Sarah Moglia, no longer of the Secular Student Alliance and newly of Skepchick, has written a piece about how starting to work for the secular movement was the start of the end of her trust in that movement. She was hired to accompany Richard Dawkins on tour.
At this time (September of 2011), Dave Silverman was heading up the Reason Rally Committee. There was still quite a bit of planning and promotion that needed to be done, so Dave asked Richard, Elizabeth, and Sean to make videos to promote the Reason Rally. (The video Richard ended up making is still viewable.) Richard was standing behind the podium, and he asked Dave something along the lines of, “What exactly is the Reason Rally?” Dave started explaining it, and as he did, someone who was waiting in the line outside opened the door to peek inside and we could all hear a lot of noise. I rushed up the aisle and made frantic “shut the door” gestures at the people peeking inside, and they did. As I walked the ten feet back, I couldn’t hear everything Dave was saying, but I heard the name “Rebecca Watson.” Richard suddenly had a very angry look on his face and I heard him almost shout, “No, absolutely not! If she’s going to be there, I won’t be there. I don’t want her speaking.” and then Dave immediately replied, “You’re absolutely right, we’ll take her off the roster. It’s done.” Richard huffed for a moment, Dave continued to placate him, and then he made the video.
The question has come up whether Sarah’s story should be trusted. I do trust it, and here’s why.
Sarah has previously given me information about things people have done that has turned out to be accurate, even when I was dubious (for reasons of wanting to hang onto my illusions) that it would. She has previously described other things about the University of Miami event that I was able to verify as accurate. The video of Dawkins’ talk there is no longer available, but you can find a description of it here:
It’s not like Dawkins hasn’t been pressed for more substantive contributions to this debate, or even with questions about his mere awareness of the existence of the torrents of abuse. I’ve sources who’ve done as much, with little success in the way of obtaining answers, and Dawkins has publicly squelched such lines of inquiry, such as during a Q&A session at the University of Miami in September of 2011.
I found out about this from talking to Sarah before Bruce Everett’s post, which is when I watched the video. Sarah characterized the interaction as (I paraphrase):
Student: You had a disagreement with a blogger over the summer, and lots of people immediately jumped to your side because they support you. Do you think it’s important to critically question even our idols?
Dawkins: I’m not talking about that.
Before anyone gets to thinking there’s some significance to the video being down, all the videos on that channel are inaccessible now.
On top of that, I understand at least some of Sarah’s motivations in posting this. She’s worked incredibly hard for the secular movement, and she’s been effective. She’s studied non-profit management. She and I share a strong desire to see this movement stop messing up the things that should be simple, like too much ad hoc organization or being held hostage to “the talent”. (As an aside, I think this is something American Atheists and Dave Silverman have gotten much better about since this point. AA has been good about inviting people who aren’t on the obvious lists for their big conferences. There’s still room for improvement, but improvement has still been made.) Sarah also has a disability that is sensitive to stress. If you don’t think posting something like this publicly–on Skepchick–will be seen as an invitation to harass her into a flare-up, you’re not thinking it through.
On top of all that, I’ve known about this a good deal longer than today. I’ve been a small part of Sarah’s support system for a while. This story? Her watching someone she idolized turn out to be incapable of handling conflict with a woman in a graceful manner? That’s the kind of thing you share with your support system when you can’t talk about it in public. So I heard it much closer to the time that it happened. It hasn’t changed since then, except that I got the short version then.
There is also the fact that this is consistent with Dawkins’ other, publicly visible behavior, as with the Q&A at Miami or his response when Wired asked him about his “Dear Muslima” comments. Or his behavior at an event in Los Angeles. Aside from the occasional passive-aggressive swipe, Dawkins has avoided Rebecca Watson as though sarcasm were the plague. To the best of my knowledge, they haven’t shared a stage since July 2011. There have been rumors floating around about this as far away as the conference scene in Australia, though that isn’t as far away as it used to be.
Of course, as Everett points out, these rumors have also been denied:
I was able to discuss these concerns with Dr. R. Elisabeth Cornwell, Executive Director of the US branch of the Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science. She was aware of the mentioned instances of harassment, expressing displeasure and dismay.
I raised the issue of serious chatter arising out of a polarised climate amongst organisers, that suggested that Dawkins was using his influence to have Rebecca Watson barred from events. Dr. Cornwell assured me this wasn’t the case.
