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.)

Ellie Foreman-Peck for New Statesman
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How Rome's new mayor Virginia Raggi is leading a normality revolution

The first female Roman mayor has promised an end to posturing public figures.

The Ottavia area of Rome, on the northern periphery of the Italian capital, is a part of the city that tourists rarely visit. In a sense, this is the real Rome, with problems that are typical of the rot that most residents have to put up with every day. It is a jumble of decaying concrete eyesores from the 1950s and 1960s – the legacy of rapid economic development and Mafia corruption – surrounded by parks where drug deals go down, and piles of refuse that sit uncollected for days.

It was here that the young mother of a newborn baby – who after her marriage had resettled in the area from the middle-class Roman neighbourhood where she was raised – started to become interested in politics. Seven years later, Virginia Raggi has been elected as Rome’s first female mayor and, having just turned 38, its youngest mayor ever. She is a symbol of change in Italy after two years of rule by Prime Minister Matteo Renzi, another young leader, which have left millions of Italians disenchanted. Her rise is a sign that the anti-establishment Five Star Movement, led by the comedian Beppe Grillo, may be coming of age after years as a protest vehicle.

Raggi not only won the run-off on 19 June but did so by the biggest margin in the history of Roman mayoral elections, trouncing the candidate whom Renzi supported by a ratio of 67:33.

Her story begins far from the glamour of the Capitoline Hill, on the dreary streets of Ottavia, where she pushed her baby boy, Matteo, in his pram and was forced to weave in and out of traffic, walk along “non-existent” footpaths where cars were double- or triple-parked, and negotiate the perils of abandoned municipal parks. “Rage at seeing my splendid city reduced to an undignified state” is what pushed her into politics, she writes on her website. It was a path that led to her unlikely victory as mayor of Rome (a post equal in importance in Italy to the mayor of London in the UK and a launchpad for campaigns to become prime minister).

Raggi, who was a lawyer before she became a politician, grew up largely indifferent to politics. When she became a parent, she joined neighbourhood committees and volunteer groups and started to press for sustainable organic farming and decent public transport. In 2011, disillusioned by the centre left after years of voting for Renzi’s Democratic Party (she comes from a family of progressive intellectuals), Raggi joined the Five Star Movement, having been dragged to its meetings by her husband, a radio technician.

Her rise was rapid. She ran in 2013 as a Five Star candidate for Rome’s 48-member city council and picked up one of the movement’s three seats (she received 1,525 votes; her husband also ran but failed to make it on to the council, with only 132 votes). When the former Rome mayor Ignazio Marino, an ally of Renzi, resigned after an expenses scandal, Raggi – already the Five Star Movement’s spokesperson for Rome – stepped forward as a candidate in the party’s primaries.

She defeated four rivals in the online balloting in February. It is a startling tale in an age of unlikely political narratives, reflecting a global pandemic of dissatisfaction with mainstream politics. Italy’s Panorama magazine described her election, perhaps with a touch of hyperbole, as “a cultural revolution without precedent”.

There is a paradox at the heart of the upheaval that Raggi has caused. In Italy’s sordid and grimly entertaining political landscape – with its tales of the former premier Silvio Berlusconi’s “bunga bunga” parties, as well as Grillo’s clownish antics – the most surprising thing about the new mayor is that she seems normal. Raggi calls her campaign the “revolution of normality” – refreshing, perhaps, for Italians tired of posturing public figures. Inevitably the subject of Italian chatter for her fetching looks, Raggi comes across, above all, as serious, low-key, articulate and compassionate. She is selling policy over persona.

There have been shadows over her ascent. Her Rome law firm has past associations with Berlusconi’s long-time right-hand man Cesare Previti – a convicted criminal – and Raggi launched her legal career as an apprentice in Previti’s office. She has vehemently denounced whispers that she may be a double agent for Berlusconi’s centre-right party, Forza Italia.

Graver doubts arise from concerns that she may turn out to be a pawn of her anti-establishment party’s own establishment, in the form of Grillo. And because of the city’s Gordian knot of vested interests, being the mayor of Rome is in many ways a tougher job than being the prime minister of Italy. It has been a poisoned chalice for many an ambitious leader.

Yet the truth is that, even for Italians, Raggi remains a mystery – and that opens up intriguing possibilities. She may turn out to be a blank canvas on to which Romans, of both the left and the right, can project their hopes and frustrations. If she succeeds in steering her own course, however, she could position herself as a viable alternative to Renzi. Recent opinion polls indicate that the Five Star Movement may have edged past his Democrats and become Italy’s most popular party, with about 28 per cent of the nation’s support.

It is worth considering that Renzi rose to national prominence as the mayor of Florence – a city whose political significance pales in comparison with that of Rome – and went on to become prime minister. Could Raggi do the same?

This article first appeared in the 28 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Summer Double Issue