In Defense of Richard Dawkins’ Tweets: Political Correctness Isn’t What It Used to Be

OXFORD, UNITED KINGDOM - MARCH 24: Richard Dawkins Author and evolutionary biologist, poses for a portrait at the Oxford Literary Festival, in Christ Church, on March 24, 2010 in Oxford, England. (Photo by David Levenson/Getty Images)
These days, Dr. Richard Dawkins seems to draw more ire from American liberals than the religious right, revealing the stunning hypocrisy and dogmatic nature of the country’s “smart” political faction. 


On Sunday, our very own Jonette said something we’ve all known for a while: Richard Dawkins is kind of bad at Twitter. Her piece echoes comments from philosopher Daniel Dennett, whom Dawkins has called an “intellectual older brother.”

“He could be seriously damaging his long-term legacy,” Dennett says.

Lawrence Krauss, another one of Dawkins’ contemporaries, thinks the professor should reconsider the way he uses social media. “I wish he wouldn’t do it,” Krauss said. “I told him that.” Sophie Elmhirst summed it all up with the headline: “Is Richard Dawkins destroying his reputation?

Well, is he? Not where it counts. As one of the world’s most eminent scientists and public intellectuals, his work speaks for itself. His contributions to the scientific understanding of life, along with his robust polemicism against institutions of religion, will long be remembered as important to the human conversation.

Daniel Denett and Lawrence Krauss have both suggested Richard Dawkins take a break from Twitter.
Daniel Denett and Lawrence Krauss have both suggested Richard Dawkins take a break from Twitter.

So why all of the hate on Twitter?

Before we begin, let me assure you that this piece isn’t about agreeing with Richard Dawkins. I definitely wouldn’t have been so candid about aborting fetuses with Down syndrome, for example, but neither do I object to the thought progression which took him there (screening for Downs syndrome is routinely offered in the United Kingdom and abortion is usually recommended over carrying the child to term).

Also ReadDear Richard Dawkins, Are You Okay?

It’s not my personal position, and that’s okay. If others want to argue passionately about the merits of a particular idea, let them—so long as they are really considering the information or otherwise not participating. There’s a big difference between informed debate and aversion to uncomfortable ideas, however, as we’ll discuss below.

Richard Dawkins vs. The PC Crowd

When Did Controversial Ideas Become a Social Death Sentence?

Spend any amount of time around hardcore American conservatives, and it’s clear they’re living in a fantasy world where climate change is a liberal myth and universal healthcare is slavery. Spend any amount of time around hardcore American liberals and you’ll find the dogma is just as strong. Liberals pride themselves on being the political faction that is more scientifically literate than the competition. That doesn’t make all of us free thinkers, however. As a collective, American liberals (and especially those of the millennial generation) are self-congratulatory back-patters who not only fail to grasp the idea of being intellectually challenged, they’ve resorted to sticking their fingers in their ears and retreating to their safe space to make sure it doesn’t happen.

Don’t believe me? Just ask the smartest people in the room: our university educators. Jonathan Haidt, social psychologist and professor at New York University’s Stern School of Business, co-wrote a piece for the Atlantic called The Coddling of the American Mind. In it, the authors relate how aversion to discussing sensitive topics is holding students back from developing the critical thinking skills a university education is designed to imbue.

Writing under a pseudonym, one self-professed liberal professor wrote an article for Vox detailing how dogmatic political correctness is limiting the ability of educators to teach students to think for themselves.

The problem with these academic critiques is that they go wholly unconsidered by the low-on-information, high-on-opinion atmosphere of modern American politics. In a time when more people read headlines than articles, the concerns of academics are lumped in with the ridiculously off-point criticisms coming from the American right.

Pointing out Richard Dawkins resemblance to Emma Watson for humorous effect might be considered a hetero-normative mircoaggression because the heart of the joke involves a man and woman looking alike, which naturally makes assumptions about what men and women are “supposed” to look like. Or maybe there’s just microagressions everywhere you look and Chester M. Pierce‘s original observation has been abused for political purposes.

Writing for NPR, Gene Demby counters with a dreadful study conducted out of Cornell University. The problem lies in its methodology. By comparing mixed gender groups of individuals tasked to come up with ideas, they conclude the groups which established a “PC-norm” in their speech had an easier time coming up with ideas than those who didn’t. There’s a chance this proves that discussing boundary areas is a good icebreaker for getting a group of strangers to work collaboratively, but it offers little in the way of proving empirically, as Mr. Demby clearly set out to do, that criticism against so-called PC-culture is fundamentally invalid. You don’t have to listen to me—in fact, that’s the spirit of our discussion today—so read the work for yourself and come to your own conclusion.

My words can only paint of picture of my point of view. Consideration of them should inspire original thought, perhaps swaying you to my opinion, perhaps not. I can not tell you what to think or what opinion to have, but this idea of reading beyond the semantics of language seems lost on those who outright ban “offensive” lines of thought.

When Others Do Your Thinking For You

What Real Political Correctness Is, What It Isn’t

It’s the job of educators and public intellectuals to challenge our assumptions and beliefs, especially when it makes us cognitively uncomfortable. Thought exercises like this one below aren’t about being right or wrong, or even about taste, it’s about grasping a normally binary concept in a more complex way. To quote Dawkins himself, it’s about “raising our consciousness” to understand that some issues have no universally agreed-upon moral solution. Indeed, most issues are so vastly complex that superficial public opinion does little to truly penetrate them.

