Dawkins And NECSS: An Update And Some Thoughts

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to disinvite Dawkins, noting that there is “room for reasonable disagreement” about when an invitation should be withdrawn.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.

17 thoughts on “Dawkins And NECSS: An Update And Some Thoughts

  1. Very well said indeed!

  2. Keep in mind, this is just the latest volley in the feminist flame war which has been raging online since elevator-gate. It’s people who should know better, poking at each other over differences in ideology. I don’t think either side deserves props for politeness, because to me it comes across as just a tactic, used to show who is more rational. Dawkins trolls feminists with the retweet, so the feminists noplatform him at a conference where they have some pull. Pettiness all around. Just shows that affluent atheist/skeptic people are just as tribal and prone to turf wars as any other group.

    We should be better, but we’re not.

    • @Joe

      I don’t think either side deserves props for politeness, because to me it comes across as just a tactic, used to show who is more rational. Dawkins trolls feminists with the retweet, so the feminists noplatform him at a conference where they have some pull.

      While I can’t read Dawkins’ mind, I don’t see any reason to suspect he was just “trolling” by retweeting the video. He probably initially thought the video was amusing and made a good point, albeit in over-the-top fashion, and deserved to be disseminated for that reason. Similarly, I don’t see any reason to doubt that the decision to disinvite Dawkins was motivated by some combination of sincere disapproval from the conference organisers and sincere concern that allowing his presentation to go ahead would get NECSS into trouble with the social justice crowd.

      Anyway, if I were going to analyse the episode as a tactical clash between two ideological camps, I’d still say that retweeting a silly video is a much more acceptable tactic than no-platforming someone. I’d also still give “props” to both Dawkins and Novella for being reasonably polite about the whole thing. Even if the politeness is purely tactical (and again, I don’t see any reason to think that – some people are just polite by nature, habit and preference), it’s still more pleasant than a high-vitriol shouting match.

  3. You know, if you really want to wax rhetorical about what happened, it might be a good idea to start by getting your facts in order.

    For example:

    > 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.

    No, he didn’t. Not even close.

    When Dawkins learned that the character in the video was based on a real person who had been getting death threats, he said he was going to take the video down… *then* went and looked that person up. (Actual quote: “Somebody told me who she was. I was about to delete my original tweet. Then I looked up the Toronto vid…”) And then, presumably, concluded that she deserved the harassment she was getting, so he not only left the video up, he *also* posted the original video of the woman to justify leaving it up.

    And *THEN* he called her mentally ill. (Actual quote: “Perhaps mentally ill, to be charitable.”)

    *THEN* he started entertaining the idea that she might be faking the claims of being harassed and threatened. (Actual quote: “Maybe I’m naive. Can’t believe anyone’s as nasty as her. Nor that anyone would threaten her. Nor that anyone’d lie about being threatened.”)

    And only *THEN*, after getting blasted over and over for his ignorance, did he finally decide to take it down. All while, of course, continuing to encourage people to “mock” the woman who has been getting non-stop threats and harassment for months. (Even in his “apology” while taking it down, he continued to insinuate she’s faking the harassment.)

    So if your post was honest, that sentence would actually say something like: “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 said she had it coming, called her mentally ill, shared speculation that she was faking the threats, and finally deleted the tweet after public pressure became too great.”

    Gentleman and scholar to the core.

    I thought we were supposed to mock ideas, not people. Where do all your high-handed principles go when it’s not you or your heroes being harassed, but rather people you don’t agree with or worship?

    • I think the criticism of Big Red revolves around her behaviour and complete lack of ideas.

      She and her group are on video being verbally abusive and cheering a fire alarm, not to mention how she seemingly has to READ basic feminist talking points, and comes off as a spoiled brat hipster.

      Not deserving of threats, but you play the game, you’re in the game. Dawkins has received worse mockery, with higher production values. He’s hardly one to shrink from that sort of thing. So why would he think twice about it. And Big Red is still mouthing off on tumblr the last time I checked.

      I’ve always been a don’t feed the trolls kind of guy, so I don’t have much sympathy for people who go looking for fights.

      • > I think the criticism of Big Red revolves around her behaviour and complete lack of ideas.

        I must have missed that nuance in the punchline about being raped by Islamists.

        Look, I have no interest in defending that woman – I don’t know her, I don’t know what else she’s done, I don’t think she’d be the least bit appreciative of me standing up for her, and I have no illusions that she would ever lift a finger to stand up for me if I ever needed it. She’s a grown woman, and one that chose a career as an activist, so she is not my concern.

