Why did the New York City Skeptics and New England Skeptical Society withdraw their invitation to Richard Dawkins to speak at their NorthEast Conference on Science and Skepticism? Steven Novella says the reason “was ultimately about the character of NECSS and the statement we wish to make (or not make) to our community.”
But as well as their intended statement, they have also made an unintended statement about their character. That is: “You cannot trust us to honour our commitments. We and you may have agreed that you will speak at our event, and have publicised that. However, we might unilaterally, selectively and arbitrarily renege on our agreement, and publicise that without even telling you, based on our subjective opinion of what you write on Twitter.”
This is the fourth recent controversy involving activists having speaking invitations withdrawn. Warwick University Students Union and Trinity College Dublin both withdrew invitations to Maryam Namazie, citing fears of incitement to hatred of Muslims. And Saint Dominic’s College in Dublin withdrew an invitation to me, citing fears that my talk would undermine its Catholic ethos.
After being asked to reconsider, each of these three institutions reinstated the invitations, with Warwick Students Union publicly apologising to Maryam. All three talks have since gone ahead successfully. I hope this article will help to persuade NECSS to follow the example of these other bodies, and revisit their decision based on the skepticism that they promote.
The responsibilities of making an agreement
I agree with most of this assessment by Steven Novella:
“The issue here is not free speech. People have a right to speech, but they don’t have a right to access a private venue for their speech. In fact, whom we invite or uninvite to our conference is the primary mechanism of our free speech. Obviously where one sets the threshold for not inviting, or uninviting, a guest is subjective and there is room for reasonable disagreement here.”
However, I make a major distinction between a decision to invite someone, and a decision to ‘uninvite’ someone. Nobody would have had any problem if NECSS had decided not to invite Richard. But once you invite somebody, and they agree, then ethically you have entered into an agreement. And here, ‘uninvite’ is a euphemism for unilaterally breaking that agreement.
Of course, in any agreement, one party may behave so unpredictably outrageously as to warrant the other party unilaterally breaking the agreement. The question is, has this happened here? I suggest that such reasons do not exist here, and that NECSS acted hastily, disproportionately, and (as Steven Novella has since acknowledged) without full information about the issue.
Steven has clarified that the five person NECSS Committee that made the decisions, and who in the first instance I am hoping will reconsider that decision, is composed of Michael Feldman, Jamy Ian Swiss and Benny Pollak of the New York City Skeptics, and Steven Novella and Jay Novella of the New England Skeptical Society.
The decisions and their announcements
On 21 January NECSS tweeted:
“Registration is now open! See @RichardDawkins @richardwiseman @SkepticsGuide @CaraSantaMaria & more this May! http://www.necss.org.”
On 28 January NECSS published the following statement:
“The Northeast Conference on Science & Skepticism has withdrawn its invitation to Richard Dawkins to participate at NECSS 2016. 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.”
I agree that almost everything in this is true. The part I don’t agree is true is the phrase “Dr. Dawkins’ approving re-tweet.” It would be more accurate to say it was a qualified retweet, with the qualification being that he himself is a feminist and he says that obviously the video message does not apply to the vast majority of feminists.
However, I do not believe that it follows from the content of the NECSS statement being true, that it was correct to withdraw the invitation to Richard to speak.
Divisive, counterproductive, and even hateful?
Using the NECSS criteria, the video that Richard retweeted is certainly divisive (ironically, so is the decision to withdraw the speaking invitation). Whether it is counterproductive depends on what its aim is. But neither of these should be reasons to unilaterally break an already-publicised agreement with a speaker.
I suggest that, to bring the retweet into a range of behaviour that would justify NECSS breaking their agreement, they would have to be relying on the third of their criteria: that Richard is in some way culpable of promoting hateful speech.
Promoting hateful speech is quite an allegation to make, and one that should not be made casually. I have seen no evidence that Richard has ever promoted hateful speech, and considerable evidence that he actively opposes it.
What will happen if NECSS apply their stated criteria to their other invited speakers? What tweets and other public comments do the current speakers have to avoid between now and May? What will happen if NECSS retrospectively checks things they have already said?
