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Apr 23 2013

“Unfortunately, I phrased it poorly.”

I hadn’t heard there was a thing about a tweet of Dawkins’s (another one? yes another one). Now I have, courtesy of Fidalgo’s Daily Morning Heresy. There was a thing, and as a result Dawkins wrote a piece saying he said it wrong.

First he gives the background.

Yesterday, on Twitter, I wrote of the British journalist Mehdi Hasan’s belief that the Prophet Muhamed flew to Heaven on a winged horse.  It is a belief at least as silly as Doyle’s belief in fairies, and it merits the same “It’s a rum do” comment on the paradox that Mehdi Hasan is simultaneously a very good journalist and political editor, who writes penetrating and sensible articles on current affairs and world politics. That such an effective critical intellect should simultaneously be capable of  believing in winged horses seemed to me to merit some sort of wry comment, comment of the “It’s a rum do” variety:  isn’t it odd, what a paradox, like Conan Doyle or Dowding and the fairies.

Ok first of all, sigh. “Yesterday, on Twitter” – sigh. You know what’s coming. Yes, Richard, on Twitter, as keeps happening. Can you not figure out that provocative tweets on large subjects tend to backfire?!

He may be beginning, just beginning, to figure it out.

Unfortunately, I phrased it poorly. Instead of saying “Isn’t it quaint that such a successful journalist can simultaneously believe something so daft”, I wrote, “Mehdi Hasan admits to believing Muhamed flew to heaven on a winged horse. And New Statesman sees fit to print him as a serious journalist.”

I cannot deny that this sounds horribly like a call for New Statesman to sack him, and it is not surprising that it was taken in that way and became controversial as a freedom of speech issue. Even worse, some respondents went overboard and thought I was saying that no Muslim should ever be employed as a  journalist, or even that no religious person should ever be employed as a journalist.

I certainly never intended any of those meanings. Twitters’s 140-character limit is notoriously inimical to nuance.

Bingo! He’s figured it out!! Then again that “notoriously” seems to indicate that he’s known all along…so then, Richard, why do you keep making provocative tweets on large complicated subjects? It’s not a good medium for discussion of large, complicated subjects! It’s really, really not.

But never mind that. There’s a bigger thing here. “Unfortunately, I phrased it poorly.” Does that remind you of anything?

It reminds me of something. “Dear Muslima.” “Zero bad.” Unfortunately, he phrased those badly too.

Why can he admit bad phrasing in the one case and not in the other? Why can he amend what he said about one person and refuse to amend what he said about another? Why can he see in one case that he was pointlessly belligerent and refuse to see it in another?

I would seriously, seriously like to know. That’s all the more true because we get blamed for the damage that he did, and I frankly resent that.

His correction of the tweet suggests that he understands that he has the power – the popularity and ardent fans – to do a lot of damage, and that he ought to use it responsibly. So why now but not then? Why withdraw the one but not the other?

I would love to know.

43 comments

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  1. 1
    michaeld

    The only things I’ve found twitter useful for is the inconsequential and announcements inking off twitter.

  2. 2
    Octavo

    I think that Twitter can be used for provocative topics. Feminism on Twitter has been impressive, specifically the #1reasonwhy and #1reasontobe hashtags.

    The problem isn’t Twitter. It’s Richard Dawkins’ inability to speak carefully or wisely on just about any topic.

  3. 3
    Ophelia Benson

    Provocative, yes, but large complicated, no.

  4. 4
    mythbri

    he problem isn’t Twitter. It’s Richard Dawkins’ inability to speak carefully or wisely on just about any topic.

    Yes.

  5. 5
    Raging Bee

    Did anyone ever ASK Dawkins to put more “Twit” in “Twitter?” ‘Cause I don’t remember anyone saying it was in short supply.

    Twitters’s 140-character limit is notoriously inimical to nuance.

    So if you write stuff where nuance is important, Don’t fucking write it on Twitter! That’s what blogs are for — and Dawkins has one of those!

    So why now but not then? Why withdraw the one but not the other?