        None of this has anything to do with her. Pointing fingers at her and what she’s done is a red herring. It’s irrelevant. What’s at issue here is *DAWKINS’S* behaviour, not hers. It doesn’t matter what she’s done or whether she “deserves” what she’s getting (she doesn’t). What matters is what we should think about DAWKINS and what he did.

        So let’s look at what he did. He posted a video that equates feminism – or at the very least, “some feminists” – with Islamists.

        I see you here – and many others – describing this as “criticism”. Really? *THIS* is what you think “criticism” looks like? So, if I wanted to criticize Trudeau’s government for signing the TPP, I should make a cartoon of him and his ministers dancing with Nazis and raping orphans? You think that if I were to make a video of Trudeau singing about how much he’d love to see Boko Haram swarm into Canada and murder everyone, that that would be a legitimate “criticism” of his foreign policies?

        Dude, no. Just no. Don’t insult my intelligence. And don’t insult yours by trying to pretend that video is meaningful criticism on any level. It doesn’t need to be; freedom of expression means it’s perfectly okay to make and post that video even though it’s vile, ignorant, and about at the same level of discourse as Godwinning. It doesn’t need to be high art or insightful criticism – even utter trash is covered by the protections of free expression.

        That, also, is a red herring. This is not about freedom of expression. Of course Dawkins has a right to post that video. And of course he should face no legal or official sanction for doing it.

        But NECSS has the right to decide they only want to feature speakers who contribute positively to skepticism/atheism/freethought – those who elevate the level of discussion. And they have the right to decide *NOT* to feature speakers who don’t – they have the right to pass on speakers who make the conversation dumber.

        So let’s look at what Dawkins posted, and consider whether or not it elevates the discussion, or makes it dumber. What do you think? Do you think “Feminists Love Islamists” is a thought-provoking, insightful parody that accurately represents the absurdities in its subjects and brings up interesting points of discussion? Or is it just playground-level name-calling, aimed at merely insulting feminism (or “some feminists”, if you prefer) by making specious comparisons to the very thing they would hate worst to be compared to? Do you think that any real feminists *actually* give Islam a free pass to rape (and to rape children!!!)? If not, what legitimate critical point do you think that is supposed to make? And what legitimate critical point do you think “we’re a whiny little pair of spastics” is supposed to make?

        And let’s be absolutely clear: While I keep giving away this “some feminists” free pass to make the video a little less horrifying, at no point in the entire video is there *any* hint that this is just about *some* feminists. If you want to argue that it’s *supposed* to just be about “some feminists” while agreeing that feminism in general is a good thing, why can’t you also say that it’s only about “some Islamists” and that Islamism as a whole is a good thing?

        I can’t see any sane argument to the conclusion that the video does NOT elevate the discussion. It quite clearly pulls it further down into the sewer.

        Which is no crime. I’m not saying this video should be banned, or that anyone who made it or shares it should be punished. Obviously I don’t think much of it, but I’m a firm believer in that canard about disapproving what you say but defending to the death your right to say it. But again, this is not an issue of freedom of expression.

        I think you agree with me that the level of discourse in contemporary movement atheism can sometimes be… well, puerile. I hope you agree with me that it should be better. And I can’t see any rational argument to saying that if we want to make the level of discourse better, a good place to start is by featuring those who raise it, and not shining a spotlight on those who lower it.

        So with all that in mind, what exactly is wrong with NECSS’s decision? They want a higher level of discourse. They obviously hoped Dawkins would bring it. Dawkins has pretty clearly demonstrated by this action he doesn’t/can’t/won’t/whatever. So NECSS gave his spot to someone else who will. Where’s the problem?

        Why so upset over the fact that Dawkins got disinvited? He was given a privilege – a platform to speak from – then demonstrated quite graphically that he doesn’t deserve that privilege. That privilege should go to someone who elevates the discourse. Dawkins is not doing that – which is fine, he has that right, it doesn’t make him an evil person. But it does make him the wrong person for a platform.

        And sure, maybe there are other platforms he still deserves. Maybe he’s still raising the level of discourse in biology. Maybe he’s still raising the level of discourse in other fields. But in contemporary movement atheism, he’s not cutting it. We have a serious problem integrating atheism with other social justice movements – like those battling racism, poverty, misogyny, etc…. we’re doing alright integrating anti-homophobia, but there are serious roadblocks to integrating those other things. And Dawkins could have been a bridge, but instead he’s chosen to make himself a speed bump. We’re not going to end the bickering between feminists and their opponents by posting videos like that one.