This year’s conference host Jamy Ian Swiss is on the Committee that uninvited Richard. I don’t know how he voted on the decision. But in 2013 he retweeted a video on Twitter with the commentary:
“Russell Brand casually reduces TV anchors to the useless, talentless, brainless, purposeless fools they truly are. https://youtu.be/lY43fycbNPA”
In the retweeted video, comedian Russell Brand describes the NBC newsroom as a hotbed of neuroses and psychoses, and he says to a woman host who is holding a water bottle: “What do you think that gesture means, the way you’re touching that bottle? What’s the subtext of that? Lose that ring, because it don’t mean nothing to you. She’s grasping for the shaft. She’s a shaft grasper.”
I could continue in this vein, and even more pointedly, with regard to some previous speakers at NECSS. And I hope that I don’t have to clarify that I am not suggesting that any other speakers should be ‘uninvited.’ Policing the Twitter feeds and other public comments of invited speakers is not the best way to prepare for a conference. You invite somebody knowing who they are and what they stand for. Unless they change significantly from that, you should honour your agreement.
Decision made in haste without complete information
On 30 January Steven Novella published his personal analysis of the decision. This is not the official reason given by the organisation, and Steven acknowledges that it does not reflect the views of the (either one or two out of five) committee members who did not agree with the decision. But it gives us the views of those who wanted to ‘uninvite’ Richard.
It is clear from Steven’s analysis that NECSS made its decision in haste and without full information.
“Dawkins retweeted a video…This, of course, set off another round of controversy over Dawkins’ social media activity and the attitudes they reflect… Since we had just opened registration this created an urgency, because we did not want to “bait and switch” our attendees if we would ultimately decide to reverse our decision to have him at the conference. We felt it was important to make a decision quickly.
To his credit, Dawkins removed his tweet in which he linked to the video. He did this prior to learning about our decision. Likewise, we made and executed our decision prior to learning that Dawkins deleted the tweet. I don’t know if this would have changed our decision. On the one hand removing the tweet is recognition that it was a mistake in the first place. On the other hand, it shows he is willing to admit error and make changes.”
Richard made the following response to being ‘uninvited’:
“I woke up this morning to see a public announcement that my invitation to speak at NECSS 2016 had been withdrawn by the executive committee. I do not write this out of concern about my appearance or non-appearance at NECSS, but I wish there had been a friendly conversation before such unilateral action was taken. It is possible I could have allayed the committee members’ concerns, or, if not, at least we could have talked through their objections to my tweet. If our community is about anything it is that reasoned discussion is the best way to work through disagreements.
I might mention that, before receiving any word from NECSS, I had already deleted the tweet to which they objected. I did it purely because I was told that the video referenced a real woman, who had been threatened on earlier occasions because of YouTube videos in which she appeared to her disadvantage. I have no knowledge of the authenticity of the alleged death and rape threats. But to delete my tweet seemed the safest and most humane course of action. I have always condemned violence and threats of violence, for example in this tweet, which I also posted the day before the NECSS decision: ‘PLEASE PLEASE PLEASE don’t EVER threaten anyone with violence. We should be free to use comedy/ridicule without fear it may inspire violence.’
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.”
Steven acknowledged this response from Richard, praised him for his polite and collegial response to their move to uninvite him from NECSS, and for deleting the tweet for the right reasons, and wrote:
“Dawkins himself also raises the point that another option would have been to privately express our concerns to him. This was actually discussed as an option, as were other options. We were faced with a complex set of trade-offs and in the end did what we felt was best for attendees of our conference. But again this is an entirely fair point.”
I agree with Steven that this is a fair criticism of the decision. However, there are ethical consequences to Steven acknowledging that it is a fair criticism. If this criticism is fair, then NECSS should park their decision, discuss the issue with Richard, and then revisit their decision based on the outcome of that discussion.
What criteria do NECSS use for initial invites?
I agree with Steven’s assessment that:
“In inviting Richard Dawkins, we decided that we would be having a brilliant science communicator communicate about science. We felt we could do this without endorsing his controversial statements and positions on social media.”
I also agree with Steven that the following is a fair criticism of the decision to ‘uninvite’ him:
“First, many have pointed out that if we had such reservations about Dawkins we should not have invited him in the first place. This is a fair point. I only have an explanation (given above) not an excuse. Sometimes the decision-making process fails. But keep in mind hindsight is 20-20 and it is easy to criticize from the sidelines.”
To be clear, I disagree that ‘being a polarising figure’ is a good criteria for not inviting someone to a conference on science and skepticism. However, if NECSS believes that this criticism is fair, then they should not hide behind the tweet issue. They should simply say that they think they made a mistake in inviting Richard because they already thought that he was a polarising figure.