    Probably because he and his fanboys are much less emotionally invested in “the one” than in “the other.” I can’t read Dawkins’ mind, but I suspect that backing away from an implied call to fire one journalist, only a day after its publication, is less embarrassing for him than backing away from his asinine attacks on women atheists after almost two years.

  6. 6
    Ace of Sevens

    I’ve been saying this for months. You’d think the uproar over his tweets about eugenics would have taught him somethng.

  7. 7
    Ophelia Benson

    So have I, and I know, right? You would think. As Raging Bee said – if you write stuff where nuance is important, don’t fucking write it on Twitter!

  8. 8
    Simon

    FYI Fidalgo’s column is the Morning Heresy. (I had made the same mistake once!)

  9. 9
    Ophelia Benson

    Oops! I knew that…

  10. 10
    georgewiman

    I consider myself a fan of Richard Dawkins, but his greatest weakness is his privilege, or rather his unawareness of it. Which is made worse by his reaction to the word. How he can walk after shooting himself in the foot so many times is surely some kind of miracle.

    Can you do what he considers “academic thought experiments” in 140-character bites while walking the tightrope of a global forum? Yes, if you are an Nth-level Ninja master of framing your thoughts in brevity. Very few academics possess that ability. For him to attempt it is a clear example of a brilliant person with a stupid streak. Best instead to write full exposition on his blog, then link to it on Twitter.

  11. 11
    jfar4

    Part of it might be that the condemnation wasn’t as universal. As dumb as Dear Muslima was, he certainly had his supporters. They’re still “supporting” him today.

    I guess, to be really cynical… maybe Dawkins doesn’t think he framed Dear Muslima badly. Maybe he still thinks he was right. It’s not like he’s ever commented on it.

  12. 12
    Raging Bee

    The problem isn’t Twitter. It’s Richard Dawkins’ inability to speak carefully or wisely on just about any topic.

    Based on what little of Dawkins I’ve read elsewhere, I agree that this is another part of the problem. His “Dear Muslima” letter wasn’t a tweet, it was broadcast on a medium where he had plenty of room for nuance. His total failure to get the nuance right on that medium either, really doesn’t convince me that he has anything worthwhile to say in any forum.

  13. 13
    Beatrice, an amateur cynic looking for a happy thought

    Heh, And just the other day…

    English is my native language. My words mean what I intend. If you read them differently because of “social context” that’s your problem.

    (source)

  14. 14
    doubtthat

    Hmm…everything else aside, I’m not sure I buy his explanation.

    This:

    “Isn’t it quaint that such a successful journalist can simultaneously believe something so daft.”

    Is completely different in terms of meaning from this:

    “Mehdi Hasan admits to believing Muhamed flew to heaven on a winged horse. And New Statesman sees fit to print him as a serious journalist.”

    I suppose there’s a good reason to grant people their rationalizations when they’re backtracking, but it seems highly unlikely that Dawkins intended the first comment and ended up saying the second.

    That’s not to undermine the thrust of Ophelia’s post, he can very well play the same game with the other nonsense, but I just don’t find that “apology” very convincing. It seems like he wanted to make a stronger case, that belief in crazy things makes it impossible for a person to do a job professionally (certainly true in a number of circumstances, not all), and then it turned out that he couldn’t sustain the argument with that particular journalist.

  15. 15
    Raging Bee

    How he can walk after shooting himself in the foot so many times is surely some kind of miracle.

    The Lord works in mysterious ways. So shut up, that’s why.

  16. 16
    kestra

    I saw this happening (I was obsessively following the hunt for, siege, and capture of Johar Tsarnaev at the time, and Twitter was the best source), and sighed a bit inside. The first bit whining about “winged horses” was quickly followed up by a number of others stoutly defending his stance and heaping more shame on that poor ol’ winged horse. Objectively, I understand his point that this is a silly belief, but he wasn’t saying, “Isn’t it silly that this guy believes that?”, he was saying “This guy believes that and thus isn’t credible.”