So here we have to weigh Sarah’s word against that of Cornwell, now the former RDFRS executive director. This would be harder for me if Cornwell didn’t have a history of using falsehood to deflect negative attention from Dawkins. She did this in the forum debacle a few years ago. (Yes, that email has been verified with someone who worked for RDFRS at the time. No, the source of the verification is not Timonen.) She did this by privately “clarifying” that Paula Kirby wasn’t part of Dawkins’ foundation when people were baffled that Kirby would write something like “The Sisterhood of the Oppressed”, though Cornwell’s email states that Dawkins insisted that Kirby be included in the foundation. [ETA: Kirby herself has also claimed the association.] Given Cornwell’s history, I don’t see any good reason to think that when someone otherwise trustworthy says something about Dawkins that Cornwell contradicts, I should trust Cornwell.
Incidentally, the email also states that Dawkins’ inability to constructively disagree with strong women is general, not specific to Rebecca:
One of the things I know extremely well about Richard is he is conflict-avoiding and he female-dependent. There is a lot of psychology at work here… but Richard is extremely weak when it comes to demanding females.
After all that, yes, I do trust that Sarah’s statement that Dawkins demanded Rebecca not be invited to the Reason Rally. (And hey, and after all that work to explain my reasoning, American Atheists confirmed that the conversation happened, though they deny that the decision to not invite Rebecca was made at that point. Though their statement doesn’t explain what Sarah heard or when the decision was made. Still, Sarah is right that this is more about forcing the decision than about having to deal with an ugly demand that it appears many people have granted in the last two years.) Given that trust, I want to make a couple of other points.
@AngrySkepchick: It offends me that people won’t attend events if I’m there. When –I– refuse to attend events, it’s only because the speakers are rapists.
That tweet comes from a parody account, but elisions aside, I don’t understand why this would be a problem. I signed Scalzi’s pledge. I’m quite proud to say I won’t take part in events that don’t have good anti-harassment policies. I don’t want anyone to come to an event to see me, only to put themselves potentially in harm’s way. How is that supposed to compare badly to Dawkins blacklisting another speaker because Dawkins put his foot in it and lost some respect in the eyes of some people?
Remember the reactions to Rebecca’s personal decision not to buy recommend more of Dawkins’ books?
This Dawkins boycott seems like the latest in a series of overreactions by everyone involved in this elevator incident.
Someone who reacts to a former ally having the very slightest disagreement with a banishment / call to boycott is the exact opposite of a skeptic. They are deeply dogmatic.
To boycott Dawkins for being insensitive to you or the concerns of female atheists, seems really hypocritical. [Because talking about FGM isn’t talking about male circumcision. No, really.]
I don’t understand why it is necessary for you to break all ties with Dawkins, denounce him publicly, boycott his books and lectures, and encourage others to do the same.
I am a bit disappointed in both Rebecca and Jen’s decision to boycott Richard Dawkins from now on. You don’t have to agree with someone all of the time and on every issue to respect their work and opinions in other areas.
Please don’t boycott it’s the same as letting the bastards win.
You talk about how important it is that people see it from your perspective, but I’d submit that before you go asking for a boycott on Dawkins and labeling him as a patriarchal privileged male, you try to see the other side to this issue yourself.
I appreciate you are passionate about what happened, and the debate about sexism / appropriate societal behaviour is important and a worthy topic to discuss. But boycotts of those who disagree, or who have differing points of view is…
An appropriate response here is to engage in a debate and a discussion, not to sever all ties and turn this into a boycott.
The bottom line here – we aren’t advancing the skeptical (or feminist) ‘movements’ by boycotting, or by being divisive.
Lastly, I hope that Ms. Watson is really not childish enough to boycott his work on evolution because of his views on the incident (I think I read that somewhere-my apologies if it is not true).
What kinds of reactions are we seeing to this, in which Dawkins actively worked to keep others from hearing Rebecca’s voice?
Frankly, I wouldn’t want to be associated with Mrs Watson and don’t blame Dr. Dawkins one bit.
lol I wouldn’t blame him if he didn’t want to share the stage with someone who just wants to cause trouble.
The only reason anyone knows who watson is, is because of her trouble making through accusations that could almost be considered slander, so Dawkin is well in his rights.