In this case, the matter is one of a value judgement-call over which experiences are more traumatic, or produce a greater amount of net-harm to an individual or society. But because we’ve become terrified of upsetting the victims of rape or pedophilia, even suggesting a closer look at the details of these complex issues is seen as insensitive to those who have been affected by them. The conversation begins and ends at “rape is bad” without a thorough dissection of the topic. Otherwise, the “controversy” surrounding this tweet would be non-existent.

Perhaps we shouldn’t bother even calling it political correctness. 2015 seems to be the year that phrase has finally been bastardized beyond repair. Ideally, political correctness denotes awareness of a group’s preferred terminology, or general accuracy when speaking on matters relating to them. It is not, as the dogmatists unintentionally assert, the silencing of individuals with controversial ideas—all done in the name of not hurting people’s feelings (or, as they might phrase it, not contributing to a culture of subconscious oppression of marginalized groups).

Once the Twitter hivemind decides “this is wrong/bad!” you end up with a snowball effect of outrage over Mr. Dawkins admirable decision not to walk on eggshells in the face of outrage culture. In a previous article (original here and extended version here), I discussed the long-debated notion of social influencers within closed groups. The general trend seems to apply here: when a 10% minority of people within a given social network adopt a strong viewpoint, the rest of the people within that network sheepishly follow suit.

Is it any wonder an English intellectual, sworn to uphold the virtue of creedless free-thought, would upset a reactionary American political demographic that relishes in groupthink, public shaming, and shutting down dissenting points of view?

Richard and Ahmed’s Bogus Journey

You’re Either With Us, Or You’re With The (Right-Wing) Terrorists

When the story of Ahmed the clock kid broke, something was immediately suspicious about the whole affair. It just seemed as though there had to be more to the story than the endless condemnation of the officer who arrested Ahmed (courtesy of the liberal blogosphere), and the endless condemnation and genuine bigotry toward all Muslims found on the far-right blogs. Centrist news organizations like CNN tepidly approached the subject by reporting various opinions—probably the right move for any organization attempting objectivity on such a polarizing story.

The mere suggestion that Ahmed or his family weren’t being entirely truthful about the circumstances which led to the brief encounter with law enforcement, or even that the arresting officer’s motive couldn’t be determined as race or religion-related, was never even on the table for the “socially conscious” crowd. It’s like they’ve forgotten we’re the country who gave the world balloon boy and Wendy’s finger chili.

Dawkins suggestion that the clock may not be homemade, as Ahmed claimed, was followed by immediate liberal backlash.

No, that discussion just shouldn’t be had. Those who attempt to have it are “part of the problem,” or some other thought-terminating cliche. And then, the details of the story emerged, including the fact that Ahmed was previously warned by a teacher not to show anyone the clock. Now, Ahmed’s family lawyer is seeking $15 million in compensation for the incident, a pretty steep price to pay for routine academic mishandling.

How routine? Consider the school which suspended a child for biting his Poptart into the shape of a gun. Or the one who suspended a student for doing what most boys do—pretend their hand is a weapon and playfully battle their friends. The overzealous actions of American schools are largely reactions to nationwide fear of violence in a country replete with mass shootings and homegrown terrorism. It’s upsetting, but hardly surprising.

'Clock boy' Ahmed's arrest could simultaneously be unfair and understandable from the school administration's point of view. To suggest anything other than outright racism is bound to lose you points from those who use the story to confirm their worldview.
‘Clock boy’ Ahmed’s arrest could simultaneously be unfair and understandable from the school administration’s point of view. To suggest anything other than outright racism (as Richard Dawkins’ tweets may have) is bound to lose you points from those who use the story to confirm their worldview.

None of these considerations proves Ahmed or his family were up to anything nefarious. But aren’t they details worth talking about? Don’t they help us understand that trendy, flash-in-the-pan outrage stories may be more intricate than a 140 character tweet can appropriately convey? Ahmed’s race and religion may be one of a myriad of other factors clouded by infantile outrage and an unwillingness to have a meaningful national dialog about the situation. Unless all of the facts and variables can be discussed openly, the case will simply remain a pawn in the chess game of partisan politics.

The only way to make an informed judgement call on the truth of the matter is to discuss all of the details and consider multiple points of view. Noman Ansari published a thoughtful article called “If they thought Ahmed brought a ‘bomb’, why didn’t they evacuate the school?” This question is a direct, pointed critique of Ahmed’s teachers and school administrators. Despite being firmly on one side of the argument, it adds value to the conversation by attempting to make a real point. The name-calling and accusations of bigotry are absent; the trendy hashtags and group-approved lines of discourse are ignored. The author simply examines the situation in a thought-provoking way.

In Conclusion

Or, “How I Stopped Believing Twitter Is The Wellspring Of Human Thought And Accepted That I Don’t Particularly Agree With Another Individual’s Point of View.”

Keep doing your thing, Richard. Because even when you upset me, when you assert what I believe may be wrong, when you challenge my political or moral compass, you are performing a service the likes of which those who let others do their thinking for them will never grasp: speaking freely, openly, and frankly about subjects that make us question things.

For the record, I do think you’re terribly bad at Twitter—but I suspect I’m the kind of person who values social media PR a little more than you do.



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