        I’d *like* to see him reflect on all this and decide to try and pull the level of discourse up. But if he doesn’t… well, fine, it’s his choice. It will be disappointing, but he has a right to make that choice to continue dragging the conversation sewerward. And we have a choice not to give him platforms to do it from, but to instead give those platforms to others that pull the level up.

        All this verbiage really boils down to 5 simple questions:

        * Do you think that the level of discourse in these areas is ideal?
        I’m going to asssume no, because you described it as a “flame war”, and referred to both sides as “trolls”.

        * Do you think Dawkins improved it?
        Note that there’s nothing in this question about whether “Big Red” “deserved” it. Doesn’t matter. Note also that there’s nothing there implying Dawkins had no right to post the video, or whether the video is “right” or “wrong”. None of that is relevant. Also not relevant is speculation about whether Dawkins *could* improve it. I don’t doubt that he could if he put his mind to it… at issue is not what he *could* do, it is what he *is* doing.

        * Do you think Dawkins “deserves” a speaking slot even if he’s not raising the level of discourse – in fact, even if he’s lowering it?

        * Do you think NECSS is wrong to decide to only give speaking slots to people who are raising the level of discourse?

        Assuming you answered “no” to all of these questions, the last question is… so what’s the problem?

        And if you answered “yes” to any, please explain.

        • (As an aside: I hadn’t bothered to read Novella’s post on the topic until after I wrote the above. I didn’t feel there was a need to: I knew what Novella was going to say, more or less, and I suspected he was going to try to couch it in such gentle terms that there would be little to nothing to gain from it except “can’t we all get along?”.

          But after reading what he wrote I was amused to find how well it echoed what I wrote. Not surprised; as I said, I knew what he was going to say, roughly. Personally, I thought it was blindingly obvious, and I’ve been baffled by the people who think NECSS did anything wrong.)

        • “I must have missed that nuance in the punchline about being raped by Islamists.”

          My guess is, this is a reference to ‘cultural relativism’, the kind some postmodern/progressive types use to excuse bad behaviour of minority cultures they don’t feel comfortable criticising because colonialism/oppression.Some atheists view Islam as an example of ‘real rape culture’, whereas feminists often consider that ‘racist’ and simplify it by blaming patriarchy and men, more generally. Oversimplifications all around.

          “What matters is what we should think about DAWKINS and what he did.”

          I’m guessing he found the video to be an exemplar of what he sees as ‘toxic feminism’.
          Big Red is a walking stereotype of the kind of feminism that a lot of people object to, as opposed to ‘women are equal’ feminism, which I think most atheists accept.
          Personally, I think the video was crass and over the top, but satire/parody often is.

          “Really? *THIS* is what you think “criticism” looks like?”

          I never said it was particularly good criticism. It hits all the standard points with regards to what is referred to as ‘tumbler feminism’.

          That is, feminism that is childish, self-centred and obnoxious. One could just as easily criticize MRAs in a similar way. And many do.

          Phrases like shit-lord, neck-beard and the more recent BernieBro come to mind.
          Its lowest common denominator stuff, but welcome to the internet.

          “So, if I wanted to criticize Trudeau’s government for signing the TPP, I should make a cartoon of him and his ministers dancing with Nazis and raping orphans?”

          No, you should offer rational criticism. But if you retweeted some offcolour/gallows humour, I wouldn’t hold it against you.
          There was a woman who recently got investigated, by the police no less, for tweeting #killallwhitemen. I consider that tweet childish, and she was an adult woman, and the diversity officer at a school in a the UK. Do I think she should probably rethink the level of discourse she is promoting? Yes. Do I think she should lose her job or go to jail? Of course not. Even the police investigation, of a hashtag, seems a bit much, to me.

          “It doesn’t need to be high art or insightful criticism – even utter trash is covered by the protections of free expression.”

          I merely categorized it as ‘criticism’, I never said I found it insightful.

          I don’t consider the following particularly insightful either, but lots of people, including myself, found it amusing.
          https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eaGgpGLxLQw
          Dawkins seemed perplexed, at the time, as to why atheists would like it.

          “But NECSS has the right to decide they only want to feature speakers who contribute positively to skepticism/atheism/freethought – those who elevate the level of discussion. And they have the right to decide *NOT* to feature speakers who don’t – they have the right to pass on speakers who make the conversation dumber.”

