Richard Dawkins recently, and reasonably, retweeted a funny animated video of a song called ‘Feminists Love Islamists’ by YouTube satirist Sye Ten Atheist, about using ideology to silence criticism. In response, the New York City Skeptics and the New England Skeptical Society effectively proved the underlying point that Richard was highlighting, by publicly withdrawing their invitation for Richard to speak at their upcoming Northeast Conference on Science and Skepticism. They did this unilaterally, without discussing the matter with Richard.
The song, like all effective satire, is controversial. It uses stereotypes to convey extreme versions of ideas that in reality fall on a spectrum. Most reasonable people understand how satire works, and most atheists and skeptics are able to recognise the formula when they watch satirical video songs by Tom Lehrer, Randy Newman, Tim Robbins, Lily Allen, Sarah Silverman, Tim Minchin, Roy Zimmerman or Paul Woodfull.
Some atheists and skeptics, however, are treating this song differently. It satirises the uncomfortable fact that some Islamists and some feminists sometimes use similar language methods to try to close down criticism of their ideologies. For those unfamiliar with satire, Richard pointed out in his tweet that this did not represent all feminists, of whom he said he is one, but only the views of a pernicious minority.
I believe Richard was right to retweet the video. Offensive satire about bad ideas is good. But even if you believe he was wrong, the response by the conference organisers is disproportionate. Their stated reason is harmful: retweeting material that — in their subjective opinion — is “unnecessarily divisive, counterproductive, and even hateful speech” will result in a unilateral withdrawal of an already-publicised invitation to address a conference.
Why offensive satire about bad ideas is good
I have written and co-written satirical comedy. The Dear John Letters relied on the actual words of people being satirised in prank correspondence. The comedy musical play I Keano exaggerated personal attributes of real people for comic effect. Both projects were very successful with the Irish public, because most people in Ireland seem to understand how satire works. That does not seem to be the case with some people on the Internet.
I hope that I don’t have to elaborate on why hate speech about people is bad. I have consistently promoted ethical secularism based on compassion, empathy, cooperation, reciprocity, fairness, justice and human rights. But I do want to elaborate on why offensive satire of bad ideas is good. We all believe some bad ideas, or passively accept some bad ideas without reflecting on them, and satire can be one way of breaking through such thought processes.
One of the keys to enjoying good satire is to recognise that it is playing on stereotypes, and that it is not suggesting that everybody in the stereotyped group thinks that way. Instead, it is highlighting the harmful impact of certain ideas associated with the stereotype, and empowering people from within the group to distance themselves from those harmful ideas.
Here are some examples of good satirical songs. They work if you recognise the formula, but not if you mistakenly think they are actually characterising everybody in the groups concerned. Indeed, some people have actually criticised some of these songs for that reason. These people either do not understand or do not respect the role of satire in positively reshaping culture.
Tom Lehrer – National Brotherhood Week
“Oh the white folks hate the black folks,
and the black folks hate the white folks,
To hate all but the right folks,
Is an old established rule…
Oh, the Protestants hate the Catholics,
And the Catholics hate the Protestants,
And the Hindus hate the Moslems,
And everybody hates the Jews…”
Randy Newman – Rednecks
“We talk real funny down here,
We drink too much and we laugh too loud,
We’re too dumb to make it in no Northern town,
And we’re keepin’ the niggers down…
We’re rednecks, we’re rednecks,
We don’t know our ass from a hole in the ground
We’re rednecks, we’re rednecks,
We’re keepin’ the niggers down…”
Randy Newman – Political Science
“We give them money, but are they grateful?
No they’re spiteful, and they’re hateful.
They don’t respect us, so let’s surprise them,
We’ll drop the big one and pulverize them.
Asia’s crowded and Europe’s too old,
Africa is far too hot and Canada’s too cold,
And South America stole our name,
Let’s drop the big one,
There’ll be no one left to blame us…”
Tim Robbins as Bob Roberts – Complain
“Some people will work. Some simply will not.
But they’ll complain and complain and complain
and complain and complain.
It’s society’s fault I don’t have a job,
It’s society’s fault I am a slob,
I have potential no one can see,
Give me welfare, let me be me…
I don’t have a house, I don’t have a car,
I spend all my money getting’ drunk in a bar,
I wanna be rich, I don’t have a brain,
Just give me a handout while I complain…”
Lily Allen – Hard Out Here
“It’s hard, It’s hard out here for a bitch…
If you’re not a size six, then you’re not good looking,
Well, you better be rich, or be real good at cooking,
You should probably lose some weight
cause we can’t see your bones,
You should probably fix your face
or you’ll end up on your own…”
Sarah Silverman – The Porn Song
“Your vagina has so many penises in it,
That you might as well talk about
The times there are none in it,
Because those are the times that are more unique…”
Tim Minchin – The Good Book
“Swing your daughter by the hand,
But if she gets raped by a man,
And refuses then to marry him,
Stone her to death!”
