Free speech issues: NECSS disinvites Dawkins; Gareth Cliff update

My title is intentionally misleading, as there are aspects of both the cases mentioned therein that are not a free speech issue at all.

As I pointed out in my previous post on the Gareth Cliff saga, M-Net are, to my mind, perfectly entitled to promote a certain brand image, and this entitlement is compatible with saying that Cliff doesn’t fit that image, and that they are therefore not renewing his contract.

As the judge pointed out in her ruling yesterday that called for his reinstatement, though, it’s partly because he is a controversial figure that they hired him in the first place.

If they’ve changed their minds about wanting him on the channel, fine, but then they need to a) follow due process in terminating his employ (rather than violating a pre-existing verbal agreement to renew him) and b) not use the (to my mind, not legally sustainable) pretext of his tweet defending a certain perspective on free speech as the reason for terminating his employ.

On Dawkins, for those of you who don’t know: he tweeted a YouTube video which compared Islamists to feminists, noting in the same tweet that he wasn’t saying all feminists were like this, including feminists like himself.

The YouTube video also contains “humour” related to “spastics”, alongside some other rather gross caricaturing. (If you want to watch it, go here.) I think the video is in very poor taste, and that someone with the reach and influence of Dawkins shouldn’t tweet such things.

He’s deleted the tweet, after the feminist who is caricatured in that video started receiving threats from some of Dawkins’ Twitter followers. This was predictable, in that we know how Twitter echo-chambers work to reinforce tribal divisions.

Dawkins is smart enough and experienced enough to know this also, and even though he’s not directly to blame for what his followers do, my position as a Humanist is that we do have a moral obligation to avoid entirely foreseeable negative consequences of our actions, where doing so won’t cost us significant positive value.

NECSS is one of the headline skeptic conferences, and Dawkins was to be a keynote speaker this year. They’ve dis-invited him following the tweet in question. Here’s their statement, and here’s his response to that statement. (Here’s a more detailed timeline of events.)

This is not a “no platforming”, in that NECSS did not (in my estimation, of course) bow to a baying mob in disinviting him, but rather made a decision based on the values they seek to promote.

You can agree or disagree with those values, as well as the extent to which having Dawkins speak would undermine them – if at all – but Dawkins has no right to speak there, and his free speech is not at all compromised by disinviting him.

He has as much opportunity to express his views as pretty much anyone on the planet, which is kind of why some of us wish that he’d stop using those opportunities to reinforce the attitudes of some of the most obnoxious among our (atheists) number that can’t seem to stop lumping people into uncritical categories like “feminist”, “Muslim” and so forth.

Finally, in a amusing irony, I’m due to give a talk on 2 February regarding how medical professionals should use social media. My invitation was no doubt prompted by the Noakes hearings, so it was with bemusement that I received two communications asking me not to talk about Noakes or the hearings at all, prompted by an email of concern that the host Faculty had received.

I responded to say that I’d either talk about what I liked, or not at all, but that I’m not in the habit of defaming people in any case, so I don’t understand the concern. The person who expressed the initial concern is in any case misguided, as I think – and have said – that Noakes should “win” these hearings.

I’m pleased to say the talk is going ahead, and I’ll post a version of it sometime next week for those of you who are interested in the topic.

[Edit]Here’s David Futrelle making a case for what the problem was with what Dawkins tweeted, as well as his subsequent responses.[/edit]


Also published on Medium.

  • Steven Novella makes similar points in explaining NECSS’s decision.

  • Chas Stewart

    I can’t see your link to the harassment of Ms. Binx that was caused by Dawkins.

  • You should probably edit this. As far as I know, Binx did not receive a wave of harassment due to Dawkin’s tweet. She may have, I just don’t know if it happened. She has gotten substantial harassment in the past three years however, and it’s my experience that when folks with fan-bases or anyone else for that matter bring *known targets* into the public eye – that is what *tends* to happen.

    For example, when there was a “news” story about M. Hensley that went around, I spent a few DAYS blocking literally hundreds of people in her mentions that were either simply asking naive questions, being rude and insulting, or in a few cases – threatening to kill her and sending her shock images.

    To Dawkin’s credit, he *initially* deleted the tweet in order to avoid that after West explained to him that it was a possibility. HOWEVER, what is really most damning in my mind, is that after Dawkin’s found out *why* she was being targeted, he not only changed his mind, but *SHARED* the video of Binx that proceeded the 3 years of threats and harassment in the first place. Dawkin’s called her “vile” and said (even though she didn’t deserve threats) that she deserved ridicule – the more the merrier!

    He straight-up encouraged “ridicule” of someone who has received *extreme* harassment for *years* as if that had any purpose (regardless of how “vile” someone might think she is)! THAT is what he did.

    For some reason he thinks that “ridicule” is okay as long as it’s not an honest-to-goodness threat. That is a REALLY low bar for “reasoned debate”.

    He only deleted the tweets after West (and a few others) convinced him that her being “vile” in his opinion did not somehow make possibly causing her *further abuse* justified.

    • Yep, I agree with the substance of your comment. You’re also right about the technical point that I should edit that sentence – but I’ll not be doing so, because a) it doesn’t affect the substance of what I’m arguing (as you are) regarding Dawkins’ role in encouraging a certain form of behaviour; b) sharing the video itself, as countless Dawkins’ites have done, could plausibly be construed as encouraging/facilitating harassment and c) (where I’m most at fault), I don’t know for sure that people are harassing her as a result of this.

      I really don’t care to nitpick those details – the key issue for me is the role I think he could play, versus the role he’s choosing to play. And yes, this is a judgement call, on which people can disagree. The fact that I overstated that detail is to my discredit, but doesn’t have a bearing on that broader point. So I’m happy to let my error stand.

      Thanks for a thoughtful and constructive comment.

    • I think you can make a case that sharing the video *is* harassment, she made the small mistake of coming across badly while protesting an MRA meeting three years ago. She was until then an almost completely unknown feminist activist who has since received years of harassment and ridicule. I personally think it is fine to ridicule public figures. Even some private ones when they do something worthy of mocking, but to keep it up for years in the face of her going into hiding is a disgrace. Dawkins joining in is also a disgrace.

  • Johan Kruger

    Twitter is a ridiculous medium to hold a rational discussion. It consists of one shout at a time with no context whatever. Completely regressive.