Another day another tweet.
Richard Dawkins @RichardDawkins
I apologise for impugning the morality of the approximately ten percent of women who deliberately choose NOT to abort a Down’s fetus.
It’s a Basil Fawlty apology.
One of the reasons I’ve always found Basil Fawlty so hilarious is that I’m like that myself. There’s generally a snotty asshole in me roaring to get out, and it often does get out. (I usually regret it when it does.) Some of Basil’s rages are my rages too, and I sympathized with some of them and cringed at others. It’s much the same with Richard. His Basil Fawlty runs away with him sometimes.
There’s an interesting exchange on his site between a commenter and him, on a post by Kevin Drum about the “brutality” of the intersection of social justice liberalism and social media. In a comment Richard underlines the claim that “the vitriol pours in, and it’s soul-crushing.” Katy Cordeth replies:
Sorry Richard but it sounds like you can dish it out but you can’t take it. You do have your own tidy line in hurling the vitriol.
I don’t myself tweet but I’d be surprised if all the criticism you’re subjected to is as one-dimensional as you’d have us believe. The responses on this site to your recent abortion tweets have for the most part been measured, even from those who couldn’t be considered part of the Dawkins fan base.
You and Mr Drum are free to try and disseminate the idea that all the negative feedback you’re on the receiving end of is ugly and irrational, but isn’t that a bit self-serving? You’re giving yourself carte blanche to say whatever you like without fear of reprisal. I’m sure there are plenty of ugly things tweeted at you, many of them quite hurtful. But hidden among the trollery there are, I have no doubt, many sensible, rational things being said. What the ratio is I have no idea. It’s your duty to sort the wheat from the chaff, not try and kid the world that it’s all chaff.
I don’t actually agree with those who say you should quit the medium; as I said in one of my deleted posts, I think you’re playing the role of carnival barker, both to drum up business for this site and to keep the atheism flame lit in the popular consciousness, and tweets about what you’re having for your tea or pictures of your kitty cat just won’t serve that end. I’m sure it’s hard-going for a deeply divisive public figure to have to run the gauntlet of unmoderated public opinion every day, but you can ameliorate this by injecting a little kindness and compassion into your Twitter submissions. Cold, clinical analysis may be the order of the day in the world of academia and even on this site, but the men and women who ride the Clapham omnibus are a passionate and mercurial lot. The same rules don’t automatically apply.
I think that’s all pretty sensible advice. Richard’s response is
Katy Cordeth, of COURSE I have no problem with those tweets that are indeed measured, sensible disagreements. My whole life as an academic has been largely devoted to such conversations. I’m used to that sort of discussion and thrive on it. There’s all the difference in the world between disagreeing with somebody on a question of moral philosophy, and calling them a twat, a cunt, an idiot, an ignoramus and a Nazi simply because you disagree with them. And if you are asking the ratio of vitriolic abuse to measured argument, a conservative estimate would put it at more than ten to one. Isn’t it OBVIOUS that that is what Kevin Drum is talking about? And his “avalanche” is not an overstatement.
I was particularly interested by “There’s all the difference in the world between disagreeing with somebody on a question of moral philosophy, and calling them a twat, a cunt, an idiot, an ignoramus and a Nazi simply because you disagree with them.” Yes, there is, and that’s what we meant by the relevant passage in the joint statement.
Disagreement is inevitable, but bullying and harassment are not. If we want secularism and atheism to gain respect, we have to be able to disagree with each other without trying to destroy each other.
In other words we have to be able to manage disagreement ethically, like reasonable adults, as opposed to brawling like enraged children who need a nap. It should go without saying, but this means no death threats, rape threats, attacks on people’s appearance, age, race, sex, size, haircut; no photoshopping people into demeaning images, no vulgar epithets.
I think Richard is not used to being on the receiving end of the avalanche. I hope he is remembering to extrapolate from his experience of the avalanche to our experience of it for the past more than three years.