Roy Zimmerman – Let’s Go After the Buddhists
“They’re a threat to our standard of living,
And the cheap supply of oil,
I say let’s rout their sorry asses out,
Before they soil our American soil…
Oh, let’s go after the Buddhists
Let’s knock some shaven heads
Those humanistic, non-materialistic,
Paul Woodfull – Spit at the Brits
“We spit at the Brits, we spit at the Brits,
And we shower them in a lovely sea of green,
We spit at the Brits, we spit at the Brits,
And then they blew us all to smithereens…”
What does this particular video satirise?
This video satirises the uncomfortable fact that some Islamists and some feminists sometimes use similar language methods to try to close down criticism of their ideologies.
It compares the impact of ideas like ‘haram’ and ‘problematic’, ‘triggering’ and ‘unQuranic’, ‘Islamophobia’ and ‘misogyny’, and blaming the Jewish media and the patriarchy. This is a valid area to explore. These ideas mean a lot to some Islamists and some feminists respectively, but to other Muslims and feminists, never mind to people outside of those communities, the way that these words are used can seem not only silencing but literally ridiculous.
It also addresses Muhammad’s sex with a nine-year-old girl, the idea of cultural appropriation as applied to sexual morality, and different attitudes to rape when the perpetrator is Muslim. This is a very controversial area to explore, particularly given the recent sexual assaults on women in Germany and other parts of Europe, but satire has its place in our response to these horrific developments.
The video addresses these issues in a crude way. It is offensive to some people who have deeply held views on these issues. But that is part of the nature of satire. Ideas should always be open to robust debate, including ridicule. You have rights, your beliefs do not. That is why we can have campaigns against blasphemy laws, while also opposing incitement to hatred against people.
The response of the conference organisers
Here is the official reason given by the New York City Skeptics and the New England Skeptical Society for withdrawing the invitation to Richard:
We have taken this action in response to Dr. Dawkins’ approving re-tweet of a highly offensive video. We believe strongly in freedom of speech and freedom to express unpopular, and even offensive, views. However, unnecessarily divisive, counterproductive, and even hateful speech runs contrary to our mission and the environment we wish to foster at NECSS. The sentiments expressed in the video do not represent the values of NECSS or its sponsoring organizations.
Let’s look at the stated reasons. This video, like all effective satire, is certainly divisive. Whether it is counterproductive depends on what your aim is. But neither of these should be reasons to withdraw an already-publicised invitation to a speaker to address a conference.
The big leap that the conference organisers are making is to imply that Richard is in some way culpable of promoting hate speech, to an extent that he should be unilaterally and publicly disinvited from speaking at their conference.
There are indeed some prominent atheists, such as the shock-blogger PZ Myers, who explicitly engage in hate speech, by naming specific people and groups of people who they hate, despise and hold in contempt. Ironically but predictably, PZ is among those praising the New York City Skeptics and the New England Skeptical Society for withdrawing Richard’s invitation.
That Richard was not promoting hate speech is evident from his response to later developments about the video.
Caricatures in the video
As well as the content, there is another aspect to the video that Richard, like I suspect most people who watched the video, did not know. That is, the characters in the video seem to be caricatures of two real people. Sye Ten Atheist has also caricatured other real people in other videos.
In this video, the Islamist character seems to be a caricature of Imran Ibn Mansur, who posts videos on YouTube as Dawah Man. He has previously argued that atheist morality is flawed because atheists are unwilling to drink their father’s sperm.
The feminist character seems to be a caricature of Chanty Binx or ‘Big Red’, who came to prominence in a YouTube video in which she was shouting at supporters of men’s rights. Some people made Richard aware of her existence as a real person.
The ethics of caricaturing real people in satire is complex. How prominent are they? Are they actively promoting their own views, or have they been passively thrust into public glare? Are their views being accurately represented in the satire? What are the possible or likely real-life consequences for the people being caricatured?
In this case, when Richard was told that some people had been harassing and threatening violence against this woman in real life, he deleted his retweet of the video, saying that it was wrong of anybody to threaten violence against anybody and asking them to stop.
That is the opposite reaction to that of a person promoting hate speech. The New York City Skeptics and the New England Skeptical Society are wrong about Richard, and are playing into a now-established tradition of some people demonising Richard by misinterpreting ideas that he publishes on Twitter.