Sharing a lift with Richard Dawkins

The rationalist champion compares propositioning a woman with chewing gum.

There is considerable controversy in the blogosphere about Richard Dawkins and his apparent views on women. Dawkins, whose strident atheism undoubtedly puts off more people than it attracts, has long been a figure who has divided atheists and skeptics (the latter a general label for many who self-consciously promote critical thinking and an evidence-based approach).

The current controversy follows a video posted by the leading American skeptic campaigner and pundit, Rebecca Watson (known widely for her involvement with the excellent Skepchick site).

I know Rebecca slightly through the skeptical movement (I help run Westminster Skeptics) and although I often do not agree with her, this particular video was sensible and constructive. She simply discusses in a calm and reflective manner how uncomfortable she felt when a man propositioned her in a lift. As she later wrote:

I said, "Guys, don't do that." Really, that's what I said. I didn't call for an end to sex. I didn't accuse the man in my story of rape. I didn't say all men are monsters. I said, "Guys, don't do that."

Fair enough, one would think. There is no reason to believe that she placed any more import on what she said than that.

However, in an extraordinary and somewhat erratic comment by Richard Dawkins, he invokes this video in a message he would send to an imaginary Muslim woman complaining of misogyny:

Dear Muslima

Stop whining, will you. Yes, yes, I know you had your genitals mutilated with a razor blade, and . . . yawn . . . don't tell me yet again, I know you aren't allowed to drive a car, and you can't leave the house without a male relative, and your husband is allowed to beat you, and you'll be stoned to death if you commit adultery. But stop whining, will you. Think of the suffering your poor American sisters have to put up with.

Only this week I heard of one, she calls herself Skep"chick", and do you know what happened to her? A man in a hotel elevator invited her back to his room for coffee. I am not exaggerating. He really did. He invited her back to his room for coffee. Of course she said no, and of course he didn't lay a finger on her, but even so . . .

And you, Muslima, think you have misogyny to complain about! For goodness sake grow up, or at least grow a thicker skin.

Richard

One of many problems here is that Rebecca didn't use her video to downplay the plight of Muslim women from the perspective of an American woman. In fact, she made no connection at all. The connection seems only to have occurred in the mind of Richard Dawkins.

Was it even a fair point? Of course it was not. Just because there is severe misogyny in one context doesn't remove the need to deal rationally and helpfully with its lesser manifestation in other contexts.

When asked to explain his position by someone asking for clarification whether he had made the argument that, since worse things are happening somewhere else, we have no right to try to fix things closer to home, the response was as follows:

No I wasn't making that argument. Here's the argument I was making. The man in the elevator didn't physically touch her, didn't attempt to bar her way out of the elevator, didn't even use foul language at her. He spoke some words to her. Just words. She no doubt replied with words. That was that. Words. Only words, and apparently quite polite words at that.

If she felt his behaviour was creepy, that was her privilege, just as it was the Catholics' privilege to feel offended and hurt when PZ nailed the cracker. PZ didn't physically strike any Catholics. All he did was nail a wafer, and he was absolutely right to do so because the heightened value of the wafer was a fantasy in the minds of the offended Catholics. Similarly, Rebecca's feeling that the man's proposition was 'creepy' was her own interpretation of his behaviour, presumably not his. She was probably offended to about the same extent as I am offended if a man gets into an elevator with me chewing gum. But he does me no physical damage and I simply grin and bear it until either I or he gets out of the elevator. It would be different if he physically attacked me.

Muslim women suffer physically from misogyny, their lives are substantially damaged by religiously inspired misogyny. Not just words, real deeds, painful, physical deeds, physical privations, legally sanctioned demeanings. The equivalent would be if PZ had nailed not a cracker but a Catholic.

Then they'd have had good reason to complain.

Richard

Explanations often can make things worse, and so it did in this case. As Phil Plait correctly states, there is no natural meaning to this other than the fact that Dawkins is comparing the discomfort of a woman propositioned in a lift with him sharing a lift with a man chewing gum.

This is all strange stuff indeed from a man professing to be a promoter of rational thinking. He is making connections which do not exist and positing analogies which do not make any sense. From a person with his supposed intellectual reputation, this is surely a disgrace. This is more what one would expect from Richard Littlejohn than Richard Dawkins.

But it seems part of a possible trend. Those who merely pose as rationalists and promoters of liberal values are being found out. The philosopher AC Grayling has founded a sham college, supported by Dawkins, which is nothing more than a glorified tutorial agency for rich students unable to get places elsewhere. The progressive journalist Johann Hari has apologised for an irregular interview technique, about which questions still remain.

