Skepchick 'Speakergate' Allegations and American Atheists' Response

Still reeling from the recent "Tabelgate" incident, we have more Skepchick drama in the form of a post about comments allegedly made two years ago by Richard Dawkins to David Silverman (American Atheists) about Rebecca Watson. Here is Sarah Moglia's (Skepchick) description of some of a conversation she claims to have heard two years ago between Dawkins and Silverman:
As I walked the ten feet back, I couldn’t hear everything Dave was saying, but I heard the name “Rebecca Watson.” Richard suddenly had a very angry look on his face and I heard him almost shout, “No, absolutely not! If she’s going to be there, I won’t be there. I don’t want her speaking.” and then Dave immediately replied, “You’re absolutely right, we’ll take her off the roster. It’s done.” Richard huffed for a moment, Dave continued to placate him, and then he made the video.
Not surprisingly, Sarah interpreted what she heard as Dawkins attempting to "keep someone else off the lineup" and Silverman as acquiescing.
Yes, Richard Dawkins is a big draw. Yes, the Reason Rally was (for the most part) successful. But at what cost? Are we okay sacrificing the voices of some people in order to get others involved? Do we have too much of a culture of celebrity, so that we are willing to do things we otherwise wouldn’t do in order to get those celebrities involved? Is this indicative of a mindset that some people’s opinions are more important than others?
Did this conversation take place, and if so, is this what was said? American Atheists has flatly denied this in a statement released on their official Facebook account. The organization notes:
While Mr. Silverman does not dispute that an exchange with Dr. Dawkins took place in Miami in September of 2011, there was no acquiescence on Mr. Silverman's part. At the time the exchange took place, Ms. Watson had not in fact been invited to speak at the Reason Rally, and that decision had already been made. The Reason Rally had many more requests from prominent atheists to speak than speaking slots to offer.
Richard Dawkins in this episode.
Richard Dawkins in this episode. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
This appears to be an acknowledgment that a conversation between Dawkins and Silverman did occur but that the details of this conversation were a bit different from those relayed by Sarah. According to American Atheists, Watson was not on the list of speakers prior to the conversation. If that is true, then there seems to be no way that Silverman could have acquiesced to any demands.

But none of this is really the point, is it? Some will argue that the point of Sarah's post was to promote Watson following "Tablegate" or to further harm Dawkins' reputation. I suppose that is possible, but I'd rather focus on the question of whether convention organizers and leaders of organizations ought to consider the input of high profile speakers on the subject of who else is invited to speak. I find this a far more interesting and relevant question.

My take on the question is not overly complex. First, I believe that any speaker at any level of fame should feel perfectly free to request that other speakers be omitted or even to make their participation contingent on the other invited speakers. Second, I believe that any convention organizer or organization leader should feel perfectly free to consider and then disregard such a request. If a convention organizer or organization leader feels so strongly that the presence of a particular speaker is vital, then he or she reject demands that this speaker be excluded.

Suppose that a particular convention organizer really wants to have PZ Myers speak at a convention. Now the organizer hears from another potential speaker - maybe one even more famous and likely to be a bigger draw than PZ - that he or she is not interested in sharing a stage with the likes of PZ. If the organizer is committed to PZ's presence, he or she should simply inform the other potential speaker that PZ will be there and that the decision about whether to participate is up to him or her. If that individual opts out of participating, so be it. And if the organizer were to decide instead that he or she would rather have Dawkins than PZ, then so be it.

Is my analysis overly simplistic in that it does not take into account the desire of convention organizers and organization leaders to book big name speakers who will be a big draw for their events? Yes, this may indeed be the case. But if a big name figure is going to be an entitled ass (and I'm not necessarily saying that this is what Dawkins or anyone else is doing here), then I think the organizer and/or organization leader just might be better off without them. But ultimately, this is their decision to make.

But if what I describe was allowed to play out, wouldn't we end up with a scenario where some conferences featured big names like Richard Dawkins and Michael Shermer while others had few big names but were packed with bloggers from Freethought Blogs and Skepchick? Yes, that is quite possibly what we would end up with. Different organizers and organizations would have different preferences and priorities, and this could indeed translate into very different speaker line-ups. But why would this be at all problematic? It seems like it could actually increase the variety of featured speakers, and that might be a good thing.

H/T to Avant Garde