A talk by Richard Dawkins on his newest book, Science in the Soul: Selected Writings of a Passionate Rationalist, was canceled by the radio station that was hosting it, KPFA, a public broadcasting station in Berkeley. Their reason:
We had booked this event based entirely on his excellent new book on science when we didn’t know he had offended and hurt – in his tweets and other comments on Islam, so many people. KPFA does not endorse hurtful speech. While KPFA emphatically supports serious free speech, we do not support abusive speech. We apologize for not having had broader knowledge of Dawkins views much earlier.
Richard Dawkins complains with, unfortunately, the kind of argument often used by the alt-right:
I am known as a frequent critic of Christianity and have never been de-platformed for that. Why do you give Islam a free pass? Why is it fine to criticise Christianity but not Islam?
Somehow, a minority community in America that is threatened with deportation by the government, is routinely condemned by talk radio and the likes of Breitbart, and that lives in fear of good Christian citizens who vandalize mosques and threaten violence (and sometimes, carry out violence) gets accused of having a “free pass”. That’s precisely the kind of blinkered nonsense that I can understand KPFA objecting to, so Dawkins is not helping his case at all. It’s also denying the fact that the New Atheists have been particularly specific in denunciations of Islam; Ayaan Hirsi Ali, the newest member of the “four horsemen”, has recommended converting Muslims to Christianity, so there clearly is a hierarchy of religions with Islam at the bottom, deserving special contempt. And Sam Harris, of course, is all about anti-Islamic sentiment, going so far as to suggest that using torture and nuclear weapons against them might be justifiable. Let’s not play the wide-eyed innocent, “what, me abuse Muslims?” game. Let’s not pretend that Dawkins has never made any hurtful, regressive comments on his twitter feed, or on my blog.
CFI handles it a little better, pointing out that Dawkins has, for instance, opposed Trump’s Muslim travel ban, and that this particular talk was to be about science, so his other views were irrelevant. I suspect that it would have been a good talk that I would enjoy, since it wouldn’t contain the regressive views I’ve found so exasperating in Dawkins. So, sure, you can make the argument that Dawkins is a speaker of considerable virtue, and that he wouldn’t be flaunting his vices in this talk.
But then they go too far.
“We understand the difference between a people and the beliefs they may hold,” said Blumner, “All of us must be free to debate and criticize Ideas, and harmful ideas must be exposed. It is incredibly disappointing that KPFA does not understand this.”
I am disappointed that CFI does not understand that this is not a free speech issue. Dawkins is free to debate and criticize ideas. He’s the best-selling atheist author in the world! He isn’t oppressed or censored in any way; his books are popular, they get translated into dozens of languages, he gets to appear on television, he doesn’t have to fear that he’ll be ejected out of the country or murdered for his views (people like Maryam Namazi or Taslima Nasrin do). KPFA, as the host of this talk, has the right to decide that they’d rather not.
I’m going to agree completely with Siggy on this matter. That Richard Dawkins has some controversial, even objectionable, views does not, in some weird reversal of free speech concerns, obligate every entity on the planet to host him on demand.
People are always thinking of these issues in terms of the speaker’s free speech, but if anything, it’s about the inviters’ free speech. If speakers have a right to platforms, where are all my speaker invitations, and why isn’t anyone standing up for my free speech?
It wouldn’t even matter if KPFA’s reasons for rejecting Dawkins were totally bogus, so all the spluttering about how he isn’t really anti-Islam is irrelevant. Making it a free speech issue is just using a bullhorn to yell about how you don’t understand free speech.
Dawkins (and I) might not particularly like the idea that this rejection was made so late that it was obvious, but it is within KPFA’s rights, and it does no major harm to Dawkins. This is a case where the appropriate response is to shrug and move on.
There have been two cases in just the past year where conference organizers have contacted me, asked if I’d be willing to speak at their event, and then later written to me and retracted the offer without explanation. I’m sure it was because there are vocal members of those groups who objected vehemently to my appearance, but it was done before the final list of speakers was announced, so the change was not publicized. And that was fine, I didn’t complain, I didn’t announce that my free speech was being violated, I didn’t try to argue that their reasons for cutting me were invalid. Conferences have that right.
Why doesn’t CFI understand this?