Richard Dawkins and the limits of liberalism

Richard Dawkins and the limits of liberalism

Richard Dawkins, scientist-cum-professional-controversialist, has confirmed what I have for a while suspected: that, in spite of being a very talented scientist, he is also a – how shall I put this – a less than lovely human being.

Today he is lamenting the great injustice that perpetrators of anti-Muslim hate crime are given too harsh sentences. “Who was hurt, except the pig?” he rhetorically asks his thousands of Twitter followers, as the pair who (in their own words) “invaded” an Edinburgh mosque by attacking it with bacon were sentenced to jail

This is the same Dawkins, let us remember, who, when Rebecca Watson wrote about how uncomfortable it was to be chatted up in an enclosed space like a lift right after giving a talk on sexual harassment, took the time to sneer at how trivial her complaint was, compared with the serious things happening to other women, in other countries. (Sam Ambreen has written a brilliant blog here about why this line of reasoning is nonsense.) This matter of anti-Islamic criminals being sentenced to jail is presumably the kind of high priority issue he would prefer people spent their energies on.

The attack on the mosque wasn’t just any attack. One of the perpetrators is a member of the Scottish Defence League – the Scottish version of the EDL. The self-appointed ‘rationalists’ seem to think the fact that you should always be free to criticise people’s religion (obviously true) applies here. But it doesn’t. The EDL and the SDL are not critiquing religious oppression. Many are hardline ‘Christian’ extremists, full of homophobic, misogynistic, anti-choice rubbish of their own. Nobody was critiquing passages or verses from the Quran. Nobody was asserting their own right to disbelief in Allah. This was bacon attached to and thrown at the door of a mosque, in a climate of rising hatred and violence towards Muslim communities. It is more akin to attacks on synagogues in a climate of rising anti-semitism than to an atheist or humanist critique of religion.

Attacks like these have nothing to do with ‘rationalism’ or atheism and everything to do with the nasty shadow of the far right that is creeping across Europe. When we talk about fascism and far right politics, we are too quick to talk about the role working class people play in driving it forwards, and too slow to talk about the responsibility of journalists, academics, politicians, scientists, and all sorts of other middle class professionals who have historically been central to the rise of fascism whenever it has occurred. Scientists, doctors and psychiatrists in particular played a huge role in legitimising racism in the early part of the last century, with their cold, ‘objective’ evidence based on measuring foreheads and gaslighting women into mental illness.

Rationalist liberalism likes to position itself as objective. The privileged arrogance of assuming yourself to be impartial and everyone else to be subjective speaks for itself. Too often, white rich men are able to see themselves as objective because they are the default human being, after all: what possible biases or prejudices could they have?

Nobody is removed from the context of the society they live in. If you describe yourself as a rationalist, far from being a super-rational person, you probably just have blind spots to your own privileges and prejudices.

Richard Dawkins talks of Muslims being “offended” by the bacon attack but we are talking about oppression, fear and real violence. Context, as I have written before, matters. Last week a woman was killed possibly, the police say, for wearing Muslim dress. Britain First are making threats to journalists for writing about them. Marine Le Pen’s Front National has topped the EU elections in France. The party is being widely reported, even by the BBC, as a ‘Eurosceptic’ party. This is the reality of the context this hate crime – for that is surely what it is – happened in. To say that nobody was “hurt” by one individual incident, as Dawkins did, highlights the limits of liberalism. Liberalism, by itself, ignores the structural. ‘Pure’ liberals, ironically, seem to have ended up as devout believers in the shiny religion of individualism, even when increasingly the evidence tells us that both socially and economically, liberalism is no longer, by itself, enough to make society better.

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