    Which is really just saying that anyone who has successfully compartmentalized their critical thinking from their religious beliefs (nearly every high-functioning religious adult) shouldn’t be taken seriously. I’m sorry, Richard, but you should know by now that isn’t the world in which you dwell. And even if, in your ideal world, such compartmentalization is shamed and considered silly and childish, it is *still* an ad-hominem (I said it!) to say that people who believe in angels, demons, heaven, an afterlife, or a deity can’t have cogent opinions on other topics.

    The longer I watch him, the more Dawkins seems to have become a crotchety old man shaking his fist in the air and demanding to know why people don’t take him seriously anymore while spitting vitriol at anyone who wanders past his digital house. A sad comedown from his days lecturing about “Climbing Mt. Improbable.” Sigh.

  17. 17
    Raging Bee

    English is my native language. My words mean what I intend. If you read them differently because of “social context” that’s your problem.

    Excuse me while I belabor the obvious: Words mean what the overwhelming majority of prople who speak the language collectively understand them to mean! You don’t get to unilaterally declare that a word means what YOU say it means, and then blame your audience for not letting you redefine the meanings they learned all their lives. THIS IS HOW LANGUAGE WORKS! That’s what language IS! The sheer solipsism of Dawkins’ tweet is matched only by the abysmal lack of common sense.

    [Michael_Collins]In the name of Jaisus, how did this twit ever get to be a professor?[/Michael_Collins]

  18. 18
    georgewiman

    A sad comedown from his days lecturing about “Climbing Mt. Improbable.”

    He was brilliant in Climbing Mt Improbable because he was in his core competency. Every step he has taken away from there he has done less well.

    He likes thought experiments; perhaps he could consider whether people would like to fly in airplanes he had repaired, should he take up that activity as a hobby. Not that one should never branch out but at least acknowledge that when you’re off-center, you might also be off-balance and in need of steadying hands from friends.

  19. 19
    smhll

    “Mehdi Hasan admits to believing Muhamed flew to heaven on a winged horse. And New Statesman sees fit to print him as a serious journalist.”

    More than 80% of English language journalists believe in a deity, most of them in a deity who sponsors and afterlife for his followers. Is it really the wings that are the sticking point?

    We all seem to carp more about the things that we find ‘alien’ than over anything else.

  20. 20
    AJ Milne

    I guess, to be really cynical… maybe Dawkins doesn’t think he framed Dear Muslima badly. Maybe he still thinks he was right. It’s not like he’s ever commented on it.

    I don’t think that’s especially cynical nor uncharitable. I think that’s exactly it.

    And I think it’s right there in what you and I both know: unless he really did come along later somewhere I don’t know about after Dear Muslima and say no no, that’s not at all what I meant, I think it’s reasonable enough to assume that’s exactly what he meant.

    For a few reasons, actually. Like, as noted, it wasn’t a tweet. Like, frankly, it’s not exactly an alien attitude or nothin’, either; you see it all over. So there’s not a lot of room here for oh, well, y’know, 140 characters, let’s see the footnotes. My assumption based on what I’ve got is naturally going to be: no, he thinks that. He said it. He had space and time to qualify, and as far as I know, he hasn’t. And, quite possibly, he still thinks that. That latter bit is maybe a less confident assumption; at this point, you’d like to think he might have had a little more time to think about it and regret it and maybe is just too damned embarrassed to admit how wrong he was. But who even knows? That’s getting into conjecture. What he meant at the time, again, not so much.

    So that’s probably the difference, and it’s a big one: the bit re the journalist, he really didn’t mean entirely ‘fire this rube’; he did mean, more: look, isn’t this bizarre. With okay, maybe also a somewhat less supportable side of ‘and so you can ignore this wank’, which, as noted above, is also potentially another matter. (Mind, I do ignore certain wanks on certain things based on certain other silly things they believe, and will reserve the right to continue to do so, but this is a larger subject, as noted, around compartmentalization.)

    But he did mean: until they’re actually stoning you for not veiling, shut up about the miserable climate you experience at conferences.

    So pretty big difference. And probably the reason the one he can say on the one hand, look, okay, I can qualify, and t’other, he won’t. Much as I can see how you might see the two and wonder, I don’t think it’s any mystery; the explanation is right there. It’s not pretty, but it’s no mystery.