          I agree, and I said as much in the post I made earlier on this. I just don’t think disinviting someone over a ‘retweet’ is appropriate. I would love to see Dawkins and Novella on a panel discussing the value of criticism/parody/satire.

          The video Dawkins tweeted isn’t even particulary edgy. This season on south park, Mr Garrison raped ‘Donald Trump’, the president of Canada, to death.
          No metaphor. Literally. On Television.
          I was even a little shocked by that, but the episode in question was a hundred times better, content wise, than the video Dawkins tweeted.
          Sometimes humour/satire doesn’t work. Often its a matter of opinion.

          “Or is it just playground-level name-calling, aimed at merely insulting feminism (or “some feminists”, if you prefer) by making specious comparisons to the very thing they would hate worst to be compared to? Do you think that any real feminists *actually* give Islam a free pass to rape (and to rape children!!!)? If not, what legitimate critical point do you think that is supposed to make? And what legitimate critical point do you think “we’re a whiny little pair of spastics” is supposed to make?”

          Again, seems more directed at those who espouse a particularly cowardly ‘cultural relativism’. But from what I can tell, it seems to revolve around feminists who blame men for rape, and anti-theists and islam-haters who blame islam for rape/child marriage:

          Muhammad had a 9 year old, child bride, but we can’t judge that ‘because oppression of muslisms’, ‘cultural differences’?

          Ultimately, Twitter is a platform that isn’t really designed to elevate any discussion. Its a 140 character, sound bite, medium. I don’t think you can have any meaningful dicussion on twitter, so I don’t go looking for it there.

          “I think you agree with me that the level of discourse in contemporary movement atheism can sometimes be… well, puerile.”

          Feminists vs Libertarians
          Skeptics vs Atheists
          Scientists vs Philosophers
          Scientists vs Postmodernists
          Antitheists vs Accomodationalists
          Antitheists vs Agnostics vs Theists
          Secularists vs Secularistes

          There has always been a lowest common denominator at work, with strawmen and insults flying every which way.
          I criticized Dawkins ‘God Delusion’ when it came out, because it uses and abuses the word ‘delusion’, which actually has a specific meaning in psychology which Dawkins ignores in favour of having a good title that will sell books. Don’t even get me started on Lawrence Krauss…

          I have been involved with ‘the movement’ since 2006. The shitfest has alway had an ebb and flow.
          People say and do stupid things, others get offended, turf wars happen. Grudges live and die.
          I think NECSS was wrong to disinvite him, but I’d still attend their Conference.
          I don’t think Dawkins has anything interesting to say on feminism, but outside of basic atheism and biology, I’m also not disposed to give him any special attention.

          “I hope you agree with me that it should be better.”

          I am happy when it is. Sometimes the drama amuses me, but yes, its mostly annoying.
          But I have been called names by feminists, libertarians, objectivists, communists, anarchists and MRAs, to name a few.
          We even had a few author wars on CA when we first started. I offend people. I’m used to it.
          And I do like it when people push boundaries, because that forces people to assess just how much they support free expression.
          Its easy to claim it for yourself, but facing down something you despise on a viceral level, tests one’s actual resolve about freedom.

          “So with all that in mind, what exactly is wrong with NECSS’s decision?”
          I alway view this sort of thing as an opportunity for further discussion. The disinvite crushes that.
          Again, you can’t have a high level discussion on Twitter. Its not designed for that. You can, at a conference.

          “Why so upset over the fact that Dawkins got disinvited?”
          I wasn’t upset. I’m not even going to NECSS this year.
          To me, this seems like a tempest in a teapot.
          But I’m not a very ‘sensitive’ sort.

          “We’re not going to end the bickering between feminists and their opponents by posting videos like that one.”
          I agree. But the problem is there are fundamental ideological differences at play here. Videos like that, and Big Red herself, are symptoms of that.
          I’ve mostly gotten to the point where if ‘social justice’ comes up, I don’t bother, because people don’t really want to know what I think, just whose team I’m on.
          And I’m not a team player.

          * Do you think that the level of discourse in these areas is ideal?

          No.
          I find people tend to be more rational in person, though.
          The internet for all its wonderful connective ability, kills higher level discussion, and seems to promote zero sum games.

          * Do you think Dawkins improved it?

          I don’t think his intent was to improve it. I think he was trolling. He’s always been a provacateur. I have, for instance, always argued that his insistence that science implies atheism is needless and counterproductive.

