Strange fruit

Dawkins called the women scientists who object to Tim Hunt’s contemptuous remarks “lynch mobs.” He should read – and pay attention to – this piece from a few weeks ago by Charles Blow.

Last week, the Baltimore police union president, Gene Ryan,compared those protesting the death of Freddie Gray to a “lynch mob.”

Freddie Gray was the 25-year-old Baltimore man who died of grave, mysterious injuries after being taken into police custody. Gray’s family, citizens of Baltimore and indeed those of the nation have questions. And yes, there is a palpable frustration and fatigue that yet another young person of color has died after an encounter with police officers.

So, there have been protests.

Aaaaaaaand of all things not to call them, you would think “lynch mobs” would be right at the top of the list. It’s not police officers who have been the historic victims of lynch mobs, is it.

So, there have been protests. But protests are not the same as a lynch mob, and to conflate the two diminishes the painful history of this country and unfairly slanders the citizens who have taken to the streets.

Because lynch mobs have been a real thing in this country, and Baltimore cops have not been their chief targets.

Maybe Mr. Ryan does not appreciate the irony that it was not the officers’ bodies that video showed being dragged limp and screaming through the street, but that of Mr. Gray. Maybe Mr. Ryan does not register coincidence that actual lynching often damages or cuts the spinal cord, and according to a statement by the Gray family’s attorney, Gray’s spine was “80 percent severed at his neck.”

And this is not the first protest of the killing of people of color where “lynch mobs” have been invoked.

Fox News’s Howard Kurtz accused “some liberal outlets” of “creating almost a lynch mob mentality” in Ferguson.”

Possible presidential candidate Mike Huckabee also compared Ferguson protesters to lynch mobs, as did Laura Ingraham, FrontPage magazine and an opinion piece on The Daily Caller.

In 2013, after almost completely peaceful protests the weekend after George Zimmerman was found not guilty in the shooting death of Trayvon Martin, Newt Gingrich said that protesters were “prepared, basically, to be a lynch mob.”

So this is a popular right-wing trope that Dawkins is using. He’s become the worst kind of hectoring reactionary shouter, shaking his fist at feminists and other “PC” types.

These “lynch mob” invocations are an incredible misuse of language, in which the lexicon of slaughter, subjugation and suffering are reduced to mere colloquialism, and therefore bleached of the blood in which it was originally written and used against the people who were historically victims of the atrocities.

“Lynch mob” is the same ghastly rhetorical overreach that is often bandied about in political discussions — including in this column I wrote seven years ago. It was a too-extreme comparison then, and it’s a too-extreme comparison now.

Nothing that political partisans or protesters have done — nothing! — comes remotely close to the barbarism executed by the lynch mobs that stain this country’s history.

Clarence Thomas notoriously did the same thing – as he was being considered for a Supreme Court seat he was drastically underqualified for.


  1. UnknownEric the Apostate says

    He’s become the worst kind of hectoring reactionary shouter, shaking his fist at feminists and other “PC” types.

    That’s because he’s the grownup version of that autocontrarian jerk who sits in the back of every college class, loudly attacking everything the lecturer says to prove how “awesome” and “non-conformist” he is. He should just wear a crown that reads “I M SO SMART!!!”

  2. weatherwax says

    As I asked at Pharyngula, I wonder how Richard Dawkins would respond if a young female researcher, speaking at an event celebrating Sir Hunt, or even Prof Dawkins, said she hated sharing a lab with elderly men, ’cause they always fall in love with her, and always pout when she won’t go out with them?

  3. johnthedrunkard says

    That the term ‘lynch mob’ is tossed out so consistently, and with so little historical awareness, suggests a deliberate campaign on the part of the Right. The general devaluing of the word crosses all categories though.

    In the U.S. ‘Lynch law’ broke out in areas without effective courts, or with grossly overt legal corruption. In San Francisco, it was ‘lynch’ law that broke the control of the city by the ‘Sidney Ducks’ gang in 1851.

    In some legal statues, to ‘lynch’ means to remove from legal custody, to highjack due process. I can’t think of any case where this was NOT about killing, tarring/feathering, or expelling.

    The public mob-murder of Black Americans is almost a separate matter. While, as in Emmett Till’s case, there was sometimes a pretense of criminal accusation, it really seems that the classic post-Confederate ‘lynching’ incidents were mostly just plain terrorism. The use of public murder to intimidate the weak and reinforce the impunity of the strong.

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