Reflections on Dawkins and the AHA

Reflections on Dawkins and the AHA April 21, 2021

The AHA have just rescinded an award they gave to Richard Dawkins in 1996. It seems like this episode has created something of a hubbub in the skeptical community – itself a bunch of people loosely associating with each other by hanging around on atheist websites like this. Herding cats, and all that.

The background

I don’t really know. I haven’t been following it closely and I’m not sure investing too much time in this explicit incident will be worth my while. My understanding is that it goes something like this: Richard Dawkins, famous now aging atheist, has been congratulated in the past for his efforts to advance humanism. The modern world in which we live has seen a moral transformation in terms of understanding of minorities (racial, or in terms of sexuality and so on), including more recently of transgender communities. Whilst the understanding of, say, homosexuality is somewhat solidified and adhered to by consensus (religious conservatives aaside), gender is still not properly understood by many in the mainstream. Indeed, gender still causes all sorts of arguments even outside of conservative religious contexts (where, say, homosexuality is still controversial).

By mainstream, we need to consider everyone, and this includes your parents and grandparents, if you still have them (you might be one yourself; in which case, well done, you progressive grandparent).

Part of the problem concerning a proper understanding of trans issues within the mainstream is the relative recency of these debates in the larger public space and the variety of scenarios that the label can refer to, each with their own nuance. This is pretty well summed up in the Wiki entry for “Transgender“:

Transgender people have a gender identity or gender expression that differs from the sex that they were assigned at birth.[1][2][3] Some transgender people who desire medical assistance to transition from one sex to another identify as transsexual.[4][5] Transgender, often shortened as trans, is also an umbrella term; in addition to including people whose gender identity is the opposite of their assigned sex (trans men and trans women), it may also include people who are non-binary or genderqueer.[2][6][7] Other definitions of transgender also include people who belong to a third gender, or else conceptualize transgender people as a third gender.[8][9] The term transgender may be defined very broadly to include cross-dressers.[10]

Being transgender is distinct from sexual orientation.[11] Transgender people may identify as heterosexual, homosexual, bisexualasexual, or may decline to label their sexual orientation. The term transgender is also distinguished from intersex, a term that describes people born with physical sex characteristics “that do not fit typical binary notions of male or female bodies”.[12] The opposite of transgender is cisgender, which describes persons whose gender identity matches their assigned sex.[13]

The degree to which individuals feel genuine, authentic, and comfortable within their external appearance and accept their genuine identity has been called transgender congruence.[14] Many transgender people experience gender dysphoria, and some seek medical treatments such as hormone replacement therapysex reassignment surgery, or psychotherapy.[15] Not all transgender people desire these treatments, and some cannot undergo them for financial or medical reasons.[15][16]

This covers a heck of a lot of ground.

Dawkins hasn’t caught up with the social and moral transformation, or simply just disagrees. Either way, he also suffers from a Trumpian Twitter Trigger Finger.

Much of the millennial or atheist liberal contingent has moved to the left, or, more accurately, to the individualist quadrant of social moral acceptance, but, with the help of social media, can be quite reactive.

Dawkins gets trigger-happy on Twitter and says controversial things, people react and it backfires. Dawkins then does this again. And again. Dawkins could be forgiven verbal clumsiness if this hadn’t been apparently such a recurring theme.

Some people love him for it (those who agree with him) and some people really don’t (those who disagree).

My thoughts on Dawkins

My opinion about trans issues are: “it’s complicated, but probably needn’t be as much as it apparently is”. I am socially very liberal and broadly think in individualistic, classically liberal terms – people should be free to be who they want to be if this has no moral implications on others. It’s that last phrase that catches people because they think trans issues (or homosexuality, or any other such “debate”) really do morally affect society at large, or something or other.

