Thursday, July 07, 2011

The Selfish Geneticist

One of these days, we will get around to Richard Dawkins -- promise. The bottom line is that, while we gather that he is a highly capable scientist, we aren't deeply impressed by his ever-more-strident public attacks on the straw man he chooses to call "religion." We don't imagine he would be much impressed by our thoughts on, say, the role of heterochromatin in transcriptional silencing, and probably for the same reasons. That's okay; thoughtful people can disagree, particularly when they do so courteously.

And our very slight reading about Dawkins had always suggested that he was a basically nice guy. A bit shrill sometimes, but understanably so; he must get more hate mail than Dave Benke. Newspaper profiles, though, go out of their way to portray him as an affable type, not quite courtly, but courteous except perhaps when snarled at.

We are beginning to wonder. It may very well be that Dawkins is, like so many successful men of a certain age, quite far from even the most basic understanding of common courtesy, particularly with regard to women. At any rate, that's how his own faithful seem to be calling it, as they turn on him like a pack of wild dogs.

It's a long story, summarized here by Gawker. The bottom line is that a prominent female skeptic was at a conference, where some guy hit on her in an elevator at 4am. She blogged about it later, suggested that this sort of thing creeped her out, and asked readers not to do it.

And there things would have lain, we suppose, had Dawkins -- in the comments section appended to somebody else's blog post -- not chimed in with a ham-fisted attempt at irony:

Dear Muslima[,]

Stop whining, will you. Yes, yes, I know you had your genitals mutilated with a razor blade, and . . . yawn . . . don't tell me yet again, I know you aren't allowed to drive a car, and you can't leave the house without a male relative, and your husband is allowed to beat you, and you'll be stoned to death if you commit adultery. But stop whining, will you. Think of the suffering your poor American sisters have to put up with.

Only this week I heard of one, she calls herself Skep"chick", and do you know what happened to her? A man in a hotel elevator invited her back to his room for coffee. I am not exaggerating. He really did. He invited her back to his room for coffee. Of course she said no, and of course he didn't lay a finger on her, but even so . . .

And you, Muslima, think you have misogyny to complain about! For goodness sake grow up, or at least grow a thicker skin.


He's in all sorts of trouble now. It will probably blow over, or maybe it won't.

What fascinates us is the fact that such a seemingly bright and affable guy would write this at all. Did somebody ask for his opinion on the subject of women getting hit on in elevators? Or did he simply think, as he seems to, that expertise in evolutionary genetics amounts to automatic authority in every other subject?

To be fair, there was a context. But even this does not make Dawkins look very good. The commenters were discussing, among other things, whether it was really so bad to ask a woman back to your room, in an elevator, in the wee hours. Many people opined that it was a natural enough thing, even when done awkwardly; others may have agreed, but pointed out that it was also intimidating, and therefore rude to the point of sexual harassment.

Dawkins seems to be taking the former position, which may be natural enough for a man of his age, but please do consider what that position amounts to, particularly when expressed with such over-the-top rhetoric. After all these years, there remains a large phalanx of men who are outraged -- literally, driven to a frenzy -- by the idea that they do not have the perfect right to proposition any woman, in any place, at any time, and to do so without ever being criticized for it. Some imagine they have rights which go well beyond this.

This sort of thinking is, in some ways, a reflection of gender and class privileges so deep and longstanding that until recently they were rarely even noticed. But by now they have been noticed long enough, and thoroughly enough -- especially in the academic world -- that there is no real excuse even for the most privileged. Ask Larry Summers. Were Dawkins an associate prof, he might be looking for work next term.

It is to the credit of the skeptical and atheist communities that so many of their number are having none of this nonsense. Now if we could only get them to come around on that, um, other thing.

1 comment:

Pastor Joelle said...

I miss the days when you could just clobber a fellow if you thought he was fresh. Now if you do that he'll sue YOU.