Adam Lee has written the latest misleading Guardian article about Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, and the atheist movement. It is titled: “Richard Dawkins has lost it: ignorant sexism gives atheists a bad name.”
Jerry Coyne has reviewed the article on Why Evolution is True, and has analysed how it fits in with ongoing personalised attacks on Richard, Sam and others.
Adam’s article comes less than two months after a similar Guardian article by Eleanor Robinson. She had tweeted the previous evening that she won’t rest until Richard’s descriptor in news material is “erstwhile scientist and widely reviled sockfucker”.
I have admired Adam’s writing for many years, although I disagree with him strongly on this issue. Adam has said that critics of his article have not been specific about where it is inaccurate, so I will address that question here.
The article is phrased to generate prejudice in readers
You can tell a lot about an article by how the writer conveys that someone has spoken. In this article, Adam quotes several people. Some of them ‘told’ him things, or ‘explained’ things. That sounds quite reasonable and objective.
- [Ophelia Benson] told me…
- Greta Christina told me…
- PZ Myers told me…
- As [Amy Roth] told me this week…
- Many female atheists have explained that…
While Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris seemed more melodramatic:
- [Dawkins] has been busy snarling about…
- Sam Harris crammed his foot in his mouth and said…
- Dawkins is accusing… roaring… scoffing…
- [Dawkins] essentially argued that…
- There was also [Dawkins]’ sneer at…
So who seems the most reasonable and reliable? The many people neutrally telling the writer things or explaining things? Or the two people snarling, accusing, roaring, scoffing, arguing, sneering and cramming their foot in their mouth? Surely it will be the first group! Let’s see.
The writer sets the scene inaccurately
Adam starts by setting the scene:
“The atheist movement – a loosely-knit community of conference-goers, advocacy organizations, writers and activists – has been wracked by infighting the last few years over its persistent gender imbalance and the causes of it.”
This is simply not true. The atheist movement is global. Most of the atheist movement around the world is not involved in this mostly American infighting, and many activists are either unaware of it or think it is a distraction of focus.
I think it is important, or I would not be devoting so much time to it against the advice of many friends and colleagues, but as a reality check to those who are absorbed by it, it is simply not the case that the atheist movement has been wracked by it.
“Many female atheists have explained that they don’t get more involved because of the casual sexism endemic to the movement: parts of it see nothing problematic about hosting conferences with all-male speakers or having all-male leadership –”
So which conferences have all-male speakers? Which groups have all-male leadership? I don’t know of any, but they may well exist. If they do exist, how do they compare with conferences with male and female speakers, or groups with male and female leadership? Unfortunately, the article does not say. It creates an impression and does not substantiate it.
“– and that’s before you get to the vitriolic and dangerous sexual harassment, online and off, that’s designed to intimidate women into silence.”
This is a legitimate point. Sexism and sexual harassment is a problem for any group within society, including the atheist movement. So is any behaviour intended to intimidate into silence people of any gender who are expressing ideas and not defaming other people.
I believe that we should identify the extent of these problems, tackle the problems robustly and sensitively, and make our groups as welcoming as possible for anybody who wants to help us to promote a more rational, compassionate and secular world.
Adam’s snarling, roaring, scoffing, sneering Richard Dawkins
Having thus inaccurately set the scene, the article focuses mainly on Richard Dawkins as the personification of this unsubstantiated and unquantified problem.
The analysis is something of a self-fulfilling prophecy, based on an observable pattern that I have previously written about. Some people place the most uncharitable meaning they can on a comment by Richard, or else exaggerate it out of proportion to reasonable debate, and continue to do so even after he clarifies what he meant.
Then, instead of correcting these false allegations, some people either ignore the clarification or else blame Richard further for allowing himself and/or atheism to be misrepresented. These misrepresentations eventually leak into the mainstream media, forming a loop of self-confirmations of inaccuracies.
Here are some examples from Adam’s article. One paragraph starts, without linking to any source in an article with many other links, by saying that:
“On Twitter these last few days, Dawkins has reverted to his old, sexist ways and then some. He’s been very busy snarling about how feminists are shrill harridans who just want an excuse to take offence.”
That’s a good way to prejudice readers about whatever you are going to say next, despite providing no evidence of Richard snarling about feminists being shrill harridans. The paragraph then refers to comments about thought police, click-bait for profit and fake outrage, which are not issues about sexism or feminism. The paragraph concludes with this statement:
“For good measure, Dawkins argued that rape victims shouldn’t be considered trustworthy if they were drinking.”
