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.)

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Why Labour's tuition fees row could only be the start of a difficult summer

New appointees at CCHQ and Downing Street are keen to show that the Tories are back in business.

What is the row over Labour's tuition fee pledge really about, and does it matter? The party is under attack from its political opponents and parts of the press for Jeremy Corbyn's pre-election NME interview in which he said he'd “deal with” the issue of tuition fee debt.

The story has been given a fresh lease of life because Guido has got hold of a recording of a shadow minister, Imran Hussain, saying Labour would wipe out all student debt. The Evening Standard has splashed on it: “Corbyn caught out on students” is the headline.

Among the commentariat, certainty that a) Corbyn pledged to eradicate all fee debt and b) this was electorally significant seems to run in exact proportion with people who didn't think the Labour leader was surging before the election.

YouGov, who you'll recall did pick up on what was going on have found that just 17 per cent of 18-24s believed Corbyn's statement meant he'd wipe out all fee debt. More significantly, just 14 per cent of 25-41s, the cohort actually making tuition fee repayments right now, thought they were in line for a debt write-off. There is no partisan divide – Tory voters were actually slightly more likely than Labour ones to believe there was a write-off in the offing.

So does it matter? That much of the political class either pay tuition fees, would have paid tuition fees, or have children who will pay tuition fees is one reason why the issue receives outsized attention, and that matters.

As far as the politics goes: it's worth remembering that for all “tuition fees” became emblematic of the perceived failures of the Liberal Democrats in coalition, that party's ratings began to steadily decline pretty much the moment that Nick Clegg turned up in the Rose Garden with David Cameron. Other than among current students and their parents, the issue isn't a live one, even among fee-paying graduates. (Frankly, were I Labour, I'd rather my fees policy was on the front page of a London newspaper than I would my Brexit policy.)

There is a political reason why it matters. Today's newspapers are pretty thin and the next month looks like going the same way. (That the other big political story is Theresa May's £26 dress gives you an idea of the scale of the news drought.)

News is a lot like an ideal gas: it expands to fill the space available. That from the top of the party to the outer reaches of the frontbench, Labour expected to be involved in another leadership contest this summer means that not a great deal of thought has been put into what, exactly, they are going to fill the summer with. No one at the top of Labour has had a proper summer break since 2014.

On the other side, the new appointees at CCHQ and Downing Street are keen to show that the party is back in business. The opposition should brace themselves for a summer of difficult front pages.

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.