My fellow sciblogger over on Open Parachute Ken Perrott has posted his thoughts on recent events involving prominent atheist Richard Dawkins, who was invited then disinvited to speak at a skeptics conference in the USA later this year.
Basically, Dawkins was invited to speak at the Northeast Conference on Science & Skepticism (NECSS), then very publicly disinvited when he retweeted a video made by men’s rights activists (MRAs) attacking a feminist (who it turned out had had death threats from MRA’s for her views), then reinvited because NECSS “wish to use this incident as an opportunity to have a frank and open discussion of the deeper issues implicated here, which are causing conflict both within the skeptical community”. This is putting it mildly, but I’ll get on to that in a moment. In the meantime Dawkins has had a stroke, which he says may have been caused by this and other controversies he’s been involved in.
Perrott uses his post to explain how the controversy seems to “stem from Richard’s use of Twitter” and the mistaken generalisation from Dawkins tweets that he is a misogynist by people “who are already hostile or desperately searching for something to confirm their anti-Dawkins or anti-male bias”. Perrott then goes on to line up US feminist and skeptic Rebecca Watson, founder of Skepchick, as one of the villains of his piece, mainly based on her “bruised ego” and the fact the she has previously called out evolutionary psychology for many of the badly designed studies around gender and abilities/interests.
What Perrott either doesn’t know, or decided not to mention, is that Watson, along with many other feminist atheists and skeptics have had their lives turned upside down by MRA’s, and Dawkins has played a big role in that. [Conflict of interest disclosure: I am friends with Rebecca Watson and many of the other feminists that have been attacked in this way]. This all started back in 2011 in what became known as ‘Elevatorgate’ when Watson mentioned in a video an experience she’d had at conference where she’d been talking about sexism. At 4am, after a night spent in the hotel bar, a man followed her in to the lift and invited her to his hotel room to talk over coffee. The invitation made Watson uncomfortable, so in her video she suggested that people not do that kind of thing. The video prompted Dawkins to publish his “Dear Muslima” letter in which he accused Watson of overreacting, and engaged in his own bit of logical fallacy footwork, comparing Watson’s experience to those of women forced to undergo genital mutilation.
‘Elevatorgate’ was a very public display of the rift that has opened up in the atheist/skeptic community. On one side are a group of atheists/skeptics, predominantly made up of white men, who almost revere Dawkins and other prominent atheists like him. Some members of that camp have been accused of sexual harassment and more, but very little has been done to try to tackle such behaviour and make atheist/skeptic conferences more welcoming to women and other minorities. As a result, the movement is fracturing with the emergence of a separate group (sometimes referred to as Atheism+) which holds that the atheist and skeptic community should embrace the concept of social justice and work towards equal treatment for everyone, regardless of gender, sexuality, race, whether they are able-bodied or not, etc.
Whether Dawkins is a misogynist or not I leave you to decide, but it’s clear that he wields great power amongst his 1.3M Twitter followers, a number of whom are MRA’s who appear to harass and threaten anyone who doesn’t hold Dawkins in the same esteem. What I think is beyond argument is that Dawkins uses his social media power irresponsibly. He regularly dismisses the experiences of those that differ from his own as a privileged white man, and with a single tweet can set the more unsavoury of his followers baying for people’s blood.
Artist Amy Roth, also known as Surly Amy, makes the most fantastic science and skeptism themed ceramic jewellery. As a writer for Skepchick she has been in the firing line of MRA’s. In late 2014 Amy made an installation in which she gathered together all the hate messages she and others had received and used them to plaster every inch of a 10ft by 8ft office space that she built. What Amy wanted was for those who dismiss online harassment to feel what it’s like to be targeted. The messages are harrowing.
Watson and Roth continue to be active in the atheist/skeptic community but many others have left because of the treatment they have received. It saddens me that Dawkins either doesn’t appear to understand the impact of his actions, or doesn’t care, and neither do his supporters. Perrott ends his post by implying that Watson and others are bullying extremists who bandy around words like “sexist” and “misogynist” to shut down important discussion. I disagree. They are valuable members of the atheist/skeptic community who have a different perspective from people like Dawkins and are actively working to make the community a more inclusive one. Watching the harassment feminists have received by people who identify themselves as critical thinkers also saddens me. It would be nice to see them apply those critical thinking skills to their idols as well as their ‘enemies’.