This assertion linked to a tweet in which Richard had written: “If you want to drive, don’t get drunk. If you want to be in a position to testify & jail a man, don’t get drunk.”
Firstly note that Adam has rephrased ‘don’t get drunk’ into ‘if they were drinking’. And that’s not the most significant misrepresentation.
It would be easy for the casual reader to place an uncharitable interpretation on this, particularly as we have just been told that it was written by someone who was very busy snarling about feminists being shrill harridans. But Richard has also written in related tweets:
- “Don’t EVER rape anyone, drunk or sober. But also, don’t accuse anyone of a crime if you can’t remember what happened (& no other evidence).”
- “In my tweets I explicitly stated that I was considering the hypothetical case of a woman who testified that she couldn’t remember.”
- “Obviously some drunk people remember well what happened. I was talking about a limited case where a witness admits she can’t remember.”
- (to a woman who was raped while drunk) “Yes, I believe you. Why would I not? Unlike the hypothetical case of my tweets, you have clear & convincing memories.”
So, in context, what Richard is saying (as well as ‘Don’t EVER rape anyone, drunk or sober’) is that the testimony of someone who cannot remember what has happened, and where there is no other evidence, is not trustworthy. That is clearly a self-evident fact.
It is inaccurate to describe this as Richard saying that rape victims who have been drinking shouldn’t be considered trustworthy, particularly when combined with the related tweets and the unsubstantiated smear about Richard being busy snarling about shrill harridans.
The article also says:
“Dawkins’s very public hostility toward the people who emphasise the importance of diversity, who want to make the community broader and more welcoming, and who oppose sexual harassment and sexist language, is harming the cause he himself claims to care about.”
That’s also misleading. I and my colleagues in Atheist Ireland are among the people who emphasise the importance of diversity, who want to make the community broader and more welcoming, and who oppose sexual harassment and sexist language. And Richard is not hostile to us.
So if Richard is hostile to some other people who share the above beliefs, it must be because of an additional reason. Perhaps that additional reason might be linked to the pattern of some people, some of whom also promote the above beliefs, unjustly publishing increasingly irrational and hostile personal smears about him?
These smears range from implicit to explicit claims that he is Islamophobic, racist, bigoted, sexist, misogynistic and an apologist for pedophilia. These personal smears are inaccurate, unjust, unkind and hurtful.
Sometimes critics also describe him as being white, male, heterosexual, old and/or wealthy, instead of focusing their argument on whatever actual disagreement that they have with him. This article nods in that direction, by saying:
“If the atheist movement is going to thrive and make a difference in our society, it needs to grow beyond its largely older, largely male, largely white roots.”
This is a parochial attitude. The atheist movement is global. In most parts of the world, its roots are not white. I believe it needs to be more diverse within individual societies, but the article refers to ‘our’ society as if the atheist movement is a mostly American movement.
Adam’s Sam Harris cramming his foot in his mouth
The article says of Sam Harris:
“Then another prominent male atheist, Sam Harris, crammed his foot in his mouth and said that atheist activism lacks an “estrogen vibe” and was “to some degree intrinsically male”. And, just like that, the brief Dawkins Spring was over.”
Again, this is misleading. There is loaded language to prejudice the reader against the coming quote, flavoured by comically dismissive imagery, then selective extracts from an off-the-cuff remark by Sam, without reference to the subsequent considered clarification of those remarks.
It follows part of the same pattern that has been used repeatedly against Richard, where some people place the most uncharitable meaning they can on a comment, or else exaggerate it out of proportion to reasonable debate, and continue to do so even after he clarifies what he meant.
Sam’s response on his blog clarified that:
“My work is often perceived (I believe unfairly) as unpleasantly critical, angry, divisive, etc. The work of other vocal atheists (male and female) has a similar reputation. I believe that in general, men are more attracted to this style of communication than women are. Which is not to say there aren’t millions of acerbic women out there, and many for whom Hitchens at his most cutting was a favorite source of entertainment. But just as we can say that men are generally taller than women, without denying that some women are taller than most men, there are psychological differences between men and women which, considered in the aggregate, might explain why “angry atheism” attracts more of the former. Some of these differences are innate; some are surely the product of culture. Nothing in my remarks was meant to suggest that women can’t think as critically as men or that they are more likely to be taken in by bad ideas. Again, I was talking about a fondness for a perceived style of religion bashing with which I and other vocal atheists are often associated.”
