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The vitriol pours in

Another day another tweet.

daw

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.

Emphasis added.

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.

 

Comments

  1. says

    He’s been on the receiving end of quite a few of these avalanches by now. He doesn’t seem to be learning how to handle them any better, or (dare to dream?) avoid provoking them in the first place.

  2. says

    “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.) ”

    – I love this Ophelia….lesson to us all.

  3. says

    There’s all the difference between saying you disagree with X, and saying that the fact that X disagrees with you means that X simply can’t be thinking properly.

  4. says

    Two phrases RD loves but needs to stop using:

    “Isn’t it OBVIOUS that”

    “It’s OBVIOUS that”

    So many very important things are not at all obvious to him, so much so that I doubt he has any real capacity for discerning the obvious from the non-obvious.

  5. screechymonkey says

    “His Basil Fawlty runs away with him sometimes”

    Apparently in this instance it’s led him into engaging in some argumentum ad populum — what’s the relevance of the ten percent number, other than to imply that Dawkins must be right because the vast majority make the choice he advocates?

    I guess his emotions really are interfering with his logic. Perhaps he needs to… what’s the phrase again? “Go away and learn how to think.”

  6. moarscienceplz says

    screechymonkey #5

    what’s the relevance of the ten percent number, other than to imply that Dawkins must be right because the vast majority make the choice he advocates?

    Yeah, that lil’ phrase jumped out at me, too. First off, why did he even bother looking up the statistic (if it is a real statisitc and not just a rectal extraction)? Second, who cares what the number is? If only 0.00001% of women choose to let the pregnancy proceed, that says nothing about the morality of their choice. As a member of an often despised minority of atheists, one would think he would understand that.

  7. says

    Dawkins does write as if he is unused to the vitriol. However, I’m sure he has been receiving hate mail for as long as he has been writing books. Perhaps he finds the volume (i.e. quantity) on the internet to be overwhelming?

  8. Daniel Schealler says

    @swmcd

    I’m just speaking for myself here.

    I’ve received vitriol from creationists and religious believers before. I find that easy enough to deal with.

    Every now and again I get chewed up and spat out in the Pharyngula comment section. But being chewed out by scientifically literate atheists is far worse.

    I think that a lot of us fail to entirely understand what it feels like to be the target of our collective criticism, both the good and the bad. It’s not fun.

    In my case, the origin of a criticism can give that criticism far more weight and impact than if it came from someone else. It’s not unreasonable to think that Dawkins might be feeling something similar.

  9. says

    Richard Dawkins is a fine one to complain about vitriol, given his well-known request in July 2011 “… to 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.” (Source)

    On that topic, no less than three years passed without Richard giving the slightest public indication of acknowledging the many repeated, patient attempts made to explain the various things to him that he was obviously not getting (and without using the word fuck – though of course there have also been plenty who did use it!), until he belatedly buried that long-awaited apology in a blogpost devoted instead to yet another of his Twitter gaffes: “There should be no rivalry in victimhood, and I’m sorry I once said something similar to American women complaining of harassment, inviting them to contemplate the suffering of Muslim women by comparison.” (Source)

    So faced with the vast lapse of time before he did something as simple as admitting having been in the wrong, one can readily understand why many of Richard’s detractors have been running out of patience. Miscategorising those detractors as merely the vulgarian commentariat is another mistake, but will it take him three more years to realise that?

  10. says

    Ten percent.
    Remind me… who is it that are a minority in the world, among other minorities?
    Oh yeah, that’s right – atheists.

    The man’s a hypocrite.

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