  21. 21
    Eamon Knight

    I’ve said this before, what I’ve thought for several years: that I agree with, say, 60% of everything Dawkins says, think he’s wrong to some extent a further 30% of the time, and about 10% of the time he just puts his foot in it, badly (there’s some stupid things even in The God Delusion, and in interviews given around that time).

    Since he discovered Twitter, that last pie-slice is steadily growing.

  22. 22
    Improbable Joe, bearer of the Official SpokesGuitar

    I have a couple of thoughts on the subject:

    1) That was a total notpology, and I am not impressed.

    2) “Phrased it poorly” isn’t remotely honest. I think he absolutely meant it the way it was taken, based on the rest of his Twitter activity at the time.

    3) The difference between this and other ways that he’s “phrased it poorly” while being a giant jackhole? It is OK to attack women, especially women without the ability to make his life miserable. Hasan has too big of a megaphone for Dawkins to bully, so he’s forced to try to weasel his way out of his intentional smear.

  23. 23
    Raging Bee

    … at this point, you’d like to think he might have had a little more time to think about [the "Dear Muslima" letter] and regret it and maybe is just too damned embarrassed to admit how wrong he was. But who even knows? That’s getting into conjecture.

    If he never went back and said otherwise, for any reason, then, for all practical purposes, that’s PROOF that he meant it, not just “conjecture.”

  24. 24
    AJ Milne

    Bee:

    I did not say what you’re implying. The ‘conjecture’ refers to what he might think now, because I can’t, logically, really know that. I’m making the distinction because what is perfectly clear is exactly what he meant at the time, which, yeah, I already said was pretty damned clear, that being pretty much the whole damned point of the comment.

    So watch your verb tenses. And read carefully.

    Hell. Write carefully, for a change. And don’t fuck with me. And bear in mind, should you reply, I trust you not one damned bit, nor am ever likely to.

  25. 25
    Kevin

    Yeah, pretty ill considered overall. Probably 90%+ of the people Dawkins interacts with on a daily basis believe in a water-walking, death-defying demi-god-avatar-of-himself-real-god. Really and truly, no metaphor.

    Doesn’t interfere with their ability to do journalism, or drive the taxi, or perform open-heart surgery. It makes them less kind, by and large, especially to folks who do not believe in water-walking. And makes them prey for scam artists and politicians (redundancy, I know) who would invoke the water-walker’s name for whatever mischief creeps into their tiny venal brains.

  26. 26
    Ophelia Benson

    Since he discovered Twitter, that last pie-slice is steadily growing.

    Ha! Very true. It’s as if his id took one look at Twitter and went “oh boy, an outlet for the Tourettey part of me!”

  27. 27
    Ophelia Benson

    Andrew – interesting. (And he hasn’t taken it back; we know that much. If he had we would have heard about it. Certainly Rebecca would have heard about it…and she hasn’t. I know this. So we know he hasn’t. And “zero bad” was where he said “no I’m not taking it back.”)

    I guess I’m naïve. I remain surprised that he still (apparently) sees nothing wrong with it. I can understand thinking it with part of oneself, and/or in a fit of irritation. I don’t understand sticking with it, and doing so after it has invoked a torrent of abuse on its object.

    I mean who does that? Someone mildly objects to a bit of selfish rudeness. Who responds to that by shouting “other people have it much worse so shut up!!”?

    I must be naïve, I do find that sort of alien.

  28. 28
    Hamilton Jacobi

    It’s as if his id took one look at Twitter and went “oh boy, an outlet for the Tourettey part of me!”

    Five minutes later and I’m still emitting intermittent bursts of snorts and giggles. Good thing no one is around.

  29. 29
    Silentbob

    @ 27 Ophelia Benson

    And “zero bad” was where he said “no I’m not taking it back.”