Sam’s response also included the following points, which some of his detractors seem to have ignored:
- I am well aware that sexism and misogyny are problems in our society.
- I tend to look at the ethics of force from a woman’s point of view. Violence is different for women than it is for men.
- It is far more common for a woman to be attacked, physically controlled, and sexually assaulted by a man.
- Any time a woman comes away from an encounter with a man saying that he gave her the creeps, I trust her. This is not mere chivalry on my part: It is a judgment based on an understanding of human nature.
My criticism of Islam—for which I have been vilified by many of the same people who are now attacking me over my remarks about gender—is largely inspired by my concern for women.
Now, you can legitimately disagree with Sam’s analysis of these issues (which you can read by following the above link), but it is simply untrue to imply that he is sexist on the basis of the original off-the-cuff answer to a question in an interview about a book on a different topic.
The people who told Adam things instead of snarling and roaring
In contrast to his analysis of Richard and Sam, who he characterises as snarling, accusing, roaring, scoffing, arguing, sneering and cramming their foot in their mouth, Adam writes more neutrally about four people who merely ‘said’ things to him.
He starts with Ophelia Benson.
“I’m surprised and, frankly, shocked by Richard’s belligerent remarks about feminist bloggers over the past couple of days,” she told me. “Part of what made The God Delusion so popular was, surely, its indignant bluntness about religion. It was a best-seller; does that mean he ‘faked’ his outrage?”
On the face of it, a reasonable question. But when Richard wrote about outrage in The God Delusion, he was responding to things like the Vatican police, in the nineteenth century, kidnapping Jewish children who had been secretly baptised by Catholic nursemaids. By contrast, when some people have recently expressed ‘outrage’ against Richard, it has been mostly about tweets on Twitter.
Grania Spingies, co-founder of Atheist Ireland, is one of the many atheist women around the world whose views are not reflected in Adam’s article. Grania wrote yesterday about this argument:
“I am disgusted by the behavior of those who claim to be promoting feminism by feverishly poring over sentence fragments to see if they can be parsed into meaning something that fits their narrative of suspicion. How any of them think they are actually improving anything for women by trying to convert the arena of ideas and debate into a safe room for infants is beyond me.”
Adam also quotes Greta Christina, PZ Myers and Amy Roth.
Greta Christina told me, “I can’t tell you how many women, people of color, other marginalized people I’ve talked with who’ve told me, ‘I’m an atheist, but I don’t want anything to do with organized atheism if these guys are the leaders.’”
I don’t doubt that this is true. But it is intensified by the pattern of people repeating the uncharitable interpretations of things Richard and Sam have said, instead of correcting them. Also, organised atheism has no formal ‘leaders’. You can start your own atheist group, and lead it to do whatever you feel is most constructive.
It’s not just women who are outraged by Dawkins these days: author and blogger PZ Myers told me, “At a time when our movement needs to expand its reach, it’s a tragedy that our most eminent spokesman has so enthusiastically expressed such a regressive attitude.”
Adam does not elaborate on which regressive attitude PZ is attributing to Richard, but we can guess it is broadly the same as the rest of the article suggests. As an aside, it is nice to see PZ refer to Richard as ‘our most eminent spokesperson.’ It fits better into the Guardian than PZ’s recent blog statement that Richard has been been eaten by brain parasites and is grossly dishonest.
Speaking out against hate directed against anyone
Amy Roth’s contribution is, in my opinion, the most legitimate of the arguments made in this article. Adam wrote:
The artist Amy Roth, who recently debuted an exhibit in which she literally wallpapered a room with the misogynist messages that she and other feminists have received, finds the systemic sexism incredibly frustrating. As she told me this week: “The men and women in this community have a right to speak up about it, and if the best argument you have against us is that we are the ‘thought police’ or we are writing for ‘clickbait’ or that the weight of our words is equivalent to an actual ‘witch hunt’, then perhaps it’s time to retire to your study and calmly reevaluate the actual topics at hand.”
I have previously contributed to a series that Amy compiled of posts about speaking out against hate against women.
I believe that we should not tolerate, in any of our online or offline communities, any sexual harassment or abuse or threats of violence against women that we would not tolerate if they were directed against our family or close friends. On the Internet, many women face a pattern of online sexual harassment, including rape threats, in the technology, business, entertainment, atheist, skeptical, pop culture, gaming and many other online communities.
This can cause some women to feel hurt and frightened, to hide their female identity online, or to retreat altogether from the Internet. And this can in turn affect other aspects of their lives. Our online identities and networking are increasingly important to our social lives and careers. And our friends and employers may see this hate speech when searching online about us.
