The no-platforming of Richard Dawkins continues the trend of some elements of liberal media being systematically unable to confront criticism of Islam.
Hold the phone ladies and gentlemen, the issue of free speech has been resolved. “Brilliant!” I hear you say, “what’s the solution?”. It’s easy, according to Californian radio station KPFA, just de-platform anyone you disagree with and be sure to never question your deeply held convictions. As you are probably aware, Richard Dawkins – prominent scientist, atheist, and firebrand – was uninvited to a live discussion of his recently released book “Science in the Soul: Collected Writings of a Passionate Rationalist.” The event was organised by KPFA and hundreds of people had purchased tickets to see the famously abrasive Dawkins expound on all matters rational. The customers were emailed by the radio station to inform them that the event was cancelled. The email praised the book but stated that KPFA would not have invited Dawkins if they had had “broader knowledge” of his views on Islam. So the question is settled: when it comes to Islam, a set of ideas, no criticism is warranted or even permissible.
To realise what a lamentable travesty this is, remember that Berkeley was famous for its pro-free speech movement in the 1960’s. The student body of the University of California was instrumental in breaking the shackles of cold war conformity. Mario Savio, a leading figure of the movement, gave his famous speech on the Berkeley campus. It warrants quotation here:
“We’re human beings! … There’s a time when the operation of the machine becomes so odious — makes you so sick at heart — that you can’t take part. You can’t even passively take part. And you’ve got to put your bodies upon the gears and upon the wheels, upon the levers, upon all the apparatus, and you’ve got to make it stop. And you’ve got to indicate to the people who run it, to the people who own it, that unless you’re free, the machine will be prevented from working at all.”
The fundamental tenet that Savio and his compatriots espoused was freedom: freedom to criticise the government, freedom to discuss controversial political ideologies, freedom to think outside established norms. It is distressing as a free speech advocate for KPFA to take essentially the same stance as the establishment did 50 years ago. Henry Norr, a former board member of the station, wrote in an email that Dawkins was “an outspoken Islamophobe.” This may not be surprising to anyone familiar with the state of public debate on university campuses in the US and abroad, but it is an insidious indictment on the institutions that seem so happy to play the role of censor.
Norr’s statement seems relatively benign until you unpack it. Take the “outspoken” epithet. Does a person have to follow the consensus in order to be correct? On the contrary, the greatest ideas and the greatest minds always diverge from the mainstream. Popularity has nothing, in principle, to do with truth. Being outspoken merely means that you have prodded a commonly held belief. Is that not the role of public intellectuals such as Dawkins? Humans are deeply fallible creatures and no idea should be above criticism and revision. The “Islamophobe” component is even more troubling, if only because it attempts to enshrine a particular set of ideas as sacrosanct, not only to those that hold them, but to the public at large. In a gloriously acerbic remark often misattributed to the late, great Christopher Hitchens, Andrew Cummins described Islamophobia as “a word created by fascists and used by cowards to manipulate morons.” While there are doubtless people who are anti-Muslim bigots, it is unhelpful and idiotic to attempt to shut down debate around a set of ideas with a contrived virtue signal, and an inchoate one at that.
Phobia, from the Greek phobos, is a suffix that denotes an irrational fear of a particular thing. Is it unreasonable to be apprehensive about the doctrines of Islam? Should we be scared of a religion that has hundreds of thousands of adherents who believe apostasy should be punished by death? (see Pew Research Centre data here) Should we be at all concerned that the fastest growing religion on Earth views half the population as the property of men? Is there really no criticism warranted here? The irony is that if the context shifts to Christianity, “progressives” are all too happy to criticise in similar tones to that of Dawkins. Want to talk about homophobia in the US? It’s a huge problem that stems largely from religious sensibilities. Want to talk about the worse problem of homosexuals being thrown from roofs in Syria and Iraq? Oh, um, er, well that wouldn’t be happening but for Western imperialism. Islamophobia describes a situation that does not exist. There are certainly ways to express anti-Muslim bigotry that aren’t worth endorsing, but Dawkins isn’t employing any of them.
Even if it could be shown that the religion itself was totally benign, it wouldn’t imply that the doctrines shouldn’t be critiqued. Freedom of speech, and the attendant right, often overlooked, to listen, is one of the cornerstones of democratic societies. Carl Sagan once said, “If it can be destroyed by the truth, it deserves to be destroyed by the truth.” This is how society makes progress: ideas are proposed and questioned. The good ones survive and the bad ones don’t. In principle, no one gets hurt, and society is better off as a whole. It’s a famous trope that as soon as you invoke Hitler or the Nazis, you’ve lost the argument, but I have no truck for socially-mandated dialectic restrictions. One of the first things Hitler did when he seized power in 1933 was to systematically silence any dissenting or divergent opinion. This obviously involved different tactics, but the effect sought was the same. This kind of regime is not to be emulated, but inverted.
KPFA is absolutely within it’s rights to cancel the presentation, but that doesn’t mean that their decision was correct. Having a right and exercising it are two distinct things. If people don’t wish to hear Dawkins’ comments on Islam, they are free to not support him through book and ticket sales. They are free to write articles denouncing him as a bigot (I’m sure Salon would be interested in your copy). As for me, interested as I am in a free and intelligent debate of all issues of consequence, I’ll be sure to purchase Dawkins’ book.
Tom is a blogger and academic based in Australia. He is currently working to be admitted as a lawyer and wants to travel and write about his interest areas of politics, philosophy and science.