    I don’t think “no I’m not taking it back” it an accurate paraphrase. For the record, these were Dawkins’ words:

    Many people seem to think it obvious that my post was wrong and I should apologise. Very few people have bothered to explain exactly why. The nearest approach I have heard goes something like this.
    I sarcastically compared Rebecca’s plight with that of women in Muslim countries or families dominated by Muslim men. Somebody made the worthwhile point (reiterated here by PZ) that it is no defence of something slightly bad to point to something worse. We should fight all bad things, the slightly bad as well as the very bad. Fair enough. But my point is that the ‘slightly bad thing’ suffered by Rebecca was not even slightly bad, it was zero bad. A man asked her back to his room for coffee. She said no. End of story.
    [...]
    No, I obviously don’t get it. I will gladly apologise if somebody will calmly and politely, without using the word fuck in every sentence, explain to me what it is that I am not getting.

  30. 30
    'dirigible

    “I will gladly apologise if somebody will calmly and politely, without using the word fuck in every sentence, explain to me what it is that I am not getting.”

    I’m guessing Richard would love it if some personal space challenged Jehovah’s Witnesses cornered him in a lift at the end of a long day after giving a talk about how God doesn’t exist and started explaining the ontological argument to him.

  31. 31
    'dirigible

    Or possibly some Scientologists. They have a very clean record regarding freedom of movement more recently right?

  32. 32
    Amy Clare

    @29 And many people did, time and time again, try to explain to him what he was not getting. Note that he considered it other people’s responsibility to explain it to him rather than him using his brain to figure it out. In any case it’s a refusal to apologise.

    Sad that he ‘gets’ the Mehdi Hasan thing but not the other thing.

  33. 33
    Amy Clare

    He was also tone-trolling i.e.”It’s your fault if I don’t apologise to you because you said ‘fuck’.”

  34. 34
    latsot

    I’ve met Richard. He’s clearly a man capable of great empathy, nuance and simple decency. But it seems that this faculty turns on and off more or less at random these days.

    I’ll probably always admire him. But lately it comes at the cost of some exhausting eye-rolls.

  35. 35
    Giliell, professional cynic -Ilk-

    Highly interesting that Dawkins can sort of walk back after shit-talking a man but never ever after saying shit about women…

  36. 36
    hyperdeath

    Dawkins’s problem is that he’s constantly subjected to vicious and dishonest attacks, but at the same time is surrounded by an army of adoring fanboys, who regard criticism of him as attacks against them. (To a certain extent, I used to be one.) This strips away all nuance, and makes it very difficult for legitimate criticism to get through. He just lumps it in with the dishonest drivel, while the fanboys applaud him for it.

  37. 37
    Ophelia Benson

    Hamilton @ 28 – thank you. :)

  38. 38
    Ophelia Benson

    hyper – yes but. Along with the fanboys (and some fangirls) he also has people who were once allies who have told him why and how he was wrong. It’s not completely obvious why the former trump the latter. It’s not completely obvious why he couldn’t manage to figure out that we had a point, and at the very least that he had simply gratuitously intervened in a discussion for the sake of bashing one of those former allies.

  39. 39
    Raging Bee

    hyperdeath: Dawkins is a fucking professor. He should know better, and he should be secure enough in his professorship and fan-base to be able to process criticism at leisure and craft mature responses, instead of just reacting defensively and not even distinguishing between friendly and enemy criticism.

  40. 40
    hyperdeath

    I’m not excusing Dawkins. I’m just pointing out that the situation encourages his behavior. When most people disregard reasonable criticism, they get called out for it. When Dawkins does it, he gets applauded for it. It takes a lot of moral courage to accept that your allies aren’t necessarily the people who agree with you and are nice to you.

    fanboys (and some fangirls)

    That occurred to me, but realistically, it’s mostly fanboys.

  41. 41
    Ophelia Benson

    Yes, but one or two of his fangirls have real power.

  42. 42
    hyperdeath

    Are you referring to a minor blogger, who was rewarded with TAM gigs when she started attacking women who voiced inconvenient truths about the skeptic movement?

    And perhaps someone who decided that the phrase “Feminazi” wasn’t ridiculous enough for her purposes?

  43. 43
    Silentbob

    Meanwhile…

    Prospect Magazine Names Richard Dawkins World’s Top Thinker

    Uh huh.

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