However, Amy is conflating two things here, when she describes Richard’s comments about thought police and click-bait arguments, as if they were arguments against standing up to misogynistic hate speech. They were not. Richard has often spoken out against hate speech, most recently in his joint statement with Ophelia:
“It’s not news that allies can’t always agree on everything. People who rely on reason rather than dogma to think about the world are bound to disagree about some things.
Disagreement is inevitable, but bullying and harassment are not. If we want secularism and atheism to gain respect, we have to be able to disagree with each other without trying to destroy each other. In other words we have to be able to manage disagreement ethically, like reasonable adults, as opposed to brawling like enraged children who need a nap. It should go without saying, but this means no death threats, rape threats, attacks on people’s appearance, age, race, sex, size, haircut; no photoshopping people into demeaning images, no vulgar epithets.
Richard adds: I’m told that some people think I tacitly endorse such things even if I don’t indulge in them. Needless to say, I’m horrified by that suggestion. Any person who tries to intimidate members of our community with threats or harassment is in no way my ally and is only weakening the atheist movement by silencing its voices and driving away support.”
Tackling sexism is a complex problem, with no magic answers, as is tackling the problem of hate speech and defamation directed against anybody. We should rigorously analyse the extent of these problems in our communities, both online and offline, and we should test and refine the best ways to eradicate them. But we must not deny that the problems exist, or reinforce them with prejudice and discrimination. Instead we should actively work to create inclusive, safe and supportive communities, in which we can live together as equals, regardless of our race, gender, sexuality or ability levels.
Adam’s article is yet another misleading Guardian article about Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, and the atheist movement. Adam has said that critics of his article have not been specific about where it is inaccurate. I hope that I have addressed that here.
I have admired Adam’s writing for many years, although I disagree with him strongly on this issue. One of Adam’s best articles was a defence of Richard Dawkins against similar attacks, from outside the atheist community, in 2012. It was titled: ‘Shocking Newsflash: Infamous Atheist Wears Mismatched Socks!’
Adam’s 2012 article concluded:
As my opening paragraph showed in satirised form, Dawkins’ enemies are trying to exaggerate the importance of meaningless facts to get a foothold they can use to attack him, and by extension the entire atheist movement. The very fact that they’re grasping at these fragments of straw shows how little purchase they’ve really gotten. What they’re really upset about, obviously, is that the atheist message Dawkins and others so ably advocate is finding so many receptive listeners. But if they can’t face us and answer our arguments in the arena of reason, all the phony, drummed-up pseudoscandals in the world aren’t going to slow that momentum.
Back then, Adam was defending Richard against arguments which were about more trivial topics than some of those central to the latest article. They included how many Christians can name the first book of the New Testament versus whether Richard could name the full title of Origin of Species, and whether Richard should be ashamed, because one of his ancestors from the year 1744 owned slaves.
So the topics are different, but some of the tactics being used to attack Richard are the same. Substitute ‘misrepresented tweets’ for ‘meaningless facts’ and you can read Adam’s 2012 summary in the context of the current article. That is of course an oversimplification, as is almost everything that anybody can or does write about this increasingly complex tangle of issues.
In recent years good people, including friends who I respect, who have expressed different opinions about these issues, have been victims of unfair personal attacks, based on distortions of what they have said or written or represent.
This escalating hostility hurts people and makes them feel alienated or ostracised or fearful. It makes it harder for us to work together where we agree, and to discuss things reasonably where we disagree. We can and we must reverse this hostility, starting by tackling issues not attacking people.
As atheist activists we should focus on the core issues that unite us, where we have literally endless work to do promoting reason and secularism in society. And as ethical atheists, we should work together to make our communities inclusive and caring and supportive. This includes combatting discrimination and harassment.
There is a great deal of patient, hard, sometimes dangerous work being done to protect atheists and promote secularism in the developing world, with its often overt theocracies, and to protect and advance secularism in the developed world, which is typically more democratic.
There are also many excellent authors and broadcasters and bloggers and lawyers and foundations promoting a better understanding of science and secularism, of the dangers posed to people and societies by faith and dogma, and of the need for compassion, empathy, fairness, justice, equality and respect for people while robustly criticising ideas and beliefs.
The world is gradually becoming less religious and more secular, as evidenced by the work of the World Values Survey, a team of interdisciplinary social scientists who survey and analyse human values. Atheist and secular groups and authors both reflect and advance that trend. We must continue to do so.