July 25, 2017

Richard Dawkins’s Berkeley radio event is cancelled over bad tweets about Islam


The rabble-rouser and author of The God Delusion Richard Dawkins lost himself a book promotion event in Berkeley, reports Berkleyside’s following a radio station’s decision to log in to Twitter to do a little light research. The Berkeley-based, listener-funded progressive radio station KPFA, which had invited Dawkins to discuss his new book Science in the Soul: Collected Writings of a Passionate Rationalist (they called it “excellent”), retracted its invitation after encountering several controversial tweets about Islam from the best-selling New Atheist.

KPFA followed their decision with a statement made to ticket holders, citing a support of free speech and a condemnation of abusive speech. They write:

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.

Dawkins responded with a letter of his own, published by the Center for Inquiry, the nonprofit NGO that merged with Dawkins’s own Foundation for Reason and Science in January 2016, under the headline: “Cancellation of Richard Dawkins Berkeley Event Baseless and Unconscionable.”

In it, Dawkins, scrupulous scientist that he is, requests a source for KPFA’s claim that he has used “abusive speech.” He continues:

Why didn’t you check your facts—or at least have the common courtesy to alert me—before summarily cancelling my event? If you had consulted me, or if you had done even rudimentary fact-checking, you would have concluded that I have never used abusive speech against Islam. I have called IslamISM “vile” but surely you, of all people, understand that Islamism is not the same as Islam.

Looking at some of Dawkins’s tweets, though, this distinction between “Islam” and “IslamISM” isn’t so clear.

For sure, this is disgusting, and there are a lot more where it came from. And for sure Twitter is the absolute wrong place to have the conversation about the differences between “Islamism” and “Islam” that Dawkins imagines will restore sanity to a very stressed-out world. But Dawkins wasn’t invited to speak about Islam. He was going to promote his book about being a passionate atheist science guy, which, again, the folks at KPFA really seemed to enjoy. Also, however one feels about the tweets, Dawkins has a point when he says, “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?”

Dawkins has indeed built an entire career criticizing prominent world religions, and Christianity was, until recently, his favorite stupid subject. The recent change in focus to Islam seems to be a response to the loudest headlines, and this is a problem, too (this article raises some good questions that I’d be interested in hearing Dawkins respond to).

And further, regardless of one’s opinion about Dawkins and his worldview (Curtis White has a whole book of ’em), he is not an Alt-Right Personality Clown like Milo Yiannopoulos, whose cancelled book’s pre-pub circuit, the so-called “Dangerous Faggot” tour, seemed to exist only in order to profit from the dissemination of hatred, and led to actual violence.

Free speech is a tough issue. And its most popular tool, Twitter, is not the greatest — it’s a bad, fairly one-dimensional place. But many people are not bad, and very few are completely one-dimensional. It seems to me, in this case, that a public event would have been the right place to hash out the nuances encrypted in these truly bad tweets — that is, if Dawkins’s event was to be on the subject of the bad tweets, which it wasn’t. The habit of silencing people who voice abhorrent opinions isn’t necessarily a good one.



Chad Felix is the Director of Library and Academic Marketing at Melville House, and a former bookseller.