The No-Platforming of Richard Dawkins

Richard Dawkins at New York City's Co...
Richard Dawkins at New York City's Cooper Union to discuss his book The Greatest Show on Earth: The Evidence for Evolution (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

No-platforming refers to preventing someone from speaking, sometimes through policy and other times through protest. The most common example of no-platforming probably involves uninviting a scheduled speaker because those with the power to do so decide that the speaker holds "problematic" views. We have seen several recent examples of this taking place on college and university campuses, but it can happen at other venues too.

The concept of no-platforming appears to have originated over concerns about violent fascist groups; however, it has since spread beyond this limited application. It is now most commonly associated with radical feminism, social justice warriors, and the regressive left. And yet, some recent applications of no-platforming have even been criticized by radical feminists as a form of misogyny.

Why am I bringing up no-platforming? As I imagine you must have heard by now, Dr. Richard Dawkins was recently uninvited from speaking at the Northeast Conference on Science and Skepticism (NECSS), which will be held in New York City in May. Here is what conference organizers offered as their rationale for this decision:

The Northeast Conference on Science & Skepticism has withdrawn its invitation to Richard Dawkins to participate at NECSS 2016. We have taken this action in response to Dr. Dawkins’ approving re-tweet of a highly offensive video.

I'd like to draw your attention to two things here. First, they acknowledge that they withdrew their invitation to Dr. Dawkins to speak at their conference. Just in case there was any doubt about whether that was what had happened, it seems fairly clear. Second and far more important, they provide their reason for uninviting Dr. Dawkins. The decision was made in response to him re-tweeting a video they considered offensive. You can see the video in question here if you are curious.

So here we have people organizing a conference on "science and skepticism" uninviting a prominent scientist because they were offended by a 2 minute video satirizing the regressive left he re-tweeted on Twitter. Is this yet another example of political correctness run amok? What about the free expression of ideas, you ask? Conference organizers correctly anticipated this objection.

We believe strongly in freedom of speech and freedom to express unpopular, and even offensive, views. However, unnecessarily divisive, counterproductive, and even hateful speech runs contrary to our mission and the environment we wish to foster at NECSS. The sentiments expressed in the video do not represent the values of NECSS or its sponsoring organizations.

They claim to believe "strongly" in freedom of expression and note that this includes even "offensive views." Sounds good. Then what's the problem? The second and third sentences in this statement appear to contradict the first. It sounds like they do not believe in the freedom to express ideas that are contrary to their mission of the safe space they would like to create at their conference. Or perhaps they do value the free expression of ideas but simply do not want to provide a forum for the expression of those ideas with which they disagree.

Dr. Steven Novella offered additional insight into the group's decision, and he clearly disagrees that this is a free speech issue.

The issue here, for example, is not free speech. Dawkins is completely free to express himself and he has a massive audience and plenty of outlets. Far be it for our humble conference to have any effect on his free speech. That is simply framing the issue in the wrong way.

Not surprisingly, reactions to this news have been swift and divided. Over at Background Probability, Damion Reinhardt collected some of the reaction he saw on Twitter. This gives you a taste of the type of reactions being expressed. Damion comes down on the side of wondering why a community claiming to value freethought seems to be so unwilling to permit the expression of ideas they do not like.

Meanwhile, Hemant Mehta (Friendly Atheist) offered a somewhat different take. In his initial post on the subject, he suggests that it might have been better to let Dr. Dawkins speak "so people can ask him directly about his views." In a follow up post, he expanded on what he meant:

I think it would have been far more valuable to let Dawkins give his talk and allow attendees to question the things he’s said so he can be held accountable for them. Dawkins is someone who has tried to raise the consciousness of others on issues like prematurely labeling children with a religious faith; this could have been a great opportunity to raise his consciousness on why his tweets are so problematic for a lot of people. Instead, he probably has even more reason now to think people are overly sensitive and unable to handle criticism, especially on the topic of feminism. He doesn’t understand where his detractors are coming from. Now he still won’t understand.

I agree that letting Dawkins speak would have been preferable to uninviting him, but I'm not sure about the part where he suggests that this would allow conference attendees to hold Dr. Dawkins accountable. Accountable for what exactly? Is the idea that people attending the conference should hold him accountable for things he said prior to the conference? I guess I'm not sure why this would be the case or what it would look like.

I'm also not sure about the suggestion that this would have been an opportunity to raise Dr. Dawkins' consciousness "on why his tweets are so problematic for a lot of people." I find it difficult to believe that he is unaware that some people do not like his tweets. Should he really care that some people find them "problematic" or offensive? Should any of us care that some people are going to find some of what we say "problematic," and if so, does that mean we should change what we say to be less "problematic?"

Over at Avant Garde, David Osorio poses an interesting question in response to Dr. Novella's post: "...why is Richard Dawkins held accountable for the feelings of other people?" I certainly don't think he is responsible for how others feel, and I have to agree that it is a mistake to hold him responsible. I hope that Dr. Dawkins continues to speak his mind and that his critics do the same.

Hemant is absolutely right that this incident may lead Dr. Dawkins (and many of us) to recognize that some people are overly sensitive and unable to handle criticism or satire, especially when it involves feminism or Islam. I think we already knew this, but this incident does appear to be yet another example. I think this is exactly where many (though certainly not all) of Dr. Dawkins' detractors are coming from. I suspect he understands that fairly well.