          * Do you think Dawkins “deserves” a speaking slot even if he’s not raising the level of discourse – in fact, even if he’s lowering it?

          If he is speaking on biology, or his experiences promoting atheism/skepticism, I would give him a slot.
          I don’t think he has much of use to say on feminism.

          * Do you think NECSS is wrong to decide to only give speaking slots to people who are raising the level of discourse?

          NECSS can make any decisions on content they like.
          A retweet seems a trivial reason to disinvite him, but its not my decision.
          I don’t think NECSS has the power to raise the level of discourse on twitter, so I don’t think the Con and Twitter are in the same ballpark.
          I’m sure whoever replaces Dawkins will be interesting.

          Ultimately I don’t think the disinvite changes or solves anything. It’s a slap on the wrist, and a closed door.

        • Don’t insult my intelligence. And don’t insult yours by trying to pretend that video is meaningful criticism on any level.

          There’s a style of criticism that relies on humorous exaggeration for its effect. I’m not saying the video is a shining example of that genre, but yes, it’s perfectly meaningful. Islamists can be dogmatic and prone to positioning themselves as victims – and so can feminists! And feminists of the intersectional variety are sometimes very quick to downplay the unpleasant side of Islamism (and Islam itself). The video makes both points, albeit in clumsy and over-the-top fashion.

          If you want to argue that it’s *supposed* to just be about “some feminists” while agreeing that feminism in general is a good thing, why can’t you also say that it’s only about “some Islamists” and that Islamism as a whole is a good thing?

          I wouldn’t quite put it that way, but as a matter of fact some Islamists are a lot more reasonable and principled than others. I suspect the tendencies satirised in the video are a lot more widespread within Islamism than within feminism, but of course they’re not universal in either movement.

          But NECSS has the right to decide they only want to feature speakers who contribute positively to skepticism/atheism/freethought…

          To suggest that Dawkins doesn’t meet that criterion is ridiculous. Also, NECSS has the right to invite speakers by picking names at random from the phone book, or by consulting a medium. This isn’t about their rights, it’s about the quality of their decision-making.

          They want a higher level of discourse.

          The idea that hosting a speaker who retweeted something silly (or crude and offensive, if you want to characterise the video in those terms) on Twitter automatically lowers the level of discourse at a conference is peculiar to say the least. Discourse around any question of wide societal importance happens at multiple levels simultaneously, and there’s no rule that says an individual can’t participate in more than one level. Crude satire and shock-jockery might not be a level of discourse that appeals to you, but those things have their place. Daniel Dennett’s thoughtful and impeccably polite book Darwin’s Dangerous Idea played a part in loosening the stranglehold of Christianity on the Western world. So did jokes about priests and altar boys, and so did Piss Christ.

          We have a serious problem integrating atheism with other social justice movements…

          Other social justice movements? Atheism is rejection of belief in the gods. Period. If you want to join a social justice movement informed by atheism, knock yourself out, but you don’t get to blithely hijack the word itself. Considering the incredible volume of prissiness, self-righteousness, dogmatism, hypersensitivity, pointless melodrama and sheer mendacity that wafts over from the social justice camp these days, I’d sooner attempt to “integrate” my genitals with the business end of a sea lamprey.

    • So if your post was honest, that sentence would actually say…

      I appreciate the factual correction, but not the insinuation of dishonesty. I was relying on secondary sources, and I didn’t realise the discussion about the genuineness of the threats and so forth had happened before the video came down. I’ve added an update to the post to note that the additional discussion took place, but I don’t think it’s anywhere near as big an issue as you’re making it out to be. I don’t blame Dawkins for looking into the facts before taking down the video.

      I thought we were supposed to mock ideas, not people.

      I’ve never totally subscribed to that (can ideas really be cleanly separated from the people who hold them?), and in any case there’s also the question of whether we can reasonably mock behaviour. I think we sometimes can.

      Where do all your high-handed principles go when it’s not you or your heroes being harassed, but rather people you don’t agree with or worship?

      If you’re suggesting I “worship” Dawkins – well, no. I guess maybe I’d call him a minor hero, but I don’t usually think in those terms. I admire much of his work, share many of his attitudes and sensibilities, like the way he thinks and writes, disagree with him about some things, and agree with him about many others. I do think he stands head and shoulders above most of his recent detractors, and I hope he keeps tweeting (and retweeting) interesting and provocative things until they nail shut his coffin.