Now, there are some interesting philosophical debates to be had for sure, as can be seen in slightly less nuanced ways in the TERF wars concerning JK Rowling, for example. Trans-Exclusionary Radical Feminists (NB – this is pretty much a pejorative term) illustrate a dissonance between some transgender and feminist philosophies. If gender is purely a social construct, then how can one feel a certain gender from a physiological and biological point of view? Some feminists view trans people as upholding the social construction of the gender binary. If you feel you are a woman or a man, with this basis in biology, physiology and resultant psychology, then you are in some sense refuting the gender-binary-as-social-construct position.

Be warned because TERF can now be used as a catchall term, since, let’s face it, Rowling is hardly a radical feminist herself. Feminists who ascribe to a TERF position tend to call themselves “gender critical”, so I will use that from now on (GCFs – gender critical feminists, until this becomes problematic!).

This is a good overview of the history and philosophy of the debate. For further philosophical depth concerning gender philosophy, GCF and other feminist philosophies, there is this SEP article.

Dawkins, whether we or he likes it or not, has become the default standard bearer for atheism, most probably as a result of the cultural and economic success of The God Delusion (an important book that did help me to get into the whole scene). I am neither a huge fan or disliker of Dawkins. But, as a public proponent of atheism, we do share some properties. Where I might be a bit “meh” about Dawkins in general, if he is attacked, there is an intuitively reflexive, defensive stance that I take, before realising this and overcoming intuition with reason. Being so used to religious zealots attacking Dawkins, and so often previously defending him in these contexts, it is odd when it “comes from within”. There is cognitive dissonance, and I recognise this in me.

3lemenope puts it well:

The complaint about Dawkins is not that he’s a bigot; almost nobody believes him to be. It’s that he’s so clumsy about many topics that he seems to routinely trip into the position of giving one sort of ‮elohssa‬ or other respectability and cover. He’s not good at it. And he doesn’t seem to care overmuch that he ends up in this situation, again and again. If you have to explain why even if it sounds like it an awful lot, you’re really not a bigot, double-pinky swear, maybe reassess how you’re communicating your intentions, and yet he never does.

But I am not so interested in the trans issue today. Sorry if you thought this was going to be a big article on that. I am interested in the AHA’s decision to revoke a 1996 award to Dawkins – the Humanist of the Year. I don’t even know what it is Dawkins specifically wrote, or has written in the past. I’ll leave that can of worms for another day, perhaps.

The AHA

Due to Dawkins’ predilection for Twitter controversy, he has garnered a growing number of liberals in the community who oppose him. Importantly, this also includes liberals who are not in the atheist community. There are many modern liberals who don’t really identify first and foremost as atheists. They are atheists (or apatheists), but God and religion just isn’t on their radar – something that many of us actually hope for. Sometimes, to these people, Dawkins is already seen as an unnecessarily “militant” atheist. And, of course, there are many conservative atheists. This might be useful context.

Organisations like the AHA (the American Humanist Association) are political. The advancement of humanism in America necessarily involves political positioning and activity. Appealing to society to adopt a nonreligious stance is a moral endeavour. And these arguments over trans issues are deeply moral philosophical debates.

In other words, one way or the other, the AHA must take a stance. How they do this, however, is also a moral question.

In political terms, the AHA will want to tread carefully; that is, they will want to take a position, but not offend too many people – not lose too many people. On whichever side of the fence they sit with this hot potato, they lose. But it’s almost certainly not a case of deciding their moral stance on trans issues as a calculation of the fewest number of people they will annoy.

Therefore, it is hardly surprising that the AHA have sided with trans people and trans rights. Straight away, this will have the backs up of those otherwise liberal people (and conservatives too – let us not forget the not insignificant number of conservative atheists, depending on how you define conservative, of course) who have certain issues with the transgender community or its philosophy in general.