But it is not a bad thing for those who promote rational and liberal values to be held to them. There is virtue in consistency. Is Richard Dawkins a sexist? In my opinion, he certainly seems to be, on the basis of this evidence. To compare the discomfort of a women being propositioned in a lift with his aesthetic displeasure of another man chewing gum is actually difficult to construe in any other way.

Can Richard Dawkins still credibly pose as a champion of rational thinking and an evidence-based approach? In my opinion, he certainly cannot, at least not in the way he did before.

The principle of the "survival of the fittest" applies in respect of intellectual reputations as it can elsewhere, and what now happens to the intellectual reputation of Richard Dawkins may be an example of the principle in practice.

 

David Allen Green is legal correspondent of the New Statesman. You can follow him on Twitter and on Facebook.

David Allen Green is legal correspondent of the New Statesman and author of the Jack of Kent blog.

His legal journalism has included popularising the Simon Singh libel case and discrediting the Julian Assange myths about his extradition case.  His uncovering of the Nightjack email hack by the Times was described as "masterly analysis" by Lord Justice Leveson.

David is also a solicitor and was successful in the "Twitterjoketrial" appeal at the High Court.

(Nothing on this blog constitutes legal advice.)

Photo: Martin Whitfield
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Labour MP for East Lothian Martin Whitfield: "I started an argument and ended up winning an election"

The former primary school teacher still misses home. 

Two months ago, Martin Whitfield was a primary school teacher in Prestonpans, a small town along the coast from Edinburgh. Then he got into an argument. It was a Saturday morning shortly after the snap election had been called, and he and other members of the local Labour party began discussing a rumour that the candidate would be an outsider.

“I started an argument that this was ridiculous, we couldn’t have a candidate helicoptered in,” he recalls. He pointed out that one of the main issues with the Scottish National Party incumbent, the economist and journalist George Kerevan, was that he was seen as an outsider.

“I kept arguing for an hour and a half and people started gently moving away,” he jokes. “About two days later I was still going on, and I thought enough’s enough.” 

He called Iain Gray, the Scottish Labour veteran, who interrupted him. “He said, 'Right Martin, are you going to put up or shut up?’ So I filled in the forms.

"Then I had to have a very interesting conversation with my wife.”

One successful election campaign later, he is sitting in the airy, glass-roofed atrium of Westminster’s Portcullis House. Whitfield has silver hair, glasses, and wears a Labour-red tie with his shirt. He looks every bit the approachable primary school teacher, and sometimes he forgets he isn’t anymore. 

I ask how the school reacted to his election bid, and he begins “I have”, and then corrects himself: “There is a primary four class I had the pleasure to teach.” The children wanted to know everything from where parliament was, to his views on education and independence. He took unpaid leave to campaign. 

“Actually not teaching the children was the hardest thing,” he recalls. “During the campaign I kept bumping into them when I was door-knocking.”

Whitfield was born in Newcastle, in 1965, to Labour-supporting parents. “My entire youth was spent with people who were socialists.”

His father was involved in the Theatre Workshop, founded by the left-wing director Joan Littlewood. “We were part of a community which supported each other and found value in that support in art and in theatre,” he says. “That is hugely important to me.” 

He trained as a lawyer, but grew disillusioned with the profession and retrained as a teacher instead. He and his wife eventually settled in Prestonpans, where they started a family and he “fought like mad” to work at the local school. She works as the marketing manager for the local theatre.

He believes he won his seat – one of the first to be touted as a possible Labour win – thanks to a combination of his local profile, the party’s position on independence and its manifesto, which “played brilliantly everywhere we discussed it”. 

It offered hope, he says: “As far as my doorstep discussion in East Lothian went, some people were for and against Jeremy Corbyn, some people were for and against Kezia Dugdale, but I didn’t find anyone who was against the manifesto.”

Whitfield’s new job will mean long commutes on the East Coast line, but he considers representing the constituency a “massive, massive honour”. When I ask him about East Lothian, he can’t stop talking.

“MPs do tend to say ‘my constituency’s a microcosm’, but it really is Scotland in miniature. We have a fishing industry, crabs and lobsters, the agricultural areas – the agricultural soil is second to none.” The area was also historically home to heavy industry. 

After his first week in Westminster, Whitfield caught the train back to Scotland. “That bit when I got back into East Lothian was lovely moment,” he says. “I was home.”

Julia Rampen is the digital news editor of the New Statesman (previously editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog). She has also been deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines. 

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