      More later – my laptop is about to die.

  4. NECSS is simply demonstrating its own irrelevance. If an event like NECSS, with Skepticism actually in the name, can’t condemn people like Big Red, who are aggressively rude to strangers, and who have almost nothing but dogma to back up their attacks, then it’s hardly worth having, isn’t it?

    • I don’t think NECSS’ decision to disinvite Richard Dawkins reflected any particular opinion about Chanty Binx (“Big Red”) and her behaviour. The organisers seem to have been more worried about the supposedly “hateful and divisive” nature of the video Dawkins retweeted and about the fact that Binx was “allegedly already the target of threats and harassment”.

      Also, I don’t think a sceptical organisation should be expected to condemn every rude purveyor of dogma who pops up on its radar screen, if only because some battles aren’t worth fighting, and Chanty Binx hardly strikes me as a prime target for that kind of thing. My knowledge of her is admittedly limited to a few videos I’ve seen of her arguing in public, but in those videos she doesn’t come across as particularly awful. The “Big Red” meme that’s grown up around her seems to have more to do with her appearance and demeanour than with her ideas, or even her level of rudeness (sure, she yells a lot in the videos, but so do some of her interlocutors). In particular, I don’t see any evidence that Binx has ever downplayed or tried to explain away the nastier side of Islam, so the way her image was used in the video Dawkins retweeted was rather unfair.

  5. 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.

    If your definition of free speech means you never face any consequences from disagreement, then I don’t know what you are talking about. It’s not free speech. Some people mock such ideas as ‘FREEZE PEACH.’ I was hoping they were wrong such people existed.

    More to the point: Dawkins is constantly being divisive. Rather than building up a coalition of skeptics, he attacks people. The NECSS wants to build up science communication. Inviting someone who is divisive is not how they see that working. They want non-feminists and feminists coming.

    Ps. I’m alarmed at how many seemingly ‘reasonable’ people will call this woman ‘Big Red.’ That is the name used by her harassers. It doesn’t matter how nice you are. If you use this name you lack credibility. I’m glad the author didn’t use it. But the commenters here did.

    • >>>people will call this woman ‘Big Red.’

      Freeze peaches haz consequenceses

    • If your definition of free speech means you never face any consequences from disagreement, then I don’t know what you are talking about. It’s not free speech. Some people mock such ideas as ‘FREEZE PEACH.’

      The mockery is misguided, not only because “freeze peach” is a terrible, clunky pun but also because the rush to impose “consequences” on people for saying or tweeting the “wrong” thing undermines the kind of honest, freewheeling discussion that facilitates progress towards resolving contentious issues or at least clarifying points of disagreement. I’m working on a post that makes this argument at much greater length – please stay tuned.

      More to the point: Dawkins is constantly being divisive. Rather than building up a coalition of skeptics, he attacks people.

      Sceptics, of all people, are going to have their share of disputes. If having an opinion about a contentious issue (feminism, say) and defending one’s views forcefully and creatively counts as “being divisive” and “attacking people”, then we’re all going to have to get awfully good at biting our tongues and either sweeping disagreements under the carpet or making our arguments in painfully anodyne language. I don’t think constantly telling red-blooded sceptics to pipe down and not be divisive is going to be a sensible coalition-building strategy – they’ll just get fed up and build their own coalition elsewhere. What we need to do is get better at disagreeing without flying off the handle and reaching for the consequences jar.

      EDITED TO ADD: Forgot to mention that I agree with you regarding the use of “Big Red” – it seems unwarranted and needlessly mean. On the other hand, I think it’s way over the top to suggest that anyone using the nickname lacks credibility, and to dismiss the people who use it habitually as “harassers”. Some of them are mocking and ridiculing her, rather than harassing her, and there’s an important difference between those two things.

      • With regards to “Big Red” as a descriptor:

        1) That is the name of the meme she inspired for better or worse. And if one wanted further info, that is an easy way to search for information. I suppose I could have used her real name, but given that she was doxxed, which I find distasteful and cowardly, her nom de guerre seemed expedient.

        2) I see nothing inherently offensive in the phrase. While certainly coined to mock her, its entirely descriptive, both of her appearance and attitude during the incident that sparked the whole thing.

        3) I see nothing wrong with mocking bad behaviour, especially when someone is completely unrepentant.

        4) I disagree that mockery=harassment. I think that is an important part of this issue, and since some people seem to believe they are equivalent I’m happy to refute that.

        5) I found the name amusing.

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