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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Despite its Brexit victory, the hate-addicted right rages on – but the left is silent

The Brexit victors aren’t addicted to independence. They’re addicted to hatred.

The weirdest thing about Brexit is how angry the victors are. You would expect the losers to be sore – but open any British newspaper and it’s as if getting what they wanted has rendered the winners yet more snappish. At any time, you can guarantee that the medium least likely to offer principled opposition to any assault on democracy is the British press. Even so, it’s astonishing to open a copy of the Daily Telegraph and find that a byline has become a mere technicality, a breakwater for the eye. Page after page, countless squads of identical bald clones drone on – all chorus, no counterpoint – ranting about the evils of a Europe, which, in theory, they are supposed to have vanquished.

What is the point of having so many writers when they all write the same article? It turns out that it wasn’t Europe they wanted to leave. It was contemporary Britain. They’re not addicted to independence. They’re addicted to hatred.

In the United States, television and newspaper reporters have understood that their president is out to get them. So they are fighting back, challenging him on his lies in a way that the BBC does not dare. Women, African Americans and Latinos have all staged impressive demonstrations to disrupt the idea that the current state of affairs in the US is either necessary or, more important, normal. Republican senators aiming to take away their voters’ rights to health care have been facing impassioned town-hall meetings. There is exhilarating satire on television.

But over here, the 48 per cent of people who feared a loveless future of cringing isolation, austerity and social backwardness have been largely content to take defeat on the chin, as though cowed by the fact that so many of the poorest among us don’t agree.

In Britain, the silence is eerie. We know from experience that it takes time for artists and film-makers to respond to sudden changes of temperature.

Margaret Thatcher was first elected in 1979, but it wasn’t until 1982 that we were enlightened by Alan Bleasdale’s Boys from the Blackstuff; My Beautiful Laundrette didn’t ­arrive until 1985; and it was 1987 before Caryl Churchill gave us Serious Money – a full eight years after Thatcher’s election.

All three works may enjoy an enduring power and authority denied to the collected speeches of Norman Tebbit. They define the era. But they all came too late to do anything more than raise morale. The damage had been done. You may feel that the musical of Billy Elliot nailed Thatcher’s government definitively, but it began to offer its insights 15 years after her resignation.

Politics in the West is in a mess because no one can answer the question of why Western labour should continue to enjoy its relative privileges when labour in the rest of the world can offer to do our work so much more cheaply. The standard answers from left and right are equally unconvincing and polluted by residual imperialist attitudes to race. Conservatives swing wildly. On some days, they behave as if they can continue to enjoy the free movement of capital while planning to forbid the free movement of labour. On others, they pretend that they still believe in the same market that failed so spectacularly ten years ago.

Neither position is coherent, and the mix of the two is crazy. But the left has done little better to explain how social justice can be advanced in the face of an international buffeting that has no care for workers’ rights.

In 2015, Ed Miliband, the then leader of the Labour Party, went into the general election without having decided whether he was or wasn’t going to defend the Keynesian public spending that had saved Britain from the corruption of the banks. The present leader of the Conservative Party, always marching fearlessly behind a thick cladding of popular prejudice, is implementing a European divorce against which she campaigned only a year ago. Small wonder that people have so little hope of Westminster.

Historically, we have always been taught that change comes from below. When people suffer intolerably, they overturn the cause of their suffering. Yet they still need representatives who can articulate their needs. Revulsion has to bubble up soon, but so do policies.

In our daily lives, we all meet people who are thoughtful, kind-hearted, efficient and serious. We encounter such people in medicine, in education, in law enforcement and in social care, and it is their generosity and foresight that make life worth living. Yet Theresa May is content to hug close individuals who would be thrown out of any job but politics. Her Foreign Secretary, Boris Johnson, was sacked by the Times for lying. Her Transport Secretary, Chris Grayling, was accused of trying to interfere with a prison inspection report while he was justice secretary, and he banned sending books to prisoners.

Most inexplicable of all was the elevation of Liam Fox, her International Trade Secretary, who is in permanent disgrace because he has refused fully to admit wrongdoing for overclaiming expenses and using public money to pay a close friend who attended 57 per cent of his Ministry of Defence engagements without security clearance.

Why on earth are such people promoted by a vicar’s daughter who boasts of her moral values? It is in that disparity between who we are and how we are represented that the best hope of opposition lies.

Disbelief will shade into outrage, even if Labour continues to be led by a man blithely indifferent to the practicalities of getting ­anything done. Confronted with the ascen­dancy of scoundrels such as Fox, Grayling and Johnson, anyone, from any part of the UK, will agree with Karl Marx: shame is the only revolutionary emotion.

David Hare is a playwright

This article first appeared in the 30 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Wanted: an opposition