There are also those people who are really big on freedom of expression – that we should have the right to freely question ideas and argue about things – even if they are controversial – without fear of reprimand. The problem is that oftentimes such freedom of speech advocates aren’t interested in discussing things in good faith – they have their opinions already and just want the freedom to express them, not really debate them. Freedom of speech is often code for freedom to be deliberately offensive. I am something of the sort of advocate for debating any and all things in a careful application of freedom of speech. The nature (art) of doing this, though, is doing it in good faith, without an ulterior motive. This is Dawkins’ downfall since it appears, at least from what I have seen other people say, that he was not asking questions in good faith, that he had his mind made up, and that he had ulterior motives.

I could be wrong, but that is how I read it.

Options

So the AHA disagree with Dawkins and his stance. The question is, is Dawkins’ stance and activity bad enough to warrant having his award taken back? This will almost certainly depend on your position of trans issues. If Dawkins had said things that were racially highly controversial, we could imagine there being far less pushback to the AHA’s decision. This reflects a lack of seriousness with which many people no doubt approach trans issues. It’s not (yet?) in the same league as civil rights across racial lines. Perhaps it never will be, and this could be simply a matter of numbers. (See my section “Multiplying Categories and Shrinking Membership” in “Equality of Opportunity, Homogeneity & Granularity“.) Perhaps it really is a different or less lofty category. But also, perhaps not. That’s, again, another good-faith debate to have.

But in taking the action they did, the AHA are saying that, yes, trans issues and rights are to be taken very seriously. We wouldn’t balk at doing this for racial controversy, and we won’t in this other civil rights context.

Thinking back to his award in 1996, perhaps Dawkins’ mind is in some temporal stasis, still stuck in the 80s or 90s, and some of his supporters think he should be treated like some legal systems treat historical offences – we should judge him on account of the prevailing contemporaneous beliefs. But though Dawkins, like all of us, is an amalgamation of all his past selves, he is saying what he says now, in the context of today, without (it appears) the propensity to take on new knowledge or ideas.

As some commenters in the previous piece suggested, maybe the AHA could have publicly reprimanded him – “We officially disagree with Dawkin’s position as the AHA, and ask him to consider the rights of those who are unlike him, going forward” or some such statement. I think this is a reasonable position, and probably more politically astute. Perhaps a veiled threat or warning. However, the AHA are obviously wanting to wear their moral heart of their sleeve, here.

C Peterson observed:

I’m certainly not saying he is above criticism. Only that we all have our faults, and in his case they may seem worse than they actually are because people have tried to elevate him into some kind of idol, who must be perfect. Nobody is.

His award in 1996 was well deserved, because in 1996 he was advancing humanism, and advancing anti-religion. If those things have now moved ahead, moved beyond where he is able to continue advancing them, well… that doesn’t diminish what he contributed back then. And if his emotional response to some classes of people sometimes dominates his intellectual response, I can accept that. Recognize his problems while not painting him as some kind of horrible person. (And I don’t overlook the reality that advanced age sometimes damages progressive thinking in people.)

Jo M declared, on the previous post:

I do wonder what exactly this will do besides Make a Statement. Its not like statements aren’t necessary sometimes, but seriously, did anyone here even remember he’d ever been given this award? I bet even people who were keeping up with him then have forgotten. They could’ve put out a statement affirming trans people and trans identities and saying “we can’t take it back but while he deserved that award back then we would not give it to him now”. I dunno. Maybe this just feels kind of like a pointless gesture. Especially since it seems nobody, literally nobody, was really…asking for it to be taken away either, unlike with the confederate statues?

And I think these get to the nub. I personally think a reprimand, a shot across the bow, would have sufficed, but the AHA are going further and “making a statement” in both senses of the term.

It all depends what the end goal is. If this is about Dawkins in isolation, then these statements above definitely hold, in my opinion; however, if this is about political positioning and a forward-looking moral stance, then the AHA took a bold move that may seem unpopular to many “Dawkins white knights”, but could well be prima facie more morally appropriate and have greater cultural and moral longevity and legacy.

This isn’t about Dawkins as much as it is about political moral positioning, and that is both understandable and no doubt welcomed by the trans community.

And don’t worry, one of my next pieces is about cancel culture.

Again.

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