the right to rank all the world’s evils from least to most bad, and to tell everyone else how they should feel about things that have happened to them. Not only is this insufferably arrogant, he’s oblivious to how this reasoning would undermine his priorities as well. As long as Saudi Arabia is chopping off the heads of infidels in the town square, how dare you spend time talking about politicians who thump the Bible or Western schools that teach creationism?

The answer to this argument is that the secular movement is big enough and diverse enough to care about more than one thing, and that different people can have different priorities, depending on what cause personally appeals to them the most and where they feel it’s most likely that they can make a difference. But for Dawkins to accept this logic would mean that he’d have to stop belittling atheist women who speak up about rape, harassment, or the everyday microaggressions that make them feel unwelcome. (To his very minor credit, he does forcefully condemn online threats. Then again, this is the only kind of bad behavior frequently aimed at women that Dawkins likely has some personal experience of.)

The RNS article includes a quote from one of my Patheos colleagues:

“What we’re seeing is a bad combination of a celebrity who speaks his mind about issues he’s not necessarily an expert on and a horde of well-intentioned people ready to vilify him instead of educate him,” [Hemant] Mehta said.

“But all of this starts and ends with Dawkins. He’s supposed to be the expert at communication. That’s the title he held at Oxford for so long. He, of all people, should realize that not all audiences will respond to him the same way — and he needs to adjust. He hasn’t done that yet.”

With respect, I have to disagree with this analysis of the problem. I don’t think this is a communication problem, at least not in the sense of Dawkins expressing himself badly and not realizing how his remarks will be received.

Dawkins is the product of a wealthy and privileged upbringing, an older white man from an era when older white men were assumed to be the unchallenged authorities on everything. This is no sin in and of itself, but it gives rise to a certain narrowness of viewpoint that can only be counteracted by a deliberate effort to seek out different opinions and listen to them, and he hasn’t done that.

That’s the common thread linking his ignorant comments on feminism, on Islam, on Down’s syndrome, on pedophilia. They come from assuming that his perspective and his experiences are the normal and unremarkable default, and that everyone who believes differently must do so for weird or questionable reasons. To the extent that Dawkins’ problem is one of communication, it’s not a failure to speak well that’s the issue. It’s a failure to listen.

About Adam Lee

Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, Arc of Fire, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.