Fortunately, The Thought Police Have No Badges

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.

10 thoughts on “Fortunately, The Thought Police Have No Badges

  1. Abort the Downs Syndrome children? How Spartan of you, yet
    I agree with you and Dawkins.

  2. Agree. There is an unfortunate tendency “these days” (maybe its always existed… I’m pretty young so who knows) to treat all contrary opinions as heresy. Isn’t it enough to disagree with someone without thinking they’re the worst person in the world?

    I have a column in my local community paper on a lower circulation day. I try to tackle tough subjects but there are lots I just won’t touch because (side gigs aside) I have to work to live and I know there are many people who just wouldn’t use my legal services if I slayed one of their sacred cows or mildly offended their sensitivities. Dawkins is lucky to have the financial freedom to tell his haters to stuff it.

  3. “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.”

    True. It’s worth repeating. The thing is, the only response to the bullying is to ignore it. Heck, sometimes it’s me demanding someone be shut up. We should all be ignored when we demand that. It’s a human thing to want to shout someone off the stage, particularly if they have the power to harm you, or have done so in the past, but it should never be policy, or enabled by policy (looking at you, evil Google).

    • That’s an important point. These days you’ll rarely if ever catch me saying that anyone should be shut up, unless it’s for something like overt threats or cut-and-dried libel, but I do occasionally wish that some opinion I disagree with intensely could just be silenced. If I give in to temptation and demand that someone be gagged or shouted down, I’ll certainly deserve to be ignored, as you say.

  4. I agree with you completely. I’m often dismayed at the way some people within the atheist/humanist community react to Dawkins and Harris in particular. The topics are often ones that need more conversation, but there’s a reactionary segment of our community that actually tries to shut down debate and impose a particular viewpoint. Great article.

    • Thanks! I find the Harris haters a little easier to understand than the Dawkins haters, because it seems to me that Sam Harris does have a tendency to take positions that are both harsh and simplistic, but “more conversation” is definitely a better response than just yelling in outrage.

      • Yes. Sam Harris never talks in sound bites – his positions are often complicated and very nuanced so it’s easy to not understand him too. He says things that are, like you say, “harsh and simplistic”, but often that’s not really what he means. Also, when he says things like he can understand why someone would resort to torture in certain situations, doesn’t mean he’s promoting or endorsing torture. His position is more complicated than that, but people like Greenwald choose not to understand. (Personally, I think torture is never OK, but I too can understand why some might resort to it in some situations.) Again as you say, the better response is more discussion.

        Dawkins, otoh, seems to have a group who are constantly on the look-out for him to say anything that can be deliberately misinterpreted. I know it sounds bitchy, but I find them a bit pathetic.

        • I find Dawkins to be a bit of a troll. But, he has always been this. Atheist people just didn’t mind it so much when he was trolling religious people. Now the situation is more complex, with more fault lines, but the man has not really changed.

          Harris might want to talk more deeply, and he deserves credit for that… but he is often out of his depth, in my opinion.

          His positions on racial profiling, postmodernism, philosophy and torture.. to name a few, are not nuanced. They are at best, cynically hedged. And I feel I am being generous here. His: but I didn’t mean THAT routine, either shows him to be a Polyanna or as bad as Dawkins, when Dawkins is being bad.

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