It’s so bizarre that Dawkins would not want Rebecca Watson to participate, considering how many constructive, positive things she’s contributed to this community; and how respectful and pleasant she has been to all its members.
@skepchicks is making me like RD all over again! In battle of con. turf, organizers need to uphold stand. principles [This from the guy, by the way, who thought “…that what happens on the internet is […] important but that it’s not necessarily the deciding factor.”]
@IAmDanMarshall @rebeccawatson @Crommunist seems pretty clear they don’t like or respect each other. Why should he want to be near her?
@rebeccawatson He only said he wouldn’t be speaking if you were there. Guess Dave knew who the bigger draw would be. Bad ego! Norty ego! 😀
I would not attend any event at which Rebecca Watson was a speaker. She doesn’t contribute anything positive, only drama and insults.
@mpigliucci I wouldn’t want to speak alongside Rebecca Watson either and elevatorgate has nothing to do with it.
@rebeccawatson @Crommunist yes because you are THAT important
It’s as though they’re trying to prove Rebecca’s point. For contrast, the people who defended Rebecca’s choice to stop buying or recommending Dawkins’ products pointed out that it was a reasonable personal decision that was unlikely to affect Dawkins personally. That brings me to my second point.
In case you missed it, there was a bit of a to do at DragonCon this last weekend around the Skepchick fan table selling their Skeptical Robot and SurlyRamics to raise money to promote skepticism at an event that doesn’t cover their travel costs. There are as many versions of why the conference abruptly found these sales objectionable after four years of them happening (and were willing to be abusive about it) as there have been con representatives talking about why Skepchick shouldn’t have the table anymore. The rules for fan tables (distinct from vendor tables) are appallingly vague and not consistent with any of the complaints made.
As you can imagine, confusion has reigned, and the usual suspects have been working this for all it’s worth. People have been arguing at length about nitpicky details, like whether it really counts as being kicked out if the group isn’t allowed to have a presence but one of the people stayed to do programming or whether Rebecca was blaming the organizer who brought them to the conference for her not knowing the rules or whether she should have somehow divined the same meaning from the rules that they did. They’ve been saying that this is just what happens when Rebecca speaks at your conference, despite the fact that several years of SkepchickCon at CONvergence have gone swimmingly.
One of the most ridiculous things that they’ve said, however, is that if Rebecca or Amy can’t afford to pay for their own travel to do this outreach, they should get a job. Yes, apparently selling merchandise that people want is somehow wrong now. Ophelia has given that idea even more attention than it deserves, so I won’t repeat any of it. Instead, I’ll contrast that attitude to another one.
Something like a year ago, at the time Cornwell’s email surfaced, there were allegations of financial impropriety aimed at RDFRS. Someone alleged that the foundation was soliciting money for plans it wasn’t going to put into effect. I looked into them. I decided that they were unfounded. Part of the issue was the unforeseeable costs involved with the dispute with Timonen, but the other part was that the person making the allegations didn’t seem to understand what the foundation was set up to do.
Grants to other organizations are a small part of what the foundation does. The website has been central to the foundation, but the costs involved are not huge. The larger part of the foundation appears to be underwriting Dawkins’ notorious willingness to speak to student groups at very little cost. If the groups don’t pay the cost, someone still has to. In the case of the tour Sarah wrote about, the book’s publisher likely covered the cost of Dawkins’ travel, but Sarah had a year’s salary and Faircloth had travel expenses for the whole tour, while Cornwell accompanied them for about half of it. Similarly, the foundation was a sponsor of the Reason Rally. It’s quite likely that it covered the costs for all the foundation employees who spoke, as well as Dawkins.
That’s right. Dawkins’s foundation didn’t pay to have him travel, but they did pay to have his entourage travel with him–partly funded by their merchandise sales–to allow him to speak to audiences he felt needed it. To be clear, I don’t have a problem with this, though a little more transparency about this purpose of the foundation would be nice and would help avoid situations like the unfounded accusation. No one I discussed this with in the course of laying the rumor to rest had a problem with this.
Now, however, when it’s Rebecca, suddenly people have problems with selling merch when someone doesn’t want to put the costs of travel directly on the audience. I wonder why that could be. Hmm.
Isn’t it about time we got a single set of standards for this movement?