I am quite disappointed and concerned that Richard Dawkins was disinvited from speaking at the KPFA event that was to be held Aug. 9 in Berkeley. My partner and I were looking forward to attending. I am familiar with many of Dawkins’s ideas through his writings, documentaries, debates, and interviews. He has proved to be both a serious scholar and a valuable public intellectual. He is one of the great rational minds of our time; he attempts to scale his statements to evidence and he exhibits an open mind, willing to modify his ideas based on evidence.
Like many that have followed him through the years, I am also quite familiar with Dawkins’s criticism of religion in general and Islam in particular. Here too he has proved to be rational and measured. Questioning sacred claims has led to hurt feelings for as long as the curious and skeptical have done it. Some have paid with their lives, and some still do. My longtime partner is an ex-Muslim- she would potentially pay with her life if she were to have a momentary lapse and express her conscience in her home country. Why? Criticism of Islam would be “offensive,” “hurtful,” and “abusive.” She is appalled that the American Left and others who have swallowed whole the politically correct dogma (in this case KPFA) are complicit in disallowing scrutiny of Islam by de-platforming speakers and labeling critics Islamophobic. While Dawkins is not facing such a fate here, the desire to avoid “harm” is doing real harm to an open society.
Some may say, what’s the big deal, as the curious can still access his material in any bookstore, and a lot of his content is online for posterity. He is also free to speak many other places in Berkeley, just not at this KPFA event. Here is the harm: the public in one of America’s intellectual capitals will miss a chance to question his claims. What if his statements about Islam are indeed misinformed, hyperbolic, or flat wrong? The people of Berkeley will miss an opportunity to hold his feet to the fire during the Q and A. Additionally, other rationalists and contrarians get the message when it comes to certain “sensitive” topics: attempt to talk about them honestly at your own peril- you might be labeled, smeared, or banned if you do. Who will want to take such a career risk? Measured critics with a different viewpoint are thus more likely to self-censor and a rational alternative is henceforth hollowed out. Who then becomes the voice of an alternative viewpoint? I assert that it’s firebrands like Donald Trump and Milo Yiannopoulos; the hordes online will then look to polemicists because rationale analysis has been indirectly censored by political correctness.
For my last point about the harm done, I selfishly cite Frederick Douglass: “To suppress free speech is a double wrong. It violates the rights of the hearer as well as those of the speaker.” We wanted to hear one of the world’s great scholars. I should have the right to cover my own ears, but others should not have the right to cover our ears. In fact, KPFA missed out on a chance to bring up his supposedly “hurtful” criticism of Islam and still encourage potential listeners not to cover their own ears and listen in, thereby strengthening an ethos of challenging one’s own ideas. All of this narrows the scope of free inquiry, infantilizes adults, and creates a troubling trend in which tough topics are left unaddressed for fear of offending some.
Dawkins has expanded human knowledge and questioned truth claims for decades- what can be more sacred than that? Are a few hurt feelings worth this sacrifice? At the birthplace of the of the Free Speech Movement, in the city of the world’s best public institution of free inquiry, one of the places where Dawkins began his career, and in coordination with a station that espouses its support of open inquiry and free speech. In Berkeley, this is a great irony and shame.