However, if that is the criteria they are actually using, behind the stated reason of the retweeted video, then they should publish guidelines so that current and potential speakers can be aware of the conditions for NECSS invitations being made and being honoured.
Also, they should recognise that speakers and attendees may have been unaware of these criteria, given that NECSS have in the past invited speakers who are polarising, and who are now publicly commenting on the ‘uninviting’ in ways that NECSS may find unnecessarily divisive, counterproductive or even hateful.
Former NECSS speaker PZ Myers on his blog, after NECSS ‘uninvited’ Richard:
“So while I can understand Novella’s efforts to be more diplomatic. I think the better response to Dawkins would have been a one-line post. GET THE FUCK AWAY FROM ME.”
This is the same PZ Myers who previously did not challenge his commenters when they said that Richard is a ‘racist misogynist piece of shit who thinks child molestation doesn’t count unless there’s rape or murder’, that ‘if he’s not actually a child molester he’s dangerously close to wearing the uniform of one’, and that ‘Dawkins and his rape cheerleaders can fuck a power socket’. But PZ did ban a commenter who defended Richard, telling him: “Goodbye. We don’t need your petty resistance to any dissent from the sacred position of your great heroes around here. Fuck off.”
Former NECSS speaker Rebecca Watson on Twitter, after NECSS ‘uninvited’ Richard:
“Well done @necss for taking a stand & dumping the toxic sludge that is Richard Dawkins! Your move, @center4inquiry”
For further context, Rebecca wrote on Skepchick, immediately after NECSS invited Richard:
“for the many years I performed at the Northeast Conference on Science and Skepticism (NECSS), which began as a live show on my former podcast, The Skeptics’ Guide to the Universe, the organizers could never quite convince Dawkins to attend. Well, I quit SGU and now NECSS has announced that the first conference they’ve planned since my exit will feature Richard Dawkins as the keynote. In conclusion, the skeptic/atheist sphere is an embarrassing shitshow and the organizations will continue polishing Richard Dawkins’ knob until he dies, at which point he will be sainted and his image will be put on candles and prayed to in times when logic is needed.”
If NECSS had no problems in the past inviting speakers who are as polarising as PZ and Rebecca, how could Richard have known that they would have such a problem with the idea of him being polarising? And again, to be clear, I disagree that ‘being a polarising figure’ is a good criteria for not inviting someone to a conference on science and skepticism.
Steven Novella’s conclusion
This my summary of Steven’s conclusion in his analysis of the NECSS decision. Please read his original post for the full version.
- The point 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.
- When Dawkins retweets a link to a video, even with a caveat, that has a tremendous impact. It lends legitimacy to the video and the ideas expressed in it.
- He could be a force that is helping unite our very small and critically important rationalist movement. Instead, I fear, he is helping to divide us, 140 characters at a time, and helping to lower the level of the discussion.
I disagree with Steven about the video and the discussion that surrounded it. I’ve written here about why I believe hate speech is bad, offensive satire about bad ideas is good, and Richard was right to retweet the video along with his caveat. I will address Steven’s conclusion in another post, in which I will also examine whether the facts bear out the opinion that some people casually suggest that Richard does not understand Twitter and how to use it. But I will make two quick points here.
Firstly, the phrase “as Dawkins later acknowledged” is misleading. It would be more accurate to say “as Dawkins was later told.” When he made the tweet, he was not aware that the animated character was based on a caricature of a real person who had previously been threatened, and when he was made aware of that he removed the tweet. Incidentally, nobody seems concerned that the Islamist character is also based on a caricature of a real person.
Secondly, the analysis: “When Dawkins retweets a link to a video, even with a caveat, that has a tremendous impact. It lends legitimacy to the video and the ideas expressed in it,” could just as easily be interpreted the other way around. You could also say “When Dawkins makes a caveat about a retweeted video, that has tremendous impact. It removes legitimacy from the video and the ideas expressed in it.” Perhaps it would be more constructive to interpret it that way.
There is a major difference between inviting a speaker, and ‘uninviting’ a speaker after publicising that they will be speaking. The first is taking a decision, the second is breaking an agreement. Several institutions have recently invited and ‘uninvited’ secular speakers, then reinstated the invitations after reconsidering. It is clear from Steven’s analysis that NECSS made this decision in haste and without full information. NECSS should park the decision, discuss the issue with Richard, and then revisit the decision based on the outcome of that discussion.