Richard Dawkins has a new collection of essays coming out next month in a book called Science in the Soul. Naturally, he’ll be visiting the U.S. on a book tour.
One of the stops was going to be in Berkeley, California on August 9. It was sponsored by KPFA, a progressive radio station in the area, in a city known for being the hotbed of liberal activism.
But that talk has now been canceled.
While that website doesn’t offer any reason for the cancellation, Jerry Coyne notes that people who had bought tickets received a more detailed email with this explanation:
We regret to inform you that KPFA has canceled our event with Richard Dawkins. We had booked this event based entirely on his excellent new book on science, when we didn’t know he had offended and hurt — in his tweets and other comments on Islam, so many people.
KPFA does not endorse hurtful speech. While KPFA emphatically supports serious free speech, we do not support abusive speech. We apologize for not having had broader knowledge of Dawkins views much earlier. We also apologize to all those inconvenienced by this cancellation. Your ticket purchases will automatically be refunded by Brown Paper Tickets.
The world’s most famous atheist criticized Islam and upset people… so he can’t give a talk about science? It’s a ridiculous reason that gets even more absurd when you consider the source.
Dawkins has no doubt put his foot in his mouth on Twitter many times before. There’s a whole generation of people who know him less for his science writing and more for his misguided tweets. We’ve criticized him many times on this site over those tweets, and he’s been “de-platformed” by atheists, too. This isn’t anything new.
I would also say there’s a difference between attempting to make a logical argument, off the cuff, on Twitter (where nuance dies) — and doing it completely ineffectively — and targeting individuals a la trolls who go out of their way to be controversial.
Dawkins isn’t someone who goes around targeting people with hateful or abusive speech. Dumb speech? Absolutely. Offensive speech? Yes, though that’s impossible to avoid when your topic of choice is religion. But hate is in the eye of the beholder, and most of his critics take single tweets more literally than he ever intended.
That’s not to excuse his words. He’s still responsible for what he says. But his entire career has been about persuading people to see things his way, whether or not he’s always succeeded, and he’s well aware that bigotry wouldn’t advance that goal. He’s a strong supporter of progressive Muslims who are trying to modernize the faith “from the inside.” (It’s also worth mentioning that all the “controversial” tweets we’re talking about were made years ago and he’s really mellowed out on Twitter ever since having a minor stroke in early 2016.)
Which tweets about Islam were the people at KPFA so offended by? We never find out. They don’t say. But remember that people at Berkeley (the school) once rescinded an invitation from Bill Maher to deliver a commencement address for the same reason — before eventually reversing course. Ayaan Hirsi Ali was going to get an honorary degree from Brandeis University… until she, too, was accused of anti-Muslim bigotry. (Yep, a victim of female genital mutilation and an advocate for the reformation of Islam was considered an anti-Muslim bigot. Makes you wonder which version of Islam is acceptable to these critics.)
So much for free speech in Berkeley. If Dawkins is too bigoted for their tastes, the list of people who are allowed to discuss controversial topics must be incredibly thin.
And remember: All this is over a book talk about the beauty of science. That means speakers are being invited and canceled over issues they’re not even talking about.
It would’ve been far better for KPFA to let Dawkins speak — and hear what he has to say — before condemning him in advance for vague reasons and not allowing ticket buyers the opportunity to make up their own minds about it.
Since Dawkins’ travel schedule has likely already been planned out, I’ve reached out to his team to find out if he’ll plan another event in Berkeley on that same date.
On a side note, a couple of days after the Dawkins event was supposed to take place, KPFA is sponsoring a speaker who will talk about how to “access the mind through the body, and the body through the mind for creativity, resilience and self-healing.” Pseudoscience is acceptable to them. But criticism of irrational religious ideas is apparently too mean.
They’re also sponsoring a talk by the legendary black comedian Dick Gregory, who is known for challenging accepted beliefs, pushing boundaries, and making people uncomfortable. I hope someone asks him for his thoughts on de-platforming controversial speakers.
***Update***: The Center for Inquiry has issued a statement calling the de-platforming “baseless” and “unconscionable”:
“Richard Dawkins is one of the greatest intellects of our time, with a wealth of wisdom and insight that he looked forward to sharing with his Berkeley audience,” said Robyn Blumner, President and CEO of the Center for Inquiry. “For KPFA to suddenly break its commitment to Richard and the hundreds of people who were so looking forward to seeing and hearing him is unconscionable, and the baseless accusation that Richard has engaged in ‘abusive speech’ is a betrayal of the values KPFA has, until now, been known for.”
“The idea that I have engaged in abusive speech against Islam is preposterous, which even the most rudimentary fact-checking by KPFA would have made clear,” said Prof. Dawkins. “I have indeed strongly condemned the misogyny, homophobia, and violence of Islamism, of which Muslims — particularly Muslim women — are the prime victims. I make no apologies for denouncing those oppressive cruelties, and I will continue to do so.”
Last year, the Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason & Science merged with the Center for Inquiry, and Prof. Dawkins joined the CFI board of directors.
“In its forty-one-year history, the Center for Inquiry has fought proudly for human and civil rights, and Richard Dawkins is an invaluable ally for our cause.” said Blumner. “We (including Richard Dawkins himself) strongly opposed President Trump’s misguided and discriminatory Muslim ban. We have been at the forefront of the major civil justice causes of our time, and we have devoted ourselves to countering the outmoded, dogmatic prejudices and misinformation aimed at marginalized groups. It is one of the many reasons why we were proud to be the sole secularist organization invited to join the Know Your Neighbor interfaith coalition, launched in 2015 at the White House.”
“We understand the difference between a people and the beliefs they may hold,” said Blumner, “All of us must be free to debate and criticize Ideas, and harmful ideas must be exposed. It is incredibly disappointing that KPFA does not understand this.”
(Thanks to Melissa for the link)