Why is Richard Dawkins Doubling Down on His Previous Statements? November 20, 2014

Why is Richard Dawkins Doubling Down on His Previous Statements?

By now, you’ve no doubt read the interview with Jaden and Willow Smith. The kids, born into wealth to famous parents, gave laugh-out-loud answers to the New York Times and clearly thought they were way more intelligent than they actually sounded. Instead of coming across as above it all, it’s clear they’re not even in the same realm as the rest of us:

You mentioned breathing earlier, and it’s also an idea that recurs in your songs.

WILLOW: Breathing is meditation; life is a meditation. You have to breathe in order to live, so breathing is how you get in touch with the sacred space of your heart.

JADEN: When babies are born, their soft spots bump: It has, like, a heartbeat in it. That’s because energy is coming through their body, up and down.

WILLOW: Prana energy.

JADEN: It’s prana energy because they still breathe through their stomach. They remember. Babies remember.

WILLOW: When they’re in the stomach, they’re so aware, putting all their bones together, putting all their ligaments together. But they’re shocked by this harsh world.

JADEN: By the chemicals and things, and then slowly…

WILLOW: As they grow up, they start losing.

JADEN: You know, they become just like us.

They’re 14 and 16 and they sound like they just graduated from the Deepak Chopra School of Bullshit. (Or a place that preaches Scientology…)

I bring this up because it reminded me of Richard Dawkins.

In an interview with reporter Kimberly Winston, Dawkins stood by the really frustrating and tone-deaf remarks he’s made over the past year on Twitter (and even before that, in other venues). It was pretty obvious from his remarks that none of the criticism leveraged at him has sunk in. And those of us who still appreciate his books — count me in that mix — are left trying to figure out what the hell to make of all this.

The biggest question I’m trying to sort out is how someone I consider brilliant could be so callous and indifferent in the way he handles some very sensitive issues.

Part of the answer, I think, is that Dawkins, just like Jaden and Willow, has lived in a completely different world from the rest of us for so long. He’s been a global celebrity for most of his life. For the past few decades, just about everyone who’s ever approached him has asked him questions about issues like evolution and religion and science — not privilege and feminism and sexual abuse. As a Dawkins fan, I wish he was as eloquent on those latter issues as he is on the former, but maybe that’s too much to expect. Just because he’s an expert in some areas doesn’t make him an expert in everything. But that hasn’t stopped him from offering his opinion, anyway. That’s the problem. He thinks he speaks for all rational people on those subjects… and that makes the people who disagree with him (in his mind) automatically irrational.

What really hurts his image (and bothers many of us) is that he doesn’t understand how his statements, which I’m sure seem perfectly logical to him, may come across to people who have different experiences. Sure, some of his comments have been blown wildly out of proportion — as is always the case when a celebrity says something regrettable — but he’s not without fault. He just lives in a bubble and doesn’t realize it. He’s the Jaden Smith of the atheist world.

I also think he’s used to more formal debates where, if you disagree with someone, you respond with a calm rebuttal. Turns out the online world doesn’t work that way. So all he sees are vilifications of his character — the same tactics used by his lifelong opponents — and that just convinces him that he’s been right all along. No wonder he doubled down on his statements. It’s a lot easier to change your mind privately, where you’re not subject to humiliation and being portrayed as the bad guy. When you’re attacked publicly, as is usually the case with him, you become more defensive.

I can tell you that if I were criticized in the way I’ve seen Dawkins criticized — with flippant sarcasm, or over-the-top outrage, or having my own words twisted in a way I never intended — I probably wouldn’t change my mind, either. I’d just get angry at the people who refuse to give me the benefit of the doubt and who seem hell-bent on discrediting me. That’s not to say the critics aren’t justified (or right), but that it just wouldn’t be an effective way to get through to me. There’s an art to telling people they’re wrong in a way that’ll get through to them — I know some teachers who are experts at it — and the Internet is where that skill goes to die.

I want to make clear that I don’t think his critics should stay silent. If Dawkins is wrong, then by all means, they should push back. Some of the things he’s said has made me cringe, and I consider myself pretty immune to being offended. But I wonder whether the critics actually want to change his mind rather than just appease their reading audiences, because if they did, they might try a different approach. Part of the reason Dawkins’ defenses are up is that he really does believe he’s on the right side of these issues and the people who are supposed to support him don’t seem to give a damn about that.

Maybe this is a bad analogy, but I’m sure he sees this as synonymous with vegans getting really mad at a vocal vegetarian on the subject of animal rights. The vegetarian is thinking: We’re supposed to be allies! Shouldn’t we be working together against the real enemy?!

What’s the solution, then? The simple one would be to have someone Dawkins trusts sit him down privately and explain why his statements rub some people the wrong way and why he ought to be more thoughtful when he talks about these subjects (or convince him to just keep his mouth shut in these situations). I don’t know if he has anyone like that in his life — who feels that way and whom he respects.

Maybe that wouldn’t be enough, though. I mean, I’ve had several conversations with close friends about these controversial topics, and I still (inadvertently) slip up. That said, I think it’d be a good start. But that also means none of us — who don’t know the guy in real life and who can only attempt to communicate with him impersonally (and therefore ineffectively) over the Internet — are going to change his mind anytime soon.

(Image via Albert H. Teich / Shutterstock.com)

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